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Better Than ‘Top Gun’: Real-Life Fighter Pilots Recall Drama Ahead of Force-Con


Commander Glenn Tierney, 96, talks about his aviation career. Photo by Chris Stone
Retired Navy Cmdr. Glenn Tierney, 96, talks about his aviation career. Photo by Chris Stone

The young pilot was climbing around 60,000 feet when suddenly his pressure suit lost oxygen. He shut off the engine, and the aircraft went into a tumble.

He developed tunnel vision and planned to bail out at 30,000 feet. But on second thought, he didn’t want to crash a good airplane.

Hardly able to see, he forced the plane into a regular spin and pointed it straight down to restart the engine. The plane recovered. And at about 300 feet, he swooped through a mountain valley to a 250 mph emergency landing — nearly out of fuel.

He couldn’t see the runway and narrowly missed a fire truck and its crew poised to rescue him. He skidded off into gravel.

A sequence from “Top Gun”?

Better than that, says retired Navy Cmdr. Glenn Tierney. It’s a true story — his own.

Veteran Commander Glenn Tierney (right) points out the instrument panel to C.J. Machado. Photo by Chris Stone

Tierney has two claims to fame: He flew all Navy Grumman fighter planes from the F4U to the F14 Tomcat and completed 11 of 11 successful test firings of the heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles that led to their adoption into the military.

Veteran Cmdr. Glenn Tierney with an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. Courtesy photo

Tierney was one of about a dozen former military pilots gathered last week to share their aviation knowledge and promote the Sept. 23-25 military convention in San Diego called Force-Con.

The first night of the fall program features a red carpet event to honor the legends of aviation at the San Diego Air and Space Museum. In addition to a film, “Into Flight Once More,” an aviation panel will answer questions.

Part of the proceeds will help get senior and terminally ill veterans on their Honor Flight San Diego trip to Washington, D.C. to visit military memorials. Tickets are available at https://purplefoxesunited.com.

On Sept. 24, the Hotel del Coronado will host the largest flyover of vintage DC-3s — part of the D-Day Squadron that served in WWII, among other monumental campaigns.

Elite parachutists from across the globe will jump onto the beaches of Coronado with Wounded Warriors, POW Vietnam vets and WWII veterans. This event is free and open to the public.

Veteran Lt. Cmdr. Ted “T.R.” Swartz, who shot down a MiG-17 in Vietnam, tries out a flight simulator at the San Diego Air & Space Museum. Photo by Chris Stone

Sept. 27 will see a community interactive “Remember the Fallen” art piece auctioned to benefit Honor Flight San Diego, followed by an Art Festival and “Meet the Heroes” presentation at Liberty Station.

A prisoner of war panel will conclude the program with honored guests. This event is free and open to the public.

“My hope is to inspire others to really take notice of their worth while they’re with us, and just (recognize) all that they’ve done for our country,” said C.J. Machado, an organizer of the event. “They truly are the superheroes of the world.”

Veteran pilots tried out the simulators at the museum last week.

Vietnam War pilot Vic Vizcarra, 85, said that when he got his wings in 1960, simulators weren’t high fidelity and were hated by pilots.

It wasn’t until about 2000 when they became more effective, he said.

Vizcarra, an Air Force pilot who flew the F105 fighter bomber, hit Surface to Air Missile sites in 1965 in Hanoi. He watched as pilots in front of him got shot down.

He said 395 out of the 833 F105s built were lost in battle.

Retired Lt,. Cmdr. Ted “T.R.” Swartz was the only Skyhawk pilot in Vietnam to achieve a MiG kill. Photo by Chris Stone

In November 1965, he had to bail out of his plane after engine failure and endured two frantic hours before being rescued by a Navy helicopter.

Tierney, who will be among the honored guests at the Force-Con, had another encounter off the Azores Islands in South Atlantic outside about 200 miles out from Gibraltar.

Tierney was on dawn patrol when he spotted a German submarine. Using his .50-caliber machine guns, he killed crew members and put out the sub’s snorkel and radar.

Navy Cmdr. Glenn Tierney. Courtesy photo

He put the sub out of business.

“They should have submerged about 30 seconds sooner,” he said at the Balboa Park museum.

Tierney completed 453 carrier landings, 103 of them at night, and “had a great time, most of the time.” He got his wings at age 19 and flew in the South Atlantic in early January 1945.

Asked his favored plane, Tierney said that among the propeller types, he liked the Vought F4U Corsair, which he flew about four years until jets replaced them.

Because of its speed, “It would beat anything in the air,” he said.

As for jets, he said he liked the supersonic Vought F-8 Crusader.

“And I think I liked it because it was still a single engine single pilot, whereas airplanes like the F4 and F18 had two guys.”

If he were 19, he would like to take a F-35 Lightning II into the air.

Asked what he attributed his aviation success to, Tierney named lessons he learned in the Boy Scouts — “leadership, not only just in the cockpit, but leadership with other pilots and men.”

In Scouting, he learned discipline and how to get results in a group project, he said.

Veteran military pilots check out the flight simulators at the Air & Space Museum in Balboa Park. Photo by Chris Stone

“I decided when I was 8 years old, I was going to be a Navy pilot,” the veteran said. “I told my father one day coming back from visiting a Navy carrier in 1932. I said: ‘Dad, I’m gonna become a Navy pilot.’ And that’s what I did.”

Asked his opinion of the newly released “Top Gun: Maverick,” Tierney said it was good, a lot better than the first version, which he called unrealistic.

“It’s hard to make a decent movie with airplanes, said the veteran in his mid-90. “Usually, they’re so far apart that they show these airplanes and shot them way too close to each other. And you’d never (in reality) get that close to anybody else.”

He also shot down scenes in both “Top Gun” movies in which Tom Cruise rides his motorcycle on a tarmac.

That would never be allowed, he said.


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