May 27, 2018
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Retired Lucerne aviator flew with a Bangor fighter squadron

By Brian Swartz, Of The Weekly Staff

When some 20 former members of the 75th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron met in Dedham late last month, their shared memories included tales about flying a two-seat jet that did not always cooperate with a pilot.

Maj. Charles McClead (Air Force, retired) of Lucerne could relate to that discussion; he once ejected from such a jet high above Macwahoc.

The 75th FIS was based at Dow Air Force Base in Bangor from 1959 to the base’s closure in 1968. The squadron flew the F-101B Voodoo, a supersonic fighter that could carry nuclear-tipped missiles to launch against enemy aircraft — likely Soviet bombers — attacking targets in North America. Planes and crews were especially busy during the autumn 1962 Cuban Missiles Crisis; the 50th anniversary of that event brought former squadron mates to a reunion at the Lucerne Inn in late September.

The Voodoo carried a pilot and a radar intercept officer (or RIO); an Ohio native, McClead joined the Air Force in 1954, trained as a navigator and then as a RIO at Southern bases, then headed north for Presque Isle AFB.

He later flew 210 combat missions aboard F-4 Phantoms during the Vietnam War. The tropical South-east Asian climate differed substantially from the deep freeze he encountered in northern Maine.

“The winter of ’56-’57 was my introduction to a Maine winter,” McClead recalled, grimacing at the memory. He was assigned to the 76th FIS, 23rd Fighter Group, which flew two-seat F-89 Scorpions out of Presque Isle. The 75th FIS was also based there.

“The month of January [1957], it only got up to zero a couple of times,” he said, describing how car tires turned square in the bitter cold. “I’ve never seen the weather as cold as that anywhere else,” including a later tour in Iceland.

Completing that tour in early 1960, McClead joined the 75th FIS at Dow AFB, to which the squadron had transferred in 1959. “I got here, they were still doing the transition phase” to the Voodoo,” he said.

“We had about 20 planes most of the time,” and the Air Force assigned eight-10 air crews to each of the squadron’s four flights, McClead recalled. As an Air Defense Command squadron, the 75th was “totally independent” of Dow’s bomber-and-tanker fleet operated by the Strategic Air Command, he said. “We were put here to protect the base itself.”

Ready to take off on short notice, one crew was on alert at Dow 24 hours each day; other days, pilots and RIOs waited near phones in case an “alert” was called.

“I was supposed to be near the phone the day the Cuban Missile Crisis started,” McClead admitted. “I was out car shopping in Ellsworth that day, and when I got back, they told me that I had been getting phone calls.”

Then a bachelor, he lived with a few other single aviators in a rented “cottage down on Phillips Lake” in Lucerne,” McClead recalled. “It’s been my favorite place in the world ever since.”

In season the cottage’s occupants went boating, water-skiing, and skating — and skiing at the nearby Bald Mountain ski area, which “wasn’t that good,” McClead remembered. “Being in a fight squadron was one of the best things going; we lived a pretty wild lifestyle as bachelors. The parties went on and on; we had to show SAC they didn’t know how” to party.

“Everyone loved to come to Phillips Lake,” he said, smiling. “We finally had to say, ‘No more.’”

McClead flew “a lot” because married RIOs “wanted to spend time with their families. That was one of the reasons I had so many flying hours; I think I had over 2,000 hours in the F-101.

“It was a tough plane for pilots to fly,” McClead said. The Voodoo “had a high wing loading with the swept wing, and the tail was mounted high. If you got the thing into low air speed, it didn’t like it. It would tumble in the air; the nose would come up, and around and around you went.”

Crashes claimed a few 75th FIS planes and crewmen, including McClead’s plane and pilot, Capt. Doug Rowe, on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 1962. Rowe and McClead took off for Rowe’s last check flight in a Voodoo equipped with external fuel tanks “that weren’t streamlined,” McClead recalled.

The tanks destabilized the plane. After dark over Macwahoc, the F-101 went into a spin. “We were com-ing down at 18,000 feet per minute,” McClead remembered. He ejected from the uncontrollable plane, which crashed “out in the middle of nowhere in the woods.” Rowe ejected too late; his parachute lacked sufficient time to deploy.

Making a shelter from his parachute and inflatable life raft, McClead spent the night surviving a 16-inch snowstorm. The next day he walked along a logging road until he came to Route 2, where rescuers found him.

After leaving Dow and Bangor, McClead transitioned to the two-seat F-4 Phantom and flew bombing missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Southeast Asia, “more at night than in the daytime.” His squadron was the first Air Force fighter-bomber squadron to experiment with laser- and TV-guided bombs.

He survived his 210 missions without harm; “the only damage I saw in an F-4 was a bullet hole in the tail,” he recalled.

The Air Force, now downsizing as the Vietnam War wound down, discharged McClead as “a reserve major.” Learning that the Maine Air National Guard was converting its Bangor-based fighter squadron to F-101s, he returned to Maine and flew the Air Guard Voodoos for 4½ years.

“I did not want to go back to Ohio,” McClead said. “I loved Phillips Lake. Maine was the place to be.”

He met and married his wife, Valerie Felt of East Corinth, and they have a son. The McCleads have been married for more than 39 years.

After retiring from the Maine Air Guard, McClead “was a rural mail carrier for 20 years, out of [the East] Holden [post office].” A volunteer with the Dedham-Lucerne Fire Department for 26 years, he now shares his veteran’s memories with schoolchildren visiting the Cole Land Transportation Museum in Bangor.

He remembers the Cuban Missile Crisis as “a really scary time,” with the American military on high alert and prepared to fight the Soviet military over intercontinental ballistic missiles that the Soviet Union was deploying to Cuba. Air crews and planes from the 75th FIS were deployed to far-flung bases in case Dow AFB came under attack; “everything was tense, and both sides were on a hair trigger,” McClead said.

“They (Soviets) were trying to spread communism worldwide, and we tried to beat it back,” he said.

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