California U.S. Army Vietnam War veteran Rick Throckmorton sat in his Cobra attack helicopter “151” during his 12-month 1970-’71 posting as its assigned pilot. —Submitted Photo
California U.S. Army Vietnam War veteran Rick Throckmorton sat in his Cobra attack helicopter “151” during his 12-month 1970-’71 posting as its assigned pilot. —Submitted Photo
Veterans getting together are nothing new, whether it’s informal gatherings at the local American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post, or the convergence offered by major regional, state and national conventions and reunion gatherings.

But an Oct. 2 reunion in Eagle River put a new twist on veteran reunions as California resident Rick Throckmorton, a Vietnam War veteran, was reunited after 50 years with his trusty old Cobra helicopter, a patriotic longtime Eagle River fixture on loan from the Michigan-based U.S. Army Armament Command.

Cancellation of the Aerial Rocket Artillery Association’s annual reunion in Savannah, Ga., offered Throckmorton the opportunity to venture north for a different sort of reunion — man and machine.

“You get affection for it — it never failed on me,” he said of his assigned Cobra, dubbed “151” for the last three digits of its identification number. “I had my name on it for awhile. If it was your ship, you were assigned to it, you got your name on it.”

Throckmorton first learned a year ago that “151” still existed after talking to his former co-pilot and gunner, retired Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Windell Mock.

“I said, ‘I wonder what happened to our old ship,’ ” he recalled. “We flew it together a whole year. He looked it up and found it. It was here in Eagle River.”



Stirring old memories

Oklahoma born and California-raised, Throckmorton was drafted by the Army in 1964 right out of Hueneme High School in Oxnard, Calif.

“My dad, Carl Throckmorton, was a World War II 101st Airborne guy, so when I got the draft notice I went to him and said, ‘What do you think I ought to do?’ ” he recalled. “He said, ‘Well, if you’re going to get drafted, you’re going to be in the infantry and you’re going right straight to Vietnam.’ He remembered that he walked all over Europe until the end of the war and he said, ‘The damn artillery boys had tanks, they had trucks, they had hot showers, they had hot food.’ He said, ‘If I were you, I’d join the artillery.’ And so I did. I went down and enlisted, rather than get drafted.”

After attending Field Artillery Officer Candidate School and becoming a second lieutenant, Throckmorton’s first service in Vietnam was as an artillery forward observer with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, walking the hot, humid jungles of Vietnam.

“My dad’s prophecy didn’t quite come true, as I walked all over Vietnam for nine months,” he recalled. “Being a light infantryman, we didn’t have helicopters at all. We walked.”

Later making his first flight on an air-conditioned chopper, sitting up front in the cockpit as an officer on the 150-mile mission flight to Saigon,  he asked the artillery brass-pinned co-pilot how he became an Army aviator.

“It was the first time I’d been cool in months, the Vietnam jungles and all that,” he recalled. “I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘How’d you get to be a pilot?’ He said just two words — ‘I asked.’ So as soon as the Battle of Tet was over in 1968 and we got back to the big base, I went right to the personnel unit and said, ‘I want to go to flight school.’ ”

After finishing his current tour of duty, the Army sent Throckmorton stateside to learn aviation, with primary helicopter training at Fort Wolters, Texas, and advanced helicopter training in Savannah, Ga., at Hunter Army Airfield, where he also become Cobra-qualified. 

Sent back to Vietnam, he soon found himself piloting “151” during his 12-month tenure as its primary pilot.

As a commissioned officer, he sat behind the Cobra’s controls from April 1970 to April 1971, logging more than 1,100 flight hours on some 800 hazardous duty missions flown in all kinds of weather over Vietnam for the 101st Airborne Division.

Serving in the 101st Airborne is something of a family tradition. Throckmorton is the second generation to serve in the 101st, following in the footsteps of his father, a paratrooper who landed on D-Day. 

Throckmorton’s second son, Jonathan, injured on a night mission serving with the 101st Airborne in Bosnia, today is a high school automotive technology teacher.

“Triple Eagles they call us,” said the veteran, who turned 75 on June 1.

During his tour piloting “151,” Throckmorton was the senior member of the flight crew, serving with 18- and 19-year-old “kids.”

“We all were kids — I was the old man at 24,”?he recalled. 

Throckmorton received the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award honors in October 2019 in recognition of his 50 years as a military and civil aviator.

At the time, the single-engine Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter was “the king helicopter” for the U.S. Army, according to Throckmorton, with a cruising speed of 130 knots (149 mph). He admits he buried the air speed needle at 200 knots (230 mph) on more than a few harrowing occasions over the Vietnam war zone.

“We didn’t work for the aviation boys, we worked for division artillery command, so every mission we went on was an attack mission — every single one,” he said. “As a consequence, a lot of the guys didn’t come back, or they came back slung underneath a Chinook, or they came back on a Huey if they survived it.”

For Throckmorton, “turning the throttle off and coming out alive” was the ultimate accomplishment of every hazardous duty mission.

He said the helicopter always took off “armed to the teeth” for its attack missions.

A full munitions flight load for “151” included four large rocket pods encompassing 76 6-pound warhead rockets, 6,000 7.62-millimeter machine gun rounds, and 350 rounds of 40-millimeter grenades.

“We’d shoot the entire load,” he recalled of the flight missions. “Nobody liked to bring the bullets back. Nobody wanted to come back loaded.”

Over his year at the controls of “151,” he recalls more than a few harrowing incidents in which he lived to tell the tale — having the control hydraulics shot out, losing a tail rotor, and having the protective canopy next to his head shot off.

During his year-long tenure behind the chopper controls, Throckmorton was served well by “151,” saying the helicopter “never failed” him, always getting him safely back to home base.

The Cobra, first put into active military service in February 1970 under pilot Clint “Lurch” Miller, was piloted by “Johnny G.” Turpin after Throckmorton.

Drawn together as veterans with a common bond of piloting “151,” Throckmorton said the trio kept in contact for decades following the war. 

Turpin passed away at age 58 of cancer in October 2006, buried at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas. 

Miller is now afflicted with Alzheimer’s.

“A lot of years have gone by under the bridge,” he said of the past five decades.

Throckmorton said Cobra pilots are a unique breed. “We bring dignity to an otherwise vulgar affair. That’s an old artillery saying.”



Parting ways

Both man and machine would eventually move on.

“We didn’t get a lot of kudos when we came back from overseas,” he said, noting societal attitudes toward Vietnam-era veterans have since changed. “But we’re getting them now. Wherever we go, people will thank us for our service. That’s well worth it.”

Serving on active duty with the Army from 1964-’74, he subsequently served in the California National Guard, retiring as a full colonel in 1995 and the 40th Division Artillery commander.

After returning to civilian life, he stayed in aviation, flying commercial helicopters, and later, along with his wife, Phyllis, founding Oxnard-based Aspen Helicopters Inc., which he today serves as executive vice president and director of operations.

In 1980, the year he got married, Throckmorton launched Aspen, now in its 41st year.

“I asked, ‘Can I borrow against your condo?’ ” he recalled. “And we bought our first helicopter and started Aspen as the first two employees. I flew and she handled the administration, billing and so on. I paid her back.”

Helicopter aviation, he said, has been good to him over the years, from his formative Army days to his current position overseeing an all working aircraft fleet of 19 helicopters and airplanes in service across the breadth of the United States in a variety of capacities, ranging from cargo hauling, passenger service and surveying to infrared and laser mapping, wildland firefighting, and aerial filming for IMAX movies.

“I got into flying by luck, you might say,” he said. “Growing up in Oklahoma and California, I came from a poor family of laborers. I never dreamed I’d ever be a pilot. The Army trained me to be a pilot, and it gave me a job afterward.”

Along with building his business, Throckmorton and his new bride also began building their family — son, Jonathan, and firstborn son, Chad, an animal science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Throckmorton and his wife, residents of unincorporated Pine Mountain Club, Calif., in the midst of Los Padres National Forest, now have seven grandchildren. 

After the Vietnam War ended, American Legion Post 114 commander Howard “Rusty” Wolf, who once pulled duty with U.S. Army Armament Command, said Cobra “151” was reassigned to Germany for peacetime military service before coming stateside in the 1980s for a few years of service with the Wisconsin National Guard’s Madison-based 147th Aviation Company D. It was supplanted by the next generation of Army utility transport and air assault helicopters, first by Bell Iroquois “Hueys” and later by Sikorsky Black Hawks.

The idled Cobra “151” then came under the jurisdiction of U.S. Armament Command.

In the early 1990s, Wolf said Frederick J. Walsh American Legion Post 114 requested permission to install a Cobra on a pole outside its post hall, then located on Highway 45 south of Eagle River. 

After consolidating its quarters with Trinka-Weber-Rogers Veterans of Foreign?Wars Post 8637 at 418 W. Pine St., the Cobra was remounted at its current Veterans Center location five years ago, with “151” securely mounted atop a 30-foot steel pole sunk in nearly 30 tons of concrete.

“I’m not an engineer enough to figure out the thrust it would take to pick that concrete up, but after I figured out how many tons of weight that concrete is I don’t think that helicopter when it was brand-new could’ve took off,” Wolf said. “There’s no way that helicopter is going to lift it.”

The Cobra has turned a lot of heads over the years at both of its Eagle River locations, according to Wolf, particularly among Vietnam veterans from all over who stop in to share memories spurred by “151.”



Reunited

Throckmorton called the reunion of man and machine after 50 years apart “hard to describe.”

“It was interesting to see it again,” he said. “It certainly brings back memories, both good and bad. My co-pilot guy, Stevie, took a couple rounds in it through his legs, hurt him pretty bad. You remember that. And having the canopy shot off over my head when a bullet came through the dash. In the photo I have this huge smile. I don’t know if it was because I made it back alive or it was funny as hell.” 

Throckmorton said he was glad to see that “151” was also a survivor.

“It could’ve had another fate — chopped up, melted away and made into something else,” he noted. “It was nice to have a chance to see it again and think about when I flew it.”

Throckmorton said he and Phyllis were appreciative of the hospitality offered during their visit.

“We’ve been treated real nice by the American Legion and VFW here,” he said. “It was great meeting the people. They’re very, very friendly. It was fun. It was a pleasure. We certainly enjoyed Wisconsin. We’ll do everything we can to come back and visit. The trip was really great.”