This is the observation plane that Dick Padgett flies every day at Wurtsboro Airport. It is a Cessna L19 Bird Dog, the same type of plane that was flown in Korean and Vietnam, according to Padgett. He said it carried smoke rockets under each wing that were dropped in advance of approaching jet fighter planes, which would follow up by dropping napalm.
U.S. Air Force veteran William Richard Padgett was born to fly, and he has done just that for all of his life. A former Port Jervis resident, Dick Padgett lives near Wurtsboro Airport, where at age 90 he works and continues to fly every day.
As a child, Padgett flew model airplanes, and he was piloting with instructors at 13. He earned his own pilot’s license at 16, served in battle as a distinguished Army Air Corps commander during World War II, made aviation his career, and continues to fly daily in his retirement.
“I was one of five cadets who already had pilot licenses in my class of 200, so these five we were able to graduate from flying school in just four months, instead of 12,” Padgett recalled of his beginning months in the military. “When the rest of the class was graduating, I had already flown 15 or 16 combat missions with the 8th Air Force, 92nd Bomb Group out of England. These were mostly over France, at first – and all before the D-Day invasion.”
At the time, Padgett’s 8th Air Force Division had the highest loss rate in his branch of service. Each crew initially was required to do 25 missions. When his crew was on a temporary break after 24 missions, the requirements changed to 35.
Nicknamed the “Flying Fortresses,” the B17 planes piloted by Padgett and others during World War II were unheated and open to sub-zero outside air. Ten-man crews operated machine guns that were mounted along all areas inside the plane. Due to the hazards each mission encountered, it was estimated that each crew member had an approximate 25 percent chance of completing his missions.
“We lost two our crew. One was a bull-turret gunner hit by 22-mm cannon fire from a German fighter plane. Five or six missions later, we lost our bombardier when an anti-aircraft burst blew the plexiglass nose off where he sat, right next to me,” Padgett said.
Padgett said he has no regrets about his military service, but does feel bad about bombing civilians in Germany.
“The civilians didn’t start the war, but there was no way to avoid hitting them,” Padgett said.
Born in Heightstown, N.J., Padgett grew up near an airport where he worked each week in exchange for otherwise unaffordable half-hour flying lessons. He lived in Port Jervis for several years, and his son graduated from Port Jervis High School.
Padgett is proud to have served his country, and glad for his decision to join for three reasons.
“The first and main reason is I wanted to serve my country. Secondly, I did not want to be drafted and not have a chance to qualify for aviation, so I volunteered. I knew, too, that this would give me an opportunity to go to college when I returned,” he said.
At age 90, he flies an L19 single-engine Bird Dog plane (such as those used in Vietnam and Korean) daily at Wurtsboro Airport.
“Veterans Day is just another day to me,” said Padgett. “I think about our veterans and military men and women every day, not just on Veterans Day.”
Padgett said he feels bad for the guys who served in Vietnam and were treated so badly when they came back.
“I once told a guy to get out of my glider when he said negative things about our Vietnam vets. They served our country just like I did,” Padgett said. “I will not stand for anyone putting our vets down.”
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