Try to imagine landing your jet on an aircraft carrier. It’s nighttime, and you’ve brought 35,000 lbs. of metal down from Mach 2 at high altitude to about 140 mph, a speed at which you could stall out. If you could see the deck it would look like a postage stamp, but you can only make out a faint outline of the ship, and it’s bobbing and weaving, moving away from you as you approach it. Come in too high and you’ll miss the landing cable. Come in too low and you’ll put a hole in the carrier.
Sounds like fun? Tom Young thought so. But then, you might expect that a guy whose nickname in the military was “Pyro” and whose U.S. Navy call sign was “Rattler” wouldn’t flinch from a little danger. And in his lifetime, Tom has faced danger a great many times.
He was born in 1944 in Akron, Ohio, the only child of a schoolteacher mom and a U.S. Army major who was at the time in charge of a chemical weapons group chasing the Japanese back to their homeland. Shortly after his dad returned home in 1946, the family moved to Massillon, Ohio, a city of about 30,000 residents which was, Tom swears, “the football capital of the United States.” He was joined by cousins Dick and Bob Wagner, whose dad had met an untimely death. Being older than Tom by 10 and 6 years, respectively, they treated him as a beloved kid brother, taking him to basketball games, city events and parties, lots of parties. Perhaps that’s where young Tom first honed his interest in having a good time.
In grade school and high school “I was fast,” Tom says, “and I wanted to play football. But Mom wouldn’t let me.” The reason? He had fractured his skull as an adventurous 8-year-old, and she wisely decided that bumping heads with bruising linebackers would not be in Tom’s best interest. He took up basketball and track instead. He was pretty good, and once raced against Paul Warfield, who went on to become an outstanding wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns in the National Football League. It was one challenge he lost, but he relished the chance.
After graduating from high school in 1962, Tom was able to get a full scholarship to Ohio State University under their ROTC program, and he had his choice of three different ROTC scenarios: Army, Navy or Air Force. “The Navy got me,” Tom remembers. “Their presenter was a carrier-based fighter pilot, and I could just see myself doing what he did. I decided I wanted to be the pilot of an F-4 Phantom jet and go to Viet Nam. I was patriotic. I could see that war was coming in Viet Nam, and if we were going to be in a war, I wanted to serve.”
Serve he did. But first there were three years of college and some rigorous ROTC training yet to go through. That training included six weeks in the North Atlantic on the carrier Intrepid in 1963, and in 1964 a three-week stint at Marine Base Camp Lejeune and a week of underwater detonation training with the predecessor group of the famed SEALs. Tom thought seriously about becoming a SEAL, but the next year he went to Navy flight school, and that changed his mind. “I saw all those Navy pilots in their G-suits.” They were men’s men. “They loved flying, and I loved the idea of flying, and that was it.” Flying an F-4 off the deck of an aircraft carrier. What could be more fun than that? “I’ll tell you something,” he says with a look of awe even today, “taking off and going from zero to 150 mph in two-and-a-half seconds gives you a helluva rush.”
Meanwhile, at OSU Tom did “whatever it took” to maintain his grades, retain his ROTC scholarship and still have fun.
“I enjoyed the social life in college,” he confesses. He earned his nickname “Pyro” during his flight training for his love of fireworks, especially bottle rockets, which he’d set off on any occasion. It was all very innocent, but he kept his colleagues on their toes at all times. “I was a John McCain kind of guy,” Tom says in retrospect. Not a bad comparison.
Tom graduated in 1967, was sworn in as an ensign in the U.S. Navy, and within a week was in Pensacola, Florida on flight training. In August of 1968 he got his wings—he was first in his class—and went to San Diego to learn how to handle an F-4 Phantom fighter. “The F-4 was not really built for dogfights,” he says. “It was built for high-altitude intercepts with Russian Bear and Badger bombers. The MiGs flown by the North Vietnamese were highly maneuverable, and we had to learn how to adapt our flight techniques to engage them in combat.” The U.S. Navy developed its “Top Gun” training program for this purpose. Before it was put into effect, the kill rate of MiGs in Vietnam was two for every F-4 lost. After installing the “Top Gun” techniques, the ratio went up to 22 for every
Tom did two tours in Nam, the first on the USS Coral Sea and the second on the USS Midway, two carriers named for arguably the two best-known naval battles of World War II. In six-and-a-half years he flew 186 missions, losing one plane and crashing in another. “We were either searching for MiGs, flying in support of our own bombers or taking out SAM sites and antiaircraft guns,” Tom says. This was hazardous duty, because the F-4s had to fly low to take out the SAMs and AAAs, and they were sitting ducks during their low dives and turns. The glamour of G-suits and high-speed takeoffs brought with it some high risks.
After his honorable discharge in 1973, Tom returned to civilian life but always allied to the business of air travel. He started as a sales engineer with Beech Aircraft Corporation and rose through the ranks of marketing, advertising and communications in a blizzard of companies: Rockwell International, J. Walter Thompson, Ketchum Advertising, Campbell-Ewald Advertising, Bozell Jacobs Advertising and three different entities within the McDonnell Douglas/Boeing empire—Missile Systems, Aerospace and Corporate headquarters. Having been a “Top Gun” trainer and pilot, he was a Top Gun in the aircraft field, directing communications and advertising for billion-dollar giants.
Tom retired in 2006, after 33 years in business. He had kept up his flying as a Lt. Colonel in the USAF Reserve and a Lt. Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserves. He had been honored to fly with the Blue Angels in 2003 as a tribute to his efforts for his country. “In my whole life,” he says, “it seems as if a door would open, and I’d go through it, and it worked for me, beyond my wildest expectation.”
Now he’s up against a new challenge. In 2014 he was diagnosed with a rare chronic leukemia, and subsequently with a second ailment, cryptococcal pneumonia. Both diseases are unremitting and often carry a grim prognosis. He has been getting the best of care at M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston, at The Cancer Center in Sarasota and at home by his wife Janet, a registered nurse. “If it wasn’t for her,” Tom says, “I would be dead by now.” His diseases are stable, and he is fighting them with vigor and a realistic attitude.
If anyone can meet this challenge, it’s Tom. He’s the kind of guy you’d want to have in the pilot’s seat if you’re facing a tough landing.
Dean Laux is exploring interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: email@example.com. Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person's background.