The Right Stuff

George Luck died as he lived.  From an early age when he accompanied his uncle on his first ride in an airplane, George decided that he wanted to be a pilot when he grew up.  This is his story.  It is a story of a baby born in Dublin and raised in Wrightsville, Georgia who became one of the military’s top test pilots during the Vietnam War Era.

It was on November 5, 1934 when Ettie Lee Drake Luck and James Miles Luck became the parents of their son George, who was born in a Dublin hospital. Ettie and James lived their remainder of their lives in Wrightsville.  James, a postal carrier, died in 1982 while Ettie, a daughter of George and Ellen E. Drake, died in 1983 in Dublin. Both are buried in Westview Cemetery in Wrightsville.

“My father decided to become a pilot after an uncle took him flying at a young age,” said George’s son Mike.

Following his graduation from Wrightsville High School, George, the second Johnson County boy to earn the Eagle Scout Award,  received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, but left after his first year.  He returned home to Georgia, where he enrolled at Georgia Tech to study aeronautical engineering.  Once again, Luck transferred, this time to fill his appointment to the nation’s newest military academy, the United States Air Force Academy, in its only second year of existence.

“He was a mentor for the younger cadets,” recalled Andi Biancur, the president of
the academy’s Class of 1960.

After graduation, Lt. Luck enrolled in the Air Force’s Test Pilot school, where he was put through mentally and physically strenuous tests to design and fly new planes, faster and higher than jet aircraft had flown before.

“His  job was to test new planes and new designs — pushing them to their limits, landing them safely and recording the results, Mike Luck said.

“Early in George's illustrious Air Force career he flew the B-52 out of Kincheloe AFB,  including many tense missions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He then graduated from Air Force Test Pilot School and was stationed at Edwards and Wright-Patterson Air Force Bases. As a test pilot George flew cutting edge missions in the B-52 mothership, zoom flights in the F-104 to extremely high altitudes, many varieties and alterations of the KC-135, and C-5 galaxy tests, among other things. His test pilot duties were interrupted by the war in Southeast Asia where George flew combat missions in the A-1 and A-26. George was later responsible for training bomber and tanker pilots, and instructors, while Deputy Director of Operations of Castle Air Force base in California,” his obituary writer wrote.

In 1969, Luck was deployed to South East Asia on duty with a Special Ops unit in Thailand.  His wife, Carolyn, tagged along and performed missionary work there to stay close to her husband.

“In 1968-69, I served as a test pilot in the Directorate of Flight Test at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH. One of my projects was to fly a B-57 test bed airplane in the development of a new IR sensor for the RF-4C. Another project was to fly and evaluate the prototype B-57G with a low light level television sensor. Both programs involved many nights on the Eglin AFB photo resolution range; and both programs were successful and were deployed to SEA.

“During the summer of 1969, I was assigned to the 609th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) (call sign: Nimrod) as a pilot to fly the Douglas A-26 Counter Invader. The two-month crew training was conducted at Hurlbert Field at Ft. Walton Beach, FL. Hurlbert was the home of Air Force Special Operations. After transition flying, formation and dive bomb, skip bomb, rocket and strafe patterns, we switched to night operations. First striking above the flares, then attacking under the flares and finally attacking in total darkness using Navy sea markers.

I arrived in Nakhom Phanom RTAFB Thailand. Our mission was to interdict the trail complex in Laos and to provide air support for the Royal Lao Forces in their fight against the Pathet Lao and NVA. After two months of night operations, the A-26s were deactivated along with the B-57s, F-100s and U-10s. Ten of the A-26s were flown to Tucson, AZ for storage; the remaining five were given to the VNAF. I led a flight of three on the ferry trip back to the bone yard. We flew the old Pan Am Clipper route: Bangkok, Clark, Anderson, Wake, Midway, Hickham, McClellan and D-M.

The crew members were then up for grabs. I took an assignment in the 56th Special Operations Wing as a flying safety officer. This assignment required me to check out in another airplane. For me, it was the Douglas A-1 Skyraider. I was attached to the 602 SOS (call sign: Firefly). During my check flight on my fifth A-1 mission, I was shot down by ground fire over the Plain of Jars in northern Laos. I got to ride the Stanley Aviations Yankee rocket extraction system. It worked like a charm. My right seater and instructor was shot and critically wounded as he parachuted down. After an hour on the Plain, we were rescued by two Air America helicopter crews. I completed the assignment flying 80 combat missions and investigating numerous accidents and incidents. When I arrived at NKP, we had 100 Skyraiders, but after one year, we had lost 40, and after two more years, the numbers dwindled down to only a handful.

My next assignment was to Test Ops at Edwards. I was the project pilot for the RC-135U. It had phase array radar antennas on the nose, tail and each wing tip. It was to be used for triangulating SAM radar sites in SEA,” wrote Luck of his career in the Vietnam War.

Luck ended his career training pilots to fly and flying a desk in the Pentagon with the office of Joint Chiefs of Staff.  During the remainder of his Air Force career, Luck trained pilots and served at the Pentagon twice — once with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

After a quarter of a century of service to the Air Force and his country, Col. Luck retired and went to work for Boeing Aircraft Company in Wichita, Kansas and Everett, Washington.   Luck continued to fly for recreation and once again to serve his country as a pilot with United States Coast Guard Auxiliary Air Division.

Hailed by his peers, George Luck was chosen as the Washington Pilot’s Association Pilot of the year 1996.  Just after his 80th birthday last year, Luck was inducted into the United Flying Octogenarians, a group of active pilots over the age of 80.  In 2011, he was given a Wright Brothers “Master Pilot“ award from the Federal Aviation Administration for 50 years of “outstanding contributions that further the cause of aviation safety.”

“George was one of the legends in our community, and perhaps one of the legends in the aviation community at large,” said Steve Dame, a fellow pilot. “Despite being fairly senior, (Mr. Luck) had a sound mind and judgment and flying skills,” Dame said. “He was just one of those guys that had the right stuff,” Dame concluded.

Known as a mentor for Boy Scouts and aspiring pilots, George Luck was killed on June 10, 2015 in a plane crash in Everett, Washington,  when a Beechcraft Bonanza crashed during a flying lesson after taking off from Paine Field.