SMSgt (E-8) Thomas Wharton (Ret.)

Interview Please give us an overview of your military career and tell the readers a little about yourself?

Tom: I am retired US Air Force, after twenty-six years I thought it was time to try something else while I was still young enough. I was drafted into the US Army in Oct 1969 but choose to join the US Air Force instead, it was the best decision I ever made. I always loved looking at jet aircraft and dreamed of working on "fighters" and that wish came true.

  • I was an aircraft mechanic (basically) stationed at: Clark Air Base, Philippines (June 1970 F-4's)
  • DaNang Air Base, Republic of Vietnam (February 1971 F-4's)
  • RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk, England ( 1972 - 1975 F-4's)
  • Edwards AFB, California (1975 & 1976 F-4 Tow Target Operator - In-flight)
  • RAF Bentwaters, Suffolk, England (1977 to 1980 F-4's, converted to A-10's)
  • Nellis AFB, Las Vegas (1980 to 1982 F-4's, then converted to F-16's)
  • Hahn Air Base Germany (1982 to 1985 F-16's)
  • Luke AFB, Phoenix, Arizona (1985 to 1988 F-16's and 12th AF F16 Demo Team)
  • Nellis AFB, Las Vegas, Nevada (1988 to 1991 F-16's - USAF Thunderbirds and two months with the Navy Blue Angels, F-18 Maintenance Exchange Program)
  • RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk, England (1991 to 1996 F-15C/D/E)
  • Retired in Feb 1996 - 26 years later and sixty (60) countries either TDY/Deployed (countless deployments globally) or just vacationing with the family. What a ride the USAF was for me!

Thomas Wharton (backseat) on exchange program, last flight with Blue Angels.

I was assigned (first duty assignment) to the Philippine Islands (Clark AB) as a young Crew Chief on Phantoms (F-4's). I was able to go TDY (deploy) all over the Orient. Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, Guam and Vietnam. In the two years I was in the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) I thoroughly enjoyed myself, other then Nam, but I was glad I survived and got to go home after countless "rocket attacks" and being blown up one day, waking up in a hospital back at Clark AB.

Served in Vietnam and Bosnia War, sat the Gulf War out on the Thunderbirds (my bad luck, timing is everything sometimes) huh! But my wife (named Cherokee) served in the Gulf War as an A-10 Weapons Loader, so between us we served in every conflict since 1970 to 1996.....hell'va thing.

The legacy continues, now three of my four children have or are serving in the USAF.

Thomas after his first solo flight, wearing his Blue Angels jacket, a gift.

Feb 1996 after twenty six years in the USAF. I became a Pilot for Cessna aircraft for a year; I was buying, selling and delivering aircraft to customer out of Texas.

Since September 1998 I had been working for Northrop Grumman Aviation Corporation. I became a FMS- Project Manager and Program Manager for Tactical Aircraft and helped organize the Foreign Military Aircraft Sales (FMS) projects for the countries of Thailand (18 F-16s Total Overhauls and their Landing Gear Overhaul) at Hill AFB, Depot with Northrop Grumman. It was great working for that company for the last five years but it is very unstable, such is life ...right!

I also helped organize the Italian Air Force Regeneration (F-16) for 34 aircraft still in work at Hill AFB, Depot. So one way or the other I am still in touch with the Viper. I have since been laid off with Northrop Grumman (contract funding issues) it's a tough business but I found work as a Quality Assurance Aircraft Inspector at Hill AFB, I am still on the F-16 daily. However, I also inspect and work on the A-10 and C-130 aircraft.

So all the military experience and exposure continues to "pay off".

Thomas Wharton in front of one of 'his' Thunderbirds. What is your most memorable time out on the ramp working on the F-16 both Positive and/or negative?

Tom: Positive - being selected for a tour of duty with the US Air Force Thunderbirds from 1988 to 1991. I was the Production Superintendent, Superintendent of Quality Assurance and Line Chief/Production Superintendent.

Managing and maintaining the Falcon was wonderful, the best part for me other then working with great people over the years had to be flying in this gem. I managed to collect one hundred hours flying in either the B model or D model aircraft in my ten years working the aircraft.

Negative - Managing a fleet of PACER PW 220 Engines, swapping engines from one aircraft to another during testing was a real pain and it hurt my FMC ratings from time to time and it worked the hell out of my maintenance troops. Lots of cannibalization of parts and engine swaps from Code One aircraft due to this program and the managing of engine cycles.

Thomas Wharton during target towing years. What is the hardest thing about working on the F-16?

Tom: Being an electric aircraft, I would have to say troubleshooting many of the systems until you got a "feel" for her. Actually, having said that, in the early days, I would have to pinpoint "chaffing and FOD" as the biggest pain in the neck. Other than the F-16, what aircraft have you worked on? And how does the Viper compare?

Tom: I have worked many various aircraft but next in line as favorite was the F-4 Phantom, it was an amazing challenge and great aircraft when it was working properly. I have flown in the F-4 Phantom as a In-Flight Tow Target Operator at Edwards AFB in 1975 and 1976 logging one hundred eighty six hours of pure "rush". I also worked and maintained the A-10, F-111 and the F-15. None compare to the little Viper but the F-15E was (is) an amazing ass kicker, if you pardon my French!

When my squadron and I were deployed to Aviano, Italy supporting the Kosovo War, I was flying an EC-130 mission (volunteered to see what the war was about) one day and we were fired upon by a Serbian helicopter. A Viper was called to assist us as we (EC-130) were trying to avoid being hit by the missile the chopper fired at us, as we rocked and rolled while pumping chaff and flare the Viper "splashed the chopper". Our whole aircraft was yelling with joy as we would not live to fight another day. I thought it was over for sure, the missile exploded and took out our ILS, and number four engine (fragged it)...we nursed (limbed) home as a flight of my own squadrons F-15E's provided cover for us. What a day and ride I had that day, but the Viper saved our (my) backside, I will never forget that! Do you remember the date that the helicopter was trying to shoot your aircraft down?

Tom: Oh yes, I can't forget that one, it was October 30th, 1994 at 14:43 hours over Bosnia-Herzegovina. The "Brits" were taking a pounding from the Serbs on the ground that day, numerous air strikes were called in to aid in there crisis. I am proud to say, the USAF beat the hell out of the Serbs that day, but they gave as good as they got (least the Brits would agree I am sure). Bad weather and mountainous terrain made for one hell of a battle that day (on the ground).

Tom and wife Cherokee meeting Chuck Yeager in 1986 maintenance banquette at Luke AFB. Any fond memories of a specific deployment or exercise?

Tom: Yes, Italy, near Naples in 1977 with a squadron of F-4's from my base at RAF Bentwaters, England. We were deployed in an exercise called "Display Determination"; our F-4's were flying with the Italian Air Force F-104's trying to find the US Navy (NATO Fleet) in the Med. The object was to find NATO and our own Navy in less then three days, on day three (bad weather and whatnot) the USAF found the NATO Fleet. We were thrilled that we could do it in this bad weather. I came up with the idea to fill the speed brakes of our F-4's with toilet paper. I had heard that we were going to do a "fly bye" over the fleet for a photo opportunity.

I told a few other Crew Chiefs of my intentions but had no idea that all the "guys" would do the same thing as I was going to do. When the "photo op" came, as the USAF and Italian Air Force flew over the US navy and NATO aircraft, all the F-4's opened their speed brakes as a salute! All the speed brakes now had "TP" in them, it rolled out and settled on most of the Navy Fleet aircraft (made a real mess)and the cameras were snapping photos too, what a sight it was...I was told later.

During the debriefing, all the crew chiefs in my squadron were called back into the squadron for an emergency Commanders call. I knew I was now in trouble! As it turned out, the whole squadron was laughing, it was captured on cameras from the photo aircraft and it was displayed on the giant screen we had in the room. My Commander after scaring the hell out of me - Thank me for the idea, they all loved it (all but the Navy I am sure). Years later, this then Lt Col (squadron commander) would become a Two Star General (Billy "G" McCoy, a great leader and wonderful person who I will never forget, I wish he and his family the best in life always) and would still talk about the day his Staff Sergeant Crew Chief (me) got him and the whole squadron into trouble, but he still loved the idea I did it. I sure lucked out!

Fully loaded F-4 just before this Nellis squadron converted to the F-16. Thomas and his buddies take time for a picture. What assignment/squadron was your favorite (other then the Thunderbirds)?

Tom: Hard question, I loved them all but Luke AFB from 1985 to 1988 was great! I was a Flight Chief, Production Superintendent and was selected to manage the 12th Air Force F-16 Flight Demonstration Team (single ship performance flight for the general public air shows). I had never been selected for so many "awards" as I was there during that assignment. Not only that but I bought my first house with a pool there, my family and I loved it.

I traveled all over the United States (all fifty states), Canada, Central and South America performing air shows with our F-16C/D aircraft. I was placed in charge of the first ever deployment to Uruguay, Panama and Chile with the F-16, I loved it and was able to organize the whole trip utilizing a KC-10 aircraft (fairly new at that time) to ferry us all around while providing the fuel we needed for the air shows in South America. I just loved it! Tell our readers about your incident in Vietnam where your base was under attack by rockets.

Tom: I was closing door 19 on top of the aircraft (F4D), that is the area where many communication equipment (boxes) were stored. My aircraft was fully loaded; I had a scheduled take off in about thirty minutes when the Vietcong attacked with mortars and gunfire. The aircraft was located in a hardened revetment at DaNang Air Base, 405th Fighter Wing.

Sgt. Tom Wharton while serving with the 523rd FS at Danang AB, Vietnam.

Of course once the rocket attack began I worked as fast as I could to get the panel secured, I knew my pilots would be soon be running out to the aircraft after the attack to get the aircraft airborne. You could hear the rockets coming closer and closer as they began to explode all over the flightline area. Even then you felt the enemy had very good spies in our area, the attacks were always or at least seemed to be accurate and damaged (destroyed many aircraft) and facilities.

Many years after the war, I watched a "special" broadcast television shot made by the British TV studio called "ITV", that show depicted that the Vietnamese had a series of massive underground tunnels all over the base (under it). No wonder they had us pegged, they knew exactly where everything was located so they could "hit" us when they felt like it or so it seemed.

I just had several fasteners left to install when I heard a very loud sound, I looked up to see if I could see it. It felt like a second later, I was hit with a blast of very hot air, almost like someone had turned on a very hot and bright hairdryer and shoved it in my face. I felt myself being blown off the aircraft and tumbling very fast backwards. The rocket (as I was told weeks later) had landed at the nose of my aircraft and of course blew the whole damn aircraft apart.

I was blown off the aircraft and blown against the back of the revetment where I laid unconscious and on fire (bits of my uniform were burning I was told later). I guess moments or several minutes later, many of the guys (fire fighting and such emergency workers with other flightline workers) were trying to tow aircraft away from the site and fight fires before other aircraft would blow up is when I was found. Of course several folks saw my aircraft get hit and knew I was there (thankfully) and I was found.

My aircraft was destroyed, I was pulled from the scene and I woke up (air evacuated out) in the Philippines (Clark Air Base) where I was told what happened to me (lucky to be alive for sure). I had been "out" for several days, when I woke I was told what happened to me, I remember bits and pieces but a few of the guys saw what happened and gave me details later and I have to thank their quick reactions for being here today. It was one crazy war! I understand you met Ronald Reagan. Tell us about that?

Tom: I was selected as one of the Twelve Outstanding Airmen of the United States Air Force in 1987. It was (is) still an honor I will never forget, I was based at Luke AFB. I and eleven other members of the USAF from around the globe were selected as the top managers and technicians in our fields. We were all "wined and dined" for a week at our Nations Capital, Washington, D.C.

Thomas Wharton on the far right, in the oval office with President Reagan.

The Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (then Chief Bennicker) with help from the Air Force Association organized a meeting with then President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office. Meeting and being honored by my own President was and "is" the greatest single event in my adult life.

We talked for about five minutes had lunch; he gave me a medal while "thanking for me" for being a member of the US Air Force and serving her so proudly, I was humbled by his presence, the honor was mine! He was taller and much kinder in person then I thought. He was a very nice person to speak to. As a kid from Brooklyn, New York, I never would have dreamed to have such an honor bestowed upon me for doing what I enjoyed so much, working on "fighters" in the USAF, meeting my President made my day as Clint Eastwood would say!.

Thomas Wharton getting recognition for putting out an F-16 on fire at Luke AFB. Tell our readers about life in the Thunderbirds and what you enjoyed.

Thunderbird patch (Chris Jensen collection)

Tom: Hectic to say the least, I and my crew worked our tails off but I knew we all loved the work! My average day was at least twelve to fourteen hours; we maintained the aircraft in picture perfect condition daily while performing air shows globally. It was the most photographed aircraft in my career, everybody wanted to see the show and take photos by the Viper. It stands proudly for all that America represents not only in air power but in technology, pride and professionalism. We not only flew air shows but were heavily involved in public speaking and proving tours and answering questions about this little marvel of an aircraft.

We traveled about 200 to 220 days a year globally while maintain the aircraft and our own families with outstanding help from our spouses (of course). It was the most demanding job I ever had in peacetime but I loved it. I had never met so many dedicated maintenance folks at one time and at one location, it was a first for me. Of course we all got to fly in this puppy too, flying in a Viper was way cool, flying in a Thunderbird Viper...well, lets say, it takes the cake! It was my greatest adventure for sure and I still maintain contact with ex-team members today, eight years after I left the USAF. What Thunderbird aircraft number was yours and anything interesting happen to it?

Tom: As Production Superintendent/Line Chief, They Were ALL MINE! I managed them all and had to ensure each was ready to fly with the help of my maintenance crews. One day (can't remember which base close to Washington, D.C.) we were preparing the aircraft for a show over the White House (President Reagan's tour - 1989). Three of the aircraft were broke bad, two (2) engine changes. Two JFS problems and major flight control troubleshooting was required on two other aircraft. We had nine hours before we were to fly the show for the White House (President) and we were "broke dick" as the expressions go!

We had to re-deploy our C-141 (nick named the Star) back to one of our supply forward operating locations to pick up another engine and two JFS'es, it had been a long trip with many maintenance nightmares, the aircraft needed much TLC (tender loving care) but the show schedule was far to hectic that week.

At the last fifteen minutes before scheduled take off, all aircraft were fully mission capable (FMC) and we launched the deployed show (no march down required at this location) and the show was flawless. After the show, we had quick turns for another deployed show locally plus we had six different public speaking events to cover, it was crazy but we pulled it off, most folks never get to hear or see what happens behind the scenes, these folks worked their butts off and it was all worth it, Just another day in the life of a Thunderbird! Is there any particular F-16 tail number(s) to which you are fond of (regular and Thunderbirds)?

Tom: Simply put - All of them :-) What is the best/worst practical joke you played on a victim(s)?

Tom: I think it would have to be the F-4 Speed Brake event I explained earlier in Italy.

Oldest Daughter carries on Family tradition (Thomas Wharton and daughter) What advice would you give junior ground crew?

Tom: Learn all you can about the aircraft you are assigned too or working on, one day, it might save your life or that of a friend or family member. Plus, your country needs you to be the best you can for our National Defense, your internal pride will soon follow you through your career. There is nothing like watching (or being in) your aircraft as she takes to the air. When the time comes that your aircraft is loaded with "live" munitions and the aircraft comes back empty, you know in your heart that (in war) someone or many have died. Sometimes, it is hard to take later in life but that is what you must do to ensure "freedom". It is a hard lesson and the reality of what you do in fun most times, takes on a different meaning but it must be done. So, work hard, play hard and remain focused, your country depends on you and so do I.

Tom with wife Cherokee on a cruise. Any words of advice to any of our young readers wanting to join the military?

Tom: Yes, I would say, if you like aviation then join your Air Force (what ever country you represent). There is no greater feeling then flying or fixing aircraft plus one day you might make a career out of being an aircraft mechanic or supervisor, the skills you learn can and might affect your whole life in a very positive way. Be ready to work hard, it is not a free ride but if you ever get to fly in a fighter, your whole world will change for the better (my opinion). Fly safe and check six! Anything you would like to add?

Tom: I would like to mention that in 1993 and 1994 I was selected to built a brand new F-15C/D - Fighter Squadron (the 493rd FS) at RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk, UK which included an ACMI training center. Looking back, I would say other than the Thunderbird tour, building (from scratch) the 493rd FS was the greatest tasking and largest event I was ever given to accomplish.

I had the chance (which I took) to hand pick fellow senior NCO's from the 48th FW (The Heath) while drawing on talent from around USAFE with F-15 aircraft experience to create this new squadron to include construction of facilities. I was very lucky to have found so much talent (fellow NCO's, young Airmen and later, outstanding officers) throughout USAFE to fill all the required positions to build/man such a squadron.

I was tasked to have the squadron up and running while "accepting" all assigned aircraft (I deployed aircraft acceptance teams to the USA to inspect the aircraft) within one year and be ready to deploy. This was quite the tasking, but we pulled it off and in ten months and six days later we were "mission capable" and did in fact deploy to Turkey!

That squadron later deployed to Kosovo during the war and "air to air engagements" were accomplished, as painted on their birds now. I actually felt like I was the "father" of this fighter squadron. My oldest daughter (Captain, USAF) who is now stationed at RAF Mildenhall visited the squadron recently. There is still a picture of "ole man Wharton" decking the halls of this "proud" squadron. This squadron is my badge of HONOR, reflecting my pride, dedication and lucky choices made in manning selecting some of the best people in the USAFE Command.

I hope to visit the squadron one day in the near future and see how "she fairs today"... it was my own great adventure while developing friendships with gifted, talented folks across the board, enlisted and officer!

Fly safe People, "the old man" thinks of you all often. Thank you for the interview!

- SMSgt. Wharton was interviewed online by Jon Somerville in April of 2004 -

Visitor Comments

Marty Niswonger, Jan 31, 2006 - 10:30 AM

Good friend. I was stationed with Tom at Luke AFB, AZ and served with him on the 12th AF Demonstration Team. I took over the team after he went to the thunderbirds. Tom was a great man to work for and with. Tom if you get this message, contact me please. Marty Niswonger, Tsgt, USAF (ret).

Thomas.Wharton, Feb 01, 2006 - 01:42 PM

Marty, my old friend... here is my email What a wonderful surprize, I am now in Utah working as a Foreign Disclosure Officer for Hill AFB. My email is (replace the -AT- with @). I will never forget our trip to South America together, do you remember working on that 50 Gallon LOX Servicing container on that KC-10? It developed a serious builtup problem and you had to vent it overborad in flight. Your quick actions may have saved us all that day had it blew on board. Man, what great and crazy times we had. Damn glad to hear from you, looking forward to it. Email me....

Brig. Gen. F.F. Haggard VMFA (Ret.), Jun 14, 2010 - 09:35 PM

Tom thank you for your service ,I tried fervently to appreciate my plane captain and his crew at Chu Lai but allways fell short I'm sure 1968-69

Our time at Luke
Edwin M. Rollins, Jul 22, 2011 - 03:01 AM

Congrats on an outstanding career in the Air Force. It was a pleasure serving with you. I retired from the 944th at Luke in 2000 after 22 years as an E-8 First Sergeant for the maintenace squadron. Thank you for the many opportunities your provided me. Give my best to Cherokee and the family. Congrats to your daghter for carring on the tradition. Let her know that "there is only one true force in the DOD, The Air Force, everything else is the peace corp."

Best regards.


Maj. Gordon D. Elmquist, USAF
Jan D. (Elmquist) Parker, Oct 16, 2011 - 05:45 AM

Sgt. Wharton, enjoyed reading your story. The reason I "googled" you was, today I went through some of my late father's things. I found several photographs of the USAF Thunderbirds. I do not know what year they were taken. You are with your team members as well as with Pres. Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush as well as other dignitaries. Many photos of the Thunderbirds in flight. I would like some information on them but only know how to post them to my FaceBook page. I would appreciate it if you could e-mail me. Thank you for your service.


Jan D. Parker

F-16 Demo Team
Scotty Cain, Dec 26, 2018 - 04:09 PM

Tom, I've also had the privilege of serving on the F-16 Demo Team out of Luke AFB AZ and have to say it was the best experience one could ask for. I was on the team the first year out of Luke AFB and wish I was still in contact with some of my former team members. Glad to see you are well Tom!

Yo Meat Head
Dennis Graham aka COB, Feb 07, 2019 - 08:18 PM

Shoot me an email. Let's catch up.

Dennis Graham

USAF Thunderbird Alumni


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