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Robert Thacker, 102, dies; Survived Pearl Harbor to fly in 3 wars

Robert Thacker, who got caught in the middle of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor as he flew an unarmed B-17 bomber in Hawaii to refuel, but managed to make a stunning landing and took off pursued a distinguished pilot career in war and peace, died Nov. 25 at his home in San Clemente, California. He was 102 years old.

Ms Thacker’s daughter, Barbara Thacker, confirmed her death to the New York Times on Friday. She said she only provided confirmation last week to the San Clemente Times, which published an obituary on Thursday.

Lieutenant Thacker, who arrived on the island of Oahu as Japanese warplanes ravaged the US naval base there, would soon drop his own bombs. He flew some 80 missions during World War II, seeing action in theaters across the Pacific and Europe. He later became a record test pilot and flew in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

But it was on the morning of December 7, 1941, that he faced his first ordeal in combat.

His plane was part of a newly-built B-17 flight arriving from California en route to the Philippines. As he began his descent towards the Army Air Corps Hickam Field, initially unaware of all that was wrong, he was astonished to see bombers and fighters roaming the sky and black smoke rising from the sky. US base and adjacent military installations.

One of the fighters pulled on the front landing gear of his Flying Fortress as he approached the runway. But he rushed to a landing and led his crew into a swamp along the runway to escape hell.

In February 1947, about 18 months after Japan’s surrender, he was back at Hickam Field, this time to write aviation history. Now a lieutenant colonel, he flew a North American Aviation P-82 fighter jet on the first non-stop flight from Hawaii to New York City in what remains the longest non-stop flight, 5,051 miles, ever flown by a fighter propeller, according to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, near Dayton, Ohio.

Developed at the end of World War II, the twin-fuselage, twin-propeller P-82 had been envisioned as a long-range escort for the giant B-29 Superfortresses on mission in Japan. The fighter had two cockpits, one for the pilot and one for the co-pilot / navigator, so that they could take turns flying. But the war was over before the P-82 was ready for battle.

At the start of the Cold War, the P-82 was viewed by the Pentagon as a potential escort in the event that bombers like the B-29 were called upon to attack the Soviet Union. The pioneering test flight of Colonel Thacker and his co-pilot, Lieutenant John Ard, proved that the fighter could successfully complete such a mission.

In the 14.5-hour flight from Hickam, a mechanical problem prevented the aircraft from dropping three empty fuel tanks, and the P-82 battled drag due to unwanted weight and strong headwinds. By the time he landed, he had only enough fuel left for another 30 minutes of flight.

But Colonel Thacker handled his plane with aplomb. The P-82, named Betty Jo in honor of his wife, landed at La Guardia Field in Queens shortly after 11 a.m. on February 28, 1947, greeted by crowds of reporters and press photographers and hundreds of spectators .

Since “nothing else happened in the world that day,” he told the Arrowhead Club, a California military research organization, in a 2014 interview, “I was in the news. newspapers”. The New York Times ran its own article on the flight and an editorial praising the Air Force’s growing readiness for post-war combat. He saw the flight as “further proof of how quickly the globe is shrinking.”

Robert Eli Thacker was born on February 21, 1918 in El Centro, California, one of three children of Percie and Margaret (Eadie) Thacker.

At the age of 8, his father, who owned a moving company, bought him a kit to build a model airplane with two lifters, a twin-propeller craft that rides on drafts in the goal of reaching a maximum distance in competition.

“I was addicted to aviation from that age,” he recalls in the 2014 interview.

He attended a two-year community college in El Centro, hoping to become an aeronautical engineer. But her family did not have the money to complete her four-year college education. In 1939 he joined what was then known as the Army Air Corps. He received his lieutenant’s wings in June 1940.

He carried out WWII bombing missions from New Guinea, Italy and England. He then joined the country’s leading test pilots on experimental flights over the high California desert at Muroc Army Air Field in California, later renamed Edwards Air Force Base.

In addition to piloting B-17 flying fortresses during WWII, Colonel Thacker flew superfortresses during the Korean War and high altitude missions during the Vietnam War.

The P-82 (renamed F-82) performed combat missions during the Korean War, when it was given radar capability, but jet fighters quickly made it obsolete.

Mr. Thacker retired from the Air Force as a full Colonel in 1970. His awards included two Silver Stars and three Distinguished Flying Crosses.

He then worked as an adviser to the aviation industry and pursued his hobby of piloting model radio controlled airplanes.

Mr. Thacker’s daughter is his only survivor. His wife, Betty Jo (Smoot) Thacker, died in 2011.

Although the record-breaking propeller fighter Colonel Thacker flew has fallen into obscurity, it has not been entirely forgotten.

This silver plane is exhibited at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, with the inscription “Betty Jo” in red writing.

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