In honor of all veterans who have served, we continue to share their stories in our special series, Veterans Voices. Tonight, the story of a high-flying Air Force veteran living in Minot, Ron Mackey. Karassa Stinchcomb heard all about his 30-year career.
“It’s an experience I’ll never forget,” Mackey said.
Before Mackey was flying with the Thunderbirds, he was a kid in Barberton, OH. He joined the Air Force right out of high school in 1960.
Nearly a decade later, his brother told him about an opening with the Thunderbirds. That’s when his journey around the world began.
“I was selected and I got there in 1969 and that was a different Air Force life for me. That was very, very, very exciting. We was only home 6-10 days a month,” Mackey said.
Normally, flying with the Thunderbirds is a two-year contract, but Mackey was lucky enough to fly for four.
He flew all over with the Thunderbirds including South America, Central America, Europe and Africa. He even flew into Minot for an air show.
“I remember flying into Minot and thinking, ‘Wow.’ It was rainy and windy and I said, ‘Now I know why they talk about it like this.’ But I never had no idea I’d ever be here,” Mackey said.
One of the highlights of his career came in 1970 when he met President Nixon after flying at the Air Force Academy graduation.
“He was proud of the Air Force and he thought we were doing a good job. And I goes, ‘Well, that’s coming from the President of the United States. They don’t get no higher than that.’ So, I grabbed his hand and I shook it,”said Mackey.
But there were scary moments, too. One of the scariest, he says was when they were flying over Lake Michigan in November and the windshield started to crack.
“The pilot says, ‘Well you know, if this goes out, it’s going to hit me right in the face and we’re going to lose communication because it’s going to blow the microphone.’ He says, ‘Do you want to punch out, do you want to go first or do you want me to go first?'” Mackey said.
“And I’m thinking and I look down there, ‘Water and cold.’ We went through and it cracked up pretty bad, but couldn’t see much so we made an emergency landing at the Naval base in Chicago. Before, when I used to fly, I’d look down and say, ‘Oh, that’s pretty down there. It’d be nice to eject and you could go down in the parachute.’ But I thought, ‘Whew, when the time comes to where it might happen, I didn’t like it,” Mackey added.
Mackey was stationed all over the world. But as his time in Germany was coming to an end, his orders to southern California changed unexpectedly.
“The guys had a big sign up there, ‘Why not Minot?’ I thought to myself at that time, ‘Who’s coffee cup did I crap in to go to Minot, ND?” Mackey said.
Two months after getting to Minot in 1975, he realized that only the best really do come north. After going duck hunting for the first time with some airmen, he decided to call Minot home, and he’s been here ever since.
“Minot’s been wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people at the base and downtown. I guess I’m prejudiced. I think this place is wonderful,” Mackey said.
And ‘wonderful’ is what he’d call his time in the skies, too.
“99 percent of every military person you talk to feels the same way. They wouldn’t change it for nothing and usually always proud that they did it and that’s the way I feel too,” Mackey said.
He officially retired in 2009 and is a life member of the VFW and American Legion. He says he goes to his Thunderbird reunion every two years.