Un­der the radar no more

U.S. Air Force honors Nor­walk vet­eran as low-fly­ing pi­o­neer

The Norwalk Hour - - FRONT PAGE - By Robert Koch

NOR­WALK — As an Air Force pi­lot par­tic­i­pat­ing in war games out­side Las Ve­gas nearly 40 years ago, Howard W. Dixon ma­neu­vered a C-130 cargo plane through canyons, moun­tains and above the desert floor to evade “en­emy” fighter planes.

At the time, pi­lots were pro­hib­ited from fly­ing lower than 500 feet. That didn’t help in avoid­ing en­emy fight­ers or radar.

“The lower you are, the more dif­fi­cult it is to see the air­plane,” said Dixon, who now lives in Nor­walk. “The lower you can go, from our per­spec­tive, the bet­ter, so they fi­nally al­lowed us to go to 300 feet and be­fore I left we had done some work at 100 feet.”

In 1981, Dixon en­vi­sioned a school that would teach such lowlevel fly­ing skills. He pre­sented his idea to the U.S. Depart­ment of De­fense at the Pen­tagon, where it re­ceived sup­port. Two years later, the Ad­vanced Air­lift Tac­tics Tech­ni­cal Cen­ter (AATTC) opened at Rose­crans Air Na­tional Guard Base in St. Joseph, Mo. Dixon was named its first com­man­der.

On Nov. 3, he and his wife, Irene, re­turned to St. Joseph for the school’s 35th an­niver­sary. The school now en­rolls 700 stu­dents an­nu­ally from the Air Force, Marine Corps and other branches as well as pi­lots from 18 al­lied na­tions. Its pro­grams have been ex­panded from ad­vanced air­crew and tac­ti­cal fly­ing to mu­ni­tions-load­ing and so­phis­ti­cated in­tel­li­gence cour­ses, ac­cord­ing to a sum­mary of the an­niver­sary event.

Col. By­ron Newell, cur­rent AATTC com­man­dant, said the fly­ing school is some­times re­ferred to as “Howard Dixon Univer­sity.”

“Howard was the first com­man­der and he was the driv­ing force,” said Newell, be­fore ex­plain­ing the im­por­tance of the train­ing. “The low-level fly­ing is im­por­tant be­cause our job in C-130s was to de­liv­ery sup­plies to troops on the ground, and if you’re in a con­tested en­vi­ron­ment where peo­ple are shooting at you, the lower you fly the safer you can be. The lower you fly, the more you can use ter­rain for mask­ing.”

Start­ing in 2019, the AATTC will present The Dixon Award an­nu­ally to an in­di­vid­ual or group of in­di­vid­u­als who demon­strate the in­no­va­tive, for­ward think­ing by taking risks, ac­cord­ing to the sum­mary of the an­niver­sary event.

Dixon’s road to the Air Force be­gan at home. He was born in San An­gelo, Texas, dur­ing World War II. His fa­ther was an Air Force flight engi­neer who flew B-29 bombers dur­ing World War II and the Korean War, and KC-97 trans­ports dur­ing the Viet­nam War.

The younger Dixon spent his early years in Tampa, Fla., where his fa­ther was sta­tioned at MacDill Air Force Base, and later Bossier City, La., af­ter his fa­ther was trans­ferred to Barks­dale Air­force Base. Af­ter col­lege, Dixon worked as a mid­dle school teacher be­fore join­ing the Air Force in 1966.

Dixon at­tended pi­lot train­ing at Webb Air Force Base in Big Spring, Texas. His first as­sign­ment was as an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer, and later safety of­fi­cer, fly­ing train­ing in­struc­tor and di­rec­tor of op­er­a­tions, ac­cord­ing to his bi­og­ra­phy.

At the time, the Viet­nam War was un­der way, and Dixon came close to be­ing sent to South­east Asia.

“I ac­tu­ally grad­u­ated in 1969 from pi­lot train­ing, and the last air­plane from our unit went to Viet­nam just was I was walk­ing in the front door,” Dixon said. “Viet­nam was still go­ing on but they sent our unit to Europe in­stead.”

Dixon re­tired from the Air Force as a lieu­tenant colonel in 1988 and went on to pi­lot Boe­ing 747s to Europe, Africa and other des­ti­na­tions for var­i­ous com­mer­cial air­lines. While those jour­neys took him 35,000 feet above the earth, some of his fond­est mem­o­ries are of fly­ing close to the ground at Rose­crans Air Na­tional Guard Base in Mis­souri.

“It’s a fan­tas­tic feel­ing to go back and watch what they’re do­ing to­day,” Dixon said of re­turn­ing to the fly­ing school for its 35th an­niver­sary. “The award re­ally got to me.”

Robert Koch / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Air Force Lt. Col. Howard W. Dixon holds the cur­ricu­lum cat­a­log for the Ad­vanced Air­lift Tac­tics Tech­ni­cal Cen­ter, which he founded, and his ser­vice photo.

Con­trib­uted photo

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Howard W. Dixon, cen­ter, poses with Com­man­der Col. By­ron Newell and Vice Com­man­der Col. Deanna Franks at a re­cent Ad­vanced Air­lift Tac­tics Tech­ni­cal Cen­ter re­union.

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