Vets recall roles in arrival of first C-5 to DAFB

Retired Air Force pilot Tom Dennis of Dover co-piloted the first C-5 into Dover Air Force Base in 1971. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

DOVER — A routine day for Tom Dennis involves an afternoon at Dover Downs watching the horses race, followed by playing trivia games with longtime friends and competitors at Tom’s Bullpen in Dover.

But the 86-year-old retired U.S. Air Force veteran had a far different view of normal when he co-piloted the first C-5 cargo aircraft into Dover Air Force Base on April 1, 1971.

While the massive C-5’s arrival to DAFB brought a lot of local attention, Mr. Dennis described it as just another day in the air, completing an assigned mission for his country.

The 12-member crew lifted off from the Lockheed Martin factory in Marietta, Georgia, and flew north toward Dover as ordered, he explained simply.

“We knew it was coming. It was just kind of another workday, and we didn’t think that much of it at the time. But after decades, it’s seen as kind of an event,” Mr. Dennis said from his home near Dover Air Force Base on Friday.

“We picked up the airplane after we checked everything, got it off the ground, came in here and parked it, and then went about our business.”

Joining Maj. Dennis on the crew were Maj. John Anderson; Lt. Cols. Albert Stebbins, Ray Shelton and Leslie Fels; Senior Master Sgts. Carl Homan Jr., Robert Valeski and James Bowling; Master Sgts. Charles Fluharty, Charles Hamilton and Willie Curtis; and Technical Sgt. Lester “Buddy” Finney.

Mr. Finney, an Arkansas native and 53-year Dover resident, served as a loadmaster on the first flight, though no cargo was aboard during the roughly 90-minute trip to DAFB. Eventually, he’d oversee safely loading, transporting and unloading an aircraft that could all at once carry as much as 220,000 pounds of cargo (the equivalent of six Greyhound buses, he said), along with up to 75 troops.

On Monday, Mr. Finney, 84, recalled being awestruck at the enormity of the aircraft. “It amazed me every time we got airborne, especially carrying more than 100 tons of cargo inside. With the size of the airplane, it was hard to imagine being in the air, let alone with the equipment that it carried.”

Thanks to his qualification as a C-141 pilot, Mr. Dennis was eligible to guide the C-5, which was fine with him.

“When I knew it was coming to Dover, that’s what I wanted to fly,” he said. “It was about double the size and capability of the C-141, and that just kind of appealed to me.”

Former Air Force pilot Tom Dennis of Dover (kneeling, third from left) with his crew after they landed the first C-5 at DAFB. (Submitted photo)

Mr. Dennis took a C-5 in and out of DAFB to Vietnam from 1971-75, recalling that “it was a huge new airplane and had a huge advantage over any other cargo plane because of its size.”

Eventually, Mr. Finney spent 6,200 hours in the air on the C-5, traveling to destinations including Moscow; Tehran, Iran; Turkey; Saudi Arabia; Tel Aviv, Israel; and regular stops at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

The C-5 was a work in progress and improvements were made to the engines and wings as it evolved, along with upgrades to a hydraulic kneeling system that lowered and raised the airplane, Mr. Finney said.

“I started out in it when it still had growing pains and needed modifications, and it ended up being a very reliable plane you could rely on to get the job done,” he said.

Compared to Mr. Dennis’ previous junkets, guiding a C-5 probably did seem quite uneventful and stress-free.

Flying a reconnaissance aircraft less than 1,000 feet aboveground near Da Nang, Vietnam, in May 1965, Mr. Dennis took a bullet to his right shin that tore off his flesh to the bone. He said he tapped his co-pilot on the shoulder and asked for a quick landing to treat the wound.

“He asked me if I wanted to go back to Da Nang, and I said, ‘No, you’d better drop me in where we just refueled and let them take care of me because you’ve got work to do. You’re busy,’” he said.

“So he flew right back in to where we had just refueled, and a couple of troops took me out of the airplane and took care of my leg to a point, and then, I had to be sent to the hospital. There was another Army airplane on the ground, so they put me onboard that and took me back to the hospital in Da Nang.”

The wound required months of treatment and ended his five-month tour of duty in the Vietnam War. It also brought a Purple Heart award for his sacrifice to the country.

There was no fear as the weapon fire from South Vietnamese rebels was aimed his way, he said.

“When you are in the middle of an activity like that, you don’t have time to be worried about it,” said Mr. Dennis, who also flew in a C-119 cargo aircraft during a 17-month stint in the Korean War.

“I had a lot of nights after I flew in Bien Hoa or wherever when I worried, but not ever at the time when I was in the middle of it.”

Lester “Buddy” Finney (right) was among the 12 crew members who flew the first C-5 from Marietta, Georgia, to Dover Air Force Base on April 1, 1971. Mr. Finney was also one of the crew members who received the Mackay Trophy for Meritious Flight of the Year when he was one of the loadmasters that took an electromagnet to Moscow in the middle of the Cold War in 1977. Here, he receives a certificate from Gen. Lew Allen at a ceremony at the Pentagon. (Submitted photo)

Mr. Finney flew during the Vietnam War, as well, but said he never experienced any “close calls” during combat. He added that the C-130s he was in would occasionally return to base with .50-caliber holes in the wings, but that was about it.

Survival allowed Mr. Dennis to return home to his high school sweetheart-turned-wife, JoAnn, and their five children and eventually to complete a 25-year, nine-day career in the Air Force that ended with retirement as a major in 1977. JoAnn passed away in 1981, but Mr. Dennis still experiences the joy resulting from their 27-year marriage through their five kids, 12 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

Mr. Finney retired as a senior master sergeant in 1984, ending a 28-year career in the Air Force that included a combined 4,300 hours airborne in C-130s and C-141s. He credited his late wife, Joyce, because “I couldn’t have made it through without her support because, while I was out flying, she was at home taking care of (our four kids).”

Mr. Dennis grows somber when thinking about those who didn’t make it home. To him, they are the ones who should be remembered the most on this Veterans Day.

“I’ve got five good friends over on the (Vietnam Veterans Memorial) wall in D.C., and I think of those guys. They were colleagues and friends, and they’re the ones that paid the rent. They paid the whole price,” he said.

“Why I was fortunate enough to survive I don’t know. There’s an irony to my wound because it might have saved my life.

“I was only five months into my tour, and if I didn’t take that wound, I had seven months more to fly in combat, and when you’re in combat, it’s totally random, and you don’t know when somebody is going to get killed or why even it just happens, you know.”

Mr. Finney also reflects on his military service and explains that “I’m proud to have served my country and get a lump in my throat when I think of veterans and everything they’ve done.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lester Finney is the father of staff writer Mike Finney.

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