Veterans Day in the United States is a time where we as a country pause to remember those who have served in the armed forces. There are many of us in the aviation enthusiast community who got into the hobby because of their service in, or interaction with, the military. I’d like to share with you the story of a remarkable man who was an accomplished military and civilian aviator; United States Air Force Colonel Edward B. Sleeper (Ret.).
I’ll spare you the long story about how I came to meet Ed and be involved in his exploits, and just tell you a bit about him. I’ll throw in a few of the exploits as a bonus. He would’ve wanted it that way.
Ed entered Air Force aviation cadet training in 1956, graduating as a navigator. He saw service in this role in the B-66 and B-52. He eventually entered pilot training in 1964, and was assigned to the C-130. He flew several combat missions in Vietnam. Later assignments placed him around the world in numerous positions and during all of this, he helped raise a family and completed a masters degree.
After his 32-year U.S.A.F. career, Ed worked for General Dynamics in Brussels and Finland before eventually returning to the family home at South Thomaston, Maine. He was active in the local Republican party, Rotary, and the Flying Club. He also flew for Penobscot Island Air and was a flight instructor. He even maintained a security clearance and often flew for government agencies as needed.
Most of the time when we flew together, Ed wore his signature sage green pilot’s jacket. It had “been around the world” with him and it had the marks to prove it. It also proudly wore the patches of a storied career. One unique patch was the “Blind Bat” patch. Blind Bat was an operation in Vietnam where parachute flares were dropped over the Ho Chi Minh Trail to illuminate night movements.
Suffic e it to say, his jacket alone was enough to make any aspiring pilot-type kid starry eyed. On top of that, he was just a great guy. I got roped into many of his off-airport operations. He needed to clean out a barn once, I don’t even remember why, but I was the muscle. At the end of the day we had an empty barn and a very overloaded pickup truck. He said we looked like a bunch of “Oakies.” I’ll admit, I had to look it up.
Ed also taught me the value of sneaking off during one’s assigned duties to take pleasure in the finer things in life — like ice cream. We often left the airport to head to Dairy Queen mid-project. One day we snuck off to St. Stephen, New Brunswick for lunch and I’ll never forget that day. We ate at a questionable Chinese restaurant while Ed told stories about the food he ate “During The Big War.”
Ed spoke often of his Air Force career and of Vietnam, but never negative things. He would just joke and call it “The Big War” and tie it back into some great flying story. The only decoration he ever told me about were the “Zaire Jump Wings”, an opportunity he just couldn’t turn down. Only in death would I learn about his Distinguished Flying Cross, the truth about his time at the 817th TAS during the Blind Bat missions, and his bravery.
There are many stories bouncing around in my head as I write this, but I can never seem to get them to come out on paper the way I’d like. I’m sure it’s that way with a lot of things in life. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
We lost Ed in April of 2004 shortly after he was diagnosed with Leukemia. I had just finished my initial law enforcement training and had been a little out of touch due to being so busy. I had put aviation on hold as the events of September 11, 2001 had helped dampen many of my generation’s airline career aspirations. In short, Ed’s death caught me off guard.
I made the two-hour ride home for his service and sat politely in the rear. I don’t know why, but at the time, it wasn’t that upsetting. Maybe it’s because I was young, maybe I was too self absorbed. What I do know is that as the years wear on, his advice rings more clearly in my ears and I find that I miss him more now that I’m older.
The biggest lesson I learned from my friendship with Ed was to surround yourself with people who share a passion for the things that you do. And to joke. And tell stories. And help others.
Hug your veteran friends today, folks; their service helped make them the person you love and, at least in my case, he made me a better person.