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Robert Thacker, 102, Dies; Survived Pearl Harbor to Fly in 3 Wars

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A photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, Lt. Col. Robert Thacker beside his North American F-82B Twin Mustang at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force via The New York Times)

Robert Thacker, who found himself caught in the middle of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor when he was piloting an unarmed B-17 bomber to Hawaii for refueling, but managed to make a hair-raising landing and went on to a distinguished flying career in war and peace, died Nov. 25 at his home in San Clemente, California. He was 102.

Thacker’s daughter, Barbara Thacker, confirmed his death to The New York Times on Friday. She said she had not provided confirmation until last week to The San Clemente Times, which published an obituary Thursday.

Thacker, who arrived on the island of Oahu as Japanese warplanes devastated the U.S. naval base there, would soon be dropping bombs of his own. He flew some 80 missions during World War II, seeing action in both the Pacific and European theaters. He later became a record-setting test pilot and flew in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

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But it was on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, that he faced his first test in battle.

His plane was among a flight of newly built B-17s arriving from California en route to the Philippines. As he began his descent to the Army Air Corps’ Hickam Field, at first unaware of anything amiss, he was astonished to see bombers and fighters roaming the skies and black smoke rising from the U.S. base and adjoining military installations.

One of the fighters shot out the front landing gear of his Flying Fortress as he approached the runway. But he careened to a landing and led his crew to a swamp alongside the runway to escape the inferno.

In February 1947, about 18 months after Japan surrendered, he was back at Hickam Field, this time to make aviation history. Now a lieutenant colonel, he piloted a North American Aviation P-82 fighter plane on the first nonstop flight from Hawaii to New York City in what remains the longest nonstop flight, 5,051 miles, ever made by a propeller-driven fighter, according to the National Museum of the U.S. 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 missions to Japan. The fighter had two cockpits, one for the pilot and the other for the co-pilot/navigator, so they could take turns flying. But the war was over before the P-82 was combat ready.

Early in the Cold War, the P-82 was viewed by the Pentagon as a potential escort in the event bombers like the B-29 were called upon to attack the Soviet Union. The pioneering test flight by Thacker and his co-pilot, Lt. John Ard, provided evidence that the fighter could carry out such a mission.

During the 14 1/2-hour flight from Hickam, a mechanical glitch prevented the plane from jettisoning three empty fuel tanks, and the P-82 fought drag from the unwanted weight and strong headwinds. By the time it touched down, it had only enough fuel left for another 30 minutes of flight.

But Thacker handled his plane with aplomb. The P-82, named Betty Jo after his wife, landed at La Guardia Field in Queens shortly after 11 a.m. on Feb. 28, 1947, greeted by a host of reporters and news photographers and hundreds of onlookers.

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 front-page news.” The New York Times ran its own Page 1 article on the flight and an editorial hailing the Army Air Forces’ growing readiness for postwar combat. It viewed the flight as providing “further proof of how rapidly the globe is shrinking.”

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

When he was 8, his father, who owned a moving company, bought him a kit to build a twin-pusher model plane, a craft with two propellers that rides air currents with the aim of achieving maximum distance in competitions.

“I was hooked on aviation from that age on,” he recalled in the 2014 interview.

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

He flew World War II bombing missions out of New Guinea, Italy and England. He later joined the nation’s leading test pilots in experimental flights over California’s high desert at Muroc Army Air Field in California, later renamed Edwards Air Force Base.

In addition to flying B-17 Flying Fortresses in World War II, Thacker piloted Superfortresses in the Korean War and high-altitude missions in the Vietnam War.

The P-82 (renamed the F-82) flew combat missions in the Korean War, when it was given radar capability, but jet fighters soon rendered it obsolete.

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

He was later an adviser to the aviation industry and pursued his hobby of flying radio-controlled model planes.

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

Although the record-setting propeller fighter that Thacker flew has faded into obscurity, it has not been entirely forgotten.

That silver plane is on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, inscribed “Betty Jo” in red script.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

About the author

Erin Clark

Erin is a sports enthusiast who loves indulging in occasional football matches. She is a passionate journalist who flaunts a perfect hold over the English language. She currently caters her skills for the sports and health section of Report Door.

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