If you were to ask children what they wanted to be when they grow up, “pilot” might be on many lists. But, as time passes, most change their minds before they leave high school and pursue something else. Then there are others who, from an early age, know exactly what they want and set about achieving it.
That’s what Lorena resident and retired Air Force Maj. Harv Peterson, 73, did with his military career.
The desire started when he used to watch crop dusters flying. Born and raised in Northwood, North Dakota, Peterson planned for his future as a pilot. He attended high school at Northwest School of Agriculture in Crookston, Minnesota, where he lived about six months every year between the planting/harvesting seasons.
Peterson graduated in 1961 and attended the University of North Dakota with an eye to getting his bachelor’s degree to get a commissioned spot in the Air Force. While there, he joined the university’s aero club and learned to fly.
By the time Peterson graduated with a bachelor’s degree in industrial arts, “I was qualified to fly airplanes, but unqualified for the Air Force,” he said. “I had to get the brainwashing and a much more serious level of training.”
And that he got. “Pilot training was called the year of 53 weeks,” Peterson said. From early June 1966 to late June 1967, he trained on the T-41 and the T-37 at Williams Air Force Base in Arizona, with advanced training on the T-38, a twin-engine, two-seater, supersonic trainer (a plane which goes faster than the speed of sound).
Once he completed basic and advanced training, Peterson went to T-37 instructor pilot training school at Perrin AFB in Texas, followed by four years of teaching undergraduate pilot training at Vance AFB in Oklahoma.
It was during the buildup of Vietnam and pilots were sorely needed. The Air Force would accept just about anyone who could safely get in and out of a plane, Peterson said. “There were a couple that were really questionable,” he said, and there were a couple who died in Vietnam due to pilot error.
By the time his turn came to serve in Vietnam, Peterson was ready. He had already received training on his choice of plane, the C-130 cargo and troop carrier, also known as “Hercules.”
Based in Ching Chuan Kang Air Base, a Republic of China Air Force base in Taiwan, Peterson served with the 39th Tactical Airlift Squadron, 317th Tactical Airlift Wing wherever he was needed. He would deploy for two weeks at time, hauling everything from troops and equipment to North Vietnamese prisoners and even deceased American troops — one of the hardest of his assignments and something he doesn’t like to talk about.
During his 13-month Southeast Asia deployment in 1972-73, Peterson took some hits in his plane when he dropped troops at various landing zones or served on fighting missions. The tracers he saw coming at him during night flying were particularly frightening, but he didn’t have time to be scared.
Doing what's needed to be done
“It didn’t do any good to be frightened. You do what you’ve got to do,” he said.
Peterson would go on to serve 14 more years in the Air Force, including four years at Randolph AFB in San Antonio, where he was an “instructor’s instructor” for the T-37; three more years there in a non-flying job as a field training detachment commander; and his remaining seven years at Pope AFB in North Carolina, from which he retired in 1987.
During that time, he service took him throughout the world. He was part of the rescue mission of (mostly) American medical students in Grenada in 1983. “It felt good,” he said. “One woman said, ‘I thank you with my life.’ ” It’s one of the better memories of his service. All told, Peterson served 21 years with the Air Force, amassing some 7,000 flight hours.
He went on to work for a cargo plane company, but didn’t care for the night flying. For about three years, he worked as a pilot and flight engineer refresher trainer, but he got a call from an old squadron commander inviting him to come to Waco, Texas to fly with what originally was Chrysler Technologies Airborne Systems; the company changed ownership several times until he retired in 2006. (Today, L3 is located there).
While serving in Athens, Greece, Peterson met his future wife, who worked as a civilian for the Air Force. He and Georgia Jenkins married in April 1990 and have been together 27 years.
Peterson still lives with the memories of Vietnam. “I’m okay when I’m not talking about it,” he said, but when he does, “it all starts coming back,” and it can be rough going.
“I was very fortunate. Some of my good buddies didn’t make it back.”