Dennis “Mike” Looney, 73, is a small-town boy, born and raised in Hamilton. He met his future wife in the first grade and graduated from Hamilton High School with students he’s known for years. What did he know of the larger world?
Maybe not much to begin with, but it wouldn’t take long before Looney got plenty of experience in the U.S. Air Force.
Looney decided to join the Air Force because he knew he was about to be drafted into the Army.
“I did not want to go to Vietnam and I knew that’s where they would send me,” he said.
The Air Force seemed the better alternative, and Looney left a job behind and went with five buddies to join the service together in March 1965. Basic training was held in Lackland Air Force Base, while advanced training in helicopter maintenance was at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls.
Looney’s first assignment was at Perrin AFB in Sherman. There, he was tasked with maintaining the Kaman HH 43 helicopter, a local-based rescue chopper that Looney repaired and often flew with, along with a med tech or flight surgeon. It was harrowing, to say the least.
One of Looney’s first assignments was to work the scene of a crash where everyone died. A CH-37 crashed in Billings, Montana, killing all three on board. “They were all burned and dead,” he said. “It wasn’t good. But when the adrenaline is flowing, you could do it.”
It was only afterward, when he was back on base and had time to think that it hit him. He literally threw up, it made him so sick. “Nearly all (total incidents) are that way. “Once it’s over, then it gets to me. You wonder how you can do it,” he said.
Looney married local gal Billie Bottlinger in September 1965. In November 1967, he was sent to Thailand, flying out of Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base into northern Vietnam on rescue missions. At times, they would escort fighter jets and “orbit” around the area to aid in a quick rescue should one go down.
Among his many assignments, Looney once cut loose a guy who was tangled in a tree and had broken his neck after ejecting from an F-4. Thanks to Looney and crew, the man made it out alive.
In September 1968, Looney and company were featured in National Geographic magazine, where there is a picture of him and the team at work.
On that same assignment, Looney almost was bitten by a cobra when he jumped out of the ’copter and landed with the snake between his legs. He was so startled that he jumped backward into the helicopter to get away from the snake.
He took some R&R with his wife in Hawaii in the middle of his time in Thailand. His wife flew for the first time ever to meet him there.
Another time, they were tasked with picking up a guy who was bitten by a cobra. They never made it to the man, as the pilot was flying through nighttime smoke and fires, and developed vertigo. The plane nearly crashed and they had to turn back.
By November 1968, Looney was back in the States and attending sea survival school in Homestead, Florida. In January 1969, Nixon became president and Looney was assigned to unload bags from Air Force One and take them to the president’s other residence at Biscayne Bay. They were stationed there until the Marines could take over.
Looney then got notified he would return to Southeast Asia, but with his wife pregnant, he was able to stay in Florida for another nine months. He went to Webb AFB in Big Springs, Texas, in October 1970. He worked with a local base rescue, but it was uneventful, he said.
In April 1972, one of his most exciting assignments would come in Osan, South Korea. Calling it otherwise uneventful, the HH-43 Pedro crew took part in a massive rescue. Four helicopters with crew that included Looney plucked residents from the flooded Chinwi-Chon River who were clinging to rooftops, trees and more.
Looney himself pulled seven people off a haystack that disintegrated as the last survivor was rescued. In all, he made 94 hoist pickups and one dog that a woman was clinging to when she was pulled into the helicopter.
In all, the four helicopters picked up 763 people in 30 hours.
Looney was again featured in a write-up on the event in a trade article, Kaman Rotor Tips magazine, that listed some of the feats of the helicopter crews during the rescues.
It was not the end of Looney’s work with the military. He still many years left to serve.
Next week: Looney rises in rank over his years in the Air Force and grows a family. He eventually goes to work for General Electric after he retires from the service.