A Nebraska man's Air Force career took him all over the world, with a world-class passenger list that included show business stars and a future president.
Gerry Pritchard's office inside his suburban Bellevue home is filled with mementos of a 30-year military career; plaques, medals and pictures. The sort of things you'd expect a retired Air Force pilot to have around. But then Pritchard starts pointing out the unexpected.
"That's the airplane that I flew Johnny Cash and his group around Japan in 1962 for 10 days," Pritchard said, holding a small plastic model of an Air Force C-47, the passenger plane he used to fly the country music legend around Japan during a USO tour.
Pritchard never thought he'd meet Cash and an eclectic list of others (entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., actor Raymond Burr, Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos, and Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz) when he joined the Air Force in the early 1950s. He was a farm kid from Spalding, Neb., a fresh University of Nebraska graduate with his draft notice in hand, riding a cattle train to Omaha to enlist. Pritchard would end up a pilot in the Special Air Missions Squadron, a unit assigned to fly military and civilian VIPs. One of his first assignments was central Texas, where his duties included flying then vice president Lyndon Johnson in and out of his ranch.
"He was a brusque kind of a guy. And that’s being nice," Pritchard recalled. "He wore that cowboy hat, that Stetson cocked on the side of his head, and he was demanding. Boy, he kept us on our toes. Man oh man, he was something else."
Pritchard flew Johnson in a two propeller, commercial airline-like plane that he called "plushed-up" with crew that included a steward. To pick up or drop off the vice president, Pritchard would taxi around a windmill and through white corrals of Hereford cattle to within 50 feet of Johnson's ranch house. Pritchard says Johnson rarely talked with the pilot and crew, unless he wasn't happy with something, such as the time Johnson discovered something missing shortly after takeoff.
"Pretty soon, the flight steward comes up and says, 'Captain Pritchard, the old man is really mad. He’s really angry. I forgot to put Jack Daniels on board the airplane,'" Pritchard remembered. "So poor old Lyndon, he had to come up and chew me out. When we landed he said, 'Don’t you ever fly this airplane again without Jack Daniels on board. Yes sir, I can assure you, I will never do that again.' And I never did."
There was a time when Johnson had the plane change destinations three times while it was airborne; times when Johnson would have the plane in a holding pattern over Washington D.C. until he finished his standard breakfast of Canadian bacon and two eggs over easy; and a time when he was awakened against his wishes to greet local dignitaries during a middle-of-the-night refueling stop in Tennessee.
"He’d just grumble and he’d call you by last name and he’d say, 'Pritchard, you’re fired,'" Pritchard recalled. "But the worse he could have done was send a letter back to the squadron because they (took pride) in all these special air missions. But he never did. He never sent any letters ever back. He just was that kind of person. He’d blow off all that steam and take out his wrath and then he’d forget about it."
But there were moments that showed a kinder side of the sometimes prickly Texan. One Thanksgiving Johnson invited Pritchard and crew inside his house for a turkey dinner. And back in his office, Pritchard is looking at a letter he did receive from Johnson, thanking the pilot for flying the president of Germany to the ranch. What you won't find in the office are pictures of Pritchard with the vice president, who was always in too much of a rush to stop and pose with the crew.
You will find a photo Pritchard treasures. In the framed black and white picture that sits in the office, nine people stand on a damp runway in front of the tail of a plane. This includes Pritchard, Cash, his band, and future wife June Carter, posing at the end of a 10-day USO tour. They're in Japan, Pritchard's assignment after Texas. He'd fly other entertainers during this assignment, but none he liked more than Cash.
"A great man. I loved Johnny Cash," Pritchard said. "He was friendly. He was easy to talk to. His songs told all those stories, starting out in the cotton fields in Arkansas. He’d retell those stories. He liked to do that. And I don’t know how he’d get started on it, but we’d be sitting around after a show or before a show and I was always there for the show."
As a thank you gift, Cash gave Pritchard the model of the C-47 they flew in during Japan. Pritchard reunited with the musician years later after a concert in Michigan, and the two exchanged Christmas cards until Cash's death in 2003. Pritchard himself retired in 1981 after 7000 hours of flight time and a lifetime of memories.
"I love history. I am a historian. I love history. I have from high school age," Pritchard said. "So those kinds of things were significant when I found out I was assigned to that kind of outfit and who I was flying, I thought man, here this little old country boy from up here at Spalding, he’s flying the vice president of the United States and a whole bunch of other people."
For Pritchard, it was "a marvelous, marvelous assignment."
Editor's note: This Signature Story is part of our "Best of 2012" series of reports, airing Dec. 24 to Dec. 28, 2012 on NET Radio, looking back at some of the most memorable Signature Stories from NET News throughout the year. It originally aired Jan. 19.