Russ Rickard, a resident at The Lantern at Morning Pointe Clinton, was born in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, on June 9, 1933.
His father ran the family’s dairy farm business, and although Russ grew up during the Great Depression, he had the sense of being blessed.
“I learned how to work if I wanted to buy something,” Russ said. “I was mechanical, so I worked in the shop at the school.”
Russ also developed a love of flying early on. One of his uncles, who also made ice cream for the family business, had a Piper Cub and was a flight instructor.
“He took me up in the plane and asked me if I wanted to learn,” Russ shared. “He said, ‘I’ll tell you what – you put the gas in it, and I’ll teach you how to fly.’”
Russ took him up on the offer and learned to fly. He served in the Civil Air Patrol and assisted with search and rescue missions.
Entering the Service
He also knew that with the Korean War going on, he was likely to be drafted. He set about learning as much as he could about not only flying airplanes but also fixing them, becoming certified in rebuilding engines as an aircraft engine mechanic. When it was about time for his draft to come up, he enlisted in the Air Force. With his familiarity with aviation, mechanics and jargon, he had an edge; even though he started at the bottom, he worked his way up fairly quickly.
Russ was assigned to a unit and transferred to Williams Air Force Base near Chandler, Arizona, for 18 months of advanced training. The instructors decided that he was an appropriate candidate to fly fighter jets, and so began his Air Force experience as a fighter pilot.
When Russ completed his training, his parents crossed the country for his lieutenant wing pinning ceremony, and they brought a guest with him – his girlfriend, Mary Anne. While Russ’s parents went on to tour California after the graduation ceremony, Russ and Mary Ann decided to visit Las Vegas, and there they got married.
Russ continued advanced training and served at multiple Air Force Bases out west. During that time, he was privileged to ferry the first squadron of F-102s from San Diego to Palmdale, California.
One of his most dangerous assignments, however, was his year in Thule Air Force Base above the Artic Circle in Greenland. Russ was part of the Strategic Air Command’s defense during the Cold War. Russ and his team were to keep watch for any incoming missiles from the USSR… or any unknown objects.
“It was a very hostile environment,” Russ said. “You had to go through Arctic Survival before you were stationed there. Two pilots would go out at a time – one to investigate and the other to hang back to shoot the object down if necessary. I found a lot of interesting things but never had to shoot anything down.”
One highlight while Russ was in Greenland, though, was going hunting with the Inuit people. He took a Polaroid photo of an Inuit family and presented it to the mother, who had never seen a picture of herself before.
After his year in the cold, Russ was reassigned to Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base in Missouri and then to Germany for four years.
In 1969, Russ went to Vietnam, serving until 1970. He was a forward air controller, and his job was to mark targets with smoke for the fighter bombers to attack. He did a lot of reconnaissance as part of the 19th Tactical Operations Unit, sometimes discovering troop movements.
One day early in his time in Vietnam, Russ was awoken early in the morning by an alarm that the enemy had broken through the perimeter. He and his fellow pilot flew out, and Russ shot enough to get the enemy off the fence and called for a gun ship. Quite a few escaped, however, trying to get to Cambodia. When the two men were out doing a scheduled sweep that afternoon, they found the remnant of the enemy group, nestled down into the rice paddies in underground hideaways called spider holes. The soldiers would pop out and shoot at the American forces, then duck back underground where gunfire wouldn’t reach them.
“I was scared to death,” Russ said of the experience.
Russ found a way to reach the enemy forces underground and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions.
Russ returned to the States and his family for a year and taught new pilots. Then, from 1971-1972, he went back to serve in Vietnam a second time. This tour, he was the chief of standards and evaluation.
“Part of my job was to identify future leaders,” Russ shared.
Sometimes, recognizing leadership traits was easy, and other times Russ would have to test the pilots out to see how they responded to different situations.
Russ’s dedication was noticed. He was selected to go to higher headquarters, but he turned down the opportunity because he was working on manuals and didn’t want to leave the project incomplete.
Beyond Air Force Service
After 20 years with the Air Force, Russ discharged as a lieutenant colonel. He got a job with FedEx flying cargo.
The military was in Russ’s blood, however, and he eventually joined the U.S. Coast Guard auxiliary as a boat safety inspector. He took his same love of efficiency and improved the inspection process for the Coast Guard. When he started, one boat would be inspected, and then the inspection team would go find the next boat. With his reorganizing, the boats queued up so the inspectors wouldn’t have to waste time. Russ earned a medal and commendation from the president of the United States for improving this process and allowing the Coast Guard to do twice as many inspections in the same amount of time.
Russ’s exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam eventually led to his developing cancer, although he became a trial patient for a new treatment that has put the cancer in remission.
About a year ago, Russ and Mary Anne moved into The Lantern at Morning Pointe Clinton in East Tennessee.
“The reputation of this facility is beyond reproach,” Russ said. “I have been able to do therapy here, and I went from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane to no assistive device.”
Russ is still looking for ways to improve his world and started a music program at The Lantern that benefits not only him but the other residents as well.
Russ’s family not only includes Mary Anne now but also his stepdaughter and their two sons.
In October 2022, Russ and his family took a trip to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. There, Russ got to see the same OV-10 Bronco plane that he flew in Vietnam. It was a trip to remember!
“I like to do things for people,” Russ said. “I am proud of my family, my friends and being able to serve my country.”