Mandatory retirement to end pilot's 42-year career

March 14, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

Just over a week ago, Col. Vernon A. Sevier was airlifting food and relief supplies from Mombasa, Kenya, to dusty little airstrips deep inside Somalia on the horn of East Africa.

On Thanksgiving, the Towson resident was on the opposite side of the continent, flying volunteer relief missions from Spain to Monrovia, Liberia, trying to ease the pain of that nation's bitter civil war.

In just over three weeks, however, it will all be over -- a 42-year military career will have come to a screeching halt. The regulations have decreed mandatory retirement at 60.

"I haven't prepared for this retirement properly," said the commander of the Maryland Air National Guard's 135th Airlift Group. "In a couple of weeks, though, it will hit me."

Colonel Sevier has been flying since 1956, the last three years as commander of the 135th, a 900-member unit based at Martin State Airport. He was deputy commander for two years before that. He says he's not ready for the easy chair.

"This retirement at 60 bugs me," he said. "I'm a physical fitness nut and I exercise at least one hour every day. I'm in good shape. I'm here six, sometimes seven, days a week, on the move all the time. And then it will all stop at midnight on the 31st."

Colonel Sevier conceded that regulations will prevail -- but they may not keep him on the ground. He has been circulating his resume to commuter and charter-flight companies and to corporations that have company planes, looking for someone who can use a pilot with nearly 11,000 flying hours.

"I'm going to go crazy if I can't fly."

After graduation from the University of Maryland in 1955, Colonel Sevier took pilot training and served on active duty until 1958, flying with the Strategic Air Command.

He joined the Air National Guard after leaving active duty. He served until 1976 as a traditional guardsman, a weekend warrior, while working as professional director of the Baltimore and Washington YMCA branches.

When the chance for a full-time Guard position appeared, he grabbed it, "and I've been here ever since," he said. In 1979, Colonel Sevier earned a doctorate from the University of Maryland in physical education and guidance counseling.

Colonel Sevier is proud of the unit's workhorse C-130 transports, calling them "the best deal the government ever made."

But, he added, "The planes are just the vehicles we use. It is the people who make it all go. What a conglomeration of jobs they represent, and they put in all that extra time here for the Air Guard."

Unlike the regular military, with personnel constantly transferring from post to post, the Guard becomes almost like family, Colonel Sevier said, because people remain in it for years. For example, he has been flying for more than 20 years with Col. David A. Beasley of Pasadena, his successor as group commander.

Even though National Guard service is only part time for most members, the group's huge four-engine C-130 transport planes have operated all over the world, on training and real-life missions.

They were based in Germany during Operation Desert Storm to backstop regular Air Force crews flying supplies to the Persian Gulf.

Crews from the 135th spent more than a month last fall flying relief supplies from Kenya to Somalia along with the British and West German Air Forces before American ground troops entered the country.

While his crews went to Somalia, Colonel Sevier said he couldn't go along "because they didn't need another bird colonel in Nairobi." The commanders, he said, did not want senior officers flying the missions.

So he volunteered instead for the Spanish Logistical Mission, a similaroperation that flies between American bases in Spain and hauls relief supplies into West Africa, to Liberia and Senegal.

Early this year, however, someone decided that another colonel could be useful in the Somalia operation and Colonel Sevier was invited on a tour as deputy director of mobility forces for Operation Provide Relief, based in Mombasa.

The 39-day mission held a very pleasant surprise.

"I thought it was going to be a desk job in the command post," he said, "but my boss felt the two of us should get out and fly every three days, to see what these unprepared airstrips were like."

Colonel Sevier flew a dozen missions from Kenya to various places in Somalia, hauling food to civilian relief agencies. He had high praise for the relief workers as "civilians risking their butts" in a volatile and dangerous part of the world.

Colonel Sevier will have one last hurrah before he finally relinquishes his command.

A C-130 unit from Britain's Royal Air Force will fly into the Martin State Airport Tuesday for an eight-day joint training exercise.

These missions may be simulations, "but there is going to be some real serious tactical flying," and Colonel Sevier said he intends to be in on every minute of it.

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