Eugene Deatrick has flown more than 50 types of aircraft and logged more than 12,000 flying hours in a lifetime devoted to aviation. Born in 1924 in Morgantown, West Virginia, Deatrick graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1942. He entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, and graduated in 1946. He was a member of the last class to complete flying training as a cadet and graduated with pilot wings. He entered the United States Army Air Force and then trained in the North American B-25 Mitchell. Deatrick flew the Boeing B-29 Superfortress from Florida and then went to the 10th Air Rescue Squadron in Alaska. He flew the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Stinson L-5 Sentinel, and the Consolidated OA-10 Catalina.
After a short assignment at Warner Robins AFB, Georgia, he moved to Eglin AFB, Florida, as an engineering test pilot. There he first flew a jet, the Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star. In 1951, he went to the newly created USAF Test Pilot School and graduated in the first class to train at Edwards AFB, California. After serving as aide to the Commander of Air Research and Development Command, Deatrick did test work at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio. He was certified as an instructor in 14 different aircraft and often flew with Major General Howell Estes, Jr. In 1957, he became Estes' executive officer and moved with the general to assignments in Washington, D.C., California, Maryland, and Illinois. Deatrick volunteered for duty in Southeast Asia. In 1966, he took charge of the 1st Air Commando Squadron and flew the Douglas A-1 Skyraider.
On 20 July, he was on a familiarization flight over Laos. As he banked around a river bend, he spotted a man waving a white cloth. Deatrick called for rescue helicopters and they hoisted a young navy pilot to safety. Deatrick flew 402 combat missions from Pleiku AB and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross twice, along with 22 Air Medals and the Bronze Star with "V" for valor. After combat duty, he returned to Edwards AFB as Commandant, Aerospace Research Pilots School. Next, he attended the National War College in Washington, D.C. and, in 1969, reported to J-3 (Operations) of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In 1972, he became Director of Test, Air Force Systems Command, Andrews AFB, Maryland. Colonel Deatrick retired from the USAF in 1974 and joined Science Applications for two years. He headed Sierra Research Corporation's office in Washington, D.C., until the mid-1980s, when he became a private consultant. He has served as President, National Aviation Club, and, in 1999, received the organization's Cliff Henderson Award for Aviation Achievement. Today, Deatrick and his wife, Zane, live in northern Virginia.
For most veterans of the war in Southeast Asia, 20 July 1966 was just another day in America's longest war; for two Douglas A-1 "Spad" pilots, it was a day that their lives intersected in a miraculous series of circumstances. For Dieter Dengler, a young Navy lieutenant, five months of imprisonment followed by three weeks evading in the jungles of Laos ended. For Gene Deatrick, a veteran Air Force lieutenant colonel, it was another day in his command of an A-1squadron in South Vietnam. Dengler crawled through the dense jungle near the end of his endurance, then, tumbled into a shallow river. Struggling to stay afloat, he found the strength to climb onto a large flat rock. He heard a rumbling noise-it was a plane! Deatrick was in a banking turn when he saw a flash of white below. He went back for another look and saw the form of a man. His wingman urged him to forget it, but Deatrick summoned rescue helicopters. The lead "Jolly Green" lowered a tree-penetrator 200 feet into a narrow canyon. Dengler, weak and confused, fumbled with the device and then finally climbed onto it and was hoisted to safety!