Passion for flying took Roberts to world hotspots

Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Maj. Keith Roberts, USAF ret., and his father, Dr. John B. Roberts, attended a ceremony at the Pentagon when Maj. Roberts was awarded the Mackay Trophy.

On Aug. 7, Maj. Keith Roberts is scheduled to receive the Missouri Veterans Recognition Medal at a ceremony at the Missouri Army National Guard in Kansas City. The recognition will be one of a number of highlights spanning his 20-year military career.

From 1960 to 1980, Ro-berts, now retired from the U.S. Air Force, got to see the world. Born in southwest Missouri, he grew up in an area where hunting and fishing and tramping around in the woods and creeks would one day help him in part of his job -- rescuing downed pilots in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam.

After two years of college at Southwest Missouri State College at Springfield, Roberts volunteered in 1959 for the Air Force via the Aviation Cadet Pilot Training Program but failed an induction physical because of nasal obstruction. He underwent reconstructive surgery and subsequently was inducted into the Air Force in April 1960.

Finding the pilot quota filled, he agreed to attend the Aviation Cadet Navigation Training Program. Roberts graduated and received his commission as a second lieutenant with the wings of a navigator. Roberts was based at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and flew as a navigator on transport planes like the C-124 Globemaster, often called "Old Shaky" and the C-141 Starlifter on many international flights. After being turned down twice from pilot training, Roberts sought the assistance of Senator Stuart Symington. The result?--Roberts was accepted for the USAF Pilot Training Program.

Roberts graduated from the pilot training with the class of 1967-H.

Roberts was assigned combat duty in Vietnam where he flew the OV-10A, a multi-mission aircraft designed for reconnaissance, rescue and its ability to attack and destroy enemy ground units. The OV-10A was armed with 32 high- explosive rockets and 32 white phosphorous-marking rockets and four 7.62mm machine guns.

Prior to going to Vietnam, Roberts went to the USAF Survival School in the Philippines. He learned that many plants have water, most snakes aren't poisonous and rats are more dangerous as they bite humans whether or not they are hungry.

Roberts' job as a "Forward Air Controller" (FAC) was a critically important job as combat aircraft were required to be directed by a FAC to the target they were to destroy. Roberts flew to little-known tongue-twister places like Nonkomphonam, Utapow, Thailand and Plaiku and Quan Tri, SVN. He flew night reconnaissance (spying) missions over Ho Chi Minh Trail, directing combat pilots to targets.

Roberts' first combat damage caused his engine to "flame out," but he was able to restart the engine and return to base. He was advised by the ground crew that his aircraft had 19 hostile hits including his ejection seat parachute.

Had Roberts ejected, he certainly would have perished with a damaged chute that was not able to deploy.

Roberts' combat job entailed "marking the target to be destroyed" with a phosphorus rocket, which then was targeted by a laser beam that a "smart bomb" then followed to the target.

The enemy gunners manning the anti-aircraft guns had only 19 seconds to get away from the anti-aircraft gun before it was destroyed by the smart bomb.

Roberts was then deployed to fly dangerous combat and intelligence gathering missions over Laos, a country where the North Vietnamese soldiers were known for not taking flyers as prisoners who were shot down in Laos.

One of Roberts' last combat duties in Vietnam was an assignment to QuamTri, Vietnam.

He was sent on "gun killer" mission to destroy enemy anti-aircraft guns that were shooting down Roberts' Air Force comrades.

North Vietnam deployed Russian T-72 tanks for the first time. Seventeen of the 32 Russian-made tanks were destroyed by Roberts and his comrades.

On May 1, 1971, with 179 combat missions completed, Roberts returned to the United States. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and 17 air medals.

Roberts was sent to Japan and then relocated to Hawaii where he became an Air Force liaison officer with the Army's 25th Infantry Division.

While stationed in Hawaii, Roberts attended night school at Chaminade University, receiving an undergraduate degree in political science.

Roberts returned to Dover AFB, Delaware where he was again assigned duty flying the C-5A Galaxy.

During this time, he piloted a mission, flying the French Foreign Legion to Zaire, near South Africa, to put down a rebellion. The crew and Roberts received the prestigious MacKay Trophy for this action.

In 1971, Roberts was called to fly a risky assignment to Tehran, Iran, a time of the Iranian Revolution. Embassy dependents (women and children) were awaiting evacuation.

Even though the airport was closed, Roberts ignored Iranian orders not to land and picked up the American women and children, flying them to safety. He received the Air Force Humanitarian Award for this action.

In 1980, after 20 years of service, Roberts, with many earth-shaking experiences behind him, hung up his military flying suit and retired from the United States Air Force.

Roberts and his wife, Margaret, later owned and operated a fleet of five planes doing aerial advertisement. They are quite proud of the fact they flew over 10,000 corporate flying hours without accident or incident.

Roberts had his own plane hangered at Higginsville until illness required that he quit flying. In November 2010, Ro-berts will be cancer-free five years and intends to reapply for his medical flight permit.

Roberts, his wife, and son, John, reside in Concordia. A daughter, Katy Rose, a graduate of Saint Paul Lutheran High School, will soon return to Hawaii where she will continue her education at Chaminade University, pursing a degree in psychology.

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