Fighter pilots host 50th reunion, cut ribbon on Aviation museum exhibit

Published 4:12 pm Friday, October 13, 2023

By Michael J. Collins, Bowling Green Daily News

Members of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association – better known as the “River Rats” – greeted one another with firm handshakes and warm smiles as they walked through decades of their collective history.

Service members, friends and family met Thursday at Bowling Green’s Aviation Heritage Park for their 50th reunion and to cut the ribbon on the new River Rats exhibit at the park museum.

Craig “Pontiff” Pope, the River Rats’ museum committee director and a member since 1982, told the Daily News that they’d long been looking for a “place of their own” to honor their storied history.

“Being with the Aviation Heritage Park, it was just meant to be, it’s unbelievable,” Pope said. “They’ve been great hosts, and our future is very bright and we’re looking forward to it.”

The exhibit, located on the mezzanine level of the museum, features memorials, artifacts, artwork, models and more dating back to the association’s founding in 1967.

The ceremony featured two aircraft flyovers and a “fast rope” demonstration by the Kentucky State Police, utilizing a Bell UH-1 Iroquois or “Huey” helicopter famously used during the Vietnam War.

They also held a “Nickel on the Grass” ceremony, used to remember pilots who have “flown West” – passed away.

Pope said that even after 50 years, the association has around 4,000 members nationally, meeting regularly in what they call “packs” of local service members.

One of the founders, Howard “Scrappy” Johnson, grew up in Kentucky and is a Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame inductee. Johnson passed away in 2021, but his memory is immortalized through the museum.

Bob Bubnis, the park’s executive director, said it’s been incredible to put the exhibit together largely using donations from service members themselves.

“You see these stories of bravery and honor and duty and patriotism,” Bubnis said. “It’s very inspiring when you go through these exhibits and see for yourself the artifacts that came from these great heroes.”

Bubnis also hopes to inspire young people to consider if joining the service is right for them.

“I heard two kids on two different occasions say, ‘I want to be a fighter pilot,’ and one in particular really was moving,” Bubnis recalled. “He said, ‘I have autism, do you think I can be a fighter pilot?’ My answer to them was, ‘I think you can do whatever you put your mind to,’ and I think that that’s one of the things that we’re trying to do here.”

The River Rats began as a way to coordinate aircrews flying over North Vietnam but quickly grew into much more. The group has awarded numerous scholarships to the families of aircrew who lost their lives in service.

Wyatt “Aggie” Stedman, a former association president who served as a pilot from 1978 to 2002, said the first collections began before the war even ended.

“(Scholarships) started at one of the first tactics conferences,” Stedman said. “Somebody put a coffee can on the bar in front of the squadron and they said, ‘hey, we need to donate money to help send to college the children of POWs who may not ever come home.’ ”

Since then, the association has donated nearly $3 million to the children and spouses of Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Army aircrew members.

The group’s early efforts also included lobbying for POWs and aircrews missing or killed in action. They held several “practice reunions” before the first real one in 1973 when 591 American POWs were released by North Vietnam through Operation Homecoming.

Stedman was too young for the first reunion, but has heard plenty of stories.

“I think there was like 2,500 people at that reunion. It was in Vegas. It was a big blowout,” he said. “I mean, guys like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Raquel Welch, they all stopped by and performed at the event, stopped by just to say hi.”

Stedman said that while the River Rats are composed of generations of pilots spanning numerous conflicts, they often find they have more in common than not.

“The camaraderie of pilots goes back to World War I, and that spirit hasn’t changed,” Stedman said. “It’s still a warrior mentality, a hunter mentality, that mission-accomplished mentality. That spirit hasn’t changed, all we do now is fly different airplanes.”