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Aviation Attack Icon Retires After 38 Years

Story and photos by Lisa Eichhorn: It was truly the end of an era for Army Aviation as CW5 Robert A. “Bobby Mac” McBeal took his last flight in an AH-64D Longbow helicopter on November 4 in Illesheim, Germany. Especially when you consider his first assignment with Army Aviation was that of a crew chief and door gunner in Vietnam.

McBeal as a young WO1 in Vietnam playing cards between missions in the back of a UH-1.

McBeal’s 38-year career began in 1966. Although his first 19 months in Vietnam were spent crewing and gunning on birds, he later returned for another 19 months, but this time as an AH-1 Cobra pilot. He has 4,000 combat hours, with more than 1,700 in the Cobra during his final tour in Vietnam.

During his final tour of active duty he served as the 11th Aviation Regiment’s Tactical Operations Officer, then Standardization Officer, and as of late the Flight Operations Officer at Storck Barracks in Illesheim.

After completing his last flight, McBeal took few minutes to reminisce about his very colorful career.

“I’m from Las Vegas and when I was a kid I used to watch the Thunderbirds fly across the desert. I would walk across that desert to watch them because my parents wouldn’t take me. I knew from watching them that I was going to be an aviator,” he said.

“When I decided it was time to join the Army, I went to the recruiter and told him, all I wanted to do was fly. Well of course we’re in the middle of Vietnam and he suggested I do a tour as a crew chief and then apply to flight school. So that’s what I did and it worked out great for me. After I went to flight school I went back to see him. Well I tried, as I walked up to see him he was standing outside. When I yelled to him he just took off running. I guess back in those days recruiters got beat up a lot. But I just wanted to thank him,” he laughed.

McBeal truly did blaze trails in his career. At 6 feet 5 inches tall for an aviator and an African-American, he was definitely an enigma for the time. But no mission was too hard or too out of reach for him. He is a very soft spoken, a humble man. His friends say that if you didn’t know what a true American hero he is, you would never guess it. Except for one thing they say, his incredible story telling. But let there be no mistake, this man is a professional soldier, combat hardened and experienced.

An old friend and fellow Vietnam veteran sent this message to McBeal upon his retirement: “War produces a rare camaraderie, that of men who have been in battle together. And the intensity of that camaraderie, even years later, will defy any rational explanation. It is a bond so strong, so immediate, that it wipes away all the normal barriers of class, politics and race. Nothing in terms of friendship need precede it, nothing need follow it,” wrote CW5 Lance McElhiney.

But Vietnam was just the beginning of his long career. He flew his first AH-64 Apache concept bird in 1976 with his co-pilot Bob Stewart, who went on to become the Army’s first astronaut.

For McBeal, coming to Illesheim was like coming full circle. He says he started his career in combat and ended it with combat in Cavalry units, serving for one-year in Operation Iraqi Freedom with the 11th Avn. Regt.

COL. George Bilafer, 11th Avn. Regt. Commander, attributes a big part of the unit’s success during the first part of OIF to McBeal’s quick thinking and Vietnam experience.

He reflected that after the March 23, 2003 battle, when the regiment took heavy damage to its aircraft, the unit came back to regroup. He said it was Bobby who stepped up and told the leadership this was not the kind of warfare the pilots were trained for. McBeal told them: “This is what I encountered in Vietnam and I know how we can fight them on their terms.”

With that on his mind McBeal talked about the thought of actually hanging up his spurs.

“I could stay another 10 years because of the professionals I work with; I’ve never grown tired of flying. But my body says it’s time to go. However, my retirement should be hard for me, not for the unit. Because the Army will go on, they’ll continue to get better, and younger soldiers will step up. Because if a unit can’t replace one person then someone isn’t doing something right,” he said.

Not one to worry, McBeal plans to just relax and enjoy life for a while before plotting his next course.

Lisa Eichhorn is a command information officer with the 235th Base Support Battalion Public Affairs Office in Ansbach, Germany and a friend of CW5 McBeal.

Source: See pages 34 and 35, Army Aviation, Vol. 54, No. 1, Army Aviation Publications, Inc., Monroe, Connecticut, January 31, 2005.