Greene aviator has eyes on skies

GREENE – If he was just an inch or two shorter, Julius ”Mook” Szenegeto could have been a test pilot.

The accomplished flyer has all the skills for such a lofty endeavor. He’s fearless. He’s experienced. He’s flown three dozen types of aircraft. And basically, he’s more at home in the sky than on the ground.

”I almost didn’t make the height requirement for a fighter pilot. I had to sort of scrunch down like this. They knew what I was doing, but they just laughed and let it go,” said the 86-year-old retired U.S. Air Force pilot, who actually ended his military career in combat, fighting in Vietnam.

”I was probably 37 or 38 when the fighting started over there. I was a major and they called me ‘an old re-tread,”’ said Szenegeto, who admits to being fascinated with flying ever since he started ordering those 10-cent rubber band-driven model planes out of the Sears & Roebuck catalog as a boy.

A product of the Depression, Szenegeto likes to tell the story about wandering outside and curling up in the middle of state Route 87 in front of the farmhouse he was born in and simply falling asleep on the pavement.

”I don’t know how long I was sleeping. Finally a guy pulled up in a Model T Ford and stopped. My brother came out and got me,” he said. ”I’m a member of the Lost Generation.”

The point was, according to Szenegeto, gasoline was 9 cents a gallon and even though some folks had cars, no one could afford to put fuel in the tank.

”All the cars were up on blocks at the time,” he said. ”No one was on the road.”

Szenegeto’s brother Joe was already taking flying lessons from famed local instructor Ernie Hall and wound up serving in a bomber squadron in World War II when Szenegeto graduated in a class of two boys and seven girls from Greene High School in 1946.

He already was bitten by the flying bug through those models, his brother and ever since a doctor from Orwell took him up in his plane when he was 13 years old.

”I was dying to get off the farm by 1950, so I enrolled as soon as I could in the Aviation Cadet Program. I tested in and they sent me to Texas, where I was inducted into the Air Force as a sergeant or a second lieutenant.”

He was trained on a T-6 and a B-25 – the kind of aircraft that bombed Tokyo.

But as the war started raging in Korea and several of his buddies resigned, instead of heading into combat, Szenegeto earned his keep as a flight instructor, working around the world and training pilots in other countries as the U.S. formed allies heading into the Cold War.

He mastered the controls of all types of planes, including C-124 cargo planes, Tiger Moth biplanes he flew in Pakistan, and JU-52 transports he flew in Spain and Germany.

Szenegeto never had to depend on his parachute for an escape, but tells the story of his one forced landing on a road in Spain.

”It was a training mission. The other pilot bailed. I managed to save the plane when I found that road,” he said.

Also a master of three languages, including his native Hungarian and German, Szenegeto was brought in to train the highly skilled World War II Luftwaffe pilots on U.S.-built planes – another mission the Air Force insisted on while recruiting Cold War allies.

Szenegeto, who earned a degree in electrical engineering at the Air Force Institute at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, worked for a time as a staff officer at the Pentagon. ”I was on the inspector general’s staff, monitoring new equipment that came out,” he said.

Then as the next war started, Szenegeto found himself stationed at bases in Takhli and Korat, Thailand, flying missions in an F-105 Thunderchief, used for the majority of the bombing missions during the early years of the war.

The Thunderchief – which carried a full bomb load of 16 of the 750-pound bombs on its five hardpoints – also was the only U.S. aircraft to have been removed from combat due to high loss rates.

”Those planes were a red hot tube surrounded by a fuel tank. My name was on the side of one of the Wild Weasel two-seaters models, but I preferred to fly alone,” he said.

Szenegeto was given credit for flying 100 missions, day and night, and normally following a spotter plane that marked bombing targets with smoke where the Thunderchiefs would swoop down, laying out the bombs to take out enemy bridges, storage sites and other military targets.

”I actually flew in 122 missions, but we don’t talk about the 22 we flew in Laos and Cambodia,” he said. ”They don’t count.”

Recalling missions, planes that were lost along with fellow pilots along the way, Szenegeto, who normally refers to himself as an ”old farmboy,” always puts things in perspective: ”That’s all right, it’s all part of life.”

After combat and his retirement from the military, Szenegeto worked the family farm and continued to take to the air, launching himself into his barnstorming era.

From the sky in any of the planes he flew out of his combination barn / hangar, the crossroads, the wooded fields and countless grass covered airstrips in the region have gotten a little fuzzy over the years with age-related macular degeneration that has set in.

The confirmed bachelor likes to tell his flying buddies stories that begin with, ”When I used to fly…”

In the good old days, fellow pilots like John Molek, Phil Arbie or Rudy Kovacevich and others would take off on a Saturday or Sunday to have lunch in New Castle, Latrobe, Pa., or Fairbanks Farms in New York.

”Some of us view Mook as eccentric, but frankly he’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met,” Kovacevich said.

”Try talking to him about international banking, or any subject really. He’s one of the most well-read people around. At one time, he had a bunker of books surrounding this chair in his rathole he calls a house. We’d find him in there reading owner’s manuals for this plane or that plane,” Kovacevich said.

Szenegeto didn’t sound very eccentric on July 14, 1968, when he earned equivalent of a second Distinguished Flying Cross:

”Major Julius W. Szenegeto distinguished himself by extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight as an F-105 pilot near Phong Nha, North Vietnam.

”After successfully destroying a munitions storage site, led his flight in silencing several gun positions and halting the advance of hostile troops intent on capturing a downed pilot. The accurate ordnance delivery by Maj. Szenegeto contributed greatly to the successful rescue effort of a fellow pilot. The professional competence, aerial skill, and devotion to duty displayed by Maj. Szenegeto reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”