Pilot flew missions for both Navy, Air Force
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CORTLAND — David K. Irish never planned on making a career as an U.S. military officer.
However, Irish, at 26 years old in 1979, decided not only to uproot his young wife, Sandy, from their lives as teachers in Kentucky by joining the U.S. Navy, but also signed up to become a Naval pilot.
A former middle and high school science teacher, Irish had been hearing tales about the bravery and heroism of his great-great-grandfather, Horace M. Cook, a corporal in the Army during the Civil War; an older half-brother, Robert Parker, a U.S. Army Cobra pilot in Vietnam; and his Lexington school principal, Leo Brewsaugh, who had been a SB2C Naval pilot during World War II.
Irish decided he also wanted to serve.
“It had gotten to a point where I could not see myself teaching for the rest of my life,” Irish said.
By the time he signed up to go to Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Fla., Irish was near the maximum age when a person could enter into the Navy. Because he wanted to become a pilot, he signed up to serve for seven years. He worked hard at making sure he always was one of the top candidates when it came to any physical training program.
“I was only beaten once while running the obstacle courses,” he said. “That was toward the end of training by a classmate who — literally and figuratively — reminded people of Lurch of ‘The Addams Family.'”
During his time in the Navy, Irish served in the Suez Canal on a ship in the Indian Ocean, and Mombasa, Africa. He was assigned to CV 67 on the John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier.
His aircraft was “the eyes and ears of 10 to 15 naval carrier groups to determine what was ahead of them and report what they would be facing,” Irish said. “We were targeted by enemy forces because they knew if we were taken out, they could blind the ships.”
Deployments were often eight or more months away from family.
In October 1983, the USS John F. Kennedy was diverted to Beirut, Lebanon, after the Beirut barracks bombing that killed 241 U.S. military personnel. The ship spent the remainder of the year and early 1984 patrolling the region.
On Dec. 4, 1983, 10 A-6 aircraft from Irish’s ship and aircraft from the USS Independence took part in a bombing raid over Beirut in retaliation to two US F-14 aircraft being fired upon the previous day. Two aircraft were lost and Irish’s friend, Robert “Bobby” Goodman, was taken prisoner, while another, Mark Lange, was killed.
Irish described during one mission his E-2C aircraft was targeted by the enemy.
“Being targeted means you only have a few moments before possibly being hit by a missile. My commanding officer yelled back at me to get down now,” Irish said. “I did a wild maneuver — flipping the plane upside down — allowing it to drop below the the missile’s envelope. The E-2C is not designed to be flown upside down, but it held together nicely as I dropped from 20,000 feet towards the ocean to 2,000 feet above it.”
Once he returned to the U.S., Irish was assigned to be an instructor for future pilots. Two years later, Irish had the choice of signing a new contract to remain in the Navy or to sign up to serve at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Vienna.
Working at the air reserve station would allow the Irish family to live closer to parents and other extended family members.
“I told them whomever could get the paperwork done first, I would join,” Irish said. “I was going to be the first Naval-trained pilot to join this base. The Air Force was the first to complete their paperwork.”
Irish worked full time at the Vienna station as an air reserve technician and chief of tactics. For more than 15 years, he flew Air Force aircraft all over the globe.
“To be honest, I probably traveled to more places in the Air Force Reserves than when I was in the Navy,” he said. “I was able to travel to the Holy Land, which was the most memorable event of my life.”
Irish’s C-130 aircraft was fired upon while he was flying over Sarajevo.
“We did not know we were hit until we got back to the Ramstein Air Force base in Germany,” he said. “A maintenance worker asked if we had any problems pressurizing because there were six bullet holes in the aircraft. One of the holes was right next to where my left foot was placed on the left side of the cockpit.”
Major Irish, against his will, retired from the 910 Airlift Wing in October 2002.
During his 23 years in the military — seven years in the Navy and almost 16 years in the Air Force Reserves — Irish flew five different aircraft and accumulated more than 6,000 flight hours, which makes him qualified to wear both the gold wings of a Navy pilot and the silver wings of an Air Force pilot.