'You Get Close to God Real Fast': Don Ho Relishes His Time as an Air Force Pilot

C-97A Stratofreighter. (U.S. Air Force photo)
C-97A Stratofreighter. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Legendary Hawaiian entertainer Don Ho opens and closes every show with his trademark song, "Tiny Bubbles." But the entire production, he said, draws upon the discipline and training he learned as an Air Force pilot from 1954 to 1959. In a recent interview, Ho told Military.com freelancer George Furukawa about his Air Force service, including the aircraft he flew, the crash landing he survived and the nuclear tests he witnessed.

Q: What influenced your decision to join the Air Force?

A: "I was enrolled in the ROTC at the University of Hawaii, and after graduating from there, I went to boot camp at Lackland Air Force Base [in Texas]. ... I got my primary training in Columbus, Mississippi."

Q: Can you describe the training?

A: "The training began at the University of Hawaii, where we went through the basic, mental material, which was aerodynamics and so on. And then we trained in navigation. In Columbus, basically I went down to the line, and they put me in a plane with an instructor, and we took off, and the instructor told me to fly the plane. The training was precise, the instructors were very good, and they were very strict.

"They were all veterans from the war. We were lucky to get experienced personnel training us. The instructors were taking up green kids like us, and they had to be firm. We were trained in PA-18s and T-6s for about six months, and then we went to Bryan, Texas, where we got training in T-28s and T-33s. After I graduated from there, I had basic training. The Korean War ended, and they didn't need fighter pilots, so I ended up coming home to Hickam and flying the line between Travis Air Force Base [in California] and Tokyo, Haneda Air Force Base, Wake Island, all the islands. Sometimes Eniwetok, Kwajalein, Guam and the Philippines. Basically in MATS [Military Air Transport Service]. We were the 27th Squadron out of Hickam. Then the squadron moved to Travis. I was stationed there for a couple of years."

Q: What were the PA-18 trainers and the other planes like?

A: "The PA-18s were fantastic airplanes. The PA-18s were Piper Cubs. The T-28s were fantastic planes, too. The T-6s were reliable planes. They were good planes to land in, because if you could fly that plane, you could fly anything. The T-33s were incredible. As students, getting into a jet, it was everything we were looking forward to. I would recommend to every kid: Go and try to be a pilot. You get close to God real fast."

Q: What it was like when you crash-landed a T-33 in Texas?

A: "I thought about God real quick, when I had to look for a place to crash-land. My whole life flashed before me in a split second, and then I pretty much relied on everything I knew to survive that situation. I flew over a cornfield and trees into a barn with chickens, ducks and cows.

"The plane was up flying again in a couple of weeks. It was a lucky landing. I had to crash-land because I had a flameout. I had a choice of bailing out or landing. I felt that I was better equipped to land the plane, then to jump out of it. ... I'm grateful that I was taught well [about] proper procedures on how to crash-land an airplane. Of course, I was fortunate that I could crash on land and not in water."

Q: Did you do any combat flying? Did you ever fly in a storm?

A: "No, I ended up flying the C-97s, which were the old Pan Am Stratocruisers. They were also using those planes as tankers for refueling. I did have a scare in Columbus with a tornado. I was able to land on the ground in time."

Q: What was it like flying C-97 Stratofreighters?

A: "We called the C-97s the "Flying Cadillac." It got that name because at that time, it was considered the Cadillac of the sky. I was on a check ride with the chief pilot, and we had to fly at night. By the time you get into the squadrons, you are trained in instrument flying, so you can fly through bad weather, and everything else. As a pilot in the military, you fly the best equipment, you have the best training in all facets of flying, and that's why I recommend if you want to be a pilot, join the military.

"I took a lot of pride in being able to fly at night. Flying at night, you have to know your instruments. At night, all you have are your instruments. You become so good at it, it becomes second nature. The flight simulators they have today provide an incredible way to become proficient. Flying is easy. The challenge is knowing how to handle crashes and emergencies. I never had an incident when my instruments malfunctioned or anything like that with the C-97s. They were great airplanes...

"The flights into Eniwetok and Kwajalein were kind of at the time when they were experimenting with the nuclear bomb, so I got to witness some of that. Flying into Tokyo was a pleasure. The crew and I would always look forward to going to Tokyo. It was a long flight, keeping in mind that we were not flying jets at the time. We were flying the C-97s, which were props. It took about five to six hours, and sometimes eight to 10 hours, so we would stop over at Wake [Island] and fly to Tokyo and Midway and lay over. At that time, Japan was under U.S. occupation, and the yen was 360 yen to $1.00. The best duty that you could have in the Air Force at that time was the job that I had, flying the C-97s. Every plane was different, and every crew was different."

Q: You had an all-Hawaii crew at Travis Air Force Base.

A: "We had an all-Hawaii crew, and I had a crew, my co-pilot and my engineers and my flight attendants. Just to say we could do that one time, with all the Hawaiian kids. That was fun. ... For us, it was unique because when I got there, we didn't have a full crew. As a couple of years went by, we had more Hawaii kids come in.

"I was first lieutenant when I got out of the Air Force. I resigned to come home to Hawaii to take care of my mother, who was ill. I was about to be commissioned to become captain, but I didn't stick around for that."

Q: Do you miss flying?

A: "Yes, I miss flying. Especially in single-engine planes. That was fun. It was the ultimate in flying. The best part of flying was the acrobatics and formation flying. Going through that experience, it stays with you forever. The transition from flying prop planes to flying the T-33 jets was exhilarating. It was like going from driving a truck to driving a hot rod."

Q: How much has flying changed since the days you were an aviator?

A: "When I was a kid, I used to watch these PBYs go over our house in Kaneohe Bay. I always wondered what it would be like to fly a plane. I'd like to see today's youth get involved in flying. You have to be in good health, have good vision, good coordination and common sense. And of course, you have to be proficient with computers.

"I talk to a lot of pilots now, and I golf with some of the veterans from the war who flew these new planes, and the difference is the speed, technology and navigation. You have to pretty much know your Nintendo by the time you get up in a plane today."

Q: What advice can you offer to someone who may be interested in flying?

A: "I'd say go for it. If you plan to go into the military, see if you can qualify to be a pilot. I didn't think I could ever do it. It will probably be one of the ultimate experiences in your life. My first time up in a plane, there was a feeling of confusion. I expected that I would get some instructions before I put my hands on the controls. The instructors just gave us the controls and let us fly the planes.

"The most satisfying part of flying was getting up there and engaging in acrobatics and dogfights. After a while, the satisfying part of flying was reaching my destinations, accomplishing my missions and relaxing afterwards. Seeing different parts of the world was fascinating too. The C-97s I flew carried passengers and cargo, just like an airline."

Q: Have you applied your experiences in the Air Force to life in general?

A: "My success in show business is completely predicated on my training in commanding the airplane. The work I do in entertainment, the people in my show, the way I run the show, is like I ran my flight crew in the Air Force. So we are well-disciplined in my shows. I owe a lot to the training I had in the Air Force."

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