LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. — “I should have been shot down,” he said, recalling one of his 133 missions in his F-4 Phantom II during the Vietnam War. “I was patrolling a river just above the demilitarized zone. There was a large cargo boat the enemy would use to transport supplies so I figured I might as well sink it. I established a run to drop a rocket into it. I should have noticed it was tied shore to shore, which was unusual. It turned out to be a trap.”
Retired Lt. Col. Alma Skousen, a humble, soft-spoken 89-year-old fighter pilot, served his country during three wars, encountered Soviet MiG fighters in battle and survived a jet crash before ending his flying career as the 311th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, now known as the 311th Fighter Squadron, commander in 1973 at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.
“Just as I was in my run pretty good, they were over me, under me, behind me,” he continued. “I was taking fire from everywhere. Somehow every shot seemed to go behind my airplane and I made it out with my life.”
Skousen’s love for aviation began at a young age.
“When I was a little boy I saw an airplane flying,” Skousen, now a resident of Mesa, Ariz., said. “It was 1934. I got my brother to go with me to the little dirt strip the pilot landed on. At that time, pilots wanted to help anybody who was interested in airplanes. They wanted to keep it going. Talking to that pilot was the beginning of my dream to fly.”
Skousen enlisted in the Army Air Corps fresh out of high school in 1943 during World War II.
“I wanted to be a hot-shot fighter pilot, but I didn’t get to fly at that time,” he said.<
Skousen became a C-54 Skymaster flight engineer, but held onto his childhood dream of being a pilot.
When the war ended, so did his enlistment. Skousen went back to civilian life until he joined the relatively new Air Force in 1951.
“I went to flight school at Williams Air Force Base, right here in Chandler, Ariz.,” he said. “I went off to the Korean War in 1952 flying air-to-ground missions as part of the 8th Fighter Bomber Wing in my F-80 Shooting Star.”
His missions were dangerous from the very start.
“My first mission there was bombing a place just across a demilitarized zone on the hillside between North and South Korea,” Skousen said. “I had a little scare because I found out later there was a flight of MiGs waiting to surprise attack us, but we made it out before they acted.”
Skousen had become no stranger to danger, but it was during a non-combat flight in the U.S. that he survived a crash.
“I had an accident, the only one I ever had, in a T-33 Shooting Star,” he said. “I was stationed at Travis and they sent me up to Washington to be a part of an inspection team. Before returning to Travis, I noticed there was something wrong with the turbine wheel. I prepared to hop on a C-47 Skytrain to fly back when the sergeant ran up and said they got the parts to fix my jet if I wanted to wait. So I did.”
After hours of repairs, the maintainers cleared Skousen’s jet for flight.
“We got up to about 24,000 feet when I heard a loud ‘bang’ and saw a piece of the turbine wheel fall off at the 10 o’clock position and cut my rudder cable,” he said. “I found out I lost a pie-shape piece of the turbine wheel. I tried to eject the canopy, but it malfunctioned, so I had no choice but to look for somewhere to land.”
Skousen’s wheels touched the recently-plowed farmland, but his body paid the price.
“When the jet hit the ground the canopy and my helmet flew off and I got three compression fractures of my vertebrae. I had to spend one-and-a-half months in the hospital after that. That was in 1957, and I worried that my flying career might be over.”
Skousen recovered and in 1967 was sent to fly combat missions in Vietnam.
“Over Hanoi, Vietnam, my backseater said, ‘We’ve got a missile on our tail!’ and it was too near us to do anything,” he said, laughing at the memory of his fellow Airman’s fear. “It came right by us which was concerning because it had a proximity fuse.”
The proximity fuse was a radio transmitter and receiver that detected an object in its path. When it came within a specified distance from a target, it would explode and, often packed with razor sharp coils or other destructive items, would destroy the target.
“But this time it didn’t explode,” Skousen said. “It went on up about 10,000 feet above us and exploded there, so we made it out.”
Skousen’s illustrious career continued for many years. He worked his way into leadership positions and eventually ended his flying career at Luke Air Force Base as the commander of the 311th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, where he trained young pilots to be war-ready Airmen.
“My favorite memories of Luke were flying the F-4 Phantom II, going down to the ranges and teaching the students how to maneuver that plane,” Skousen said. “I’d get to show new students what the airplane could do. They were tentative at first, but then when they would see what the airplane could do they would become much more aggressive and have fun with it.”
These stories represent a mere glimpse into the life of an American hero who spent his life in service to his country. He was the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross for acts of heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight. But most importantly, Skousen left a legacy of excellence for those who came after him to emulate, and has advice to guide their careers.
“Work hard,” Skousen said. “People nowadays want to start at the top and not at the bottom. I had to do a lot of things I didn’t want to do, but I did them because you start at the bottom and work your way to the top. Always do your best.”