Farm boy to fighter pilot: George Kohn’s ‘Vector to Destiny’

The story of a Dodge County kid who messed up a high school English paper and because of it wound up learning to fly fighter jets.
Photos courtesy of George Kohn
George Kohn

George Kohn

This is a story of a Dodge County farm kid who messed up a high school English paper and because of it wound up learning to fly fighter jets.

He learned to write, too.

On Nov. 15, George Kohn published a memoir, “Vector to Destiny — Journey of a Vietnam F-4 Fighter Pilot,” its publication coming almost exactly 50 years to the day after Kohn came home from Vietnam in November 1970.

He eventually returned to farming — in 1993, Kohn and his wife, Sandy, started West Star Organics near Cottage Grove, an organic greenhouse business now operated by their son.

George says his next book may be about organic farming, but “Vector to Destiny” — his first — is about learning to fly, going to Vietnam, what happened there, and coming back. It’s about luck and perseverance and I suspect more than a few readers will find Kohn’s journey inspiring.

Which leads us back to that failed English paper.

“When I was a junior and senior in high school, I didn’t put a lot of effort into it,” he says.

He was a senior at Reeseville High School when his teacher returned the paper with instructions to try again with a fresh topic.

“For some reason” — possibly because his father had a friend in the aviation industry — “I picked the investigation of aircraft accidents,” Kohn says.

Kohn sent a letter addressed to the Truax Air Force Base in Madison asking for information on aircraft accidents.

In theory this should have worked about as well as putting the message in a bottle and tossing it into Lake Monona. But somehow, Herb Ritke, an Air Force captain at Truax, got hold of Kohn’s request, and wrote him back, inviting him to tour the base.

“I will show you my office,” Ritke wrote, “where I have considerable information about the investigation of aircraft accidents.”

Kohn’s tour included the chance to sit in an F-102 fighter jet. His redone English essay was a success, and the visit began a friendship between the two families. Ritke had young sons who were interested in farm animals, so Kohn provided a reciprocal tour of his dad’s farm.

A year or two on from high school graduation, Kohn was still uncertain about his future. He was working on the farm. One day – it was summer 1962 – Kohn was on a tractor combining grain when the earth seemed to shake beneath him.

“There was deafening roar,” he says, “and the ground seemed to tremble.” He looked up in time to see a fighter jet flying low, just above the trees. “It came right over the top of me like a streak with fire coming out of its tail.” In moments the streak was gone.

It was Ritke, of course.

“After that,” Kohn writes in the new book, “my thinking was focused on one dream in life. I had to fly fighter jets.”

Having a dream and realizing it are not the same thing. Ritke counseled him on what had to happen: To be an Air Force fighter pilot required a college degree and an officer commission.

Kohn’s grades were just good enough to get him into the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where an administrator looked at his transcript and said, “You’ll never make it.”

He did, though. And through ROTC, upon graduation he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force.

He had rigorous pilot training in Texas — out of a class of 100, 54 graduated. Kohn did well enough to be able to select the aircraft he wanted to fly. He picked the F-4, which likely meant Vietnam.

“I wasn’t gung-ho to go to Vietnam,” he says. “But I chose that airplane because I wanted to fly fighters. That was my goal.”

There was additional training on the F-4, survival instruction and more, and then in late 1969 Kohn went overseas.

He flew 201 combat missions out of Da Nang Air Base and was awarded the air medal and the distinguished flying cross with two oak leaf clusters.

There are good memories. “We had a great group of pilots, a lot of camaraderie, sharing stories. Leaving them when I came home was hard to do.”

And there are other memories, some of which still trigger deep emotion.

There was a mission that ended with Kohn zeroing in on an enemy supply truck.

“I was just getting ready to transmit that we were in on the target,” he says. At the last moment, another F-4 pilot radioed that he was in. “We pulled off and went up to our orbit altitude,” Kohn says.

From there, Kohn could see what happened next. The enemy truck was a decoy. There were camouflaged antiaircraft guns nearby. The F-4 was doomed.

“He disintegrated into a fireball,” Kohn says, pausing for several seconds. “It was a long flight home.”

After returning to the United States in November 1970, Kohn stayed on active duty until 1975. He joined the Air Force Reserve and became a commercial airline pilot in civilian life. On retiring, as noted, he and Sandy started the organic farm.

Writing about his experience, Kohn says, “is something that has been stirring in my head for several years.” He estimates he spent between 25,000 to 30,000 hours flying and feels fortunate to have turned his young dream into reality.

“It’s very satisfying,” he says, and chuckles. “Almost as satisfying as writing a book.”