Every time John McHale boarded his RF-4C aircraft for a mission during the Vietnam War, two things could happen.
“Either we’d be shot down,” said McHale, “or we’d make it back to base and then have to go to bed knowing we had to get up the next day and do it all over again.”
This perspective helped shape McHale’s outlook and influenced the way he lived his life. He has a tremendous track record of beating enormous odds, none more so than when he was fighting for his life at the age of 81 during a month-long hospitalization.
He was admitted to UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs with an infected prosthetic hip joint and a slew of life-threatening complications related to the systemic illness caused by his infection.
McHale had been in harrowing situations before, like the time bullets hit the aircraft he was flying in. Other acts of heroism had led the Air Force to award the Distinguished Flying Cross to him, not once, but three times.
The outlook was grim.
Learning to fly in the armed forces
After graduating with a degree in economics from Colby College in Maine, McHale commissioned in 1962 as a second lieutenant at Otis Air Force Base in Barnstable County, Massachusetts.
“I thought I might make navigator,” he recalled. “Go three years, get out and get on my way.”
Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Illinois, was next and where he earned his second lieutenant rank. Pay was minimal, and he lived in bachelor officer quarters.
It was an evening at the base headquarters, however, that set his future flight path.
“There was a fancy club on base,” McHale recalled, revealing a sly smile. “We walk upstairs and down the hall come guys in flight suits, with a scotch in one hand and a good-looking woman on the other arm. I looked at my fellow second lieutenants and said, ‘I’m going with them.’ I soon reapplied to flight school.”
McHale remembers getting in a plane for the first time.
“It was ‘fam flight’ to familiarize us new guys with being in a plane,” he said. “I was in the back of a T-33 with Capt. Norman Hamm. He sees one of my classmates in another plane and says, ‘We’re going after him.’ I thought he was nuts but then again, that’s what we were supposed to do.”
Flight school came in 1964 at Craig Air Force Base near Selma, Alabama. McHale spent 55 weeks there, learning the language of flying and how to actually do it. At the time, he didn’t know he was in a part of the country where a battle for civil rights was underway.
Survival school was next, at Stead Air Force Base outside Reno, Nevada.
“It was chase and capture and what to do if you were bleeding, which we figured would happen someday, but I didn’t see the point of practicing it.”
Finally, at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, South Carolina, McHale learned to fly what would become “his” plane – the RF-4C.
“There were no guns or defensive aspects to it, just cameras,” he said. “There were fancy cameras in the belly of the plane that used infrared, side-looking radar. We took photos before and after bombings took place.”
Flying during the Vietnam War
As a trained pilot in the RF-4C, McHale served as his plane’s “GIB,” or guy in the back, overseeing the radar and inertia navigation systems and having to know everything the major, who was commanding the aircraft, was doing.
During his time in the Vietnam War, McHale flew 100 missions over north Vietnam and eight over Laos.
“North Vietnam was shaped like an ice cream cone, puffy on top and skinny towards the bottom,” he said. “The Gulf of Tonkin was at the top and the Red River flowed into it.”
He flew day and night missions, each presenting its own challenges.
“Air missiles were new in those days and were our biggest threat,” said McHale. “You had one minute and twenty seconds before radar would lock on you. We’d smoke along the treetops at 600 knots, minimum. When we needed a photo of a road crossing, we’d pop up to 10,000 feet, flip the plane on its back to keep positive Gs and then flip back over. The clock started the second we started to climb.”
Knowing the enemy was traveling at night and needing to know how water crossings were occurring in the absence of a ferry, photo flash cartridges were thrown out of the plane to illuminate the darkness.
“You’ve never seen anything like it – imagine the Fourth of July on steroids. Light was flashing faster than my heart could beat,” said McHale. “We’re going 600 knots, 200 feet above ground, buzzing right over the water, or so we hoped, since it was dark out,” he said. “Each cartridge had the intensity of 20,000 candles and we threw out 20 of them. We discovered they’d built a bridge under water to disguise it from being destroyed during the day. Those cartridges let us see that, but it also showed the bad guys which way we were headed and how high we were flying, which gave them an advantage.”
When the enemy fired at their planes, it came straight at them, then, miraculously, sailed over the plane.
“Our plane was hit twice, right in the rudder of the plane, and yet we never saw them shooting,” he said. “I told the aircraft commander, ‘You know, next time we need to go a little faster.’”
The last mission for the U.S. Air Force
McHale served in the U.S. Air Force for six years, nine months and 11 days, but says the only mission that counted was the last one he flew over North Vietnam. He was honored with various awards and recognitions throughout his service time but says awards weren’t important.
“I knew what I did and didn’t do during my time. I saw incredible courage, bravery and also incredible cowardice over those years,” said McHale. “They used to pay me to have fun flying those planes. It was a helluva ride. We looked out for our partners. Once you’d flown 40-50 missions, you saw a rotation of guys coming and going. You spent time with the new guys, telling them to watch out for certain places and to make sure the flight plans were always done. It was a service to others.”
McHale flew commercially for 30 years and retired as a captain of the 747-400 aircraft. His last flight was Dec. 17, 1999, a roundtrip flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne, Australia.
“As a pilot, once you get in an airplane, you have stuff to do and things to think about to get you, your plane and anyone else on it off the ground, up in the air, and safely back to land,” he said. “There’s a focus you have to keep, a level of mind control that has to be in place. But as a patient, so much of my control was lost.”
Patient finds his war-hero strength
In October 2021, McHale was admitted to UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs with an infected prosthetic hip joint and a slew of life-threatening complications related to the systemic illness caused by his infection.
“Objectively, his prognosis was very grim,” said Dr. Mysha Mason, one of the hospitalists at YVMC who cared for McHale. “But as I began to get to know John, it quickly became clear that he was – and always had been – a fighter in the truest sense of the word. Put any obstacle in front of him, and he would do whatever it took to overcome it.”
“That stems back to an English professor of mine telling me I’d never make the football team,” said McHale. “Well, not only did I make the team I was a starter.”
More than once, McHale told Mason point-blank that he was not going to let this illness kill him. In fact, he fully intended to be well enough to travel to California in December to attend his granddaughter’s graduation. Mason said it was hard not to be skeptical, since most patients his age would have never been able to survive the kind of complex, critical illness McHale was facing.
“And yet, the more time I spent with him, the more I couldn’t help but believe he might actually be right,” she said.
Fighter pilot mentality
There were times when McHale’s outlook became bleak. He didn’t want to die, but the thought of giving up was entering his mind with increasing frequency and a sense of growing inevitability.
“’How the hell do I survive this?’ was a frequent thought,” he said. “I had lost control of my own body.”
“When someone faces serious illness, particularly when it’s sudden, it often rocks them to their very core – they feel helpless, isolated and broken. In many ways, they just don’t feel like themselves anymore,” said Mason. “As physicians, even when we can’t do anything more to optimize medical management, we can still take the time to be fully present with our patients, share in their suffering and try to understand their unique experience. Although I wasn’t fully conscious of it at the time, I hoped that some of my conversations with John might resonate in a way that could help him get back in touch with some of the fundamental qualities that make up the core essence of who he is as a person – his bravery, strength, determination, discipline and pure force of will.”
For McHale, it was the smallest things that changed everything.
“I had managed to drift into a deep sleep one night, which isn’t always easy to do in a hospital,” he said. “But the nurses kept coming in, waking me to check my vitals. I know they had to, but I hated it, and I was so tired. I asked Dr. Mason if I could sleep until I woke up. I said the nurses could take all the vitals they wanted then. She said yes. It was after that night’s sleep that I changed from being tired all the time to getting to be stronger.”
There was one time, knowing a bit about McHale’s personality, that Dr. Gary Breen – “the sheriff in a very ‘Sergeant Friday, just the facts’ sort of way” – said something that lit a fire of determination under McHale.
“There was no BS with him, it was always straightforward information,” said McHale. “He said, ‘You’re in a big hole and I don’t know if you can get out of it.’ That was all he needed to say to get me refocused.”
Over the course of his hospitalization and the months that followed, McHale and Mason spoke on a number of occasions about how he overcame various challenges in his life and that if he used that same approach, it may help with his outcome.
Veteran returns to ‘basic training’
As McHale overcame his illness and his body healed, he had to relearn many everyday skills.
“You don’t remember learning how to swallow or walk or hold things in your hands as a child,” he said. “Not many go through basic training in their 80s. I would get so irritated at ‘Queen Elisabeth’ (Boersma, a UCHealth speech therapist) because I felt I should know how to do something as simple as swallow. Looking back, she was the most tenacious and persistent speech therapist, and she motivated me.”
Over the next eight months, McHale made a remarkable recovery and was well enough to attend his 60th college reunion, something Mason would never have dreamed possible when their paths first crossed.
“The first time he came back to YVMC to visit, I almost didn’t recognize him – he looked like a different person,” said Mason. “When I realized who he was and how amazingly well he was doing, all I could think was, ‘This is why I do this.’”
Distinguished Flying Cross recipient pays it forward
On a subsequent visit, McHale gave Mason “the most touching and humbling gift” she has ever received – a Distinguished Flying Cross that he was awarded in 1967.
First Lieutenant John W. McHale distinguished himself by heroism while participating in aerial flight as a RF-4C Pilot at Viet Tri, North Vietnam on 1 November 1966. On that date, Lieutenant McHale departed his home station for a high-priority, extremely hazardous photographic reconnaissance mission. The target area was one of the most highly defended target areas ever to challenge United States Combat Aircrews. Within 15 miles of the target and its approaches were 23 surface-to-air-missile sites and an unknown number of other highly sophisticated weapons systems including radar-controlled automatic weapons and fighter interceptors. In the target area the aircraft was subjected to intense anti-aircraft fire. The outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty displayed by Lieutenant McHale reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.
“I was stunned. I wasn’t sure I could accept such an incredible gift,” said Mason. “He told me how much he had been affected by my empathy, and how our conversations had been among the few things that had helped him find the strength to push through the darkest days of his illness and recovery.”
“Dr. Mason stood out to me as one of the kindest, most consistent, caring human beings I’ve ever met,” said McHale. “When she speaks, it’s with genuine sincerity. What she and the rest of the medical team did for me was heroic. Plus, I had two more of them at home.”
For Mason, the gesture came at a time when she needed it most. After more than two years of caring for patients through the COVID-19 pandemic, Mason admitted that her “cup” wasn’t as full as it used to be.
“John’s incredible gift and words of gratitude helped me shift my mindset in a way that enabled me to finally feel like myself again – grounded, capable, re-energized, inspired, and hopeful in a way that I hadn’t felt in far too long,” she said. “Most of our patients probably never realize how much of an impact they have on us. Although he may never believe it, the truth is I’m as grateful to John as he is to me.”
McHale recently relocated to Florida to be closer to family, but he intends to return to Steamboat and Denver regularly for health care.
“The quality of care here far surpasses anything that might be available there,” he said. “I’ll keep flying.”