It’s a crystal clear day at Spirit of St. Louis Airport, and Jack Jackson just can’t wait to get back up in the sky. Jackson’s always ready for a mission: He started flying airplanes in July of 1967; and since then, he has logged more than 16,000 take-offs and landings. A huge number of those sorties came at the controls of military aircraft, with hundreds of them being combat missions in Vietnam. Jackson was a full bird colonel in the Marines and ended his highly decorated military career with dozens of awards and medals for courage, bravery and valor in combat. After Vietnam, he played an even more significant role in the development of America’s birds of war as a test pilot at McDonnell-Douglas, and then Boeing. The Colonel flew virtually every type of aircraft in the US military arsenal, and even a few captured enemy planes.
Jackson’s legendary aviation status is most closely associated with the AV-8B Harrier Jump Jet. Most of us know it as the fighter jet that can hover, land straight up and down, and then fly at near-supersonic speed. Jackson logged an incredible 5,500 flight hours in the cockpit of Harriers—a record that likely will never be broken. He delivered the very first Harrier built in St. Louis in 1980; and before he retired as Boeing’s chief test pilot, he delivered the very last one ever built in 2004.
Jackson’s mission continued in politics as a Missouri State Representative, and he took a few turns down some campaign roads. His journey finally led him to his ongoing charge of serving the needs of military veterans. “My mission now is to do whatever I can to help our veterans. I consider them a national treasure.”
He and I are walking through a hangar among the private jets he now flies. At 70, he’s a sought-after corporate pilot, but he’s also spent hours flying wounded combat vets home from hospitals or to more medical treatment. He has volunteered for the Veterans Airlift Command and Lifeline; and if for some reason he can’t get a wounded warrior transported on a donated corporate jet, he’s been known to fly vets wherever they need and pick up the costs himself. “I’ve flown some double and triple amputees, picking them up in Washington, D.C., and flying them home—they have tremendously positive attitudes.”
Out on the tarmac, the Colonel and I continue to talk while he looks up at a perfectly blue sky. “I want to make people aware that even though someone has lost both their legs, they can still contribute,” he stresses. “All they want to do is go home, hug their kids and their wives, then get a job and contribute—and it’s our job to make that happen.”
In the spirit of full disclosure, Jack and I have spent a lot of time together on tarmacs and in airplanes. I worked with him on his political campaigns, and was in the co-pilot seat of his twin-engine Beechcraft Duke for one of his least glorious but more memorable aviation episodes: We were on a campaign swing around the state in 2006; and we were taking off from the Camdenton Airport at dusk when a deer ran across the runway. We were almost airborne, going well past 100 mph, when the buck crashed into the nose and landing gear. We swerved 75 feet off the runway and skipped across a hillside. Somehow, Jack remained in control, kept the wheels on the ground and brought us safely to a stop. The plane was totaled. So to say I admire this man for his skills is an understatement.
Saving my you-know-what that night was all in a day’s work for Jack. He’s been in life-or-death situations many, many times. “I had been shot up, shot down and shot to pieces in helicopters and planes, and I’ve had to shoot my way out of a couple of tight spots,” he says. But there was one incident that is the most vivid: He was flying a Harrier when it went out of control and into something called a ‘falling leaf’ spin. It had never happened to anyone in a Harrier before, but Jackson pulled out of it and saved the plane and himself an instant before it would have crashed.
As for his political career, it never got the traction it needed, and Jackson thinks it was mainly because he wasn’t a career politician and refused to fall in lock-step with the party power-brokers. He’s still getting prodded to run for office again and concedes he’ll “never say never, but it would take a lot.”
His real passion these days is for the veterans and trying to make sure they get all the honor and respect they deserve—something his Vietnam War generation received very little of back then. “When we got home we weren’t treated very well—everybody knows that,” he says. “So I want to do what I can to make sure that no veteran is treated the way we were.”
It’s still obvious to me that Colonel Jack Jackson is ready for another mission—it’s a beautiful day for flying.
A native St. Louisan, Brown is a lifelong journalist, and previously served as a broadcaster for KMOX and KTRS radios and ABC 30. His Paul Brown Media specializes in public and media relations.