Robbie Risner: American Hero

This post is certainly late, but important nevertheless.  On 22 October 2013, Lt Gen Robinson “Robbie” Risner, USAF (Ret.) passed away.  With his passing, America lost a great man and a true hero. Today’s younger generations (to include my own) could learn a lot from Gen Risner’s life.  It is in the spirit of preserving our rich military history that I write this article.

My approach will be slightly different than that of the articles flooding the blogosphere since Gen Risner’s death.  In addition to some details about Robbie Risner’s heroic life and military contributions, I want to tell you how he has affected my life.

I wasn’t born into a military family – my knowledge of fighter pilots stemmed from movies like “Top Gun” and “Iron Eagle” (nice try Air Force, but I think the Navy won the film competition there).  I’m sad to say that I didn’t know much, if anything, about America’s greatest airborne warriors and their acts of courage in contested airspace around the world before I joined the military.  I remember first reading about Lt Gen Robinson Risner when I attended USAF Officer Training School (OTS) in Montgomery, AL.  It was like reading a masterful work of fiction.

I had been allowed to pillage the Air University Book Store with the other members of my OTS flight.  We were told we could choose any five books we wanted, and of course I did my best to avoid the “qweepy” (non-flying related) topics and looked for anything that appeared even remotely flying related.  Back at the dorm room that night I had about 30 minutes before lights out to relax and check out my spoils from the bookstore raid.  One of the thinner books I had selected (which disappeared in my first PCS and I don’t remember the name of) had profiles of several prominent Air Force leaders.  I thumbed through the pages until I saw a picture of a man in flight gear posing on a ladder hanging from the cockpit of a North American F-86 Sabre.  That was my first exposure to the story of Robbie Risner: American Ace Fighter Pilot.

When I read about how Robbie scored his first aerial victory in August of 1952, I was astounded.  He charged into battle with his 4-ship to engage 14 MiG-15s in hostile airspace.  Even today as I fly the world’s most advanced air dominance fighter, those numbers (4 vs 14) are insanely impressive, especially for evenly matched aircraft like the F-86 and MiG-15!  Fighting outnumbered is something the F-22 was designed to do, but that’s with air-to-air missiles, long range radar capability, a robust defensive suite, and combat ID capability – none of which were present in the F-86!

Robbie’s jet had Bugs Bunny painted on the side. This image was submitted by Mike Caulk on:

Robbie Risner was the ultimate OCA Escort flight lead.  I read about his September 15, 1952 mission where he pursued a MiG-15 threatening the strike package of F-84s as it ran low through hills and valleys.  Robbie had several rounds into the MiG as it ran from him, but it still retained combat capability – and was still a threat to the strikers.  Rather than let the enemy fighter just limp home, he chased it down until he achieved a K-kill (total destruction of the aircraft).  He shot the jet out of the sky over an enemy airfield where the damaged aircraft tumbled into a line of parked MiGs.  This story turned into a lesson for me when I was learning about targeting responsibilities in the Raptor B-course.  Once you call “targeted” to a group, it is YOUR responsibility to see to it that the group is destroyed with few exceptions.  Robbie Risner was the perfect example of following through with your targeting responsibilities.

On that same day, after the engagement with the MiG, Robbie rejoined with his wingman to find him in serious jeopardy.  The wingman’s aircraft was so badly damaged it appeared that he wouldn’t be able to make it back to friendly territory before ejecting.  Robbie did something unheard of: he had his wingman shut down his engine while Robbie pushed the wounded bird back to friendly airspace with the nose of his jet!  How did he think of that?!  This act of heroism would have saved the life of his wingman, but unfortunately the wingman drowned when he landed in the ocean and became entangled in his parachute canopy.  Nevertheless, this incredible story inspired Bob Pardo to do the same thing 12 years later in Vietnam when he pushed his wingman in the F-4 to safety, saving the lives of four aircrew.  Talk about leaving a legacy!

Before beginning my fighter training, I had to attend SERE school (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape).  It was there that I learned about how Robbie Risner led the prisoners of the “Hanoi Hilton” to resist the attempts by the North Vietnamese to make propaganda with them.  Because Risner had been on the cover of Time Magazine, he was of great value to the North Vietnamese and often took the bulk of the torture.  While enduring my “beatings” at SERE school, I would think about Robbie and take heart knowing that my experience didn’t even approach his 7-year ordeal in the Hanoi Hilton.  I took pride in knowing that I was serving the same great country for which Robbie had sacrificed so much.

Copyright Time Magazine

While a POW, Risner instigated a tap code whereby he was able to communicate with his fellow prisoners.  He inspired those men in a time of desperate need, and on one occasion they sang the Star Spangled Banner as Robbie was led off to yet another torture session.  The singing of the national anthem, in Robbie’s words, made him feel “9 feet tall [and able] to go bear hunting with a switch.”  Those words would be the inspiration for a 9-foot tall statue of Risner that is on display at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.  More importantly, military POWs have used Risner’s methods of resistance as recently as Desert Storm to maintain morale, send covert messages and avoid propaganda.

Yes, my generation can learn much from Robinson Risner.  I can’t truly put into words the impact this American hero has had on my life or on the lives of my fellow airmen.  I hope and pray the younger generations of warriors can produce men and women of the same caliber as Lt Gen Robinson “Robbie” Risner.

By Tally One Editor Rob Burgon

If this were the first time you are reading about Gen “Robbie” Risner, I would invite you to read more.  He wrote a book detailing his experiences as a POW: The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese

You can also find out more by visiting these websites:


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