Master Sergeant John Nutefall
Air Traffic Control
NKP (Nakhon Phanom, Thailand) , Madrid, United States
Mr. John Nutefall had a successful career as an air traffic controller during and after the Vietnam War. He obtained two bachelors’ degrees, two masters’ degrees, and learned Castilian Spanish before serving in Madrid. Unfortunately a brain injury caused him to give up his career in air traffic control and a stroke left him unable to pursue doctoral studies. But Mr. John, a kind and caring man, continues to stay active in local military organizations, participating in veteran’s events and reaching out to other local veterans.
Mrs. Nutefall was also present at this interview. Her comments are in italics.
I had to plead with my father to sign the papers for me to enlist in the service at age 17 because at that time it was covered in snow in Buffalo, NY. My birthday is in January.
At that time of year, there is snow up to your head!
And then some! [He laughs]
My father finally signed the papers so I could enlist in the service, so I joined the Air Force, January 27, 1961. Then I went to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas for boot camp. The orders they had scheduled me for had been destroyed and I was sent to Lincoln Air Force Base in Nebraska as a diesel mechanic.
So why did you join the Air Force?
I would have joined the Marine Corps, but at that point in time, the Marine Corps said, “No,” so I joined the Air Force. Second choice! [He chuckles]
So you are a mechanic…
…at Lincoln Air Force Base in Nebraska. Two bomb wings at Lincoln, Nebraska! B-47’s! And a one-star general in charge of that base!
I was there for two years and after that I was reassigned to Fairbanks, Alaska.
Wow, what did you think about that?
They made a movie about that! “North to Alaska” (1960) that was very popular!
That’s good! Everybody was probably jealous then!
Yes, ma’am! So I went to Fairbanks, Alaska and I was there for eighteen months and had a ball up there. Really! Had a lot of fun. But money didn’t go very far.
How did you have fun in Fairbanks, Alaska?
I bought a rifle and with that I went out into the woods and went hunting.
Did you get a moose?
No, no, but I had a lot of fun hunting.
You had the whole state of Alaska to do that in!
Yes, ma’am! Then they wanted me to re-enlist. And I said, no, no. I wanted to be in air traffic control. So you take a test and then they sent me to air traffic control school at Keesler Air Force Base. Yay!
Did you realize how difficult a job that was going to be before you started the school?
No, no. Big load of pressure! I wound up with twenty-two years of service.
All as an air traffic controller?
Yes, ma’am, except for the first four years as a mechanic.
How long did the school at Keesler last?
The school was about sixteen weeks.
That’s it? I figured you’d have to study a year to learn everything you needed!
No, no, no. Sixteen weeks of school and then I went to an Air Force Base at Harrisburg Pennsylvania. My first assignment as an air traffic controller! I also base rifle and pistol _____ at that point in time. I was qualified as expert in both rifle and pistol at Harrisburg!
Wow! That’s a feather in your cap!
Yes, thank you! So I spent two years as air traffic controller there and at that point in time the head of air traffic control facilities was retiring and at that time the FAA still had where they could transfer with the Air Force without any problems. So he beat out some of the other people competing for the job – the director position at Harrisburg airport. So he took that position as air traffic controller. Yay!
That was the civilian airport. Right?
Yes! He transferred over from Air Force to civilian.
So they left you there at the Air Force Base? What rank were you at the time?
I made Sergeant! Three stripes. Then I went to the head quarters for Air Training Command at (Lackland or Randolf) Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. It had dual runways.
So this is about the late ‘60’s at this point and Vietnam is going on.
Yes ma’am. And my next assignment just happened to be Nakhon Phanom, Thailand! Also called NKP.
Tell me about your service there.
CH-47 helicopters took special forces people across the border into Cambodia. I had a blast! [He laughs]
I had four stripes at that point in time. Yay! I was the air traffic control supervisor – shift supervisor!
Don’t mess up on your shift!
I had a blast at Nakhon Phanom!
I’ll bet you did! What were your duties there? I mean, who was coming and going – all those aircraft coming and going from missions?
Yes, yes. That’s true! Now what would really get my attention as supervisor of flying was Major Charles Deneaux. He was one of the people who was so fantastic. He also volunteered for a second tour as a “Sandy” one pilot [search and rescue pilot]. He had a direct line to the President of the United States
…get on “Guard” channel, talk to the command post. Command post would talk with people on “Guard” channel –
“This is Sandy One. Get off Guard.”
“Nope.” Back up.
“This is Sandy One. Get off Guard channel.”
“Nope.” Back up.
“This is Major Deneaux! [He chuckles] Get off Guard channel!!”
He’s in control!
That was right in the middle of the war!
So you stayed at that air force base for the whole time you were over there?
I know! Thank goodness! [He laughs]
One year tour.
Now he was not IN Vietnam.
Right. He was in Thailand.
Well, we “didn’t have any bases there…”
[He laughs, while motioning Shhhhh…]
Hmm, well I know one man that was at a base in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive where they attacked all at once.
That was scary! Well I’m glad you were out of harm’s way at the base that didn’t exist!
[He laughs motioning “Shhhh” again]
Are there any other incidents or stories you’d like to share about that time, or was it business as usual?
It was business as usual, but business was fantastic!
You were a shift supervisor the whole time you were there?
Yes! Four stripes. Staff Sergeant.
Then after that my assignment was Klamath Falls, Oregon. Got my fifth stripe! We had a radar control facility – GCA – Guard Control Approach. I was there less than a year. Then I went to Victorville, California – George Air Force Base. I was there for two years, ’72-’74.
You were still doing air traffic control?
There moving you around everywhere! You’re seeing the world!
Since the war is over by now, you are just doing general Air Force stuff!
Yes, ma’am! [He chuckles]
Then they tapped you as an instructor.
Yes! I was an instructor at Keesler Air Force Base! Yes, ma’am!
I got my sixth stripe at George Air Force Base. Master Sergeant – E-7!
You are teaching the youngsters now!
You catch on fast! [He chuckles] I was there for four years at Keesler.
That’s when you got your first degree.
Yes, my first degree. As an air traffic controller, I went to school part-time on the GI bill. Well here again, at George Air Force Base I went to pilot training in off-duty time. I got my commercial pilot’s license.
Oh! I didn’t know that!
Yes, ma’am! Talking to the air craft I could tell him what to do because I knew what it was like being up there myself!
He got certified as a twin engine pilot.
So he went to the University of Southern Mississippi while he was teaching at Keesler. And because of the credits he earned in the Air Force in their school, he graduated with a Bachelors’ degree in both Industrial Education and Psychology with a minor in Air Traffic Control.
Now he’s got a Masters’ degree in Board Certified Social Work and a Masters’ in Business Administration.
[He looks at me proudly!]
Then I was sent to Madrid, Spain.
Before you went to Spain, you went to language school.
Yes! I went to the Defense Language Institute where they teach different languages. So I went to California to learn Castilian Spanish.
I guess it would help to know the language.
Especially as an air traffic controller!
The problem is most Americans don’t speak true Spanish. We speak Mexican which has a mixture of Spanish, Indian and Portuguese in it. And to put him in the tower he needed Castilian Spanish.
Real Spanish. Huh!
So THEN you went to Madrid!
One night [in Madrid] he went out [to a bar] and a Special Forces Team was there and they started picking on this woman. He took exception to it and they worked him over.
My point exactly!
They found him face down in a parking lot. At three different
points that night he was declared dead.
They reallyREALLY worked him over!
He was gone for four and a half minutes at one point. No heartbeat, nothing!
You are a walking miracle!
They literally were signing his death certificate when he sat up.
He was in the hospital for twenty-one days two weeks of which he didn’t know who he was. The day he got his memory back they informed him his mother was dead. They flew him back to the States for her funeral and then brought him back to Spain. And of course, he went under psychiatric treatment in Germany twice. He had what they called as “shaken baby syndrome.” They kicked him hard enough in the back of his head that it cut a lesion on the front left lobe of his brain.
He went under psychiatric treatment for that and for the fact that he did not want the divorce [his first wife wanted]. That’s when he and I met. We were in a “support group” of individuals who were going through divorce, but had not initiated it.
And also since he had been unconscious for more than three hours, the Air Force has a rule that if you are unconscious for more than 10 minutes, you are no longer eligible to be an air traffic controller.
You are also no longer eligible to be a sergeant.
So he lost his job description. That meant he couldn’t be an air traffic controller, but he couldn’t be sent back to the States either without a job description.
Soooo, you were in this big loophole.
He’s in a catch-22! He’s got time off all the time because he can’t go to work.
But you’re getting paid.
We are in this country that is absolutely gorgeous!
I had an eight year old son and between the three of us, we went everywhere! We saw parts of Spain that a lot of people don’t see. Tell her about the Valle de los Caídos.
Oh, the Valley of the Fallen. It was an amphitheater that when the organ played, it would echo through the hills.
After the Spanish Civil War, Franco dedicated this valley to the fallen troops of Spain and built a cathedral in the side of the mountain. And in the morning, you’d go in that valley and the fog would be in there and then that pipe organ would start the music for mass. And it would roll through the whole valley!
Mr. John and Mrs. Nutefall listed multiple sites throughout Spain that they were able to see.
Now I was still married to my ex-husband at this point because you couldn’t get a divorce in Spain. And I couldn’t go home and get a divorce because you can’t divorce a serviceman who is overseas.
So my ex-husband came back to the States, got a divorce, came back and let me know — which meant I had to go back. John signed the paper so that when I got back, because his wife and children were still at Keesler, I could go and get his divorce finalized.
We had been writing all these letters, and as I was heading back, the day I was due to leave, he got a letter from the Secretary of the Air Force telling him that they were sending him back to the States. They had reclassified him.
You weren’t free anymore!
I got a new position as the Education Superintendent at Hanscom Field in Boston, Massechusetts.
Nice! What did you do?
The Air Force encourages all of their airmen to get more education. His job, although he still had a seizure disorder, was to coordinate classes at universities for these airmen all over the United States and Europe and to coordinate their training through the different Air Force schools.
Some of the airmen were getting their degrees through the Harvard Law School.
Usually the people there are becoming officers, are finishing a degree, have their degree, but are wanting more education, or have a special project they are working on for NASA.
Wow, very good! With all your degrees, that was something you were able to be qualified for!
We stayed there for one year.
We loved it up there.
I love the history!
Well our house on base was near the spot where Paul Revere got stopped.
So getting back to our timeline, when were you in Boston?
We retired in November of 1981. Show your ID card.
And I’m in uniform! I was thirty-eight.
That’s right before he went to LSU to get his Masters in Social Work. He was supposed to be going to Ball State because he was already in Ball State, but he got down here and my grandmother was sick and we decided to stay in Louisiana.
Is there anything else about your career that you would like me to know?
He was a board certified psychiatric social worker, working as a secretary of clinical services at Colosseum Mental Hospital in New Orleans, which means he was in charge of the doctors and nurses.
I was accepted to pursue a doctorate in social work at Tulane University.
Wow! How many degrees do you have?!
…but I had a stroke at that point in time.
Aw shucks! [He chuckles.]
Mr. John is still active in local veterans’ activities and in service to other veterans.