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Colorado Springs pilot mourned, celebrated after 48 years missing in Vietnam

May 9, 2017 Updated: May 9, 2017 at 3:53 pm
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photo - American flag by Airman 1st Class Michael Alvarez presents Carol Helwig with an American flag flown in honor of her husband Capt. Roger D. Helwig at the Memorial Pavilion at the Air Force Academy on Tuesday May 9, 2017. Family and other members of the community attended the memorial service for Helwig was listed as killed-in-action during the Vietnam War. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette.
American flag by Airman 1st Class Michael Alvarez presents Carol Helwig with an American flag flown in honor of her husband Capt. Roger D. Helwig at the Memorial Pavilion at the Air Force Academy on Tuesday May 9, 2017. Family and other members of the community attended the memorial service for Helwig was listed as killed-in-action during the Vietnam War. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette. 

Thundering jets above Colorado Springs Tuesday morning bid a final farewell to a native son who went missing 48 years ago on a mission to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

It was a sound that Capt. Roger Helwig loved. Helwig, who was born in Trinidad and raised in Colorado Springs, was a free spirit known for meticulous honesty oddly melded with a wild streak that drove him to seek adventure in the sky.

"He was a tremendous guy," said retired Maj. Jack Schnurr, a flight school friend, after an Air Force Academy memorial for the captain.

Helwig loved the F-4 Phantom and new bride Carol in what some joking called equal measures when he flew off for his second tour in Vietnam in 1969.

"He didn't have to be there," Schnurr said. "He volunteered to go back."

Taps is performed as family and other members of the community attend the memorial service for Capt. Roger D. Helwig at the Memorial Pavilion at the Air Force Academy on Tuesday May 9, 2017. Helwig was listed as killed-in-action during the Vietnam War. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette. 

On his first tour overseas, Helwig flew in the second seat of the F-4, running the plane's weapons systems and electronics as a GIB, the military acronym for "guy in back."

After he came home, Helwig got more flight training and headed back to war as the guy in front.

He was a forward air controller, one of the legendary "fast-FACs" who ranged far and wide over Southeast Asia spotting targets for troops on the ground.

During his final flight, Helwig and Capt. Roger Stearns were 10 miles west of Vietnam on a mission to stop the flow of arms and troops that fueled the Viet Cong insurgency. Flights against targets in neutral Laos, though, were something the Air Force avoided discussing in public.

Records say the two had just bombed a target, and the jet was trailing a mist of fuel before it exploded. Searchers later found shredded parachutes and the remains of a life raft, but they didn't find Helwig or Stearns.

In 1990, a Defense Department team returned to the crash site and found Stearns' remains. Helwig stayed missing until last summer.

His widow got a visit from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in August. Searchers had found a tiny talisman at the jungle site: Helwig's dog tag.

"It was surreal when I held that in the palm of my hand," Carol said Tuesday. "It was as if I was reliving the past."

Family and other members of the community watch a flyover as they attend the memorial service for Capt. Roger D. Helwig at the Memorial Pavilion at the Air Force Academy on Tuesday May 9, 2017. Helwig was listed as killed-in-action during the Vietnam War. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette. 

Dozens gathered at the academy Tuesday to relive the past with her and tell stories about the 26-year-old pilot.

Lt. Col. Mike Newton, a chaplain, told mourners they need to remember Helwig's courage.

"I have no idea what it took to fly 100 missions in Vietnam, each one of them harrowing," Newton said. "But he strapped it on every time."

Carol remembered the kind but kind of crazy young man she met when he was riding his motorcycle from Arizona to Washington, D.C.

She knew she was competing with a twin-engined jet for Helwig's affection.

"He loved flying," she said.

Helwig left no children to mourn him, but a wide array of friends came to the Air Force Academy cemetery to remember.

The academy supplied an honor guard, rifle team and a bugler to play taps.

Air Combat Command offered up four F-15 Eagle fighters to blaze overhead in the missing man formation.

Carol supplied her own touch. Bells played a last waltz for the man she loved - the theme song of Doctor Zhivago, the first film they had seen together.

And as the bells played, quiet voices whispered the song's tale of love long lost but reclaimed.

"Somewhere, my love, there will be songs to sing.

Although the snow covers the hope of spring."

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

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