Retired radar crew chief recalls time aboard ‘Triple Nickel’

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Editor’s note: In light of the Air Force’s upcoming 70th anniversary, the Skywrighter is publishing stories from select service members.

When Robert Sargent, a retired master sergeant and radar crew chief once stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, wants to recall how his former duty aircraft looked, he has some help: the Lockheed EC-121D Constellation he flew on stands in the Southeast Asia War Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

Sargent, 79, said he drives over from Columbus every three months to visit the EC-121, a radar-picket version of the Air Force’s C-121 passenger airplane. The EC-121 provided early warning by detecting and tracking enemy aircraft with the electronic gear in the large radomes above and below its fuselage.

Sargent’s years of service almost mimic the aircraft’s: he served from the Air Force’s anniversary on Sept. 18, 1956, to 1976, while EC-121s entered service with the Air Defense Command in 1953, and the last EC-121 was retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1978.

In Southeast Asia, these unarmed radar aircraft aided in downing enemy planes, directed U.S. aircraft to aerial refueling tankers, and guided rescue planes to downed pilots.

The aircraft on display was nicknamed Triple Nickel because of its serial number, 53-555. On Oct. 24, 1967, over the Gulf of Tonkin, it guided a U.S. fighter into position to destroy a MiG-21. This action marked the first time a weapons controller aboard an airborne radar aircraft had ever directed a successful attack on an enemy plane.

Triple Nickel came to the museum in 1971.

“I enjoyed being a rated crew member as an air traffic controller; I supervised the radar compartment,” Sargent said. “The function of the Triple Nickel was to provide radar surveillance.”

The EC-121 was flown by the 551st Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing at Otis AFB, Massachusetts, and the 552nd Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing at McClellan AFB, California. Sargent was stationed with both wings.

Early in his career he was stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB and served as an aircraft control and warning operator at the headquarters, located near Twin Lakes golf course, for the 58th Air Division of the Air Defense Command. He was named Airman of the Month in November 1957.

“I wasn’t in a unit that was organic to Wright-Patterson: I was in a tenant organization. That made the fact that I was Airman of the Month all the more significant,” he recalled.

A photo of Sargent and Maj. Gen. Donald Hardy, base commander at that time, still hangs in his den.

He said he enjoys looking back over his years of service and visiting the Air Force Museum.

“Every aircraft in the museum has a story, and I had many experiences in the airplane that I am thankful turned out positive,” Sargent said.

“I was so tickled when I found out Triple Nickel was at the museum; I bounced in one day, all excited, and found one of the docents near the plane. I told him (my story) and he said, ‘You’d be amazed at how many people come in here who have flown on these planes.’ That burst my bubble – naturally I thought I was the only one that had ever flown in a plane that was there.”

Sargent said he enjoys taking friends on their first visit to the museum.

“I want them to share what a wonderful situation we have with this military museum,” he said. “Everybody knows it to be the best ticket in the Midwest. All you have to do is see all the children and the families there to appreciate how wonderful that is.”