Rocket engineer’s eyes fell on Air Force pilot | Jobs Vox


Walter Soulak was engineering space systems right out of college but he still dreamed of flying for the Air Force.

“When I was little, I was looking up in the air and there was this big group of bombers flying over my house,” says Sollak, 82, of Camden. “I said, ‘Man, I want to be an Air Force pilot.’

He was 27 when he joined the army. In April 1969, after completing pilot training, he was sent to Vietnam as an instructor pilot in the Special Operations Unit at Nha Trang Air Base.

He was flying from one remote area to another along the Cambodian border when someone fired a bullet that pierced his plane.

“There was a village nearby and someone had an AK-47 rifle and started firing at the plane,” Solak says. “There were holes in my plane.”

A passenger on the plane took a bullet, its energy mercifully blunted after a trip through a military toolkit. The second shell hit the aircraft’s external fuel tank. Soulak remained calm and guided his aircraft to its designated position.

“I was able to get a ladder from the local guys and I got a stick and a rag and closed up the hole, and I went on with my mission,” he says.

Soulak grew up in Pitcairn, Pa., near Pittsburgh, the second oldest of five. His father was a construction contractor; His mother was a housewife. Both parents cheered in the stands at each of his football games.

The family had fruit trees and a summer garden, raised ducks and chickens and rehabilitated raccoons, white-tailed deer, crows and more. Soulak often checked traplines before going to school, and he enjoyed trout fishing with a friend.

He met his wife, Lynn, during his senior year at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa., where he was studying engineering on a football scholarship.

After graduation he got an engineering job at the Martin Space Division in Denver, where he worked on the Titan II missile system and the Titan IIIC space booster. From there he took an engineering position at NASA in New Orleans, where he added the Saturn B1 Space Launch Vehicle and the Apollo Moon Program to his project list.

However, he realized that he needed to move on quickly if he wanted to pursue his dream of becoming an Air Force pilot.

He contacted a recruiter and took a sick day from work to begin the testing process. Later, the recruiter called to tell him that further testing was needed at Kessler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss.

“He said, ‘All I can tell you is that you scored higher on the pilot test than anyone else in the New Orleans recruiting district,'” Solak says.

The increasing demands of time made it necessary for him to inform his supervisor about his goal. On the third day of the trial, the recruiter picked her up just in time for the drive to Biloxi.

“We were out of time when we got there, and the Air Force recruiter intentionally went to the gas station to make us late,” Solak says.

Three men in suits greeted him in the office with a brief message about his late arrival.

Soulak said, “It bothered me.”

The besieged ignore the tirade issued in response, and at the end of another long day of evaluation Soulak ends up in an office full of space memorabilia.

“The guy there asked me if I’d like to get on a rocket and go into space,” Solak says. “I was being considered for the astronaut program.”

Being late was part of the assessment, they found, so they could see how they dealt with stress and frustration.

After his service in Vietnam, Soulak flew the C-141 out of McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Wash.

He later spent two years in Taipei, Taiwan.

“I worked with the Chinese Defense Center in a tunnel under a mountain,” he says. “The United States was involved in supporting the Chinese and I was the liaison officer and sat next to the generals who were conducting the defense of Taiwan with their radar systems,” he says.

He worked 11 hours a day and 13 hours at night with a day and a half off, which gave him and his wife a chance to explore the area.

“We know the Chinese very well. They entertain us and we entertain them,” he says. “We used to go hiking and they would take us to some remote Chinese temples.”

Much of Soulak’s 21-year Air Force career has been classified as top secret. However, he may mention that he once flew behind the Iron Curtain in Warsaw, Poland. Other flights took him to England, Germany, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Bahrain, the Philippines, Thailand, Guam, Japan, and Korea, as well as the Aleutian Islands, Diego Garcia Island, Wake Island, and Midway Island.

In 1987 he and Lynn moved to Camden, where he worked for nearly 20 years as program manager for Tracker Inc., Atlantic Research Corporation, and Aerojet Corporation, supporting rocket motor and warhead production programs.

“It’s been an amazing life and career,” Solak says.


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