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Gene Thomas, a Bedford native and 1971 Liberty High School grad, has loved art since his elementary school days.
“I started drawing when I was in fourth grade,” he said.
He was also fascinated with military aircraft from the time he was in elementary school. His drawings came from photographs in a book called “Fighting Aces in the Pacific.”
He started painting with acrylics in his high school art class when he was a senior. Years later, in 2000, he taught himself how to paint with an airbrush.
“I really enjoy it,” Thomas said of painting.
In between those times, he worked as an aircraft mechanic in the Air Force. The motivating force behind this was not a love of military aircraft. It was a low draft lottery number.
The United States was still drafting young men into the armed forces in the early 1970s and a draft lottery had been set up to decide the order in which the men would be drafted. The numbers were drawn based on birthdays and, the lower the number your birthday drew, the more likely it was that you would get a written invitation from Uncle Sam.
Gene and his twin brother got 53 as a draft number — a number low enough that they knew they were going to be drafted for sure. Like many other young men with low draft numbers, they decided to enlist so they could go in on their own terms. Both men chose the Air Force.
“In basic [training] together was a trip,” he said. “Our bunks were side by side.”
Both men also chose to become aircraft mechanics and this led to some confusion later on because both men were assigned to the same Strategic Air Command unit. The only difference was that Gene Thomas was assigned to the unit’s FB-111 bombers and his brother was assigned to the unit’s aerial tankers. FB-111’s were being used as strategic bombers at the time and their weapons load included two B61 gravity nuclear bombs.
“I’d be getting my brother’s phone calls,” he said.
Eventually that problem was solved by paging either “Tanker Thomas” or “Bomber Thomas” to the phone.
During his time in the Air Force Gene Thomas had two tours of duty in South Korea, one two-year tour of duty in Okinawa and a 15-month tour at Incirlik Airbase in Turkey. He also had a number of temporary duty tours, including one that took him to Brunei In his early years, he worked on F-4 Phantoms in addition to the FB-111s. Later he serviced F-15s and F-16s.
From an aircraft mechanic’s point of view, the F-15 was far superior to the F-4. Thomas said a five-man crew could replace an engine in an F-15, and have it running, in two hours.
“In the F-4, it could take a week to change an engine,” he said.
Newer aircraft, including the Navy’s F-14s, proved superior to the F-4s in other ways. Thomas recalls a deployment with a squadron equipped with F-4Es. The F-4s did an exercise in which they engaged in mock aerial combat with F-14s and he recalled that when his jet came back, the pilot had a strange expression on his face. Thomas asked the pilot what was wrong,
“Those damn F-14s!” the pilot exclaimed. “They really tore us up!”
Painting while serving
During his time in the Air Force he did painting for pilots, although the nose art that decorated aircraft durning World War II was forbidden. As an example, in one case he did a painting for a pilot who had named his fighter “Royal Flush,” after the poker hand. Thomas did a painting of a royal flush hand and put it in the plane’s records.
He also did a painting for the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders when they came to Incirlik as part of a USO show.
Although Thomas, for the present, is not doing art commercially, he recently took an airbrush to a leather jacket he owns.
“I needed to put something on the back,” he explained.
Thomas did the painting after a lithograph by Robert Taylor. The painting shows a F-4C flown by Colonel Robin Olds just after making a low-level bombing run in Vietnam. Thomas said the FG on the Phantom’s vertical stabilizer indicates the jet was part of the 433rd Fighter Squadron.