Remembering and Honoring the Sacrifices of a McConnell Fighter Pilot

  • Published
  • By Airman William Lunn
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

 It was 57 years ago today, McConnell Air Force Base pilot Capt. David Hrdlicka was shot down during a mission over Laos during the Vietnam War. The story of Capt. Hrdlicka remains a mystery and his family continues to search for the truth of what happened to their husband and father.

David Hrdlicka was born in Minnesota but grew up in Littleton, Colorado. His wife, Carol, who still lives in the Wichita area, says David always had a passion for flying. Some of their first dates were spent flying together.

“He used to take me flying in a Piper Cub before he started flying for the Air Force,” said Carol. “It used to terrorize me because I don’t like being at high altitude, but I never showed him that I was afraid.”

Hrdlicka first enlisted in the Air Force after high school. He served in both the B-29 and B-36 bombers as a tail gunner before eventually taking the pilot’s test in the 1950s. After successfully passing the test, he entered the aviation cadet program ultimately changing paths to becoming an officer and a fighter pilot.

In April of 1965, Hrdlicka was serving with the 563rd Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 23rd Tactical Fighter Wing at McConnell, when his unit was deployed to Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, supporting the war in Vietnam. At the time, the Hrdlicka family lived about five minutes from McConnell and the couple had three children; two boys and a girl.

“He believed in what he was doing,” said Carol. “He said before he left, ‘This is what they trained me for. I have to go do my job.’”

On May 18, 1965, Hrdlicka, lead pilot in a group of four F-105 Thunderchiefs, went on a bombing mission when his aircraft was hit by enemy ground fire over Houa Phan Province, Laos. He survived the attack after successfully ejecting from his aircraft and parachuting to the ground, but was taken as a prisoner of war after his chute was spotted by the enemy.

Nearly a year after his capture, on July 26, 1966, a tape recorded broadcast was made by Capt. Hrdlicka in which he read a personal letter to Prince Souphanouvang, expressing his eagerness to see his family again.

In August of 1966, the Russian news service, PRAVDA, ran a photograph of Hrdlicka, head bowed, wearing his flight suit, with an armed guard behind him. The last time that he was photographed in captivity was as late as 1968 or 1969.

Carol held out hope that her husband would return but when 591 prisoners of war were released in January of 1973, David was not among them.

According to the official Air Force account of Capt. David Hrdlicka, “no information was ever received regarding his fate.” To this day his remains have never been recovered and returned.

In the decades since David’s capture, and ultimate disappearance, Carol Hrdlicka has traveled the world, including trips to Vietnam and Russia, looking for answers about her husband. His official status was changed to “Died While Captured” on November 21, 1977. By then, he’d been promoted to the rank of Colonel.

David and Carol’s two sons followed in their father’s footsteps pursuing careers in aviation. Oldest son David flew FA-18 Hornets in the Navy for 13 years, which led to a career as a pilot with American Airlines. Damian, their youngest, flew private aircraft for a Wichita area business before flying for American Eagle.

David Hrdlicka’s name is embedded in stone on the memorial walk at McConnell and is one of many honored pilots along the trail. An F-105 Thunder-chief is also on display near McConnell’s entrance.

“He was a good guy and a loyal person. He loved to fly,” Carol Hrdlicka said. “I never heard anyone say a bad word about him.”