[Editor’s Note: We are privilege to have Ron Corbin as a guest today, a man who served during the Vietnam war as a helicopter pilot, surviving two tours of duty in that war-torn country before serving another six years as an LAPD police officer and pilot. Corbin’s flying career with LAPD ended when he and another police officer crashed in the mountains above Los Angeles, leaving his trainee dead and Corbin with 2nd and 3rd degree burns over 70 percent of his body. He left LAPD, continued college and graduate studies, and later served with Las Vegas Metro Police Department. Beyond Recognition, among other things, is about his love of flying and his story of survival over adversity.]
By Ron Corbin
After two tours in Vietnam as a chief warrant officer pilot flying Huey “slicks,” the Army offered me a direct
commission to a 2nd lieutenant if I re-enlisted. With no end in sight to the war, accepting “Uncle Sam’s” offer would mean another combat tour. I decided not to push-my-luck,” and signed-out.
To make a living as a husband and father, I returned to my old job in Southern California at UPS, putting on hold my career ambition of continuing to fly. While watching TV one evening at dinner time, a recruiting ad came on for LAPD. In the commercial, the helicopters flown by officers assigned to the Department’s air unit flashed across the screen. I looked at my wife, Kathy, and asked her what she thought about me joining the police department.
She wasn’t too keen on the idea, knowing the hazards of being a police officer. She suggested I look into the City or County Fire Department and trying to fly for them. To me, having to be a fireman first with no guarantee of ever getting to be a pilot didn’t seem any safer of a profession than being a street cop. So in my warped sense of humor, which at the time seemed logical to me, I justified my thought by saying that “I had been shot at in Vietnam, so being shot at as a cop won’t be that big of a deal. Running into a burning, smoked-filled building seemed to be a stupid idea, so I’d rather be a cop.” And with that, I started the process of becoming a Los Angeles Policeman in 1971.
After a few years fighting crime “Adam-12 style” on the streets of LA, I was one of the first two or three former military-trained pilots to be accepted into Air Support Division (ASD). Eventually I became one of their flight instructors.
During my two-year tenure as an ASD police pilot, my military training and past experience became a contention of jealousy and resentment by the unit’s chief pilot. I was called an “F-ing jet jockey.” More bitterness evolved when I was appointed by the training sergeant to be an IP under the chief pilot’s supervision.
Ironically, not wanting to be a firefighter due to the dangers of fire, I ended up receiving 70 percent 2nd & 3rd degree burns from a helicopter crash. It was June 11th, 1976, and I was the instructor pilot (IP) training another police student pilot. While landing to a pinnacle in the mountains separating the San Fernando Valley from the greater LA basin, our Bell 47-G model helicopter experienced a loss of power. We crashed and rolled down the mountain 167 feet in a ball of fire. My trainee, Jeff Lindenberg was killed, and I was fortunate to survive.
Due to my injuries, continuing need for skin graft reconstructive surgeries, and years of required rehab, I was pensioned-off from LAPD. At the age of thirty, I was faced with an uncertain future. My two greatest loves, police work and flying, had been taken from me in the blink of an eye. I was also suffering tremendous “Survivor’s Guilt” from the accident. Telling my side of the story would help with closure.
So, after thirty-six years, I finally decided to document some of my memoirs about my accident and the investigation. Having written only a few short magazine articles before, I never really considered myself as being an author for a major book. But, published or unpublished, I knew that doing so would leave something for my children and grandchildren to remember me…and it would expose the truth of what really happened that fateful day. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you’ve got something to say.”
Beyond Recognition was written to expose the truth of what happened in my accident. Rumors and speculation from hangar talk formed among the other pilots and observers in the unit. A lot of misinformation was given to the widow of my trainee, Lesa Lindenberg. As a result, she naturally shifted blame to me as the IP who was charged with keeping her husband safe. I wanted an opportunity to set the record straight.
Upon researching the transcripts from the investigation, I discovered that the post-accident investigation could not determine a cause; so typically, blame was slanted towards pilot error.
During the Board of Inquiry that was formed to investigate and interview, several interesting things occurred. The chief pilot took advantage of my hospitalization and traumatic amnesia to feed the board members lies and misleading statements that reflected negatively on my judgment and the flying skills of my student pilot.
The NTSB investigator, to this day, has never interviewed me, yet submitted her report as a matter of record as to what she thought the physical evidence was that led to the cause. As the IP and sole survivor, I find that quite intriguing.
And lastly, when litigation convened between the City of LA, the LAPD, and corporate attorneys representing Textron, Lycoming, and Bell Helicopter, a vital piece of wreckage recovered at the accident scene “mysteriously disappeared” from all the other pieces retained for investigation. This was nothing short of a “cover up” to protect and shift accountability of others’ responsibility and involvement.
Beyond Recognition goes beyond physical appearance that I exude with all my burns and scars. It goes beyond comprehending that military pilots have training and experience that cannot be duplicated from learning to fly at the local airport. It goes beyond the tolerance I needed to accept unwarranted blame for the accident by peers and friends. And it goes beyond understanding what it is to suffer a lifetime of “Survivor’s Guilt.”
*********Ron Corbin served two tours in Vietnam as an Army helicopter and instructor pilot. He received numerous unit and individual ribbons for combat action, to include being awarded the Air Medal 31 times, once with a “V” device for valor. Honorably discharged in 1969, he joined the LAPD as a policeman and pilot/instructor pilot for the Air Support Division. Retiring from LAPD after an on-duty helicopter accident, he finished his college and graduate education.
He holds a Masters in elementary education and a Ph.D. in security administration with an emphasis in terrorism threats to America’s nuclear resources. Joining the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department in 1993 as a crime prevention specialist, his specialty was Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). He attended training in this discipline at the National Crime Prevention Institute, University of Louisville. His CPTED subject matter expertise led him to be interviewed in Reader’s Digest, Sunset Magazine, PetroMart Business and Las Vegas Life magazines.
He also was responsible for publishing Metro’s in-house training journal, the Training Wheel. Ron has been a contributing columnist to Las Vegas Now magazine as well as a guest lecturer on Royal Caribbean International Cruise Lines, addressing citizens’ personal safety issues. He is the previous author of stories published in several anthologies, and recently authored Beyond Recognition (Oak Tree Press), a memoir about his helicopter crash with LAPD. Ron retired as LVMPD’s academy training manager in 2011. He and his wife Kathy have three children, six grandchildren, and live in Las Vegas.