ALTUS AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --
When one considers the similarities between the 97th Air Mobility Wing and Maj. (Ret) Jerry Zimmerman, it is no surprise that both ended up in the same place.
While the modern version of the 97th Air Mobility Wing is busy training “Exceptional Mobility Airmen” for the KC-135 Stratotanker, C-17 Globemaster III and KC-46 Pegasus aircraft, both the wing and Zimmerman have bomber legacies.
On Aug. 1, 1953, Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma was reactivated as a training base for transport aircraft. Later that same year, on November 18, the 96th Bombardment Wing arrived and began operations under Strategic Air Command with three squadrons of bombers and one air refueling squadron. These squadrons eventually flew the first jet-engine bomber, the B-47 Stratojet, and the dual-purpose cargo and air refueling aircraft, the KC-97 Stratofreighter.
Five years earlier in 1948, Zimmerman’s military story began. After originally enlisting in 1948 as a communication specialist, the Tulsa native served one enlistment term and decided to separate from the Air Force. After a short break in service, he joined the Air Force again. He served seven years and became a master sergeant before he decided to commission as an officer and continue his service as a pilot.
“I originally commissioned because of the pay difference to better provide for my family, but that is how I discovered my love for flying,” said Zimmerman. “I would say that my life truly didn’t start until I had started flying; nothing else like it.”
Throughout Zimmerman’s career, he was stationed at seven different installations and flew on seven different airframes, but the B-47 was his main aircraft.
The B-47 was a bomber plane utilized in the early days of the Air Force. According to Richard Guinan, 97th AMW historian, the plane was used for alert bombing missions at the time, among other things.
“The B-47 arrived to the base in 1958 and was the first all-jet refueling refueler to work with the KC-135,” said Guinan. “At the time, the base was an active duty installation that flew over the Arctic Circle from the base. During its time, like the KC-46, it had top-of-the-line technology utilized for reconnaissance by having one aircraft always in the air all the time.”
While Zimmerman has many fond memories of his time in the Air Force, he said the B-47 certainly provided his most lasting one.
“At a certain altitude it was safe to eject (the B-47), but anything below that wasn’t recommended at all. Sometimes you didn’t have a choice,” Zimmerman said. “I remember a person who was landing and ejected while on the ground; didn’t survive it. I thought it was crazy to do something like that. Little did I know, a week later I would be doing the same thing myself. To my knowledge, I have been the only person to survive an event such as this.”
Zimmerman served for 13 of his 20 years as a pilot. During this time, he accumulated a total of 10,000 flight hours, with his longest solo flight lasting 32 hours. Even so, Zimmerman wishes he’d stayed in longer – a sentiment soothed by his decision to currently call the Altus community home.
“Getting out when I did was a big mistake of mine because I miss the military and flying every day since,” said Zimmerman. “This has been the smallest town I have lived in since I was 15, but the town has a nice pace, community and environment. Being in this area and seeing the planes brings up a lot of emotions and makes me wish I would have flown for a lot longer than I did.”
With Zimmerman’s career now behind him, the life-long Oklahoman said he is grateful for the impact his service to the Air Force has made in his life.
“I wish more people would join the military,” said Zimmerman. “There are things in the military I couldn’t get anywhere else. I wish that it was mandatory just for one year so people could get an understanding of what the military could offer. I wish I would have stayed in longer and would do it all over again in a heartbeat.”