HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - From the cotton fields of Madison to flying one of the largest planes in the world, a veteran turned published author and motivational speaker is sharing his story of success.
His nearly 40-year career included landing a burning plane in Vietnam and being hijacked as a commercial airline pilot.
Carl Gamble was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee and grew up in Madison, Alabama.
When he was in first grade, his school burned down and the children ended up going to school in different churches. A new school was built when he was in the fifth grade.
He went to Council Training High School, which is now the ROTC building for Alabama A&M. When he graduated from high school, he went to Tennessee State University where he majored in Aviation Technology because he knew he wanted to become a pilot.
His dream started when he was picking cotton as a young boy.
"I would watch the F-84s fly over the cotton fields. Sometimes you would see them. Sometimes, you would just hear the noise. I told my mother that’s what I wanted to be and she told me that if I committed myself, I could make my dream come true," Gamble said.
He graduated college with an ROTC commission as a first lieutenant in the Air Force. He thought his dream to be a pilot was shattered when he took his physical and was told he had an astigmatism.
"With that, you’re disqualified to fly. But when I went to summer camp, I took another physical and my dream was re-established because I found out that I didn’t have an astigmatism," he explained.
Gamble worked one summer at Redstone Arsenal between his college graduation and before going into the Air Force, helping design the Honest John Missile in the prototype and inertia lab for its free fall back to earth.
Then he went to pilot training, which he says is one of the most difficult things he’s ever done. The fail rate is more than 33 percent for undergraduate pilot training, he said.
When he graduated, his first assignment was in Vietnam.
“I had gotten a gun ship assignment, the AC-47 Spooky, but before I got there, they took that away and gave me another assignment which was dropping leaflets telling the VC to give up. Instead of dropping bombs, we were dropping leaflets. I thought it was a pretty safe mission," Gamble said.
He flew 244 combat missions in Vietnam. On one of those missions, his aircraft was hit by a .50 caliber machine gun bullet that went through the fuselage , through the left wing and into the left engine.
"Right away, the engine started to burn and it was burning with an intense fire and smoke. We had to decide if we were going to bail out or fly the airplane back to the air base," Gamble explained.
They decided to try to make it out because their location was very dangerous. After Gamble made the turn to head back, the left wing fuel tank exploded, taking some of the wing with it.
"We’re flying on one engine and just a little more than half a wing truing to get the airplane back," he said.
The crew called him from the back of the aircraft and asked him to hurry because of all of the smoke they were dealing with. The plane started losing altitude and right after they landed, the fire got even more intense.
The fire was going past the exit door and the crew called and said they couldn’t get out of the airplane. He then heard a helicopter hovering above them to push the flames far enough away so they could exit the aircraft.
"We weren’t out of it for 30 seconds before the auxiliary fuel tanks blew and destroyed the entire airplane. It was just a ball of fire. If we had flown it for another two minutes, I would not be here today to tell you about the incident," Gamble revealed.
He kept everyone alive and Gamble received a Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism during that mission.
After Vietnam, he came back to the U.S. and was assigned to a KC-135 unit doing aerial refueling in Michigan. That’s where he met his wife, Elaine. She was going to school at Northern Michigan University at the time. Gamble made the decision to get out of the Air Force and fly with the airlines.
"I didn’t want to get shot at anymore. I don’t want the rocket attacks," he said.
He sent his resume to several. It was a bumpy start with the fuel crisis, which led to layoffs and hiring freezes. Gamble worked as a middle manager at McDonald’s in Detroit.
"I’m a decorated combat veteran cooking hamburgers in Detroit where they were robbing stores and putting the crews in the freezers. We even had an alarm so that if we got robbed and thrown in the freezer, we could at least call police," Gamble stated.
A friend called him and said he got a job with Piedmont Airlines and that they were hiring other pilots. He got hired with Piedmont in 1974. He was laid off and then re-hired several times. When he came back the third time, things really took off for Piedmont. He made captain in five years where it normally takes 12 years with a commercial airline, he said.
“I flew 29 years with Piedmont/U.S. Air and eight years in the Air Force,” Gamble added.
In 1984, he was hijacked to Cuba. The man said his name was Lt. Spartacus. He was a member of the Black Liberation Army and thought he could go to Cuba to get guerrilla warfare training and bring it back to America. He told Gamble he had accomplices and had a bomb on the plane and that if Gamble didn’t take them to Havana, they would blow the plane up.
Gamble went to Cuba and the plane was surrounded by police. They let the passengers and crew off and the suspect ended up surrendering. He spent 15 years in prison in Cuba and then 15 years as a citizen there. When he got back to the U.S., he faced an air piracy trial all over again. He pleaded to a lesser charge and Gamble did not have to face him again in the courtroom.
Gamble was inspired to write his book My Blue Yonder, a memoir outlining his career and all of the obstacles he overcame along the way to becoming a legendary aviator.
"There were two things that happened during my 37 years of flying- landing a burning plane and being hijacked to Cuba. As the old saying goes in the aviation industry, there are bold pilots and there are old pilots but there are no old bold pilots. There are pilots who have been hijacked and pilots who have landed burning airplanes. I am potentially the first pilot to do both," Gamble said.
He retired in 2003. His last three years, he flew from Charlotte to London, Frankfurt, Paris and Madrid on an A330 which an airplane that’s 208 ft long. It carries 14 flight attendants and has nine bathrooms. He was making $328 an hour, $28,000 month.
Now he spends most of his time going from high school to high school, speaking to young people to inspire the future generation of pilots.
"I love to talk to the kids and let them know that the airlines can be up and down but it’s a really good career," he added. "There will be a shortage of pilots in the next 20 years. This is the time to start taking the courses and looking how to get into different schools."
To be inducted into the Hall of Heroes in the place where he’s from, where his dreams were born, is very special for Gamble.
"It’s an honor. Out of all my dreams, I never thought I would be coming back to where I grew up to talk about the things that have happened to me during my career. The biggest thing is to be looked at as a hero. I just consider myself a common guy," he said.
He now lives in Matthews, North Carolina. Gamble and his wife Elaine have been married for 46 years and have two children and four grandchildren.
Gamble shared the message he tells young people when he does various speaking engagements and mentoring sessions.
“You choose a goal and stick to it,” he said. “When you commit, you just don’t say you’re going to do something. You go ahead and do it and while you’re doing it, you have to endure the struggle. If you get knocked down, you have to get back up. Life is not always pretty but you get back up and get in the game.”