The EC-121 Bat Cat patrolled 24/7 in “Operation Barrel Roll” monitoring sensors along the Mc-Namara line in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. The flight engineer monitored the control panel determining speed, fuel requirements and monitoring all mechanical systems onboard the aircraft. The EC-121 crew collected electronic intelligence, picked up radio transmissions and used information to target air strikes. This was one assignment among many during the 30-year career in the of Master Sergeant Luis Estela, United States Air Force. In 1953, young Luis Estela completed the School of Aviation Training, the equivalent of high school, but one that required an entrance examination and uniforms. “I always wanted to fly since I was a little kid, so that’s where I went”, and enlisted in the Air Force in 1953. Luis completed Flight Engineer school as the Korean War was nearing its end. He received $68.00 per month! “And that was before the First Sergeant collected all the donations to charities,” MSGT Estela recalled.
Luis met the love of his life on assignment in England: she was the daughter of a British Captain who served in World War I. As a young child, she endured flooded air raid shelters and limited comforts of home. As a married man, he received $100.00 more per month! During their marriage that included assignments across the United States and missions around the world, her strength, skill and love ensured he was supported no matter where he went, for how long and who knows where. They were married 43 years and raised four children: he also has 4 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren.
Over the course of his career, he flew on numerous cargo and intelligence aircraft, to include “Old Shaky” or C-124, the EC121, the C-130, C-7A, C-5 and as a flying crew chief on the B-47 Stratojet. The missions in Alaska along the “Blue Line” included numerous landings with severely limited visibility and minimum fuel due to the cargo on board. As he earned more senior rank, he was often a trainer. At retirement, MSGT Estela had 301 Combat Support missions and was a member of the Million Mile Club. His C-130 duty included 6-month tours in Formosa and Okinawa.
In Vietnam, flights provided combat support for Special Forces troops: “just above the trees”. After the loss of aircraft, night landings became the norm in Vietnam. They would fly at night in a three-plane formation to drop off Special Forces and supplies running the propellers out of synch so it would sound like many more aircraft to the enemy. “There were several times that the entire 30+ crew held our breath when our C-7 used “Special Visual Flight Rules” (VFR) to land and finally breathed when we were safely down”, he shared. The C-7 was uniquely designed to fly in and out of camps on unimproved air strips.
Even though you fly over and above so much, Luis related that it is still personal. You are responsible for the mission and as the flight engineer doing everything possible to ensure the crew’s safety too. Luis recalled a tragic mission in Vietnam where two planes with several Army combat battalions had crashed. His flight assignment was to recover the dead to include a 19-year-old soldier. Even more tragically, upon returning, they learned that his wife and two children had died the day after him from a tornado in Waco. It’s personal. A mission to Africa required delivery of a time-sensitive delivery of an antenna to track satellites. His story of flying members of the French Foreign Legion and their equipment into Africa which included not only a 20-hour flight in a C-5 Galaxy with inflight refueling, but “we had to watch them drinking during the flight”! He lost track of the number of times he crossed the equator.
MSG Estela was awarded a list of medals and commendations from both the Army and the Air Force: many of them awarded multiple times. He earned 11 Air Medals which were awarded for numbers of flying hours by type, Air Force Commendation Medals, Armed Forced Expeditionary Medal, Vietnam Service Medal w/ one device, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal and numerous others. After his 27 years and 21 days of active- duty service, he continued in the Air Force Reserve. When he retired from service, he was a VIA Bus driver and instructor in San Antonio until age 67, all the while continuing to run 4 miles per day with his dog. He enjoys gardening at his home in Bandera: vegetables, flowers, trees, but orchids are a favorite challenge. At 88 years of age, Luis also has an amazing Jeep that is outfitted with everything so he can take his grandchildren camping. As a kid, “I always wanted to fly.” We thank you, MSG Estela for not only making your dream of flight come true but doing so in the U.S. Air Force for 30 years. A flight engineer inspects and operates the mechanical systems of the aircraft. It requires a high degree of skill and attention to detail so pilots and crews can complete their mission and return home safely. We are proud that MSG Luis Estela did so much more than compete his mission and is now part of our Bandera County veteran community. We honor his service to country and community.
Bandera Honors Veterans displays, program, parade and veterans’ barbeque will be held at the Courthouse on Saturday, November 12, 2022. For more information, go to the website: http://www. al157tx.org or contact Gary at 717679-4434 or 830-796-7528.
Susan Junker is the Commander of American Legion Post 157.