Veteran combat pilot keeps flying for work, pleasure
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Veteran combat pilot keeps flying for work, pleasure
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Jim Burch just can't get enough flying.

He flew Cobra helicopters in combat in Vietnam, flies reconnaissance planes as a defense contractor and pilots his own Piper Lance six-seater for fun. His dad, who was a pilot and served in World War II, took him on his first flight when he was 5.

"So it's been in my blood a long time," said Burch, a senior program manager and pilot for L3 Communications, which is based in Greenville, Texas. A member of the Huntsville office, he plans to leave for Afghanistan in May for 90 days as a pilot. He was a site manager in Afghanistan from 2010-12 for an airborne reconnaissance program for the Army.

After two years at San Jose State, where he was a physics and math major, he joined the Army in September 1968 because he wanted to fly. He also wanted to be a Soldier -- like his father, uncles and cousins who were all World War II veterans. He was the oldest of three children -- two boys and a girl. He served 31 years in the Army, retiring Sept. 1, 1999, at Fort Rucker as a lieutenant colonel in the aviation branch.

Burch first visited Huntsville in 1985 and bought a home in Madison in June 1999. Through the years he has worked for SAIC, Aerodyne and for the past five years with L3 Communications. He flew in Iraq from 2006-08 for a reconnaissance program with Aerodyne.

"I always wanted to be a Soldier, be an aviator, so I have absolutely no regrets," Burch said.

He went to flight school 1968-69 and graduated in October 1969 at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia, followed there by Cobra school the next month. Burch served a year in Vietnam from 1970-71 as a warrant officer and Cobra pilot with D Troop, 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry, 1st Aviation Brigade. He was based at Vinh Long in the Mekong Delta. After Vietnam, Burch was a standardization instructor pilot and instrument flight examiner at Fort Rucker before becoming a commissioned officer in the armor branch upon completion of officer candidate school in 1975.

He flew 1,100 combat hours in Vietnam, where his tactical call sign was "Crusader 33."

"It was just a mission. We flew four gunships (Cobras), four slicks (Hueys) and four scout aircraft (Loaches) and we'd take off on a mission every day," Burch said. The gunships and slicks flew daytime and nighttime missions; and the scouts normally flew just at daytime.

"You get a lot of camaraderie," he said, declining to share specifics about the combat experiences. "The friendships and camaraderie, because the only way a unit like that functions is as a team."

He did mention the contrast between the missions in Vietnam and the two months in Cambodia from May-June 1970 for the Cambodia invasion. "When you were in Vietnam doing missions, we were handing off a lot of the fighting to the Vietnamese, their operational security was poor which meant it was very difficult to win battles," he said. "The Cambodian invasion was just the opposite. In other words, we achieved operational and tactical surprise for a change."

Burch, 66, received two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, Army Commendations with valor, Air Medals with valor, and a number of Air Medals and other badges. The Indiana native who grew up in California is a Master Aviator and has an airline transport pilot's license. He started flying fixed-wing aircraft for the Army 1983; and that's how he got into signal intelligence reconnaissance. He keeps his Piper Lance, which he has owned since 2005 with three other partners, at Huntsville International Airport.

He has a bachelor's in business from the University of Texas at El Paso (1983), a master's in computers and information resource management from Webster University (1992) and a certificate of systems engineering from the University of Alabama in Huntsville (2003).

He resides in Madison with his wife, Nancy, a former Army intelligence officer who is a registered nurse at Huntsville Hospital. He has two sons -- Robert, 43, of Covington, Georgia, and Shaun, 25, of Birmingham -- two grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Most of his weekends have something to do with flying.

Burch quipped that this nation's commemoration of the 50th year since the Vietnam War is "49 years too late."

"I'm glad they're doing it," he said.

Editor's note: This is the 16th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.