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U.S. Air Force Helicopter History
U.S. Air Force Major (Ret.) Richard C. Kirkland Sr. died on March 27, 2019 in Vienna, Virginia, surrounded by his loving wife, Maria and his family, just eight days before his 96th birthday. During his career in the Air Force, Kirkland Sr. spent time at Stead Air Force Base in Reno, Nevada.
Richard C. Kirkland Sr. was born on 04 April 1923 in Bakersfield California to William and Eula Kirkland. They lived on the Grapevine where William worked for General Petroleum at Rose Station. The Kirkland family immigrated from Canada to the US in 1888, settling in Bakersfield where relatives continue to live. His mother’s family, the Carpenters and Rascoes, moved from Texas & New Mexico to Bakersfield in 1908.
Richard lived through the Great Depression which instilled in him the virtues of hard work, thrift, family values and being optimistic about the future. He excelled in Boy Scouts learning to always be “prepared.” He displayed artistic interests early, developing his abilities into a professional artist. Richard enjoyed a lifelong love of outdoor activities, particularly fishing in the High Sierra Nevada Mountains. Those interests were passed to his children and grandson.
Richard graduated from Kern County Union High School in 1940, where he excelled artistically focusing on a career in writing and art. In 1941 Richard was attending Junior College in Bakersfield, studying commercial art while also enrolled in a government sponsored flight training program at Lone Pine California, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He immediately joined the Army Air Corps to fight for his country.
He ultimately flew 103 air combat missions in P-38 & P-47 fighters in the South Pacific, many with Dick Bong, America’s Ace of Aces.
Upon return from the war, he married Geraldine Smith (deceased 1972) and they had four children, Richard Jr. (wife Cindy), Roger James (wife Kathleen), Candace Lee, and Pamela, both deceased.
Richard was very proud of his Grandson Kris, who he taught to fly helicopters. Kris went on to a distinguished career of 31 years in the Nevada Army Guard as a combat helicopter pilot and is now a Helicopter firefighting pilot for the Nevada Division of Forestry, following in his cherished grandfather’s footsteps.
After the war, Richard stayed in the military to continue flying. He began flying helicopters in 1946. In 1953, he was transferred to the Atomic Bomb testing in the South Pacific on Eniwetok Island in Operation Greenhouse. He flew scientists to and from the bomb explosion sites both before and after four separate bomb tests. He was then sent to the Korean War as a helicopter pilot, assigned to the 8055th Army MASH hospital of the TV show fame. He knew and worked with the ‘real’ Hawkeye, Doctor Sam Gelfand. He and ‘Hawkeye’ had a reunion two years ago at his house. Richard flew 69 combat missions in Korea, many behind enemy lines, in unarmed helicopters saving many soldiers and airmen’s lives. He spent the rest of his military life as an Air Force Helicopter pilot repeatedly saving both military and civilian lives. During his military career, he served in 172 combat missions in two wars, earning him the Distinguished Flying Cross, five air medals, the Air Force Commendation Medal and many others.
After five years at Stead Air Force base in Reno, he retired after serving 21 years in the Air Force. He then went to work for the Hughes Helicopter company selling executive and police helicopters.
Richard headed the first major Police Helicopter sales program in California called operation Sky Night, which introduced the practical use of helicopters to Police work. He ultimately became National Sales Manager flying helicopters for another 25 years. He retired from flying in his mid-70 after 55 years of flying.
He spent a lot of his retirement time fishing with his sons, Richard Jr. and Roger, in his beloved Sierra Nevada Mountains outside Reno, Nevada where he was stationed for five years in the Air Force.
Richard also spent many years of family fun with Maria and their children at their Cabin on the Chesapeake Bay. He was a lifelong talented artist and writer, winning artistic awards, ultimately publishing five books. His book “Wide Place in the Road” is a novel roughly based on his life on the Grapevine. He sketched and painted in oil and watercolor all his life.
In 1974, Richard met and married his soul mate Maria McNiff who had five children. Richard loved and helped raise Maria’s children; Andrea, Stephanie, John, Mike, and Kevin along with 17 grandchildren. Their love for each other and their family was the cornerstone of their lives. They shared numerous adventures during their 45 years touring the U.S. and the world.
Richards’s optimism always led him to encourage others. So, when he married Maria, he encouraged her to try painting. She ultimately ended up excelling at it. Later, they both competed in and won numerous awards for their watercolor paintings. Richard was also a very talented sculptor, beginning with ice sculptures, then metals sculpting, which he incorporated into his paintings. He was a true renaissance man, possessing a lifelong pursuit of ever-increasing knowledge, skill and interests, always expanding his thirst for knowledge about, and enjoyment of, the arts.
He was one of the world’s greatest optimists, always seeing the best in everything and everybody, encouraging his family and friends to make the most out of life. He presented a perpetual smile and countenance as he greeted friends and family alike. Richard led a life that was an example for all on how to get the most out of every day.
Richard was very proud of the hundreds of lives that he saved over his career using helicopters. His books tell those stories. He inspired those around him with his optimism and love for life, family and Country. He was the ultimate father, husband, son, brother, friend, mentor and American patriot.
Richard’s life served as a living example of what the Greatest Generation is. Heated war but fought in two wars for America and then worked with fellow members of the Greatest generation to help build the America that Tom Brokaw described in his book. He will be lovingly remembered by his family and his legions of friends. Richard leaves a legacy of optimism, hard work, love of family and country, adventure, outdoor fun and living life to the fullest.
Funeral services will be held at the Fort Myers Chapel at 9:00 AM, September 26, 2019, with interment to follow in Arlington National Cemetery. Funeral arrangements are under the direction of Money & King Funeral Home, Vienna, Virginia – (703) 938-7440.One of his sons, Richard (Dick) Kirkland Jr. grew up in Reno. He loved the area so much, he chose to stay in Reno where he met his wife, Major General (Ret.) Cindy Kirkland. Kirkland Jr. became Reno’s Police Chief and was later elected to serve as Washoe County Sheriff. Later still, he was appointed by Governor Kenny Guinnto serve as the Director of the Department of Public Safety.
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