KINGMAN, Kan. (KSNW) — Following in his World War II (WWII) veteran father’s footsteps, Cleland McBurney joined the U.S. Navy in 1953.
Out of a battalion of 90, he was the only one who passed every test to become a naval aviator. After earning his wings of gold, he received a commission in Hutchinson that would prepare him for perilous flight conditions around the world.
“My last hour entry, I had flown right at 5,000 flight hours during my career in the Navy,” McBurney said.
During his first assignment, McBurney would fly reconnaissance missions out of Guam, specifically to track typhoons by flying into them.
“Trying to go through a crosswind with a large airplane 500 feet off the water, it literally shook the bolts out of the airplane going through it,” McBurney said. “But once you got inside, it was a calm, there’s no turbulence at all—the seas were kinda confused seas, but outside, they were roaring mountainous waves.”
McBurney would get the chance to share his skills with fellow aviators as the operator of a survival training school in Whidbey Island, Washington. During that time, he would also go through survival training himself in Singapore and the Arctic—preparing him for the Antarctic as part of Operation Deep Freeze in 1961.
“I became a ground control radar operator, and they put me in charge of the ice runway,” McBurney said. “I was the officer in charge of all the flights coming down from New Zealand, bringing down personnel and all the cargo.”
Mcburney worked in some of the harshest conditions known to man.
“The sun set for the last time in first part of April, and we went into darkness for about six months, and it was minus 62 degrees [fahrenheit],” McBurney said.
From the Antarctic to the Tropics, McBurney would once again take to the skies with an anti-submarine squadron during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“We had a 200-mile range with an antenna that could pick up a periscope 40 miles aw,” McBurney said. “Gorbachev was pulling out his nuclear missiles out of Cuba, and one of them was a nuclear-capable submarine that we detected and tracked for a while.”
With his experience in the air and in air traffic control, McBurney would serve two tours of duty in Vietnam aboard the USS Intrepid as a combat information officer.
“The air strikes going in from the Tonkin Gulf to Hanoi, Haiphong—we tracked them in, we had the controllers track ’em back out, we were in constant communication,” McBurney said. “We were the air traffic control of the ship.”
In 1972, McBurney would retire after roughly 20 years in the Navy.
“Everywhere I went, I learned something new,” McBurney said. “Anyone [who] would want to question about serving in the military, I think that’d be a great way of getting orientation in your life’s career. It did for me.”
If you would like to nominate a veteran for our Veteran Salute, email KSN reporter Hannah Adamson at email@example.com.