Retired pilot reminisces on a high-flying career |

Retired pilot reminisces on a high-flying career

Karen Woodmansee
Appeal Staff Writer
Chad Lundquist/Nevada Appeal Cmdr. Glenn Tierney looks though a scrapbook filled with clippings from his military career at his home Monday afternoon.

Cmdr. Glenn Tierney and astronaut Wally Schirra had a lot in common.

They were born within five miles of each other in Northern New Jersey; they both served as Navy pilots in World War II; and both worked on the SIdewinder guided missile program at China Lake, near Ridgecrest, Calif., in the 1950s.

Schirra preceded Tierney into the program, but the two met later and saw each other regularly at annual celebrations of the Sidewinder program.

Schirra later became one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, the fifth man in space and the only astronaut to be a part of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. Tierney went on to continue to test guided missiles and serve as a fighter pilot in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

On Saturday, Tierney will stand in for his friend, who died May 3 at the age of 84, at the annual meeting of the Museum of Armament and Technology at the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake, Calif.

“It’s kind of my Navy home,” he said. “I know a lot of the people, the retired scientists and engineers that still live there.”

Tierney sent Schirra an e-mail two days before the retired astronaut’s death.

“He was a fantastic guy,” he said. “He was something special.”

Tierney and Schirra were both lieutenants at the time of the Sidewinder development program, Tierney said. They shared the same experiences, though not at the same time, of testing the first guided missile the U.S. produced.

After Schirra’s death, in reading his bio, Tierney discovered that his friend had taken the spot at the Naval Academy Tierney had sought.

Tierney had earned a scholarship to Columbia University, but really wanted to attend the Naval Academy. The congressman who was to make the appointment decided on Schirra instead, because he already had one year of college.

Tierney left college to join the war effort, and spent 111Ú2 years in night school to earn a degree.

“That’s what you call perseverance,” he joked.

In World War II, he spend most of his time over the South Atlantic, chasing German submarines, he said.

“I flew Corsairs off of carriers when I was 20,” he said.

In Korea, he spent most of his time running the flight deck operation on aircraft carriers. He has served on 17 different carriers in his career.

After Korea, he wanted to become a test pilot, but couldn’t, so he applied to the China Lake facility and after some bureaucratic delays, finally won approval.

“Sidewinder,” a book about the program by Ron Westrum, has more than a few tales of Tierney’s harrowing high-altitude, faster-than-the-speed-of-sound tests.

Tierney, who said he wanted to be a fighter pilot since he was 8 or 9, is now writing a book about his life, called “Luck and Serendipity,” which he said pretty much sums up his military career.

After retiring from the military, Tierney sold real estate in San Diego, then moved to South Lake Tahoe, where he augmented his Navy pension by working as a real estate appraiser.

He now is a Carson City resident and a member of the Parks and Recreation Board, the SERTOMA Club and the Navy League.

He also drives a van for the Veterans Administration, wearing the cap that identifies him as a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

“That’s the only time I wear the hat,” he said. “When (veterans) see this, they figure if I can survive combat in three major wars, I can drive a van.”

• Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at or 882-2111 ext. 351.


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