by JEREMY WEBER
Daily Inter Lake | November 11, 2021 12:00 AM
Editors’ note: Due to his battle with multiple sclerosis, Steve Luckey was unavailable for an interview. His comments in the following article were taken from his autobiography.
In the cover of night a Marine sniper exits a submarine and enters forbidden territory for a
Kalispell veteran's autobiography reveals life of intrigue, adventure
mission his government will never acknowledge.
Using the skills taught to him by his father and his time as a trick shooter for a world-renowned gun manufacturer, he makes his way through enemy territory to successfully take out his target.
This is the plot of the next Hollywood blockbuster, right?
This is just one of the many real-life experiences recalled by local veteran Steve Luckey in his recently released autobiography, “Lucky Man: A Life Lived One Shot at a Time.”
From his time spent growing up in the woods of southeast Pennsylvania, later serving as a sniper in Vietnam or as a pilot and counterterrorism agent working with the FBI responding to active hijackings, Luckey has had a life that has always been interesting, to say the least.
“I have spent more time than is natural in the presence of death. Many of the indelible memories of my life are etched there because of its proximity,” Luckey writes in his book. “Instead of becoming morbid or a fatalist, while death has fascinated me in what some might see as an unnatural way, it has provided me a zest for living. … I see life as a privilege, and as such, it is something that must be treated with great respect.”
Luckey spent the formative years of his life learning from his father how to shoot and hunt in and around Emmaus, Pennsylvania, where his dad was a wildlife ranger for the Pennsylvania Department of Forests.
The skills his father taught him helped Luckey survive in the woods, but also taught him about hard work, tenacity, and ingenuity — skills that would later help him survive in Vietnam.
“From the time I was old enough to shoot a gun without having its recoil knock me on my ass, my dad taught me to respect a weapon’s power, it’s usefulness and its safe use,” Luckey wrote. “Guns have been front and center in my life. Two of the common denominators present throughout my life have been a natural ability to shoot well and take the shot with calmness and resolve when situations demanded it.”
It was also during this time that Luckey’s love of flying drove him to acquire his pilot’s license before he was old enough to legally drink.
FASCINATED BY the ins and outs of firearms, Luckey procured a job with the (Tom) McCool Gun Company from age 16 through college, where he performed in the McCool “gun show” for tourists, displaying amazing feats of speed and accuracy.
As a teenager, Luckey set a world record for the 200-yard sitting rapid fire competitions at Camp Perry, Ohio, using an M1, and would later win the Marine Corps rifle championships.
After earning degrees in mathematics and physics from East Stroudsburg State Teachers College, Luckey enlisted in the Marine Corps, where his skills served him well.
Luckey attended Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia, before moving on to Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida, where he finished at the top of his class during rigorous training in the A-4 Skyhawk.
It was during that training, aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lexington, that Luckey survived a midair collision with another aircraft, living up to his last name.
Upon arrival in Vietnam, the Marine Corps put Luckey’s unique skill set to good use, making him a self-described “paid assassin,” using any means of travel available — be it a helicopter, a fixed wing aircraft, a patrol boat or even a tank — on clandestine missions to take out Viet Cong leaders and North Vietnamese government officials. By Luckey’s count, he was involved in such missions as often as twice a month in Da Nang, Hue and Huong Tra, as well as Laos and Cambodia (which were “officially off limits”).
According to Luckey, his effectiveness on such secret missions led four-star Marine Gen. Lewis Walt to once tell him, “I’ll always have your back if push comes to shove, but otherwise it’s better if I didn’t know any details.”
To Luckey, he was just doing what he had to.
“I don’t consider myself particularly brave, but I’ve always been willing to saddle up and face the unknown. After all, someone has got to do it,” Luckey wrote. “I understood how to take highly unusual actions without surrendering my values or my mind in the process. My lasting comfort remains my confidence that I never killed anyone who wasn’t deserving. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong leaders that we targeted were responsible for the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands.”
IT WAS during his time in Vietnam that Luckey worked with the South Vietnamese’s Chieu Hoi (Open Arms) program designed to help turn North Vietnamese deserters into helpful military assets.
Luckey renamed his part of the program the “Kit Carson Scout Program,” in honor of Kit Carson, the frontier hero, and used the deserters assigned to him to help understand his enemy so he and his fellow soldiers could better perform search and destroy missions, gather intelligence and win the psychological battlefront within villages.
By the end of 1971, there were more than 2,000 Kit Carson Scouts.
For his actions while in Vietnam, Luckey was awarded the National Defense Service Medal, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal (along with two commendations from General Westmoreland) a Rifle Expert Badge and a Pistol Expert Badge and two Purple Hearts, which he refused (for fear the injuries might disqualify him from becoming a commercial pilot).
AFTER LEAVING Vietnam and military service, Luckey became a commercial pilot for Northwest Orient Airlines in late 1967 at a time when hijackings of aircraft were alarmingly commonplace.
It was during his time with the airline that its chief, Donald Nyrop, pegged Luckey with helping the company build a counter-hijacking program.
“I was advanced in Vietnam and again by Donald Nyrop at Northwestern because of my ability to kill – yet I focused the majority of my professional life on saving lives,” he wrote. “I’ve found life to be full of such ironies. They’re just two sides of the same coin.”
Luckey was allowed to carry a firearm as an officer on the flight deck or when deadheading as a crew member on any Northwest flight (the first of and one of just 12 pilots allowed to do so) until federal law changes in 1994 repealed that right for pilots.
Luckey received FBI SWAT training and was called to the Seattle airport as a consultant on Nov. 24, 1971, while Northwest Orient flight 305, hijacked by the infamous D.B. (Dan) Cooper, was being refueled. It was just one of many hijackings Luckey was called to.
It was also during those decades that Lucked helped complete missions for both the CIA and FBI, finding that his “real life” as a commercial airline pilot offered plenty of
good cover for extracurricular travel.
“With a day job that took me around the planet and a history of taking ‘unique’ actions, I was pretty attractive to those who work in the darker worlds that we like to think only exist in spy novels,” Luckey wrote. “There’s a lot that happens behind the scenes in order to keep our country safe that doesn’t get advertised, and for good reason.”
Luckey spent 11 years as a counterterrorism agent working with the FBI responding to active hijackings, served as an Airline Pilots Association volunteer for 41 years, served as a member of the baseline working group of the White House Commission on Aviation and Security, chaired the FAA Committee on Aviation Employee Utilization, was a member of the security subcommittee of FAA’s Research, Engineering and Development Advisory Committee, was the U.S. representative and vice chairman of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Security Committee and was even featured in Rolling Stone.
AFTER THE attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Luckey helped initiate the Federal Flight Deck Officer Program (which deputized pilots and crew members) that ultimately became part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002.
Among other things, the program advocated the design needs of a hardened cockpit door, training pilots and other crew members in intrusion situation response and developing pilots’ ability to discern resources among their passengers.
“The truth then, and the truth now, is that pilots are more likely to encounter a deranged lunatic, a psychiatric patient off his meds, a really awful drunk, or some enormous asshole wanting to make everyone’s flight as miserable as possible than they are to encounter a terrorist on board. Yet I’d been arguing for years that dealing with the ordinary assholes required some of the same security measures needed for those with consciously sinister agendas,” Luckey wrote.
“I believed then and I believe now that pilots need the tools, the training, and the tactical knowledge to take on the threats and emergencies that might occur on a plane.”
LUCKEY LATER moved to Pony, Montana, where he founded the 46 Outfitters and led elk and bear hunts in the Tobacco Root Mountains.
“My life in Montana feels like an echo of my childhood in the Poconos,” he wrote. “The mountains are bigger, as is the game, but the rhythms of life are familiar.”
Luckey founded the Aviation Security Academy, which offered comprehensive security training, formed a security consulting and training company named Jetana International Security and worked as an expert consultant for NEMO Arms.
In 2003, he helped lead a 7,000-man defense force tasked with protecting the king’s oilfields and Aramco’s production facilities in Saudi Arabia and also served as a consultant for Boeing, working on security-related projects and security threat modeling, much of which remains classified.
The threats of counter-snipers and hijackers may be long behind him, but Luckey finds himself fighting a new battle these days as multiple sclerosis has taken a heavy toll on his body.
His wife Jeannie shared that “over the years, I couldn’t tell you how many people would say to Steve that he had to write a book. He was quite a storyteller and he would start telling people about the things he has done and they would be fascinated.
“When he got sick, we figured we had better get this project going while we still have time,” Jeannie added.
Released June 4, Luckey’s autobiography has been receiving much praise.
Luckey sums up his experiences up best in his own words:
“Working in capacities beyond the cockpit, I’ve been shot at and I’ve done the shooting. I’ve taken lives, and in the process, I’ve saved others. I survived a war...I have lived through circumstances that should have killed me. I have traveled. I have loved. I have lived,” he wrote. “With disturbing frequency, I have faced circumstances in which the outcome could have gone either way, yet as I close out my eighth decade, I’m still here to tell my story. Mostly, I’ve been lucky.”