In the company of greatness

By on January 9, 2009

by Susan O’Neill

Jim Chione can trade tales with the best of them, yet, talk to the Sugar Grove Kettley and Co. real estate agent long enough, and it becomes apparent that while he has had some interesting experiences in his life, he’d rather see his stories focus on someone or something other than himself.

Ask him about joining the Marine Corps, and he’ll tell you about how he signed up in 1958—the year that NASA was created. He’ll explain how, as an 18-year-old, he trained in avionics and worked as what he called an electrician for aircraft based out of the New River Helicopter Marine Reserve base in Jacksonville, N.C. He describes his four years of service in the Corps as a tour of duty involving many missions and maneuvers, traveling on aircraft carriers throughout the Caribbean.

However, it won’t take long before his stories shift their focus. Although others admire Chione for his service, he’ll spend the majority of his time talking about those he admires, including a group of test pilots who ended up serving as the nation’s first astronauts.

Well-known astronauts such as Rear Admiral Allen Shepard, Jr. and Col. John Glenn flew their first space missions from Cape Canaveral, Fla., while Chione served there.

Shepard was the first American to journey into space in 1959 with the Mercury program. His second mission with the space program was on the Freedom 7 spacecraft in 1961.

Glenn, a fellow Marine, flew the first U.S. manned orbital mission, the Friendship 7, into space in 1962. He orbited the Earth three times before coming back to Earth about 800 miles southeast of the Space Center. From the time the astronauts’ capsules made impact at sea, Chione’s unit was part of the Project Mercury Recovery Program responsible for bringing them aboard ship to safety. His and another squadron based in Jacksonville had the largest helicopters in the United States military, big enough to fit two jeeps and 26 troops on-board.

The chopper would hover above the capsule bobbing in the waves, lower the rescue harness and scoop up the astronaut with a precision that came from disciplined practice. Chione and his fellow crew members of Marine Aircraft Group 26 formed the first string recovery group. Chione said the large Marine HR2Ss had to be status-ready should something go wrong. Status-ready meant that the choppers were revved up and ready to jump into the impact zone anywhere up to 100 miles out from their alert pad on Cape Canaveral.

“We were there for an abort,” he said.

“Abort” was one situation during which he hoped he did not have to go to work. To everyone’s credit, the only abort during Chione’s tour involved a spacecraft holding a chimp.

“We did that on purpose,” he said. “We didn’t want to send a man up until we determined it was safe. If things were going to go wrong, it was better that it happened with the chimp.”

The chimpanzee turned out fine.

“There was only a little scratch on the capsule,” Chione said.

Chione said there was always a lot of excitement leading up to a launch or a touch down. He said people would be lined up for miles up and down the beach, hoping for a glimpse of history in the making.

But Chione downplays his role on the team. He saves his admiration for the astronauts.

“They were some of the best test pilots we had in the military,” he said. “If you were in a crowd of 100 people dressed in civilian clothes, you could still pick them out. There was an aura about them. They were our country’s best.”

Since Glenn was a Marine, Chione said that sometimes he and his buddies would run across him working out on the base. Although Glenn was in his 40s at the time, Chione said that he was extremely physically fit.

Chione completed his tour of duty in 1962 and he came back home to Aurora. Within three months, he met the woman who would become his wife. He and Judy, were married less than two years later.

Chione joined Kettley Realty about 15 years ago. He said a couple of the others in his office were in the military when they were young, and they share their experiences at times.

These days, however, one is more likely to hear the excitement in his voice when he talks about his grandchildren. Chione and Judy have three children and eight grandchildren. Recently they met their most recent grandson, who was born a few weeks ago.
“He’s precious,” Judy said.

These days, he talks with admiration about the soldiers serving in the Middle East. He said that these young people are the real heroes. A good friend of his son’s joined the Marines in 1990 and was there to liberate Kuwait City.

When the young man came home, he joined the reserves and served in Iraq when his unit was activated. After recovering from being seriously wounded in Iraq, he joined the Army reserves and is currently in Afghanistan.

“He’s a great American,” he said.