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Veterans Day: ULM salutes former aviation professor and alum and helicopter pilot Lt. Col. Ernie Bruce
By Mark Henderson
Special to ULM
Published November 11, 2017

Pilot and professor. 

Vet and volunteer.

Tinkerer and teller of tales.

He’s had many titles, filled many roles. The sign outside his backyard workshop reads, “Genius at work.” But when you meet him, it’s simple enough. “People call me ‘Ernie.’”

Ernest Bruce, retired associate professor of aviation at the University of Louisiana Monroe, stays busy at his home in Monroe. The self-proclaimed country boy enjoys taking his morning coffee on the patio he built, covered by a pergola that he constructed, until the summer heat and humidity force him to retreat inside.

In 1966-67, there was no retreating from the heat and humidity of Lai Khe, South Vietnam. He flew Huey helicopters on missions in support of the military, which opened the door for a long career teaching aviation at ULM.

Today he puts his inquisitive mechanical mind to work on projects he uses at home and to tend the needs of the Carolyn Rose Strauss Senior Center. Bruce is the senior center’s 2017 Volunteer of the Year.

“He likes to do things for people,” said Lynda McGehee, executive director of the senior center.

Photo of Col. Bruce ULM salutes former aviation professor and alum and helicopter pilot Lt. Col. Ernie Bruce Lt. Col. Ernie Bruce served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam before coming to the University of Louisiana Monroe to lead the ROTC program. He earned his masters and went one to teach aviation. Today, in retirement, Bruce volunteers his time maintaining and repairing the Ouachita Council on Aging on Ferrand Street. He was named OCA 2017 Volunteer of the Year. Emerald McIntyre/ULM Photo Services



Bruce grew up in DeQuincey, Louisiana, a railroad town between Lake Charles and DeRidder. He was a farm boy who commuted to McNeese State University to study agriculture. He joined the ROTC program there for one simple reason.

“In the ROTC, you got a little pay, a small stipend,” he said.

He entered the Army upon graduation in 1952 as a second lieutenant and was accepted into flight school in 1954. Having graduated flight school, he was ordered to Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

“About that time, the Army saw the growing value of helicopters,” Bruce said.

A twist of fate led him to choppers.

Bruce said he was in the office while superior officers were away for lunch when a phone call came in. Since Bruce was manning the phones, he answered. It was a higher-up calling to say there was an unexpected opening in the next helicopter class, and Fort Sill was given the first chance to fill it. Bruce tried to beg off, explaining he was a junior officer, but he was told a decision needed to be made immediately. Bruce nominated himself.

By the time he had mastered the art of flying a helicopter, Bruce was a major, and the need for choppers continued to escalate. It was a ticket to combat in the Vietnam jungle.



Bruce served one year in Vietnam, stationed in Lai Khe. He was assigned as part of a three-platoon force of eight choppers each. Two platoons were equipped as gunships, serving close support for the 1st Infantry, the Big Red One.

He flew in the third platoon, taking part in lift missions to place troops into combat zones or evacuate them when either overwhelmed or wounded. His Huey was equipped with machine guns on each side, operated by a gunner while Bruce flew the Huey.

“The helicopters were essential. The Viet Cong continually attempted to close the roads and isolate our troops. Here’s (helicopters) a means of transportation not dependent on roads,” Bruce said.

Although Bruce never lost an aircraft, he had some close calls.

“One instance a lot of brass were coming in,” Bruce said. “We were ordered on patrol to sweep the area so no Viet Cong would shoot a general. The infantry reported too many Viet Cong for them to handle. The Viet Cong were hiding in elephant grass, and I needed to swoop in and pick up some troops.

“I felt a bump. We had hooked a fence complete with posts, and it was trailing behind. There was a danger of it getting into the tail rotors,” Bruce said. If the tail rotors would have been fouled, the helicopter would have spun its way to the ground. Bruce landed safely.

These were grueling days. After hours of flying combat missions one day, Bruce was returning to the airfield when he received word of an injured soldier who needed evacuating for care. Off he went.

He was notified of a location through colored smoke. As he neared his marker to pick up the soldier, the troops on the ground called up that the battle was hot and that he should circle until air support could come.

“Now, when I’m going in, I don’t worry about the situation because I have so much on my mind: Is the ground clear below? Is there enemy fire? But when I’m told to circle, I’m exposed, and I worry,” Bruce said. He told the soldiers on the ground he was coming in.

The wounded soldier had a sucking chest wound, He had been shot through the lung. It was a good thing Bruce decided not to wait. “I was told later that if we would have been there five minutes later, it would have been too late. Because of me, there’s someone walking around that might not have made it,” he said.

Military medals and citations adorn the walls of his home, along with a photo of the Huey and a picture of him relaxing in the jungles of Vietnam with a friend.

After a year, Bruce returned to the states as a staff officer at Fort Wolters in Mineral Falls, Texas. In 1968, he was given his final assignment in the Army. Now a lieutenant colonel, Bruce was ordered to a small college in Monroe.



In those days, ULM was called Northeast Louisiana State College, and Bruce was assigned to lead the school’s ROTC program.

“Back then it was mandatory for young men at the school to take two years of military science. That involved classroom work, such as the history of the military, and drills,” Bruce said.

He oversaw the military science classes.

“For those pursuing advance participation the last two years, there was a stipend for them, but also the commitment to military service. We sent them to summer camp at military posts, sort of a basic training.”

Eventually, Bruce retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel and used the G.I. Bill to earn his Masters of Business Administration from then-Northeast Louisiana University.

A few years later, after working with James Moore, an oil and gas man in Monroe, in his barging interests, Bruce was approached by the aviation program to teach, given his experience with fixed-wing and rotary aircraft. Bruce taught aviation at ULM from 1990-2007, when he retired.

Not every university has such a program, Bruce said. But Monroe has a long history with aviation, having been the World War II training base for bombing navigators and the birthplace of Delta Air Lines.

Bruce taught aviation weather, an introduction to aviation (Aviation 101) and commercial and instrument flying. He helped students in simulators. He said ULM doesn’t own an airplane. Neither does Bruce. When a real aircraft is required, ULM has an agreement with one of the airport’s general aviation service companies.

The ULM program prepares students for a variety of jobs in the aviation industry. In addition to pilots, ULM aviation graduates work as air traffic controllers, managers at airports and other positions with airlines. Many of the area cropdusters are products of ULM.



Among the many roles Bruce has played, add family man. A widower, he is the father of three daughters and a son.

He may be retired, but he’s far from idle.

From his boyhood, when he had to do his own bicycle repairs, Bruce has had a mechanical mind. He loves to study how things operate. He puts that curiosity to work, both at home and at the senior center.

His creations, constructed mostly of plastic and wood, are scattered throughout his home. He sees himself more as a tinkerer than an inventor, and he has yet to patent any of his ideas. But he puts them to use.

Afraid he might miss a step on a ladder, he has created a sensor that sounds a warning when he reaches the bottom step.

For a friend, Bruce has fashioned a mechanical chair that uses a windshield wiper motor and a pulley system. Bruce can roll the chair on its two wheels to wherever its needed. The friend scoots to the seat, which sits parallel to the floor, buckles in and the chairlifts them to a sitting position, from where they can again stand.

One day, while at the senior center, a piece of exercise equipment Bruce wanted to use was broken. Discovering that a spring could get it working again, Bruce asked if he could try to fix it. He’s been fixing things at the center ever since.

He has constructed a podium on wheels that can be easily moved from room to room. He’s repaired a handicapped stall in the women’s restroom.  He resuscitated a dishwasher.

“The building here is 16 to 17 years old,” McGehee said. “It has its share of bumps and scratches.”



As a nonprofit, McGehee said, the Ouachita Council on Aging, which operates the senior center, “has always had funding problems. “We’re always looking for people to do things so we can avoid hiring people to do the little things.”

Bruce has become her go-to guy. McGehee goes from room to room, pointing out Bruce’s work: a frame around an electric organ so that it can moved, a couch reinforced so seniors can get up from a sitting position, repaired floorboards.

“He’s always coming to me to ask me if he can do something. His stuff is amazing,” McGehee said.

And he’s been known to visit the homes of other people at the senior center where work needs to be done.

Currently, he’s working on a device that will automatically close a door that gets stuck in an open position.

His contributions to the center earned him the recognition of 2017 Volunteer of the Year.

“His name was right out there on top,” McGee said.

In return, the problem-solving is keeping Bruce active. That’s the key to a successful retirement, he said.

“Fortunately I had a hobby of building things. It’s a very pleasurable pastime. I would suggest to anyone about to retire to get involved in groups. Stay active,” he said.

“He’s such a giving person,” McGehee said. “He’s truly made a difference.”