William Howard Hughes Jr. was apprehended at his home after a fraud investigation, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations said in a statement.
He told authorities after his capture Wednesday that he was depressed about being in the Air Force and decided to leave, saying he created a fake identity and lived in California since he vanished in 1983.
Hughes was charged with desertion and is being held at Travis Air Force Base in California. He could face up to five years of confinement, forfeiture of all pay and dishonorable discharge from the Air Force.
He had been involved in classified planning and analysis of NATO’s control, command and communications surveillance systems during the Cold War. He specialized in radar surveillance.
Hughes, a captain at Kirtland Air Force Base, was 33 and single when he vanished, according to news reports from the time of his disappearance. He was last seen withdrawing more than $28,000 in Albuquerque in summer 1983 after returning from a two-week vacation in Europe.
He had just completed a stint in the Netherlands, where he worked with NATO officers on the Airborne Warning and Control electronic surveillance aircraft. He was supposed to be back in Albuquerque by August 1983.
An Office of Special Investigations spokeswoman told the Albuquerque Journal that there’s no indication Hughes was involved with the Soviet Union or that any classified information was leaked.
It’s unclear if he had an attorney who could comment on his behalf.
Several other fugitives are on the Air Force’s wanted list, including others who have been on the run since the 1980s for various reasons that stem from drug charges to security issues.
Last year, investigators caught a fugitive in Florida who had been living under another identity since 1972.