Stories & Sorties
Bailout of Stinger Eight-Three-Nine
AC-119K 53-7839...Stinger eight-three-nine (photo courtsesy Terry Aitken, USAF Museum, Dayton, OH)
Vietnamization was the term given to a program designed to train the South Vietnamese to take the lead role in their war against communism. The 18th Special Operations Squadron (USAF) was assigned the task to train the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) PHI DOAN 821 (the VNAF's 821st Tactical Squadron) in the operation of the AC-119K Stinger gunship. That training program was designated Project Enhance. The flight training began on December 18, 1972 and was designed to be completed within six months.
Effective January 1, 1973, Da Nang Air Base and all of the AC-119K gunships were transferred to the VNAF. At that time, Project Enhance was redesignated Project Enhance Plus.
The following story is an account of a training flight that caused the early termination of Project Enhance Plus.
was just a routine night training mission when they departed Danang Air
Base with a crew of 13.
It was just a routine night training mission when we departed Da Nang Air Base with a crew of 13 in AC-119K No. 53-7839 (eight-three-nine) at 0050 local time, 1 March 1973. The war was over and most of the Stinger crews had been sent home. A few crews of the 18th Special Operations Squadron were selected to remain at Da Nang to train the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) in the operation of the AC-119K Gunship aircraft. We were one of those selected crews. Upon completion of the training, the remaining U. S. Crews would then be shipped stateside. I don't remember most of the names of the eight VNAF crewmembers on board since I don't have access to a crew list anymore, but thanks to Senior Master Sergeant (Ret.) Lee Kyser, there is a photo of the entire crew, including a couple of instructors who were not on board this flight. There were five U. S. crewmembers on board; LtCol Ray Wolf, Instructor Navigator; Captain Norm Burger, Instructor FLIR/NOS (Forward Looking Infared Radar/Night Observation Sight), TSgt Leroy Jackson, Instructor Gunner; SSgt Bill Isham, Instructor Illuminator Operator; and myself. It is interesting to note that this was the first Stinger mission to be flown without a USAF Flight Engineer. The VNAF Flight Engineer, MSgt Tuan, had just been certified as a qualified Flight Engineer by MSgt Kyser and this was his first solo flight.
For this story, it is critical to note that our pre-mission weather briefing contained no information regarding adverse weather conditions for our arrival time at the base following the training mission. It is also important to note that the normal duration of these training missions was approximately 3.0 hours. Therefore, our aircraft had been fueled to allow for a maximum flight time, including reserve fuel, of approximately 3.75 hours. Takeoff that night was normal. We flew a dry-fire mission, south and southwest of Da Nang for approximately 2 hours. My VNAF student pilot was having difficulty with landings on previous missions, so I had decided to return to Da Nang a little early to give him some landing practice. I can't say, with any accuracy, how far from the base we were working, but when we called in for weather information around 30 minutes before returning to base, I remember being able to see the lights of Da Nang in the distance. Again, the weather briefer mentioned no significant weather for our arrival. At this time, I was in the copilot's seat and, as we approached the base, I called the tower for landing instructions for a visual approach and landing, then to remain in the traffic pattern for a couple more practice landings. We were instructed to enter downwind for a visual approach and landing to the south. Up to this point, the weather appeared good with the base and runway lights clearly in sight. As we approached downwind, I could see scattered to broken low clouds beginning to move in over the base. Just as I reported on downwind, the VNAF tower controller called, advised me that the weather on the field was now below visual approach minimums and asked for my intentions. I asked for current weather conditions and, although I don't remember precisely what was reported, it was above TACAN non-precision approach minimums, so I requested we be cleared as soon as possible for a TACAN approach to the south. TACAN (Tactical Air Navigation) is a non-precision navigational aid which displays course information and nautical miles from the facility to the cockpit instrument panel. The controller cleared us to the TACAN initial approach fix (IAF) approximately 10 miles north of the base and told us to expect immediate clearance for the approach. We switched to an approach control radio frequency and, enroute to the fix, the controller called us and advised that the field was now below minimums for all approaches, including precision approaches. Again, he asked for our intentions.
next few minutes would quickly bring me
The next few minutes were a blur of action with many things happening simultaneously. I may not have the actual sequence of events, but I will describe them to the best of my recollection. I was vaguely aware of the fuel situation at this time, but not overly concerned. The next few minutes would quickly bring me to the stark realization that the pucker factor was about to go through the roof. We were told the whole coastline was socked in with fog, with no alternate airports available within our range. I declared an emergency and requested an immediate GCA (Ground Controlled Approach is a precision radar approach) to the south, even though I knew the weather was reported below GCA minimums and the runway was technically closed to all operations. We entered the holding pattern at the TACAN IAF to prepare for the approach. In the meantime, the controller reported that GCA was shut down and not available for an approach. I very adamantly requested a U. S. controller be brought on board as soon as possible and fire up their precision radar with all due haste. My requests were acknowledged. At this point, I switched over to the left (pilot's) seat and advised approach control that I was about to begin a TACAN approach to the south, hoping precision radar would be available on final approach. I had no choice but to try an approach before the weather got any worse - if that was possible. Maybe we would get lucky and catch a break in the fog long enough to get the bird on the ground. I was fully prepared to descend below minimums, if necessary. I requested approach control to have the U. S. controller contact me as soon as he arrived, announced that I was departing the final approach fix inbound, and started a descent to the runway on course.
Fuel was now a major concern. I figured we had enough for the TACAN approach plus a missed approach, followed by a precision approach if necessary (it appeared this was a very strong possibility), and a bailout procedure. I didn't have a good feel for how much time it might take to position the aircraft at a bailout point and get 13 people out safely.
The TACAN approach went well, backed up by Ray Wolf's airborne radar. Conditions were fairly smooth, so it was not too difficult to maintain a good track. I tried desperately to remain calm. Never before had I started down on a non-precision approach (without approach control clearance) with the intention of busting minimums severely if I had to.
copilot reported what looked like strobe lights starting to pass under
Somewhere down final, the unmistakable voice of a G.I. broke the silence and my hopes soared. He said he'd stay with us, but he didn't yet have his precision radar operational. I planned my descent to be level at 300 feet about 2 miles from the runway. Maintaining course, I settled eight-three-nine down to 300 feet, leveled off and stingily eased the throttles forward to maintain altitude and airspeed. I told the copilot to keep his eyes peeled outside and let me know when he saw runway lights. As we approached the runway on short final, we were still in a wall of fog. When I determined we were about a half-mile out, I descended to 150 feet and leveled off again. The copilot reported what looked like strobe lights starting to pass under the aircraft. I looked up briefly to see the strobes barely pulsing up into the fog as we passed slightly to the side of them-and then they were gone. Once again it was all black - the copilot reported he could see nothing. I may have let her slip a little below 150 feet, anticipating sight of the approach or runway lights. I flew level a few more seconds, hoping for just a glimpse of a runway light or two, but to no avail. After I determined we were too far down the runway to make a safe landing, we applied power and executed our missed approach.
The approach controller acknowledged our missed approach and said he was still trying to bring up the precision radar. He suggested, because the wind was relatively calm, we might attempt an approach to the north and hopefully find the visibility a little better at the other end of the runway. I agreed and he gave me a heading for radar vectors to the Instrument Landing System (ILS) final approach to the north, also a precision approach procedure. He was confident he would have directional radar available shortly so he could back up our course inbound on final approach, but stressed he might not have glide-path information by the time we started down final. At this time I advised the crew we were going to attempt a precision approach to the north and, if this failed, we would have just enough fuel for a missed approach and proceed to a predetermined point for bailout. I ordered the USAF crew to prepare themselves and the VNAF crew for bailout. I advised the controller of our intentions to try one more approach, and then asked him for a recommended bailout area. He suggested 3 to 4 miles off the coast and on an eastbound track, advising that under the circumstances, chances for survival of the crew would be better over water than over land. I concurred and then requested he alert all appropriate agencies on the base of our situation and our intentions following a missed approach.
We were now on a 45-degree intercept heading for the final approach course; the ILS frequency was dialed in and I began to monitor the localizer and glide path needles on my instrument panel. As I intercepted the localizer inbound, the controller advised he would probably not have glide path information available, but would back me up with directional radar all the way. The gear came down, flaps were set, airspeed pegged and checklists completed as we started our descent with the ILS localizer (course) and glidepath needles centered. The controller confirmed we were on course.
There was a tenseness in the air such as I had never felt before as I called on my 10,000 hours and 18 years of flying experience to make this approach the finest of my career, for I felt it might be my last. The radios were quiet except for the encouraging chant of the controller telling us we were on course. The ILS needles seemed not to budge from center. The growing possibility of a bailout kept flashing through my mind, but I tried not to think about it-at least not now. All was quiet except for the drone of those beautiful 3350s - the monotony interrupted only occasionally by small power changes to maintain airspeed. Everything seemed perfect. The controller kept up his reassurance - the approach was proceeding as I had hoped. All we had to do was keep everything centered, nail the airspeed, ease old eight-three-nine down to 200 feet, find the runway, and not run out of fuel.
screamed to myself, "This is no way to go!!"
Once again, I told the copilot to keep his eyes glued out front and call out when runway lights were in sight. With needles centered and the course verified, the controller advised we were approaching the end of the runway, but the copilot still reported nothing in sight. I descended to, and then below, 200 feet. It seemed like a repeat of the approach to the south, and then suddenly, the strobes could barely be seen peeking up through the thick fog as they pulsed. We flew directly over them this time and I forced myself to look up from the instruments briefly, determined to grab onto a set of runway lights. The faintness of the strobes disappeared and there was only blackness. Quickly, back on instruments, I tried to maintain what I hoped was a track down the center of the runway. The copilot reported, "No lights in sight!" I allowed eight-three-nine to settle through 100 feet now, and at that point, I had decided to land in the blind, lights or no lights. I eased off the throttles, searching for the runway. My eyes darted from the instrument panel to outside the aircraft and back to the instrument panel, but - no runway lights. Then I had a split-second vision of the aircraft in a not-so-controlled crash, scattering crew and aircraft all over the field. Almost simultaneously, I screamed to myself, "This is no way to go!!" and crammed the throttles to the stops. At the same time, I yelled, "Go Around," and the copilot responded immediately by toggling the jet engines to max power. Thank God the recips didn't cough!
I don't know how well we were lined up with the runway or exactly how low we descended, but I was told later by those on the ground that we were about 50 feet above, and tracking pretty well down the runway centerline when power was applied. Some said they could barely see the underside of the aircraft as we started our missed approach. I'm not sure how we remained airborne for we had to be dangerously close to stall speed; the flight controls were very mushy. I fully expected to touch down at any second. Even in my desperation to establish a climbing attitude, I knew I would have to be extremely smooth on the controls and make sure I didn't overcorrect. We sucked up the gear as soon as I thought we were not going to settle anymore and prayed her into a climb. The approach controller excitedly asked if we were on the ground. Being a little busy, I replied, "Stand by" and continued nursing the aircraft into a positive climb.
As soon as I felt I had the aircraft under control and in a safe climb, I called approach and told him we didn't make it and were on a missed approach. He wanted - almost begged me - to crank the airplane around for another attempt. But, I had told him we barely had enough fuel to climb and position ourselves at a bailout point and get every one out, not knowing exactly how long that would take. My extract of the flight confirms we made only two approaches to the field that night.
advised the crew we were in position.
I got clearance and proceeded to, I believe, about the 4 mile fix, 090 degree radial at 3,500 feet, advised the crew to prepare for bailout, and gave an approximate time. Approach control advised that all agencies were notified of our intentions, and requested I let him know when we started to bail out. I believe he notified us at this time that the helicopter air/sea rescue had rotated and was not available but other units would be ready to assist us after bailout. As we approached our orbit point, I told the copilot to get out of his seat, strap on his life raft, then come back and monitor the controls while I located my raft. In all the confusion, for whatever reason, he never came back and, unfortunately, I was busy with other things and never gave it more thought until it was too late. Everyone except me was now out of the flight deck and in the back of the aircraft preparing for bailout. By this time, we were orbiting at 3,500 feet, the jet engines were shut down, and all the fuel tanks were at, or near, the empty mark. I advised the crew we were in position. They said they were ready and I ordered them to start bailing out.
I contacted the controller and told him we were starting to leave the aircraft and that I would keep him advised. After a few minutes, one of the crew called and said they couldn't get any of the VNAF to jump. Apparently one of the VNAF did not have a parachute - for one reason or another. We had a couple of spare 'chutes on board and we made sure everyone had one strapped on, but the VNAF were still very much against bailing out. None of us were really crazy about it, but we had pretty much run out of choices. We discussed it briefly and decided one of the U. S. crew would have to go first and show the way. I believe it was LtCol Ray Wolf who picked up the lead and bailed out first. I'm not sure of the sequence following Wolf, but I'm aware that some of the VNAF had to be literally dragged to the exit and forced out in some fashion. I don't recall how long all this took, but finally Sgt Isham called up and said everyone was gone and it was just he and I. I wished him luck, told him to get on out, and I'd see him soon. When I was sure Sgt Isham had left the aircraft, I turned west toward Da Nang with the intention of reversing course over the coast, and then heading the aircraft out to sea since I realized I couldn't bail out while orbiting. At the same time, I contacted the controller, advised him of my intentions and told him that everyone, other than myself, had left the aircraft. Suddenly, both engines started losing power. I looked at the fuel panel and, as I recall, both engines were feeding from the same fuel tank. I don't remember much about the fuel system anymore, but I quickly repositioned some switches and both engines fired back up and returned to normal power. I remember the Flight Engineer said the fuel panel was set before he left the flight deck, but in retrospect, I may have been a little complacent in my fuel management. At this point, however, it made little difference which tank was selected-they were all reading empty.
quickly checked my 'chute and other equipment, stepped to the threshold
and looked outside. It was pitch black.
Approximately over the coastline, I reversed course and pointed eight-three-nine eastbound out to sea. Hopefully, this maneuver would allow me enough time to set up the aircraft, depart the flightdeck, and bail out over the same area as the rest of the crew. With the aircraft on autopilot and steady on course, I set up a 200-300 foot-per-minute rate of descent, advised the controller I was bailing out, and got out of the seat. I took one last look at the fuel gauges, all of which were reading zero or less, and I was amazed that the engines were still churning. I looked for my life raft to strap on but couldn't find it. Time was running out. If I didn't get out of the aircraft soon, I'd be much farther out to sea than the other crewmembers. I made one more quick search. No dinghy, so I departed the flightdeck and headed for the back of the bird. I vaguely remember ripping off my helmet and giving it a sling somewhere in the cabin. I hate hats! When I reached the right side door, I quickly checked my 'chute and other equipment, stepped to the threshold and looked outside. It was pitch black. For an instant I thought, "What the hell am I doing here?" I grabbed hold of the sides of the door to shove myself out. I hesitated. Then I walked to the other side of the cabin, turned around and headed for the right side opening in a dead run. No turning back now. I dived out head first and it seemed like I did a lot of tumbling as I was trying to count to ten. I felt like I was falling way too fast, so at about the count of "one thousand four," I figured "To hell with 10" and jerked the D-ring as hard as I could.
looked up in an attempt to get one final glance
Opening shock seems like too mild a word. When my 'chute popped, I yelled so loud I'm sure I woke up half the coastline. I figure I didn't tighten my straps well enough because the flight surgeon later told me I had two separated ribs and had to be bound up for a couple of weeks. After the 'chute had deployed, I looked up and thought for sure the canopy was damaged or not completely blossomed because I could see only some of the panels. I jerked on the lines rather aggressively but as my eyes became acclimated to the darkness I realized all the panels were okay. During an emotional moment, I looked up in an attempt to get one final glance at Stinger eight-three-nine. There she was, lights flashing and engines humming faintly - a perfectly good airplane descending gently to her watery doom. I felt I had let her down. If ever there was an aircraft to which I experienced a special attachment, this was the one. Tonight she had done all that could possibly be expected of her. Silently, I thanked her for hanging on just long enough.
While descending, I readied my equipment and inflated the chambers of my life vest. Then I began looking for any sign of the water below, but there was only blackness. Under different circumstances I might have enjoyed this. I grabbed and held on to the 'chute harness quick releases, in anticipation of splash down any second. At some height above the sea, I was suddenly engulfed in fog and I figured there would be little or no warning before I hit the water. Straining my eyes, I thought I caught a glimpse of the tops of the swells and the next instant I plunged into the South China Sea. I managed to pull my quick releases to release the canopy and take in a healthy breath of air just as I hit the water. It seemed like I entered with a fair amount of force. Even though I was fighting desperately with my arms and legs to reverse course, it seemed like I went down for a long time. Finally, I started making my way to the top but I feared I would not make it before running out of air. I shot through the surface and sucked in a ton of atmosphere. It felt great to be alive! It was about 4:30 A.M. and very dark. I checked myself over and took inventory of my equipment. I immediately took out my radio and tried to keep it out of the water. I looked all around me and tried to get my bearings but could see nothing but water and fog. I had no idea where I was in relation to the other crewmembers. Since I bailed out without a dinghy, I made sure my life vest was okay. Suddenly, I got sick and vomited several times. I suppose it was caused partially by shock, but the gentle swells didn't help any, either. I started feeling better and fired up the radio. Because of the thick fog, I figured there would be no rescue attempts for a while, but I was anxious to try to contact my guys. After a few attempts, Ray Wolf finally answered. Thank God!! There's no way to describe how I felt at that time. I asked if he had made contact with any of the other crew and he said he talked to Burger, Jackson and Isham, but had no contact with any of the VNAF. It was my understanding that they either didn't have radios, or just didn't use them. Ray reported that all U.S. crewmembers were okay. I figured I must have been a little farther out to sea since I could hear Ray but not the others. We talked for a little while, then decided to save our radio batteries for later use.
boat headed directly toward me
After about an hour, I noticed I was leaning to one side. I discovered one chamber of my life vest was low on air. I found the manual filler tube and re-inflated the chamber, but there was obviously a leak somewhere because I had to manually blow up that chamber every 20 or 30 minutes for the remainder of the time I was in the water. I'm not sure how much time went by, but suddenly I noticed a light flickering through the fog, possibly 50 to 75 yards away. I kept watching it and it appeared to be coming closer. I decided it was some type of search light because it was sweeping the surface of the water from side to side. Finally, I made out that it was some kind of small john-boat with what appeared to be a couple of people in it, and was apparently powered by a small engine. The boat headed directly toward me with the light still searching side to side. I quickly decided these folks may not be too friendly. It took all the will power I could muster to keep from yelling and waving my arms. As they eased closer and closer, I decided it was time to do something. They were about 10 yards away, when I ducked under the water as far as I could and headed in a lateral direction away from them.. When I couldn't hold my breath any longer, I inched my head out of the water and started looking for the boat but, luckily, I had moved away from them. They were now on the opposite side of me a few yards, still searching mostly in front of them. I froze my position, ready to dunk myself again if necessary. Soon they were out of sight and I think I got sick again. About 30 minutes later they reappeared, moving directly toward me, so I went through the same drill again, but this time with experience. After that, I never saw them again. It is interesting to note that after all these years, I have just learned during the final phase of writing this story, that my description of these 'would-be' rescuers fits perfectly with the description of authentic water rescue teams stationed at Da Nang; specifically a two-man crew in a john-boat powered by a small Evinrude engine. I will never understand why we were never briefed on the availability of such a water rescue team. I must admit their ability to home in on my transmitter was flawless. They were good!
Time passed very slowly - plenty of time to think about what just happened and how I could have done things differently. I thought it was just a matter of time before we would be located and picked up. It barely entered my mind that we wouldn't. By now, my arms were getting a little tired, trying to keep the radio out of the water. It may have been watertight, but I didn't want to take the chance if I could help it. I also was weary of blowing up one chamber of my life vest. It seemed like I was doing it more often now. It occurred to me many times that I should have made one more sweep of the flightdeck for that dinghy.
As the darkness started to fade a little, it seemed the fog was thinning and I could begin to see some lights along the coastline. Later, I thought I could detect small patches of blue sky through the slowly dissipating fog. Then, for the first time, I could hear some things happening. I was sure I could hear the faint sound of a chopper in the distance - that unique combination of engine and rotor you never forget once you've heard it. All of a sudden, my radio came to life! At first, there was just some occasional broken chatter that I couldn't make out, but at the same time, a very encouraging sign that hopefully someone out there was trying to locate us. Finally, I could hear a chopper - much closer to me than before. I started calling on the radio, trying not to sound too panicky. What a feeling of relief when they answered. I couldn't see them yet, but I tried to direct them to my position by sound, and then, there they were! What a beautiful sight! They were less than a mile away, heading in my general direction. I gave them a couple minor corrections and told them they were about to fly right over my head. They acknowledged they had me in sight and would direct a boat to my position in just a matter of minutes. I later learned that an attempt was made to pick up one of the VNAF by helicopter but he was dropped several feet back into the water as he was being hauled up into the chopper. Further attempts were abandoned. Shortly a boat appeared, pulled up beside me and within minutes I was safely aboard.
heart still aches
It's difficult to describe my feelings at that time. I was hoping the other twelve crewmembers had been picked up safely and felt great concern for them. I was extremely tired and seemingly drained of emotion, but yet elated and thankful to be alive, out of the water and to have my feet on a solid surface. I looked for a friendly face and found it. Ray Wolf was right there to help me aboard. What a sight! He looked ragged, just as I'm sure I looked to him, but he also looked in good shape and that's what counted. He reported that everyone had been picked up safely except for one of the VNAF navigators. Apparently he had failed to release his 'chute when he hit the water on bailout and still had it connected to his harness when he got into his dinghy. When the boat arrived to pick him up, his 'chute got tangled in the boat engine's propeller, he was dragged under the water and drowned. My heart still aches that I was unable to bring all 13 to shore safely.
The smell aboard what I think was a fishing boat did not set well with me. I'm not real crazy about deep-sea fishing for that reason. So - I got sick again. The gentle swells rocking and heaving the boat on the way in were of no help. I've always had a little bit of a weak stomach anyway. I don't remember a lot about the trip back to base. I think we were picked up by a helicopter after we arrived on shore and transported back to Da Nang. I was surprised to see such a large welcoming group when we arrived at the base, where it was great to be back among friends and allies once again. Everyone had a lot of questions, but as I recall, we were rushed off to the hospital for a checkup.
An accident investigation was conducted for the next few days in which the crew was separated and questioned individually. I'm not sure about the others, but I was asked just a few simple questions by the VNAF commander, after which he thanked me for saving seven of his eight people. He also said he had expected a much higher casualty rate. The U. S. investigation team was not so easy; there were many, many questions. I was told sometime during the investigation by U. S. investigators, that the VNAF would not release the control tower tape recordings to the investigation team. The tapes would have told much of the story. We also discovered there were sharks in the area where we bailed out. We were probably briefed on that at one time, but it didn't come to me while my feet were dangling in the water for about 4 hours.
was never revealed to me
When the investigation was over, we were all allowed to depart Da Nang for home, thus cutting short and officially ending the AC-119K training program for the VNAF. One of my concerns was how this incident was going to be entered in the books, especially in my records. The investigating team never mentioned pilot error. I checked with wing headquarters before I departed and was assured the investigation revealed no pilot error. I checked my records later and found no mention of the incident. It was never revealed to me why we were not advised of the impending weather conditions.
thank God that twelve survived, but
This was, without a doubt, the most harrowing experience of my flying career. I wouldn't particularly want to go through it again, but one always wonders how he would react in such a situation. Now I know. I thank God that twelve survived, but the fate of the thirteenth will forever haunt me. There is no doubt in my mind that my four U. S. crewmembers; Ray Wolf, Norm Burger, Leroy Jackson and Bill Isham were directly responsible for a successful bailout that night. Without their courage, experience, knowledge and professionalism, some of us would not have survived to tell the story. And finally, this story would probably not have been told without the encouragement of SMS Lee Kyser. It is to my four fellow crewmembers and to Lee Kyser, my instructor Flight Engineer, that I dedicate this story.
Some of the crew from eight-three-nine - USAF Crewmembers are top row, (L-R) LTC Ray Wolf, Instructor Navigator (IN); MSgt Lee Kyser, Instructor Flight Engineer (IFE); Capt. Norm Burger, Instructor FLIR/NOS;TSgt Leroy Jackson, Instructor Gunner (IG); Unknown Instructor Gunner (IG). The two Vietnamese crew members, top right, wearing the parachute harness, are student pilots. Kneeling behind the other VNAF students, at bottom left, is Lt. Colonel Roy (Tony) Simon. Kneeling bottom right is SSgt Bill Isham, Instructor IO (IIO).
(Student VNAF flight engineer, MSGT Tuan, took the photo with Lee Kyser's camera.)
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