Jeff Baker, Pilot
18th SOS, Da Nang, 1969-70

Jeffrey Paige Baker was born in Oakland, California on November 4, 1943. After the war, the family moved to the family citrus and cattle ranch near Woodlake, CA. Jeff’s first airplane rides were in his grandfather’s Bellanca.

After graduating from high school in 1961, Jeff attended the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA. After earning an Associate of Arts degree, Jeff transferred to the University of California at Berkeley.

Jeff graduated from Cal in 1965 with a degree in Marketing. With the Vietnam War cranking up and the draft board breathing down his neck, Jeff joined the Air Force. After commissioning and completing pilot training at Williams AFB, AZ, he was assigned to C-141s at Dover AFB, DE. During the presidential campaign of 1968, Jeff was assigned to fly Hubert Humphrey’s secret service men around on the campaign trail. Later that year, Jeff was assigned to AC- 119K gunships as part of the initial cadre.

Jeff was an Aircraft Commander for the 18th SOS crew that ferried aircraft number 940 to Vietnam. The crew departed Lockbourne AFB, OH the day after Christmas 1969, on a route that took them to Malmstrom AFB, MT, McChord AFB, WA, Elmendorf AFB, AL, Adak, AL, Midway, Wake, Guam, Clark AB, PI, and then to Phan Rang AB.

In-country, Jeff was assigned to the 18th SOS at Da Nang AB. While flying right-seat during one of his early missions, the airplane crashed short of the runway when two of the four engines quit while on final approach. Luckily, the 10-man crew walked away with only minor injuries. Jeff became an AC-119K instructor pilot and briefly worked as wing gunship officer. He flew over 145 combat missions for which he received two Distinguished Flying Crosses, Air Medals and other decorations.

After his combat tour, Jeff flew as C-141 aircraft commander at Travis AFB, CA. He left active duty in 1972 to fly as a DC-8 charter pilot with Trans International Airlines. In 1973 he was employed by Western Airlines and joined the Air Force Reserve C-5A unit at Travis AFB, CA.

Jeff retired in September 2003 as a Boeing 757/767 Captain based in Cincinnati. After retirement, he and his wife Mary Lou moved to Harrison, ID, near Coeur d’Alene where Jeff is pursuing his interest in art, welded metal sculpture, and philosophy.

Da Nang AC-119K Crash – February 18/19, 1970

“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Stinger One-Five going down. Launch Rescue.” With those words my life would never be the same. Connecting the dots would come later. Right then, I had other things on my mind. It was three in the morning. Stinger 15 was returning to base after an interdiction mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Da Nang Approach Control reported the weather as 1500 overcast, four miles visibility, light drizzle, mist, winds calm. Not bad weather, I thought, but it will require an instrument approach. Major Bill Hoover, the aircraft commander, used the aircraft’s instrument landing system to get below the solid cloud deck, which put the crew in visual contact with Runway 18-Left. Breaking out of the clouds, visibility as reported, confirming Major Hoover had a visual on the runway, I called, “Runway in sight.” Da Nang Tower responded, “Cleared to land, Runway One-Eight Left, winds calm.” “Roger that, cleared to land.”

“Just a few more miles to go and we’ll be on the ground, then a cold beer,” I thought. On short final, when everything looked good, I would often say on interphone, “Nothing can go wrong now.” Tempting fate usually got a chuckle from the crew. This time, I guessed the dour aircraft commander would not see the humor in it.

I was on a checkout flight as an AC-119K gunship pilot assigned to the 18th Special Operations Squadron at Da Nang. I was flying copilot with Flight Examiner Bill Hoover in the left seat. Major Hoover, the most experienced pilot in the unit, flew 119’s supporting the French back in the 1950’s before their defeat at Dien Bien Phu.

I had been reassigned from a comfortable stateside job flying one of the newest airplanes in the USAF inventory to one of the oldest, and sent to fly combat missions in Vietnam. After a quick in-processing at Phan Rang, headquarters of the 14th Special Operations Wing, I was now one of the “new guys” at Da Nang. How fast things change, I mused, as I prepared for my first mission. Goodness, Mamma’s little boy is going into combat. Adrenalin flowed.

Tonight’s mission had gone smoothly, I thought. Three trucks destroyed. “Triple-A”, anti-aircraft artillery, fired at the crew had been light and inaccurate.

I felt energized. Learning the tricks of the trade over the Trail had been both challenging and stimulating. Getting shot at for the first time was like Winston Churchill had said. “There is nothing quite as exhilarating as getting shot at without effect.” I now knew what he meant. Nevertheless, I wanted to get on the ground, debrief, join the crew for “refreshments,” and hit the sack before daybreak.

The mission had gone smoothly, that is until the last 400 feet. “We’re losing power on the right,” shouted the Flight Engineer Bill Feezor, “Damn, we lost the right jet, too.” I looked at the engine instruments. The gunship yawed to the right. Major Hoover jammed in left rudder and pushed the throttles up. “Engine failure on the right,” someone shouted the obvious.

Dispensing with the formalities of the Engine Failure Checklist, Hoover grunted, “FEATHER,” as he struggled to maintain control. Both pilots knew the critical importance of reducing drag immediately as the right engine prop was aligned with the airflow. I looked outside—dangerously below normal glide path—looked at the flight instruments. “Sinking 1,000 feet per minute!” “Can’t make it—call the tower,” Hoover groaned, straining at the controls.

“Tower,” I said, surprising myself with a calm and professional voice. “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Stinger 15 going down. Launch Rescue.” “Ohhhhh… F____,” someone said, spitting out the last two words often heard on a cockpit voice recorder following disaster.

I knew death was imminent. I saw events in my life flash instantly into my awareness. No fear; another world.., somehow familiar. News of my death…my family, Mom and Dad will be okay. Not Grandmother… Mom’s mother. She’ll be devastated…needs reassurance. She, the worry wart of the family, devoted to family, but seeming to live in a constant state of fear something terrible would happen. I knew I had to reassure her that I had been killed, but was all right. Dead, but not dead. No longer “here” but not “elsewhere”. All these impressions were synchronous with the crash, outside of time, but in time all at once.

In this timeless state, my consciousness found itself with my grandmother in California, 8,000 miles from Vietnam. I was above her, where the ceiling meets the wall, she, sitting in her rocker, reading the newspaper. “Grandmother, I’m here, I’m fine.” I felt myself say. “I’m dead but not gone. Don’t worry.” No response. “She can’t hear me.” I sensed. “We can’t communicate.” Frustration!

Back at the crash, simultaneously sparks flashed, thud, bounce, thud, spinning, splash, and then silence. Dead silence. The aircraft had come to rest. “Fire,” I thought “This mess could blow at any second; I’ve got to get out of here!”

I looked up and saw an opening. Where the overhead panel had been was sky. The cockpit and windscreen had separated and twisted away from its top. Suddenly, it was like being in a convertible with the top down. I slapped open the latch securing my lap belt and shoulder harness, leaped over the cockpit rail where the side window had been, and splashed into waist-deep water below. Weighted down with parachute and combat survival gear, I slogged my way to dry ground in front of the airplane. Four other crewmembers from the cockpit followed, three others emerged from the gun bay. Reaching safety the crew gathered and looked back at the crumpled aircraft, expecting a fireball of high octane aviation gas. I saw a small flame coming from one of the severed fuel lines, but no explosion.

“Perhaps the water kept it from blowing,” I thought. “Take a head-count,” Major Hoover commanded. I quickly counted the gathering crew at eight. “Two are missing, sir.” The gathered crew determined the missing were Hans Wurfel and Ollie Merrill. Just then, out of the gloom, emerged two figures trudging through the muck around the crumpled right wing. “There they are,” someone shouted. “All accounted for, sir.” Ten men on the crew and all survived the crash. Relief and thankfulness swept over me as I joined the reunited crew in cheers, hi- fives…and disbelief.

Later investigation revealed a failure in the fuel system. Two of the four engines ran out of gas. Subsequent flight tests demonstrated an aircraft at that weight, in a high-drag landing configuration, losing two engines one mile from the end of the runway, could not recover. Being too low, slow, and without enough power for a normal landing, Stinger 15 crashed through the perimeter of the base, severing a high-tension power line, smashing through a concertina wire fence, skidding between two guard towers manned by armed GI’s, and bouncing through a minefield.

During the crash-landing, the cockpit started to break away from the fuselage and roll under the rest of the airplane, as the 119 is known to do in a straight-ahead crash, usually killing everyone. Just as the nose began to split, the left landing gear dropped into an abandoned bunker, spinning the aircraft to the left. The sideways skid stopped the cockpit separation and prevented its occupants from being mangled under a grinding mass of aluminum. The wreckage came to a stop in a marsh, right wing broken, left engine torn off, the cockpit listing to the right like a ripped-open pop can.

Later, I would think long and hard about the engine failure on an airplane already short on power; how the Air Force pulled these old cloud busters out of the bone yard and reserve units, loaded them down with so much equipment that they flew 16,000 pounds over the designed gross weight. The entire crew survived the crash. I thought of our luck. As a result of my experience during the crash, philosophical speculations have been a special interest of mine ever since.