Peter Chamberlain, Navigator
18th SOS, Da Nang, 1970-71
Pete Chamberlain was a FLIR operator at Da Nang from Mar 70 through Mar 71. He came to the AC-119K program from the C-141. From Da Nang he was assigned to Mather AFB, CA as a navigator instructor, then returned to MAC where he served with the 21st AF and as an Operational Maintenance (OMS) commander. He retired from the AF as a lieutenant colonel.
Pete retired a second time in 1999 after 15 years training others in computer systems and simulators for a number of defense contractors and as a private consultant. Pete and wife Lin are enjoying retirement in their seaside home in Rockport, Texas near Corpus Christi where they remain engaged in local projects and their 6 grandchildren.
Da Nang AC-119K Stinger Bailout Call Sign “Lemon”
We had taken off routinely that pitch black night and headed toward the Laotian border where we flew most (not all) of our missions intercepting and destroying Viet Cong/North Vietnamese convoys heading south down the many trails of the Hoh Chi Minh Trail. I was the FLIR sensor seated on the flight deck behind the pilots at the FLIR station.
Fifteen to twenty minutes after take-off, the left engine propeller became uncontrollable “a runaway” and began to drive the engine at excessive RPMs which threatened to cause serious engine damage with the possibility of explosion, structural failure and fire. In addition, the twelve foot, 4-bladed runaway propeller could separate or shear-off and slam full force into the aircraft’s fuselage.
Our Aircraft Commander (AC), Warren Kwiecinski, turned the gunship to head back to Da Nang at the first signs of trouble. He and Co-pilot, Richard Hay and the Flight Engineer attended to the emergency, trying everything to feather the prop. All emergency procedures for a runaway prop were performed including pulling abruptly upward to almost stall the aircraft to try slowing the prop speed but to no avail.
By now, the engine appeared to be on fire but I am almost certain the 50-foot trail of sparks was a result of the gigantic radial engine cylinders being consumed. The floor of the gunship was vibrating up and down in what seemed to be six-inch cycles. Trying to walk felt really weird because when I put my foot down to take a step, I wasn’t sure when my foot would touch the floor. The engine appeared to begin twisting off its engine mounts. At this point, the pilots had absolutely no control over the failed engine. It was pitch black outside the aircraft. All this time, despite the right reciprocating engine operating at METO (maximum power other than for take-off) power and the two J-85 jets operating in efforts to maintain airspeed and altitude, the aircraft was still losing altitude. But the pilots were maintaining control of the aircraft. (Keep in mind the AC-119K was operating at 180% over the original designed gross weight.)
We arrived at Da Nang and headed out over the bay for a controlled bailout. A possible crash landing at Da Nang or ditching the aircraft in the South China Sea was completely out of the question. AC Kwiecinski instructed the crew over the intercom to prepare for bailout, followed by three short rings on the bailout alarm bell. Everyone donned parachutes and survival gear. The IO, Sergeant Clyde Alloway was designate jumpmaster. In spite of tremendous vibrations and an occasional, unexpected violent maneuver by the airplane, Clyde led the way to the right rear paratroop door, the location of the flare launcher, and jettisoned the flare launcher overboard by blowing the explosive bolts that secured the launcher in the bailout doorway. I witnessed the preparations for bailout in the gun compartment because I had left the flight deck upon Kwiecinski’s orders to prepare for bailout. The runaway propeller had already exceeded the flight manual’s predicted time of failure by more than five minutes. The command to “Bailout, Bailout” came soon, immediately followed by the long ringing bailout bell. I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t want any part of that crazy aircraft to kill me. Alloway directed me to the door. I was the first man to jump because I was mentally and physically ready and had no doubts that it was way past time to abandon the gunship. I had thought taking that first step out that doorway into a pitch black night would be very hard for me and I thought I hesitated (my mind going warp speed) but later I was told by fellow- crewmembers that I flew right past everyone and jumped.
I was a good swimmer, consequently more afraid of the parachute than the water. In fact, I had swum that very morning in this body of water. Being a navigator and having had access to all the flight navigation information from my FLIR position on the flight deck, I knew the aircraft’s position before bailout which was fairly close to the shoreline. Moreover, I was young and dumb and thought I was immortal like many immature flyboys. To say the least, I was still not thinking all that rationally at the time.
I landed in the South China Sea and disconnected from my parachute. Luckily, I had no problems with the parachute. With my water-wings inflated, I started swimming for what I was sure, was the shore. After swimming for an hour or so with very short periodic rests to contemplate my location and situation, I was finally reassured of living when I felt sand under my feet. I walked ashore and immediately noticed a number of men looking out at the “light show” which the search and rescue effort had become. I wondered if the men were good guys or bad guys. I don’t know who was more surprised at my appearance, me or them. They turned out to be good guys, Marines at a little recreational area that had been cobbled together. I explained to them who I was and where I came from. I don’t believe I made any phone calls to Da Nang but the Marine unit commander, I think a Captain, bought me a drink at their little beach bar before lending me his jeep and driver to transport me to the operations building at Da Nang Air Base.
Upon our crew recovery and ensuing meetings, I learned that our IO, Clyde Alloway was missing. As time passed, it became evident that he was lost to the war like so many other patriotic and brave Americans.
For the record, I am certain to this day that had our aircraft commander tried to land that gunship, the moment we slowed at all or dropped the landing gear, we would have fallen out of the sky and there would have been nine additional deaths. This account, my story of the Stinger crew of ten Americans who had to bailout over the South China Sea is written with the best intentions and to the best of my recollection.
NOTE: I think Merle Williams was the Navigator on the crew that night.