Daniel J. Eramo, Jr. Pilot
18th SOS Initial Cadre and 17th SOS, Phan Rang, 1969-70
I was born in Astoria, Queens, New York City on the 40th anniversary of the Wright Brothers first flight and grew up between the Tri-borough Bridge and LaGuardia Airport. One of my earliest memories is of my father taking me to LaGuardia and a TWA Constellation taxiing in just below us to unload pax. My dad asked how I’d like to fly “one of those” and I replied something like “wow, yeah!” as I stared in awe at the most beautiful mass of aluminum I’d ever seen. That was clearly a case of ‘be careful what you ask for’ as I’ll explain later.
I went all through school in NYC and graduated from Manhattan College in 1966 with a degree in civil engineering. In June it was off to pilot training at Moody AFB, GA. I graduated in the middle third of the class – I distinctly remember my final grade was 0.02 points behind John Morgan (another future AC-119K pilot). Somehow he got a C-141 (at the time the newest, sleekest cargo plane USAF had) and I got an EC-121 (USAF put radars on the top and bottom of that sleek TWA Constellation to make it slow and ugly).
So I headed off to McClellan AFB, Sacramento, CA, to learn to fly the Connie. We trained on ‘slicks’ w/o radar antennas and their performance wasn’t like the T-38 but was pretty good for a piston engine plane. The only problem was they expected us to use the rudders and after a year of being told to keep our feet off the rudder unless we wanted to spin, that was difficult. I finally passed my check ride and headed off TDY to Korat RTAFB to fly combat support missions with our radar guys watching Thuds (F-105) strike North Vietnam. We flew three times a week, twice orbiting in the northern part of Barrel Roll (north Laos) and one longer mission over the Gulf of Tonkin. We refueled at Da Nang around noon when we orbited in the Gulf.
About six months after returning from Thailand, I got orders to report to Clinton County Airport in Ohio to learn how to fly the C-119, flying boxcar. So I bundled off to survival school in January 1969, survived waste deep snow, and started toward Vietnam. At Clinton County, my aircraft commander was Dave Coville, a C-141 flight examiner from 21st AF at McGuire AFB. Needless to say, he was an outstanding pilot. The dollar-19 was so much easier to fly and land than the Connie that I fared well. We next went to Lockbourne AFB outside Columbus and found out we’d be delayed there waiting on Fairchild Hiller to deliver forward looking infra-red (FLIR) devices.
Because I’d already been credited with 91 days of SEA time, I was in the last group to depart Lockbourne and still expected to be one of the first to return from Vietnam. Jeff Baker was AC as we left on Dec 26, 1969 and travelled by way of Malmstrom AFB, MT; McChord AFB, WA; Elmendorf AFB, AK; Adak NS in the Aleutians; Midway, Wake, Guam, Clark AB, P.I.; and finally reached Phan Rang near the end of January 1970. We were delayed at Elmendorf due to bad weather at Adak. When we taxied out after a six day drinking bout, our magnetic heading indicators were bouncing around so we taxied back to get them fixed. A week later we were able to leave. We were so far behind the other six planes (we had a replacement ‘G’ model in the group), it was downright embarrassing. We didn’t have any more problems after leaving Elmendorf, spent the minimum 12 hours at every stop across the Pacific, and were first to reach Phan Rang for which we were greeted by the 18th SOS staff with much arm pumping and back slapping. The VC celebrated our winning the AC-119K trans-Pacific Air Race, third installment, with a mortar attack that night.
I spent so much time not flying at Phan Rang that I volunteered for every chance to fly. I went to Phu Cat because Ron Dean, Al Milacek’s co-pilot, was DNIF. We were scheduled to fly the night after I arrived but the whole unit wound up moving lock, stock, and barrel to Udorn RTAFB in northern Thailand instead. No room on base so we had to live in a hotel downtown. It was tough duty but someone had to do it. The flying was good too. I left Udorn because my scheduled R’n’R to Australia was coming up. Had fun enjoying the fall weather in Sydney.
Returned to Phan Rang and found out the 17th SOS needed pilots and offered to take some of us 18th guys. I couldn’t have been happier. Dave Olsen gave us all check rides. I guess we passed cause we all transitioned from Stingers to Shadows in short order. Then the rainy season arrived, we rarely saw the ground from take-off to landing, and we learned that the planes leaked.
My most memorable mission was a truly sad one. We launched from alert to a TIC (troops in contact). By the time we arrived the shooting was over but the ground unit had multiple wounded and needed light. We couldn’t see the ground but were able to locate them by sound, set up a holding pattern off Saigon VORTAC, and started dropping flares. In training, we were told the flares would last 3 minutes and 45 seconds, not quite long enough to get around the holding pattern, and we should expect some duds. The ceiling was so low that choppers couldn’t get in to help so we dropped our 24 flares to provide light, the only help we could give. We must have had an outlier group of flares because each one lasted at least 4 minutes and none was a dud. It was still an hour until sunrise when we ran out of flares and were low on fuel. When we signed off with our ground contact, we learned a number of their wounded had become KIA. They also knew they’d been hit by friendly fire, 105mm shells which only the US Army had. We were a very somber crew on the way back to Phan Rang that morning.
After moving to the 17th SOS, I flew the AC-119K one more time. The 18th needed a K-model qualified, left seat pilot to deliver a replacement plane and crew to Udorn. The rest of the crew was staying at Udorn but they had no AC. The powers that be decided I could probably still fly a K-model so we took off before they could change their minds, headed west northwest, and eventually found Udorn. I bummed C-123 rides and got back to Phan Rang via Da Nang. Had to RON at Da Nang and was scared sh**less that night as the VC poured many mortar rounds into the base.
After Vietnam I returned to Sacramento, flew the Connie four more years and progressed to instructor and flight examiner. Next moved to Harrisburg. PA, to fly with the ANG as an advisor, flying an electronic warfare version of the Connie. It was pretty funny, an 8-year captain with four thousand flight hours ‘advising’ 20-30 year Guardsmen with ten thousand or more hours. The unit passed an ORI while I was there and I felt my contribution was many sessions with the chief of maintenance feeding him what I learned from ORI debriefings of other Guard units’ ORIs.
From there I went to Langley AFB, VA. Spent a year in the HQ TAC Command Post and two-plus years on the Ops staff in the AWACS office. Left Langley to fly AWACS, a Boeing 707 variant, at Tinker AFB, OK. Spent numerous TDY tours in places like Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Cairo, Egypt, and even Khartoum, Sudan. I progressed from flight commander, to asst ops officer to ops officer and then had the opportunity to command the 960th AWACS Sqdn at Keflavik NAS, Iceland. That was the highlight of my career. I retired from active duty two years after returning from Iceland and went to work at Hanscom AFB, MA, as a support contractor. I like to think I had something to do with Joint STARS, another Boeing 707 variant, entering the USAF inventory in 1996-ish time frame.
I’m now retired living in New Hampshire with my wife Kay whom I met in Columbus, Ohio, while we were awaiting those FLIR systems. We have a daughter and two sons, six granddaughters, a great grandson and a great granddaughter. We enjoy Boston College football in the fall and hockey in the winter. Plan to combine a visit to our two youngest granddaughters in California on the way to the 50th reunion.