Vernon C. Hansen, Pilot
18th SOS, Phan Rang and Da Nang, 1969-70
Bucyrus, Ohio was my birthplace in 1941. I grew up in Bowling Green, Ohio, and graduated from Bowling Green High School in 1959. Graduating from Bowling Green State University with a B.S. in Education in 1964, I was commissioned an officer in the United States Air Force through the Reserve Officer Training Corps program and entered active duty on 30 May 1964. Later in life, I graduated with a master’s degree from Webster University in 1979.
I volunteered for military service because my friends did (I was the only one who joined the USAF). I wanted to defend the United States, fight communism, and help keep the world at peace. Also, I wanted to fly airplanes, see the world, and perhaps prepare for an airline job. I hope I was able to accomplish some of those goals.
Before I write about things that I will always remember about my time with AC-119 Gunships, I first want to acknowledge and thank Lt. Col. Emerson Wright, FOL commander at Da Nang for his leadership, inspiration, and guidance during my tour of duty.
Basic C-119G Training at Clinton County AFB, Ohio was fun. The base was a National Guard/Reserve base which was fully manned twice a month on UTA weekends. I arrived on a Sunday. The main gate was not manned, but there was a note posted on the gate to tell us where to find billeting for Combat Crew Training. My first training flight included a low-level route and airdrop for a Reserve navigator. Each of the pilots, our C-119 instructor, my Lt. Col. partner (former B-58 pilot), and myself had an opportunity to fly a drop pattern. My drop was closest to target–none of it had anything to do with our transition training.
Conducting AC-119K training missions out of Lockbourne AFB, Ohio, we flew simulated road recons in West Virginia. One of my mother’s fellow workers at Bowling Green State University told her of reported UFOs and cones of light at night in the hills of WVA. My mother said she thought it was her son or other USAF AC-119Ks. She was rebuffed; the cones of light were definitely UFOs!
I’ll always remember ferrying one of the first six AC-119K Stinger gunships from Lockbourne AFB to Phan Rang Air Base, Republic of Vietnam (RVN) during the months of October and November 1969. It took us 22 days! We departed Lockbourne on 18 October 1969. Our first leg from Lockbourne to Malmstrom AFB, Montana was eleven and one-half hours–near the absolute range limits of the aircraft with three Benson tanks full of fuel in the cargo bay. Of the six aircraft that departed Lockbourne on the 18th, one fell out of order due to failed main landing gear on landing at Malmstrom; the aircraft had to be towed off the runway. Next day, the five remaining aircraft departed Malmstrom for McChord AFB, Washington. All five made it to McChord successfully.
On the following day, one aircraft experienced a severe main landing gear (MLG) shimmy on takeoff and subsequently aborted. Fuel was leaking (actually pouring from a main fuel tank) on taxi back. We took off but had an unsafe indication on a main landing gear, causing us to air abort. A MLG micro-switch replacement fixed the problem and we departed the next day for Elmendorf MB, Alaska; whereupon, our SEA tour of duty began. The following day we departed Elmendorf for Adak Naval Air Station (NAS), Alaska and arrived without incident. The next leg, Adak to Midway NAS, was conducted by piggy-backing (following) another AC-119K. Our Loran A was inoperative and the forecasted eight-hour flight plan was surprisingly completed in about six hours (flight plan winds were very old, maybe a week). The AC-119K crew that we were piggybacking with to Midway believed the flight plan and was about to fly past Midway. I was monitoring the ADF needle as it was passing our left wingtip, so I dialed in Midway’s TACAN which confirmed the ADF. I quickly suggested over the radio that both aircraft turn left to land at Midway.
We spent nine days at Midway due to a Power Recovery Turbine failure. While there, we played horseshoes and learned to sail. We beat the Navy on their own shuffleboard table, watched The Boston Strangler on 16mm, one reel at a time, and ate the worst breakfasts in the Ward Room (you only knew what you were eating by reading the menu). The part to fix our LORAN and Power Recovery Turbine finally arrived. The biggest disappointment of our stay was that there were no Gooney birds to watch until the last few days.
We flew to Wake Island, and then Guam (Andersen AFB), and then to Clark AB, Philippine Islands. All flights were uneventful until Clark. Upon landing, we experienced our first MLG shimmy. By this time, Major Sternenberg’s AC- 119K had already arrived at Phan Rang AB, RVN. Four AC-119K gunships were parked at Clark, waiting for MLG fine-tuning. The maintenance support bird (C-130) finally abandoned the sick AC-119K at Elmendorf and proceeded to Clark to repair the landing gear on all four aircraft. Now the race was on between the four AC-119K crews to be the second gunship to arrive at Phan Rang. That’s when I found out that Majors trump Captains for service from the transient ground crews, and we ended up third by an eyelash.
I remember the crash of an AC-119K at Da Nang (my assigned aircraft, our crew night off). The gunship ran out of fuel on short final, the left main fuel tank went dry. The aircraft was too slow and low to fly with power only on the right side to make the runway; unable to control direction it subsequently crashed in the base dump. The aircraft was totally destroyed, but miraculously the crew survived without major injuries except for one broken kneecap and one broken foot. It was truly a miracle!
I remember experiencing an engine fire on a night mission out of Da Nang in which we were diverted to an area south of Chu Lai AB, RVN to provide illumination for an attempt to extract a two-star U.S. Army General who was stranded on the ground.
Probably, my most exciting AC-119K Stinger mission was when we were fragged to patrol a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that we were unfamiliar with near Tchepone, Laos. Our Intel briefing was not very informative, as this was the first AC-119 mission in the area. The normal anti- aircraft artillery (AAA) threat level was expected. When we fired our 20mm guns to check for alignment, we found the aft gun seemed to be loose (whipping) and very inaccurate. The forward gun seemed okay with the usual Kentucky windage applied. So, we proceeded toward our assigned area and met up with our F-4 escorts in the target area. As we entered the area, it was determined that our egress heading would be to the East. During our patrol, the FLIR operator located what appeared to be a large fuel truck moving south on the trail. I rolled in on the truck and fired a half-second burst and missed badly; a second burst of fire was also nowhere near the target. Apparently, the forward gun was loose and whipping as well. Now the BIG mistake; out of frustration I fired two 5-second bursts and walked the fire first horizontally and then vertically through the movable reticle (truck) on the gun sight. The last round struck right in front of the truck. Then the whole world erupted with 23mm and 37 mm AAA fire, more guns than we had ever encountered at one time. It was everywhere and was forcing us deeper into the route structure. Scanners were calling for us to break in opposite directions at the same time. Rounds of AAA were flying between the fuselage and the engine cowlings and through the area between the fuselage and the booms. The navigator was calling for us to “Go East” as we were driven further west by the wall of AAA. I suggested that the navigator come out from behind his security curtain and tell me how in the world I was to go to the East in this massive wall of AAA. The actual words were a bit stronger. During all this the F-4 escort made three passes and called “WINCHESTER”, which of course TOLD THE WHOLE WORLD he was out of ordnance, which resulted in a greater concentration of AAA to include some 57mm and two unguided rockets. As we finally left the area unscathed, we did not have any good thoughts toward our escort’s radio discipline. We all thanked the Lord for taking care of us fools that night.
I most certainly remember my Stinger crew who always worked together and got the mission done. Without them, missions could not have been accomplished. I served with the 18th SOS at Phan Rang during orientation training and then was assigned to Alpha Flight at Da Nang where I was an aircraft commander and safety officer between December 1969 and April 1970. During April I was assigned to 7th Air Force Headquarters at Tan Son Nhut AB, RVN as Gunship Expert for Out-Country Operations “Steel Tiger Night” (Laos) for AC-119/AC-130/AC-123/B-57G warplanes. My duties included building the scheduled sortie deployment of all aircraft for each night’s (1800-0600hr) activities based on intelligence reports. I scheduled every sortie to include all FAC, Gunship and fighter (to include Marine and Navy aircraft) activity. During my tenure I redesigned the areas within Steel Tiger to make road recon easier, established procedures that gave the assigned gunship control of the route segment (area) in which the gunship crew was working. No other aircraft could enter without the gunship aircrew’s knowledge and permission. It was also my responsibility to select the ordnance each aircraft carried, once again based on intelligence. I spent many hours establishing procedures to computerize the building of the schedule. The proper use of the gunships to achieve the greatest results and survive, were topics of many one-on- one discussions with the out-country Director of Operation, a Brigadier General, on a daily, or sometimes more frequent basis. This was not my favorite part of my job. I served in that capacity until my DEROS in October 1970.
After 27 years of active duty service, I retired from the USAF as a Colonel on 1 August 1991 at Charleston AFB, South Carolina. From 1992 to 2004, I flew for American Trans Air as a line Captain and Instructor in the simulator. I proudly served as President of the AC-119 Gunship Association from 2006 to 2008. My wife, Becky, and I live in Bowling Green, Ohio.