Richard S. Howze, Pilot
17th SOS, Tan Son Nhut and Phan Rang, 1971
I was born on Nov 21, 1944 in Tampa, Florida while my dad was based in England flying bombing missions over Germany as a B-17 navigator. My dad remained in the military and became a pilot. By age five I knew that I wanted to be an Air Force pilot and that desire never changed. In 1967 the Vietnam War was going full bore.
During my final year at the University of South Florida, I was reclassified 1A, meaning I was eligible to be drafted. I had no problem going to Vietnam – I just wanted to do it as an Air Force pilot. I finally got a deferment and in August 1967, I was on my way to Air Force Officer Training School at Lackland AFB, TX.
My dad was in Vietnam while I was in pilot training and was severely wounded in June 1968. I visited him in the hospital as often as I could. I think I might have set some kind of record as the only guy to take 30 days of leave during UPT and still graduate with his class.
From UPT I was assigned C-141s at Robins AFB, GA, my second choice after front-seat F-4s. At Robins I was immediately placed on the Palace Cobra list as eligible for an assignment to SEA.
As assignment time approached, I was expecting to get a C-123, EC-47, C-7, or similar junk aircraft. Then I learned that since I did not have a DOS I would most likely get a helicopter. I also learned there might be an AC-119 gunship assignment coming down, so I volunteered for the gunship while also applying for a DOS. A guy in my squadron got the AC-119 slot, but was medically ineligible. I got my gunship.
After my tour with the 17th SOS, I returned to flying C-141s at Dover AFB, DE and Charleston AFB, SC. Then, from 1975 to 1979, I flew the VC-135 with the 89th MAW at Andrews AFB, MD in support of the Vice President, Presidential Cabinet, and other dignitaries worldwide. I separated from the AF in 1979, flew briefly with Western Airlines, then rejoined the Air Force and flew C-130s at Pope AFB, NC, before returning to Andrews AFB to fly the VC-137 (B-707) as aircraft commander on Special Air Missions.
My last assignment was a three-year tour in logistics. I separated from the Air Force in 1989 and flew as a Captain on the B-727 with Delta Air Lines until 2003. My awards and decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with eight devices. I’ve been married to Marti Floyd for 36 years. We have two daughters, Kristen and Kerrie.
In May 1971, I was an instructor pilot with the 17th SOS at Phan Rang AB. Our task was to train the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) to take over the gunship mission and operations. My instructor crew included: Major Jim Rash, navigator; TSgt. Gentry, flight engineer; SSgt. Mike Drzyzga, gunner; and the illuminator operator whose name I can’t remember.
There is one flight I will never forget because I lost an engine on the takeoff roll just as I rotated. The flight manual called for rotating at the minimum-control airspeed of 113 knots. Fortunately, I had accelerated to single-engine-climb speed (125 knots) before rotating. It was a technique I learned from the “old heads” that flew the C-119 in their younger days. The higher rotation speed provided a margin of safety and made good sense to me and a lot of other pilots.
At about ten feet above the runway, TSgt. Gentry yelled, “There goes number two.” We had the worst thing we could have on takeoff in the AC-119G – a runaway prop. That meant we lost all ability to control the propeller pitch. The prop was providing no power and was instead acting as a big speed brake. I quickly pulled the nose up a little more to get some altitude, pulled the number two throttle to idle, and let the airspeed settle at 115 knots, just above minimum- control airspeed. I was glad I rotated at that higher airspeed because we were able to climb to 300 feet on one engine.
Had I rotated at 113, we never would have been able to climb and probably would have been trying to fly the plane from an altitude of 20 feet. With the prop screaming at 3500 rpm, there was nothing we could do other than try landing as soon as possible. I started a slow right turn to get over the sea. I knew we had an 1100-foot hill to miss, but I couldn’t see it. I missed it by making a wide, shallow turn. When we were on a downwind and safely over the water, I instructed the VNAF pilot to fly the plane so I could complete the emergency checklist.
At that point things started going sour. TSgt. Gentry had opened the cowl flaps to avoid overheating the engine cylinder heads. Overheating could cause the engine to lose power. However, opening the cowl flaps also put more drag on the plane, meaning we needed more power to maintain our 115-knot airspeed. However, the VNAF pilot had not advanced the throttle to overcome the increased drag. The airspeed had quickly dropped to 110 knots and we were descending at a rate of 50 feet per minute. In theory, we were three knots below controllable flying speed. Fortunately, we were carrying only a partial load of ammo. The lower weight gave us a slight safety pad. Nevertheless, I was close to simultaneously running out of the big three: airspeed, altitude, and ideas.
We were close to the runway, but low and slow as we turned onto base leg. I thought about taking over flying the aircraft, but decided that trying to transfer aircraft control and having the VNAF pilot assume copilot duties would be too risky. I just had to remember to tell him what to do because he wasn’t doing anything unless he was told to.
Gear-down timing was critical. Once we lowered the gear the aircraft was going in only one direction – down. I lowered the gear, hoping it would lock before we touched down. It did.
We turned off the runway onto the high-speed taxiway and stopped. A crazy thing then happened. The Pedro rescue chopper came down abruptly beside our left wing with a cloud of dust. He had been following us and we had turned directly in his flight path. He had to quickly drop his fire bottle and set the chopper down to avoid hitting us. I remember thinking how strange it would be to just make it back only to have a rescue chopper come through the wing. Then I heard, “Nice going Dick!” The chopper pilot was Mike Nelson, a good friend and next-door neighbor from my last stateside assignment.
I had not said a word to the pilot because I was exhausted. When I finally caught my breath, I asked why he hadn’t pushed the power up when the airspeed started decreasing. He replied that the book limited the use of run maximum power to five minutes. I replied, a bit sarcastically, that if we were about to crash, it probably would be a real good idea to run max power longer than five minutes. The Vietnamese resisted deviating from the flight manual. If the manual said something, that’s what they were going to do, no matter what.
We then went to another plane and flew the scheduled training mission. At the debriefing, we discussed what had happened. The guys in back said that they were ready to toss out the ammo and flare launcher if needed. We even had a laugh about some things, like the VNAF navigator getting up to preflight the NOS while the cockpit crew was struggling to keep the plane flying 300 feet above the ground. We had survived a severe emergency of the kind one would only expect to see in a flight simulator.
The following day was beautiful. At midmorning I got Buckwheat, our hooch dog, and walked up the hill located in the middle of the base. I looked down at the runway, retraced our flight path, and thought, “Damn Bucky, that was close.” That’s when I got scared. That night we were back at it, flying a training mission.
In my 35 years of flying, I never had an emergency as serious as the one on that dark night in May 1971. I owe my life to the older guys who flew the C-119 when they were lieutenants and shared their knowledge and techniques on flying that bird. Thanks guys.