The Crash of Shadow 76
Please understand that I am writing this account of the crash of Shadow 76 to the best of my memory and knowledge after thirty-nine years since the accident. It was the night of October 11, 1969 at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon and I was scheduled to fly a mission as Illuminator Operator on Shadow 76. Gunner John Lelle and I had completed our pre-flight inspections of the ammunition, flares, etc. in the gun deck and then performed our usual walk around the plane to check for anything unusual. When we met back in the gun deck, John and I agreed that everything looked ready to go. He and I looked at each other with the same expressions and I said, “John, I just feel something is terribly wrong tonight.” John said exactly the same thing, but we shrugged it off and started for the briefing.
The mission briefing went as scheduled with the introduction of our new Aircraft Commander, Major Knapic. It was the first time we had met the Major. My impression of him was very good. He was a professional and the kind of officer everyone respected. As for the rest of our crew, we had been flying together for some time, so it was business as usual.
We loaded up and taxied to the end of the runway for engine run-up tests. Number one engine was torching badly and I called the flight deck to report it. The mission tape verifies my call. Engine run-up continued and I can still remember either the FE or someone else up front saying, “It’s bare minimums, but we’re going,” so, we taxied onto the runway, lined-up and started take-off roll. I could tell the engine wasn’t producing normal power and it felt as though we were really rolling slowly down the runway. We finally broke ground and became airborne. I decided to unbuckle and check on #1 engine. The engine was torching badly and I reported such to the flight deck. Only a second or two later, a big bang came from #1 engine and it erupted into a blazing fire. The last time I looked, the engine was engulfed in flames and it seemed to me that the inboard P.R.T. (Power Recovery Turbine) had literally blown off.
I tried getting back in my troop seat to strap-in, but the left wing dipped and I had trouble keeping my balance to get in the seat. When I finally got in the seat, I could not for some reason get the damned buckle to close and latch. While I was fighting the buckle, everything went very quiet. (I did not know at that time that the wrong engine fire extinguisher had been pulled. Someone had activated the fire extinguisher on the #2 engine which caused the good engine to immediately lock-up and fail.) For some reason, I thought we had made a successful closed pattern and were coming in for a landing. Then we dipped again and I can remember a loud bang and nothing more for a few minutes.
I was out cold. When I woke up, I was on my knees somewhere near the forward bulkhead. I remembered at the time that if you are disoriented to put your hands up in front of yourself, which I did. Both of my gloved hands were on fire and I did not know it at the time, but my left eyeball had been knocked out of socket and was lying on my cheek. I really had no idea what was what, other than to know we had crashed. I then yelled to John, hoping he was okay. For a couple of seconds I heard nothing and expected the worst. Then I felt a tug on the back of my chute harness. I was being pulled from the wreckage by John. John had safely gotten out, but came back for me, still in the burning wreckage amid explosions from live ammo, flares, and fuel. He pulled me into a rice paddy or ditch away from the burning wreckage. At that point, I think the fire burning me had gone out. A few minutes later, I was thrown in the back of the rescue helicopter and whisked away to 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon.
I survived the crash of Shadow 76 as did John Lelle and Head Gunner, Bill Slater, AC Maj. Knapic, CP Capt. Hathaway, NAV Maj. Alves, NOS Maj. Rice, and FE SSgt. Moore were crewmembers who perished in the crash along with SSgt. Bradford of the USAF 600th Photo Squadron and Vietnamese interpreter Lt. Biu Kien. Shadow 76 crashed into a house off the end of the runway, killing a Vietnamese civilian. May their souls rest in peace.
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