Ralph R. Lefarth, Pilot
17th SOS, Phan Rang and Tan Son Nhut, 1970-71
I was born in St. Louis, Missouri on 9 October 1941. I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy at Rolla (Now Missouri University of Science and Technology) in January 1964. I married Joyce Welling on February 8, 1964.
In the fall of 1965, the draft board came after me. Not wanting to be drafted, I checked out the Air Force recruiters. With the possibility of becoming a pilot, I decided I would rather die in an orange fireball of glory than die from a poisonous snakebite in the jungle. I entered Officers Training School on 9 August 1966 and was commissioned on 21 October 1966. Assigned to Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) Class 68D at Laredo AFB, TX, I earned my wings in December 1967. After Survival School at Fairchild AFB, WA in January 1968, I reported for KC-135 training at Castle AFB, CA. From tanker training, I was assigned to the 904 Air Refueling Squadron (ARS) at Mather AFB, CA.
I completed C-119 qualification training at Clinton County AFB, OH during July and August 1970, followed by combat crew training in the AC-119G gunship at Lockbourne AFB, OH, before departing for SEA on 28 November 1970.
After Jungle Survival School in the Philippines, I reported for duty in mid-December with the 17th SOS headquartered at Phan Rang Air Base, where I was immediately assigned to C Flight at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, Vietnam. On 28 January 1971, I returned to Phan Rang until 18 February, when I returned to Tan Son Nhut where I remained for the rest of my tour.
Fighting “C” Flight’s primary mission was to provide 24-7 close air support for Cambodian troops. I became an Instructor Pilot on 27 May and instructed VNAF aircrews. My radio call sign was Shadow 28. My fini-flight was on 9 October 1971, my birthday. That night I flew with Vietnamese Crew #18, in a Vietnamese marked aircraft. It was a very quiet cap mission over Saigon again. Why we were flying cap over Saigon at that time, I don’t know. The 17th SOS was deactivated and their last official flights were flown back in September. The country was very quiet, I thought, and I was only thinking about going home! Having flown 204 combat missions and earning the DFC and the Air Medal with 8 OLC, I returned stateside to an assignment with the 920th Air Refueling Squadron. I separated from the USAF on 22 Dec 1971.
From the Air Force, I returned to engineering work in various industries as a Project Engineer, and then moved into management as Plant Engineer. I remained in the St. Louis area managing facilities for a Hospital, a Medical School, and a School District. I retired in May of 2000. My wife, Joyce, and I currently live in St. Louis County, Missouri. I’ve written these stories for my grandsons, Ryan and Evan Stamm, and future generations.
Phnom Penh Emergency Landing On the afternoon of August 23, 1971, I was flying out of Tan Son Nhut AB in an AC-119G with Vietnamese markings. I was monitoring the Vietnamese crew from the jump seat as the Instructor Pilot (IP). Things were quiet for over two hours, then a FAC radioed us asking, “Shadow 28, do you normally trail smoke off your left engine?” The Vietnamese copilot answered, “Roger that,” before going back to sleep. The engine instruments showed no sign of a problem. I raced down the ladder to the gun compartment and saw a ribbon of blue-black smoke trailing us as far as I could see.
I ran back to the cockpit and started trying to identify a cause for the problem. The Instructor Navigator confirmed that the nearest emergency airport was Phnom Penh, approximately 30 minutes away. At our request, the FAC radioed our situation and intentions to our unit at Tan Son Nhut. We figured the left engine was using oil at a rate of one gallon per minute and that we still had 30 gallons of oil remaining. The oil quantity gauge acted like Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) to “PP (Phnom Penh).
Upon landing, the left engine oil quantity gauge read zero. After landing rollout, we turned the aircraft around on the runway to taxi back to the parking area, but the smoke was too thick. We could not see to taxi. Fearing a possible fire, we shut down the engines, evacuated the aircraft, and waited for the emergency vehicles. After several minutes, a wooden-wheeled fire truck, 1930 vintage, arrived. While we waited for the tug to tow the aircraft off the runway, an Air France DC-stretch-8 circled overhead, waiting to land.
The smoke cleared, but we still had no tug. After 15 minutes, and with no sign of fire, we elected to start the good engine and taxied to the graveled and pothole-filled parking area. I contacted C Flight Operations and after several hours a C-130 finally arrived to pick us up. We had no way to secure the aircraft, so we removed the pilots’ back-pack parachutes, our personal gear, and the safing-sector off the guns, and took them with us back to Tan Son Nhut. We left the chest-pack parachutes and everything else on the aircraft. Amazingly, when the aircraft was recovered three weeks later, the only thing missing was one chest-pack parachute!
The Pucker-Factor: A Heavyweight, Single Engine, Night Landing Without Instrument Lights
On 4 September 1971, at about 0200 hours, we took off from Tan Son Nhut, the world’s busiest airport at that time. As Instructor Pilot (IP) to a Vietnamese crew, I was in the right seat. The takeoff and climb-out were normal for our AC-119G gunship. The Vietnamese pilots were excellent flyers, and I, therefore, had complete confidence in the pilot flying the aircraft. The copilots, however, were relearning to fly the airplane.
The pilot leveled the aircraft at 3500 feet, reduced power, and trimmed the aircraft for the 40-minute flight to our OA in Cambodia. Suddenly there was a very loud bang, followed by an abrupt left yaw. It was one hell of a left engine backfire.
Following procedure, we immediately reduced power on the left engine. The engine appeared to be running okay, but it again backfired, shaking the whole aircraft when the Instructor Flight Engineer tried returning the left engine to cruise power. At that point, we declared an emergency and turned back toward Tan Son Nhut. On downwind, the IFE informed me we had a left engine exhaust-stack fire. Following the emergency procedure, I immediately feathered the left propeller and shut down the engine. The IFE commented that it was the first time he saw a propeller actually feather the way it should. Then things started going wrong. Proceeding with the Engine Shutdown Checklist, the IFE read, “Start APU (Auxiliary Power Unit).” My response, “Do we need to?” The IFE responded, “It is on the checklist.” I said, “Start the APU.” The Vietnamese pilot called for gear down as we turned onto final approach. I reached up and flipped the gear switch. All of our lights went out; we lost all electrical power on the aircraft. Using my flashlight, I quickly located the battery disconnect switch. Activating this switch disconnects all electrical equipment from the batteries except the critical flight instruments, saving the batteries from being quickly drained. But nothing happened. No flight instruments. No lights. No intercom to talk to the crew. No indication that our landing gear was down and locked. Flying at night with no instrument lighting, and only one engine operating, there are a couple of things that make the AC-119G aircraft very dangerous:
- You can only maintain level flight on one engine if you are perfect with your flight controls. There is no room for sloppy flying; no go-a-round on one engine!
- The landing gear is electrically actuated and hydraulically operated.
- On crash landing without the landing gear down, the high wing crushes the fuselage and the cockpit rolls under the wreckage, carrying the cockpit crew with it.
I leaned over and yelled to the IFE, “Get the gear down because we’re going down,” knowing there would be no missed approach. At the same time, the pilot was speaking very excitedly in Vietnamese. I didn’t understand Vietnamese, but I quickly realized he needed light to see the airspeed and altitude instruments. The flight instruments work on air pressure from the Pitot tube and do not require electricity. I shined my flashlight on the flight instruments. The airspeed was right where it should be. I looked up at the runway directly ahead of us and wondered if I would be alive in two minutes. I was very surprised at the thought because there was no emotion, no adrenaline in it.
The pilot was doing an excellent job flying the approach. I again tried finding some electrical power. I confirmed the battery disconnect switch was correctly set; there should have been battery power for flight instrument and panel lights. Again the pilot reverted to using Vietnamese, instructing me to shine my flashlight back on the instrument panel. I continued lighting the panel and monitoring the flight path; there was little else to do. As we crossed over the runway threshold, the IFE shouted that the landing gear appeared to be down and locked. The aircraft settled gently onto the runway and the gear held.
After turning onto the taxiway, we stopped the aircraft to have the IFE install the landing gear safety pins before I shut down our one good engine. As the IFE was installing the gear pins, the landing gear down-and-locked lights started to illuminate. The batteries were starting to recover some charge. Our total flight time was .5 hours.
We proceeded to another aircraft and flew an uneventful mission. The maintenance staff later informed me that they had to start the engine three times to find the problem. The engine had swallowed a valve and could have run for hours at a lower power setting. The electrical problem was caused by a meltdown of the generator in the good engine. The meltdown shorted the batteries causing them to discharge before I could disconnect them from the system. Apparently the additional electrical load of starting the APU caused the weak generator to fail. So much for doing things strictly by the book. If it is working okay, don’t mess with it.
It was October 8, 1971, the day before my birthdate and my next to last flight in Vietnam. As instructor to the Vietnamese Crew #23, I was flying in the left seat. As we were leveling off, I was trimming the aircraft for level flight, when suddenly the rudder deflected full left. The rudder trim stuck for a moment. As I stood on the right rudder pedal and played with the trim switch, it came back and trimmed out nicely. The maintenance records had shown some minor rudder problems the day before, so I didn’t think too much about it.
We had a momentary problem and my curiosity, as a mechanical engineer, was to find the extent of the problem. As we settled into level flight, I tried the trim again, and again, the rudder pedal deflected full left. But, this time it would not return to neutral. Declaring an emergency, we headed back to the field. After a very few minutes my right leg began shaking and I had the copilot stand on the right rudder too. It took the two of us to keep the aircraft reasonably straight while returning for a landing. We landed, grabbed another aircraft, and finished our mission, flying cap over Saigon.
The following night, my 30th birthday, I was assigned the same aircraft. Being my last flight, I was a little uptight. I had a serious discussion with the maintenance chief. He assured me that he personally supervised the Vietnamese crew replacing the trim control unit. I think I made some threats about having somebody’s ass that night if it didn’t work. Having spent many years as an engineer working with maintenance, I have a lot of respect and admiration for the maintenance crews over there. They did one hell of a job keeping us in the air.