Shelby D. Lucky, IO
18th SOS, Phan Rang and Da Nang, 1969-70
The ferrying of the first wave of “K’s” to Southeast Asia (SEA) is the one thing that really stands out in my memory as an AC119K gunship crew member. If memory serves me correctly, we departed Lockbourne AFB on the morning of 21 Oct 1969 in a cell of six aircraft. The send-off did not start well on our aircraft since I think every crew member (me included) hit their heads on the fuel dump pipe during the walk around inspections. A young lady from Ohio (who is my wife today) had come out to see us off. Our aircraft was the last or next to last to depart. Upon our liftoff, my cousin (SSgt. Clyde Alloway) took her to the NCO Mess for breakfast. While they were there, some of the early take off crews started to return. There were engine malfunctions out the ying yang on at least two, maybe three, of the departing aircraft. Our aircraft took off and flew like a slow, homesick angel. The first stop was Malmstrom AFB, Montana. Things were doing well up to that point until the Illuminator Operator (IO-yours truly) fell out of a taxi cab at a well-known adult beverage establishment and ended up with a very painful twisted ankle.\
Stop number two was McChord AFB, Washington. We landed on a late, cold, rainy afternoon. As I recall (someone help me – that was 39 years ago), we had to get more shots (immunizations) for SEA while we were there. Our departure the next morning was also cold and rainy.
We headed out for Elmendorf AFB, Alaska from McChord. One thing stands out about Elmendorf — it was colder than a mother-in-law’s kiss on the morning that we were to leave. Our pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer had very little time in reciprocating engines and with cold weather starting techniques, which led to an interesting situation. Once I explained bridge icing and a forbidden cold weather starting procedure, everything started to cook – along with a few good backfires. The folks who did the weight reduction engineering and procedures for the AC-119K ferry and combat weight loads may not have thought it all the way through because they took out the body/wing heaters for a cold weather ferry mission. I shivered all the way to our next stop, Adak AB/Naval Air Station in the Aleutian Islands.
During the time of Lord Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar, the British navy was still using “press gangs” who lived in poor conditions and ate bad food. When we landed at Adak, I realized that our Navy’s treatment of its enlisted personal was not too far removed from those days. It took many threats from our pilot to get the enlisted crew into better quarters. After some beans (and other things that we did not recognize) for breakfast, we were on our way south to Midway Island.
After departing Adak, we steadily flew through bad and icing weather. As IO, I kept a very good eye on the Benson fuel bladders in the cargo deck. After a while, I noticed that the fuel flow was a lot higher than it should be. I mentioned to the engineer that maybe he should manually lean the engines a tad more. For this I received a nasty look from the pilot. I returned to the cargo section and started to fit a butt boat (small dingy) to my parachute harness. On returning to the cockpit, the flight engineer asked what he should do about the fuel flow. I said “Don’t worry about it, Bobby. I will talk to you about it in the rescue boat.” If I remember correctly, we landed with about twenty minutes of fuel at Midway.
Not much to say about Midway Island. If you are a bird watcher, you would have had a good time. I don’t remember too much about our time there or our departure. It seems that we were there for only one or two days.
Our next stop was Wake Island. Enroute the engineer was leaning the port engine when it backfired once. My first thoughts were that he had pulled the mixture back too far and it got his attention. It was not long before it backfired again. The backfires began to occur about every ten to twenty minutes. We pulled the power off that engine and just let it carry its own weight. I remember telling the rest of the crew that it was acting like a rotating valve seat and would probably require a cylinder change at Wake Island. We arrived late in the evening and did not start to trouble shoot the aircraft until the next morning. The contract workers came out but did not have an S-1 compression tester or much of anything else. Someone finally found some old “lollypop” cylinder compression checkers that proved to be absolutely useless. We thought about going on to Guam and hope the problem did not return. I did not like the thought of that idea. After the third maintenance run on the engine, it seized up. Seizures always happen when the oil is shut off to an R-3350 engine. We were there for several more days while we waited for an engine change. Many “interesting” things happened to different crew members while we were there. Most of the happenings were influenced by spending too much time at Drifters Reef.
The next leg of the journey was to Anderson AFB, Guam Island. The new engine was holding up but that did not give me much comfort as it was overhauled by a company that had produced some really bad engines. The Navy used the same engine on their P2Vs and they would not let their crews fly over water until the engine had at least twenty five hours on it. Enroute to Guam, there is a lot of long, dull ocean under you. This will cause some crew members to nod off. I had checked the Benson tanks and returned to the flight deck to find most of the crew checking their eyelids for leaks. I sat down in the jump seat, reached behind me to the aft side of the cockpit bulkhead, grabbed a handful of control cables, and gave a sharp pull. The aircraft shuddered all over and the autopilot automatically disengaged. When everyone “came to”, their eyes were bugged out like a “stepped on” frog. A few minutes later, they reset the autopilot and continued on as if nothing had happened. In about twenty minutes, we were back to step one –everyone doing the nod. I thought this would be a good time for a repeat performance and it worked successfully a second time. Since we were only about an hour out from Guam, they kept the autopilot turned off. Upon landing, the pilot wrote up the autopilot. I talked to the autopilot maintenance person and asked that he just CND (cannot duplicate) the squawk (write-up). He said “NO” so I had to tell him the whole story. He thought it was a really good prank and signed off the squawk as some kind of adjustment.
Clark AB, Philippines was the next stop in our journey halfway around the world in the slowest and noisiest aircraft ever made. We were at Clark for several days for some radio installations before going on to Vietnam. I do not know how so many men survived all the combat tours between the Oasis, Pop’s Place and the Nepa Hut. When the radio modifications were finished, we headed to Phan Rang AB, RVN. Even after all of the things that occurred along the way, I think we were the third AC-119K to arrive in country.
I would not do that trip again for a million dollars, but the memories are worth more than a million bucks to me now. I flew with some of the greatest men in the world. Some are gone now and until the day I go, I shall remember them all.