David E. O’Mara, Pilot
17th SOS, Phan Rang, 1969-70
I completed my degree at Memphis State University and was commissioned on 20 August 1965 through the AFROTC program. Upon completing pilot training at Del Rio, Texas in December 1966, I was assigned to duty as a B-52G copilot at Seymour Johnson AFB, NC.
Beginning in 1968, I flew 45 B-52 Arc Light missions over Vietnam from Guam, Okinawa, and Thailand.
Within days of returning to Seymour Johnson, I received orders to Vietnam in the C-123. I grew up as the son of a U. S. Navy Officer, so I knew not to whine or complain over what the military wanted of me. However, as a Captain, I realized almost everyone was negotiating for favors. So I told the assignments officer I had just returned from six months of flying Arc Light missions, that I considered myself a combatant, and I would gladly take any combat aircraft assignment the USAF had. A few weeks later I received orders for the AC-119G gunship. I did not then know I was embarking on the most meaningful year of my life.
I believe we were scheduled this night for a nine or ten o’clock departure for the second scheduled sortie of the evening. We had accomplished all preflight checks and procedures and were presently taxiing to the north end of the airfield for a south departure from Phan Rang. Tonight’s mission was a planned search and destroy sortie to somewhere in Corps II or Corps III of South Vietnam (Republic of Vietnam). South Vietnam was divided into four Corps or subdivisions, each denoted by Roman numerals, I – II – III – IV by the U.S. Army. I Corps started at the DMZ with II and III Corps sort of evenly divided in the middle of South Vietnam and finally, IV Corps, from Saigon south to the southern tip of the Mekong Delta.
At the end of most large runways there is a fairly large concrete paddock used for various purposes, such as, for propeller driven aircraft, engine and prop operating checks, or for jet fighters ordnance arming etc. For the AC-119on a TIC or scramble, these checks were accomplished while taxiing to the far end of the runway for takeoff. Even though I had many alert takeoffs in the B-52 jet bomber, the relative complexity of large piston engine prop driven aircraft was an adventure in itself the first couple of times around. Running each engine up to check magnetos and cycle the props would cause the aircraft, due to asymmetrical thrust, to try to veer to one side or the other.
This night mission was a scheduled sortie. We arrived at the paddock and turned our AC-119G into the wind. Locking the parking brakes, we started checking the engines and props. After completing the checks on the left engine, I was smoothly pushing the throttle of the right engine forward when our ever-alert IO reported he had seen a tall American man in USAF fatigues, walking around the rear of aircraft. Bringing the throttle back to idle, I immediately told him to keep me advised of where the man was located at all times. I had barely released the intercom button when our IO stated the man was heading forward on the right side of the aircraft near the fuselage. The fact that every crew member carried a loaded Combat Masterpiece .38 Special revolver or had an AR-15 immediately available, ran through my mind, as I pulled the right prop lever to feather, instantly stopping the right engine. If this was some kind of weird diversion, I knew we could get the aircraft moving quickly with only the left engine running while starting the other. I am thankful to this day; I have never seen the aftermath of a man meeting a turning eleven-foot diameter prop. I continued the emergency shutdown process while our copilot called the tower and reported the incident. The tower scrambled the Air Police, fire trucks and the flight surgeon, apparently part of any aircraft related drill.
Unlike the movies, it would be difficult to outrun an aircraft on foot. Apparently, seeing the huge prop and engine come to a sudden stop, the unknown man turned around and walked back to the aft of the aircraft where the IO was shining his GI flashlight. At some time during this confusion, the IO had taken his headset off to talk to this obviously confused man. By now, the NOS was giving us a blow-by-blow description of the ensuing events. I kept asking what he wanted. Who knows, although I doubted it, he may have seen something unsafe with the aircraft. By now I could see the red flashing lights of the emergency vehicles coming toward us in the distance. I was debating whether to shut down the left engine for fear of chopping someone up in the prop, when the NOS reported the man wanted to go back home to the USA. Well we all did. I had just said over the intercom, “Whatever you do don’t let him aboard”, when the NOS stated “everything is all right we have him in the aircraft”.
As all the emergency forces arrived, I informed the tower I was shutting down the remaining engine. Of course, with the generator still running, the flight deck crew could barely hear anything that was said over the intercom. My copilot and I unbuckled our seatbelts and parachute harnesses for a quick exit if necessary. In addition, I unfastened the retaining strap on my revolver while checking the availability of my survival knife. As I had not been in many fights in my youth, I wanted every advantage at hand.
While in the USAF, I never qualified less than expert in all Air Force small arms courses and tied for first place in hand to hand combat training in survival school.
Meanwhile, in the back of the airplane, our capable crew comprised of our NOS, IO, and GUNNERS, had calmed our new “passenger” down. As much as we all wanted to see first-hand what was going on in back, the flight deck crew had to stay ready in our positions. While communicating with the tower, who was in contact with all the ground forces, we sat ready to do anything we might be called to do. Reports from the back started coming in when six large, as they usually seem to be, Air Police, climbed onboard. At first they talked to the now obviously disturbed man. When he refused to get off his “airliner to freedom,” the Air Police decided to forcibly remove the intruder. After all, we were late for our departure. Later on I pondered what I would have done if we were scrambled for a TIC. I suppose the USAF would have had to give the young airman flight pay. One report from the back claimed the intruder, who was desperately clinging to a minigun, was tossing the Air Police around like small children.
Damn, why was he aboard. No procedure to cover this one. As fast as the melee started, it stopped when the aft crew intervened, again calming down the situation. Things were tense but the flight surgeon had just arrived. Looking back on it, I thought, so what!
All knowledgeable pilots are wary and suspicious of doctors. And flight surgeons in particular will put the fear in a pilot’s heart faster than an inverted spin in a T-37. A stroke of the pen of one of these men can end or give wings to a pilot’s career.
The flight surgeon on duty this night earned his pay like a real trooper. Keep in mind; I never left my seat, so most of the story emanating from the aft of the airplane comes from what I heard over the intercom and what was later related to me by my fellow crew members.
The flight surgeon entered the aircraft and proceeded to talk to this distressed man. As our “passenger” had recently received a “Dear John” letter, like many men in this situation, he felt compelled to go home and rectify the situation. The flight surgeon talked the man into getting a shot to help calm him down. According to my crew the offender slumped into a stupor as the plunger on the syringe was pushed down. Now you know why pilots fear doctors. All kidding aside, I never found out who this brave doctor was, but the Air Police, my crew and I owe him everything for saving at least one American life that night. If I ever meet this physician, I will make sure he knows how much I appreciate what he did that night.
I know a man cannot see a spinning prop in the dark of night. Experienced men have died from spinning aircraft props. Even though I showed compassion by shutting down the right engine, I know any one of us would have stopped this man dead in his tracks if he threatened one of our fellow crewmembers during a combat situation. I am sure he thought our AC-119 was just another vintage cargo plane, hopefully flying to the nearest Vietnam departure base for the States.
After the excitement, we cranked up and flew our assigned mission. At least a hundred years later when flying for the airlines, I realized my crew and I had an attempted hijacking that night.