I was born in Meredosia, Illinois in 1935. After graduating from Meredosia Community High School, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree at the University of Nebraska in 1970. Years later in 1977, I earned a Master’s Degree at Webster University in St. Louis County. My desire to fly aircraft and to contribute in some way to serve and protect my country were the reason that I entered the USAF in March 1954 at St. Louis, Missouri. I retired from the Air Force at Scott AFB, Illinois in 1978.
During my 1972-73 Southeast Asia tour, I was an aircraft commander, instructor pilot, and flight examiner in the 18th Special Operations Squadron at Bien Hoa, NKP, and Da Nang. My most exciting AC-119K mission was bailing out of aircraft 839 on March 1, 1973. The complete story is published on the AC-119 Gunship website.
Two other combat missions involving enemy shoulder- fired, heat-seeking Strella-7 missiles rank high on my “pucker factor” scale. On both missions, the missile fired at our Stinger gunship came way too close to hitting us. With the introduction of enemy S-7 missiles to the battlegrounds of South Vietnam, our combat tactics were adjusted.
As a gunship volunteer, I wanted to do my part to serve my country during a wartime situation; also to test myself in a combat situation. I’m glad I experienced the many diversified missions. Each mission was different in some way. Flying the grand old AC-119K gunship was a real challenge, especially when being fired upon, which was almost a nightly occurrence. I’m proud to have been a member of the elite 18th SOS, a squadron of highly trained and professional individuals and some of the best flyers that I’ve ever flown with during my 10,000 hours flying career. They proved to be rock steady during emergencies and were true icons of combat flying. My year in Vietnam with the 18th SOS was truly one of my most memorable and I will always be proud of the AC-119K Stinger Gunship and the men who flew her.
The Bailout of Stinger Eight-Three-Nine
It was a routine training mission when we departed Da Nang with a crew of 13 in AC-119K No. 53-7839. It was just after midnight on March 1, 1973. The pre-mission weather briefing contained nothing regarding adverse weather at Da Nang for the time of our planned return. The war was over and most of the American Stinger crews had been sent home. We were one of a few crews of the 18th SOS selected to remain at Da Nang for approximately six months to train the VNAF.
There were five U.S. crewmembers on board the Stinger 839 flight: Lt. Col. Ray Wolf, Instructor Navigator; Captain Norm Burger, Instructor FLIR/NOS (Forward Looking Infrared Radar/Night Observation Sight), TSgt. Leroy Jackson, Instructor Gunner; SSgt. Bill Isham, Instructor Illuminator Operator; and myself. This was the first Stinger mission to be flown without a USAF Flight Engineer. MSgt. Kyser had just certified the VNAF Flight Engineer, MSgt. Tuan, as a qualified Flight Engineer and this was MSgt. Tuan’s first solo flight.
We flew a dry-fire mission, south and southwest of Da Nang for approximately two hours. I decided to return to Da Nang to have the pilot practice his landings. I was in the copilot seat so I called the tower for landing instructions. Tower approved my request for a visual approach and landing, and to remain in the traffic pattern for practice landings. There was no sign of adverse weather as we approached the field except for some scattered to broken low clouds moving toward the base. However, as I reported on downwind, the VNAF tower controller reported that the weather on the field was then below visual approach minimums. I requested clearance for a TACAN (non-precision) approach. I received clearance to the TACAN initial approach fix (IAF), approximately 10 miles north of the base, and was told I could expect immediate clearance for the approach.
Enroute to the fix, we switched to the Approach Control radio frequency and got another surprise. The controller advised us the airfield was below minimums for all approaches, including precision approaches. The next few minutes were a blur of action with many things happening simultaneously. I was not overly concerned about fuel until the controller added that the whole coastline was socked in with fog. There was no alternate airport available within our limited range. I declared an emergency and requested an immediate Ground Controlled Approach (GCA).
I knew the weather was reported below GCA landing minimums and that the runway was technically closed, but I had no practical alternative. The approach controller then advised me GCA was closed. At that point, I demanded a U.S. GCA controller. I switched to the left (pilot) seat and advised approach control that I was flying a TACAN approach to the south, hoping precision radar would be available by the time I reached the final approach fix. I felt I had no choice but to try an approach before the weather got any worse – if that was possible.
Never before had I started a non-precision approach with the intention of severely busting minimum descent altitude. I was just hoping to catch a small enough break in the fog to get the bird on the ground. I estimated we had enough fuel to fly the TACAN approach, fly a missed approach to a precision approach, and, if necessary (it appeared this was a strong possibility) fly another missed approach to a safe bailout area.
The TACAN approach went well; Ray Wolf backed me up on the airborne radar. Somewhere on final approach, the unmistakable voice of a G.I. broke the silence. My hopes soared. He said he’d stay with us, but he didn’t yet have his precision radar operational. I descended to 150 feet, but we could not see the runway to land.
The approach controller acknowledged our missed approach and said he was still trying to bring up the precision radar. The controller suggested flying a precision approach to the north using the ILS. He then vectored me into position for the approach. Enroute to the final approach fix, I advised the crew that if we could not land out of the ILS, we would need to bailout. I ordered the USAF crew to prepare themselves and the VNAF crew for bailout. I then contacted the approach controller who advised me that an eastbound heading to a point three to four miles off the coast would give us the best chance for a water rescue.
As I flew the ILS, I called on my 10,000 hours and 18 years of flying experience in making it the finest approach of my career, because I realized it could be my last. The ILS needles seemed not to budge from center, but the possibility of having to bailout kept flashing into my mind. All was silent except for the drone of those beautiful 3350s, occasionally interrupted by small power adjustment. Everything seemed perfect. The controller continued his reassuring words – ‘and approach proceeding smoothly’. All we had to do was keep everything centered, nail the airspeed, ease old 839 down to 200 feet, find the runway, and not run out of fuel.
The ILS needles were centered when the controller reported we were approaching the runway threshold, but the copilot saw nothing. I descended below 200 feet, the minimum altitude for the approach. Suddenly, through the thick fog was the faint light of the strobes passing directly below us. I forced myself to look up from the instrument panel hoping to identify a set of runway lights. The faint strobes disappeared and there was only blackness. Back on instruments, I tried to maintain what I hoped was the runway centerline. The copilot again reported, “No lights in sight!” I allowed 839 to settle through 100 feet, prepared to land in the blind, lights or no lights. I eased off the throttles, searching for the runway. My eyes darted from the instrument panel to outside the aircraft and back to the instrument panel, but – no runway lights. I had a split- second vision of the aircraft in a not-so-controlled crash, scattering crew and aircraft all over the field. I screamed to myself, “This is no way to go!” I crammed the throttles to the stops. At the same time, calling out, “Go Around!” The copilot immediately toggled the jet engines to maximum power. Thank God the recips didn’t falter!
I was told later by those on the ground that we were about 50 feet above, and tracking pretty well down the runway centerline when I initiated the missed approach. Some said they could barely see the underside of the aircraft. I’m not sure how we remained airborne. The flight controls were mushy; we had to be dangerously close to stall speed. I fully expected to touch down. Even in my desperation to establish a climbing attitude, I knew I would have to be extremely smooth on the controls and make sure I didn’t overcorrect. We sucked up the gear as soon as I thought we were not going to settle anymore and prayed her into a climb. The approach controller excitedly asked if we were on the ground. Being a little busy, I replied, “Stand by” and continued nursing the aircraft into a climb.
As soon as I had the aircraft safely climbing, I told the controller we were heading for the bailout area. He wanted – almost begged me – to crank the airplane around for another attempt. But we needed fuel to climb to 3,500 feet and position ourselves over water for a safe bailout. Approach control advised us that all agencies were notified of our intentions and requested I let him know when we started bailing out.
Approaching the bailout area, I instructed the copilot to get out of his seat, strap on his life raft, then return and monitor the controls so I could do the same. For some reason, the copilot left and did not return. I was too busy to give it much thought.
At the bailout point, Sgt. Isham reported that everyone was assembled in the cargo compartment preparing to leave the aircraft. Our fuel tanks were at or near empty. I set up an orbit, shut down the jets, confirmed that the crew was ready, then informed the controller we were leaving the aircraft.
A few minutes later a crewmember reported the VNAF were unwilling to jump and that one of them apparently had no parachute. They located a parachute for the man, but they were still opposed to bailing out. (None of us were really crazy about it, but we had pretty much run out of choices). After a brief discussion, we decided that a U. S. crewmember would jump first. I believe it was Lt. Col. Ray Wolf who went first. Even so, the VNAF had to be literally dragged to the exit and forced out in some fashion.
Finally, Sgt. Isham reported everyone was out and it was just the two of us. I wished him luck, told him to get out. I realized I couldn’t bail out while orbiting and that I needed to have the aircraft headed east, out to sea, before I jumped. I contacted the controller, advised him of my intentions, and told him everyone was out of the aircraft. Suddenly, both engines began losing power. I quickly repositioned some fuel switches and both engines returned to normal power.
I returned to the coast headed west, then reversed course and pointed 839 out to sea. With the aircraft on autopilot and steady on course, I set up a shallow descent, and informed the controller I was leaving. The engines were still churning but the fuel gauges were at zero. I couldn’t find my life raft, but time was running out. I made one last search without success. I vaguely remember ripping off my helmet and giving it a sling somewhere in the cabin. I hate hats!
I reached the right-side door, quickly checked my parachute and other equipment, stepped to the threshold and looked outside. It was pitch black. For an instant I thought, “What the hell am I doing here?” I grabbed the sides of the door to shove myself out, then hesitated. I stepped to the other side of the cabin, turned around and headed for the right side opening in a dead run. No turning back! I dived out the doorway.
As I was trying to count to ten, I felt as though I was tumbling and falling too fast. I decided, “to hell with ten” and jerked the D-ring as hard as I could. “Opening shock” is too mild of a term to describe the instant my parachute popped open. It hurt and I yelled loud enough to wake up half of the coastal population. (I separated two ribs that required a couple of weeks of bandaging). When I examined the deployed parachute, I thought some panels were missing. But I was wrong; all the panels were intact.
At last I looked around for Stinger 839. There she was, lights flashing and engines humming faintly – a perfectly good airplane descending gently to a watery doom. I felt I had let her down. If ever there was an aircraft to which I had a special attachment, it was that one. She had done all that could be expected of her. Silently, I thanked 839 for running just long enough.
As I descended to the water, I began readying my equipment, inflating the chambers of my life vest, and searching for the water. All I could see was blackness.
I grabbed and held the harness quick-release latches in anticipation of splashing down. I was suddenly engulfed in fog and realized I would not have any warning before hitting the water. Just as I thought I caught a glimpse of a swell, I hit the water. I managed to release my canopy and grab a breath of air just as I hit. I seemed to plunge downward for a long time even though I was desperately flailing my arms and legs to reverse course. Finally, I began making my way to the surface, but I thought I would not have the breath to make it. I broke to the surface and sucked in a ton of atmosphere. It felt great to be alive!
It was about 4:30 a.m. and very dark. I checked myself over and took inventory of my equipment. I immediately took out my survival radio and tried to keep it out of the water. I had no idea where I was in relation to the other crewmembers. I tried to get my bearings but all I could see was water and fog. Since I had no raft I had to rely on my life vest to stay afloat. Suddenly, I felt sick and started vomiting. It might have been from shock, but bobbing in the gentle swells didn’t help.
Because of the thick fog, I figured there would be no rescue attempts for a while, but I was anxious to try to contact my guys. I finally fired up the radio. After a few attempts, Ray Wolf answered. Thank God! There’s no way to describe the relief I felt at that moment. Ray reported making contact with Burger, Jackson and Isham, and that all U.S. crewmembers were okay. He had made no contact with any of the VNAF; they either didn’t have radios, or were just not using them. I could hear Ray but not the others, so I decided I was farther away from shore than the rest. We talked for a little while, then decided to save our batteries for later.
After about an hour, I was leaning to one side. One chamber of my life vest was low on air. I located the manual filler tube and re-inflated the chamber. There was obviously leaking because I had to manually re-inflate that chamber every 20 or 30 minutes for the remainder of the time I was in the water. I’m not sure how much time went by, but suddenly I noticed a light flickering through the fog, possibly 50 to 75 yards away. It was coming closer and I concluded I was seeing some type of searchlight because it was making a side-to-side sweeping motion along the surface. Finally, I could see it was some kind of a small motor-powered johnboat with a couple of people in it.
The boat headed directly toward me with the light still searching side to side. I quickly decided these folks might not be friendly. It took all the will power I could muster to keep from yelling and waving my arms. As they eased closer and closer, I decided it was time to do something. They were about 10 yards away, when I ducked under the water as far as I could and headed in a lateral direction away from them. When I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, I inched my head out of the water and started looking for the boat, but luckily, I had moved away from them. They were now on the opposite side of me a few yards, still searching mostly in front of them. I froze my position, ready to dunk myself again if necessary. Soon they were out of sight and I think I got sick again. About 30 minutes later they reappeared, moving directly toward me, so I went through the same drill again. After that, I never saw them again.
While writing this story, I learned that my experience was consistent with the operation of authentic water rescue teams stationed at Da Nang. Specifically, the teams employed a two-man crew in a johnboat powered by a small Evinrude motor. I cannot understand why we were never briefed on the availability of such a water rescue team. I must admit their ability to home in on my transmitter was flawless. They were good!
Time passed very slowly – plenty of time to think about what had just happened and how I could have done things differently. I thought it was just a matter of time before we would be located and picked up. It barely entered my mind that we wouldn’t be rescued. Eventually my arms got tired from trying to keep the radio out of the water. It may have been watertight, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I was also weary of re-inflating the leaking chamber of my life vest. It occurred to me many times that I should have made one more sweep of the flight deck for that raft.
Eventually the fog appeared to be thinning and I thought I could detect small patches of sky. Then, for the first time, I could hear that things were happening. I was certain I was hearing the faint sound of a chopper in the distance – that unique combination of engine and rotor you never forget once you’ve heard it. All of a sudden, my radio came to life! At first, I couldn’t make out the broken chatter, but it was an encouraging sign that someone out there might be trying to locate us. Finally, I distinctly heard the sound of a helicopter. I started calling on the radio, trying not to sound too panicky. What a relief when they responded.
I couldn’t see the chopper, but I was able to direct them to my position by listening to the sound. Then, there they were! What a beautiful sight! They were less than a mile away, heading in my general direction. I gave them a couple minor corrections and told them they were about to fly right over my head. They acknowledged having me in sight and directed a boat to me. Shortly a boat appeared, pulled up beside me and within minutes I was safely aboard. It’s difficult to describe my feelings at that time. I was hoping the other twelve crewmembers had been picked up safely and felt great concern for them. I was extremely tired and seemingly drained of emotion, yet elated and thankful to be alive and out of the water with my feet on a solid surface. I looked for a friendly face and found it. Ray Wolf was right there to help me aboard. What a sight! He looked ragged, just as I’m sure I looked to him, but he also looked in good shape and that’s what counted.
Ray reported that everyone had been picked up safely except for one of the VNAF navigators. Apparently he had failed to release his parachute when he hit the water on bailout and still had it connected to his harness when he got into his dinghy. When the boat arrived to pick him up, his parachute got tangled in the boat engine’s propeller. He was dragged under the water and drowned. My heart still aches that I was unable to bring all 13 to shore safely.
We were apparently aboard a fishing boat. The smell made me sick again. (I’m not real crazy about deep-sea fishing for that reason). The gentle swells rocking and heaving the boat on the way in were of no help. I don’t remember a lot about the trip back to Da Nang AB. I think a helicopter picked us up from the boat.
I was surprised to see a large welcoming group waiting for us at Da Nang. Everyone had questions, but we were rushed off to the hospital for a checkup. There was an accident investigation in which the crew was separated and questioned individually. I’m not sure about the others, but the VNAF commander asked me just a few simple questions, then thanked me for saving seven of his eight people. He also said he had expected a much higher casualty rate. The U. S. investigation team was not so easy; there were many, many questions.
U. S. investigators told me that the VNAF would not release the control tower tape recordings to the investigation team. The tapes would have explained our circumstances. I also learned there were sharks in the area where we bailed out. We were probably briefed on that at one time, but it didn’t come to me while my feet were dangling in the water for about four hours. The investigation never revealed why we were not advised of the changing weather conditions. When the investigation was over, we were all allowed to leave Da Nang for home, thus cutting short and officially ending the AC-119K training program for the VNAF.
One of my concerns was how this incident was going to be entered in the books, especially in my military records. The investigating team never mentioned pilot error. I checked with wing headquarters before I departed and was assured the investigation revealed no pilot error. I checked my records later and found no mention of the incident.
Bailing out of 839 was the most harrowing experience of my flying career. I would not want to go through it again, but one always wonders how he would react in such a situation. Now I know. I thank God that twelve survived, but the fate of the thirteenth will forever haunt me. There is no doubt in my mind that my four U. S. crewmembers Ray Wolf, Norm Burger, Leroy Jackson and Bill Isham were directly responsible for a successful bailout that night. Without their courage, experience, knowledge and professionalism, some of us would not have survived. And finally, this story would probably not have been told without the encouragement of SMSgt. Lee Kyser. It is to my four fellow-crewmembers and to Lee Kyser, my instructor Flight Engineer, that I dedicate this story
Some of the crew from eight-three-nine – USAF Crewmembers are top row, (L-R) LTC Ray Wolf, Instructor Navigator (IN); MSgt. Lee Kyser, Instructor Flight Engineer (IFE); Capt. Norm Burger, Instructor FLIR/NOS; TSgt. Leroy Jackson, Instructor Gunner (IG); Unknown Instructor Gunner (IG). The two Vietnamese crewmembers, top right, wearing the parachute harness, are student pilots. Kneeling behind the other VNAF students, at bottom left, is Lt. Colonel Roy (Tony) Simon. Kneeling bottom right is SSgt. Bill Isham, Instructor IO (IIO). (Student VNAF flight engineer, MSGT Tuan, took the photo with Lee Kyser’s camera).