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Maintaining the AC-119K Gunship during Deployment to Vietnam
It was dark and cold in Columbus, Ohio, the coldest winter the locals could remember in many years. The C-130E crew was going through their preflight checks in preparation for taking off. The pitch of the big four-blade propellers changed and the noise level rose. The portly transport lumbered onto the runway and began gathering speed.
The vibration increased and everything in the cargo compartment that was not solidly tied down began bouncing around, including us. The aircraft slowly gained flying speed and began the steady climb to cruising altitude for the flight to Malmstrom AFB, Montana. It was a couple of minutes after midnight on December 26, 1969.
On board the C-l30 was an Enroute Support Team (EST) consisting of 12 aircraft maintenance technicians: an electrician, a hydraulic repairman, two engine mechanics, (one jet mechanic and one piston engine mechanic), a fuel systems technician, an instrument repairman, several avionics types, like radio and navigation equipment technicians, a supply technician, and me, the aircraft maintenance officer. It was our collective responsibility to provide maintenance support for six AC-119K gunships deploying from the 18th Special Operations Squadron at Lockbourne AFB, Ohio to Phan Rang AB, Republic of Vietnam. In addition to our luggage and personal effects, we carried a huge War Readiness Spares Kit (WRSK), consisting of aircraft spare parts.
Once at cruise altitude, some team members rigged litters in the rear of the aircraft. The litters were designed to carry wounded and sick, but made excellent cots for resting and sleeping. The cargo compartment was noisy so there was little conversation. The drone of the engines, along with the late hour, left everyone drowsy, so most everyone dozed or read.
The 18th SOS was formed at Lockbourne in early 1969 and immediately began AC-119K flight-crew training in the newly modified C-119. Those of us in maintenance began supporting the aircraft and gained valuable experience while helping solve some of the unanticipated anomalies. One of the earliest problem areas concerned the two J-85 auxiliary jet engines. (The K in AC-119K refers to the addition of the jet engines).
Although the pod mounted J-85 engine was already in use on the C-123K, we quickly discovered a problem with them on the AC-119K. During start-up the jet engines drew more electric current than the piston engine generators could supply. We partially solved the problem by supplementing the original carbon-stack voltage regulators with new solid state units. However, on occasion the newer regulators would still overload and burn out. It looked like we had a bad batch of new regulators until one of our sharp aircraft electricians found the real problem. The new regulators were so fast that they immediately sensed and picked up the entire electrical load before the old carbon stack regulators could come on line. We solved the problem by replacing all the old carbon stack regulators with solid-state ones.
During early summer of 1969, we began reconfiguring the AC-119K for deployment. We reduced the aircraft weight as much as possible by removing the guns and most of the other combat equipment. We then installed three 500-gallon fuel tanks in each of six aircraft and had the aircrew test fly each modified aircraft. It was on one of these functional flight tests (FCF) that I experienced an AC-119 flying only on the jet engines.
After completing the FCF, the pilot entered a shallow dive to increase airspeed. He then calmly shut down both reciprocating engines, feathered both propellers, leaving only the two J-85s running. Boy, did it ever get quiet! The jets alone were not powerful enough to maintain level flight so the pilot flew a shallow descent. He flew over the base in the jets-only configuration. We could see people pointing at the aircraft and speculating that it was about to crash! As we crossed the base boundary, still descending, the pilot restarted the piston engines, and landed with all four running. As it turned out, we had created quite a stir on the ground. Needless to say, our Squadron Commander shared a few choice words with the pilot.
In the meantime, I was appointed Squadron Material Officer. I was selected over my good friend Phil McAtee who entered the Air Force on the same day and same base as me, and who attended Aircraft Maintenance Officer School with me. The reason I was appointed? I out-ranked him by one day!
We had our first six aircraft modified and ready to deploy to Vietnam by the end of October 1969. The actual launch went well and all six took off on time. However, upon landing at Malmstrom AFB, one of the aircraft experienced a landing gear strut problem, overstressed the gear, and blew the tires, nearly tearing the landing gear strut from the attachment point on the wing. It took about three weeks to replace the main landing gear strut assembly. The second group of six aircraft left Lockbourne in mid-November 1969. We spent the rest of November and all of December preparing the last six aircraft for the trip across the Pacific. The planned flight route for the final deployment was from Lockbourne AFB, Ohio to Malmstrom AFB, Montana. Then on to McChord AFB, Washington; Elmendorf AFB, Alaska; Adak Naval Air Station Adak Island; Wake Island; Midway island; Anderson AFB, Guam; Clark AB, Philippines; and finally into Phan Rang. Island-hopping route was necessary because the AC-119K had very limited range, even with the installation of three 500-gallon auxiliary fuel tanks.
Game Day at Malmstrom
Our Enroute Support Team (EST) was scheduled to provide the support at every-other destination: Malmstrom, Elmendorf, Wake Island, and Guam, then fly on to Phan Rang to drop off nine Team members who were not returning with us to the United States. A second EST was scheduled to provide maintenance at the four other enroute locations.
The flight to Malmstrom AFB during the third (and final) deployment was uneventful. Our maintenance operating plan for enroute support and maintenance was simple and informal. The host base furnished us with a pickup and a step van. We used the van as our flight line control vehicle that stayed on the flight line with the aircraft until they were all in commission and ready for the next day’s launch. We used the pickup to get parts, take people to chow and all other tasks. Our spares kit remained on board the C-130, which served as a portable warehouse.
The National Football Conference (NFC) divisional playoff game was being broadcast at noon, so most of us settled in to watch the game, reluctantly realizing that all six gunships would probably be arriving before halftime. Sure enough, about halfway through the first quarter, Base Operations called with the arrival times.
Only one aircraft required any significant maintenance; it needed a jet engine replaced. The jet engine being the only major problem, we refueled all the aircraft and began our through-flight inspections. The through-flight inspection is designed to identify problems the aircrew might not have detected and prepare the ship for the next leg of the journey. Typical inspection items are fluid levels, tires, obvious fuel, oil or hydraulic leaks, and internal and exterior inspection of the airframe for any damage or missing parts. In a matter of a couple of hours, we had all the aircraft fueled and all the through-flight inspections completed.
Fortunately, we had a J-85 onboard the C-130 as part of the WRSK. We used our jet engine technician and two crew chiefs to make the jet engine change. It was difficult working in the open air on a cold Montana winter night. By 8:00 p.m. the temperature was below freezing. But, everyone pitched in and worked hard. Even the local supply guy helped out by holding the flashlight for our mechanics (There were no portable lighting-carts available.) Everyone took turns warming up in the pickup and I made a couple of coffee runs for the guys. By midnight they had the engine installed, running, and signed off for flight.
I awoke around 5:00 a.m., packed my gear and headed for the flight line. The van with the troops arrived about 6:00 a.m. The immediate task was to get the aircraft ready to go. This process required removing engine covers, pulling props through by hand to recirculate any oil that might have dripped into the lower cylinders, setting up portable heaters in the cockpit in advance of checking flight controls, and turning on electrical systems and lighting. With the whole team working, we had all six aircraft ready in 40 minutes.
Takeoff was scheduled for 10:00 a.m. Takeoff time was important during the deployment because the flights had to be coordinated with other agencies such as air-sea rescue and air-traffic control. To assure an on-time takeoff, our aircrew usually started engines about 30 minutes before the scheduled takeoff time. One of our team stood by a fire extinguisher as fireguard, while two others stood by to pull the wheel chocks. The other team members stood by in the van in case of a problem. During the deployment, a Crew Chief flew with each gunship. During engine start, the Crew Chief was on the ramp with a headset communicating with the cockpit crew. His function was to monitor the engine start, keep the aircraft clear, and signal the ground crew to pull the wheel chocks.
At 9:30 the whine of the engine starter broke the morning quiet. The propeller blades of the left engine on the first ship began slowly turning. A cough followed by a puff of smoke from the exhaust port indicated the engine was going to start. The propellers began to pick up speed and in a matter of seconds the engine was chugging along at idle speed. The sequence was repeated 11 more times as all six aircraft came alive. It was a deafening, but rewarding, noise.
The chocks came out, the Crew Chief leaped aboard, and with a burst of power, followed by a quick check of the brakes, the lead gunship began a lumbering taxi to the runway. After checking the engines at the Takeoff Power setting, the pilot obtained clearance from the tower controller, visually checked the final approach for landing aircraft, and rolled onto the runway.
During engine start and taxi, the team’s task was to immediately dispatch a specialist directly to the aircraft – engines running – in case an aircraft experienced failure of some system or component. We referred to this as being “Red Balled”. Takeoffs were equally tense because a fully fueled AC-119 gunship had a long takeoff roll and a slow initial rate of climb. On this day, everything went as planned and our six charges were safely off to McChord AFB with no problems.
Off to Elmendorf AFB, Alaska
We waited about an hour and a half to make sure none of the aircraft returned, then loaded our gear back into our C-130, bid farewell to the Malmstrom support team, and took off in our C-130 for Elmendorf AFB near Anchorage, Alaska. We were airborne early in the afternoon. The plan called for the gunships to spend at least one night at McChord AFB, so that gave our Team a free night. Some folks from the Aircraft Delivery Group met us. Their job was to help us, and indeed they did. A pickup and a van were waiting and quarters were all arranged. We checked in and agreed to meet at the NCO Quarters at 6:30 p.m. to head downtown for dinner and some local nightlife.
All six gunships arrived at about 2:45 p.m. the next day. We had them all inspected and refueled by 6:00 p.m. However, that was the end of the good news for the day. The team at McChord AFB had a mechanical problem with their C-130 and needed to wait for a part. This meant that my team would have to take the next stop – Adak NAS, Alaska at the far west end of the Aleutian chain.
By the following morning we had an additional couple of inches of snow. I drove to the aircraft and soon found myself stuck in a snowdrift under the wing of one of the gunships. It was nearly an hour before a crew chief dug me out. The aircraft required de-icing, a messy, smelly operation performed from a truck-mounted boom using an alcohol-based anti-freeze sprayed on the aircraft through a hose and high pressure nozzle. De-icing takes about 30 minutes for an aircraft the size of the C-119, so with one truck, the process required nearly three hours. After launching the gunships, we again waited to make sure that none would be returning with mechanical problems. Once the gunships were halfway there, we took off for Adak NAS.
Isolated at Adak
Adak Island has no runway ice removal system. The runway is open when the ice was rough enough to land and closed when the ice is too smooth for safe ground operations. The parking ramp was also frozen over. To make matters even more challenging, the ramp sloped down and away from the Base Operations building.
We got our quarters arranged, dropped off our personal gear and returned to the flight line. The gunships were already parked. We completed our work in the dark and bitter cold. We were all too tired to want to go into town, had there been a town to go to.
I had just stepped into the warm, inviting shower when the phone rang. “Sorry to disturb you sir, but this is the Operations Duty Officer. We’ve had a little problem on the ramp.” A C-54 had just landed with a bunch of USO folks on board and while trying to park, the C-54 slid sideways clipping the wing of one of our gunships. I thought, “Holy shit” and began imagining the accident investigation, major repairs, 400 pounds of paper work, being stuck in Adak, Alaska. When I got to the ramp, the C-54 pilot explained, “Damnedist thing that ever happened to me. As we taxied in, I realized that we were sliding sideways as fast as we were going ahead. I cut the engines and pumped the brakes, but we still slid into your 119.”
The low wing C-54 had hit the top of the high wing gunship. I climbed through the top hatch of the 119 with the aircraft crew chief and carefully made my way to the end of the wing. Then the good news the chief reported, “You’re not going to believe this, Captain. I can fix this with a little paint.” We were lucky. There was just a small dent in the upper wing skin, no immediate repair required. I’m confident the C-54 pilot was even more relieved. The collision would be reported as a minor, non-career threatening accident.
The next morning’s weather predicted an ice storm, so much for leaving Adak that day. The crew checked the aircraft and buttoned them up as well as possible to protect them from the coming storm. Sure enough, right before noon, it began sleeting. It wasn’t long before the sleet was almost solid sheets of ice blowing in sideways. I had never seen anything like it. It was fascinating and beautiful, but I could not help wondering how people put up with it.
Once the storm began, I wandered over to the O ’Club and found most of our aircrews and the crew from our support C-130 ready to start a round of “21”. Later we all had dinner and retired early. It was a pleasant way to spend a really lousy afternoon and evening.
The next morning the weather was clear at Adak, but it was still unacceptable on the planned flight route. We prepared the aircraft just in case the weather changed, and then had the afternoon free. The next day the weather south of Adak was again lousy. Once again, we preflighted the aircraft in case the weather cleared; we then toured the base. The next day was a go. The weather was clear and the runway ice was rough enough for takeoffs. We were a go for Midway Island and happily anticipated the warmer weather.
U.S. Navy Nose Art
The flight to Midway was like all over water flights-boring. The island was a speck of land in the middle of the Pacific. Midway’s claim to fame is the WWII battle that turned the tide against the Japanese advance across the Pacific. The next day was an absolutely beautiful day. The temperature was about 84 with white puffy clouds in the sky and a light breeze on the flight line. A Navy Chief stopped by and told us to make certain we tied the aircraft securely because a squall was coming. We found it difficult to believe, but he explained, “Look at the birds.” To our surprise, every bird in sight was facing the same direction. The Chief continued, “They weathervane (turn into the wind) every time we get a storm. You watch; it will rain and blow in less than an hour.” Sure enough, it did. After the storm passed and the sun came back out, the birds rearranged themselves, facing in every direction of the compass.
Midway was the place where our aircraft acquired “nose art”. Aircraft 53-7864 was the first in our group. A yellow outhouse appeared on the left forward fuselage with large red letters spelling “Montezuma’s Revenge.” The other crews immediately asked me if this was legal. I answered, “No, but what could they do, send us to Vietnam?” It didn’t take long to find a Navy Chief with artistic talent. 52-5982 was next. She became the “Super Sow,” a pink gunship with a pig snout. Her guns were depicted as blazing away and a little curly pigtail was added for effect. There was a bit of attitude in some of the names, like 53-3154 which became “The Peanut Special” and displayed a very pregnant Lucy shaking her fist at an unseen Charlie Brown and saying “Good Grief.” A small United Airlines crest appeared on 53-7830, with large yellow geese flying in very, very close formation and captioned “Fly United.” I failed to record the tail number or photograph the “Polish Cannon” which depicted an elephant, a tree stump, and two huge blue ones.
Midway was a great stop for us, but on our third morning we launched the gunships for Wake Island. The other team was still waiting for C-130 parts, so we also went to Wake Island. The gunships arrived in good shape, so after our post-flight work we were able to relax on the beautiful beach beside the crystal clear water. A few of the guys thought it would be great fun to toss someone into the lagoon. The idea gained momentum in direct proportion to the quantity of beer consumed. Soon it became a great idea. The victim went in with a huge splash and came out with a huge gash. No one knew about the coral and how sharp the bottom was. A six-inch cut can do a lot of bleeding and remain sore for several days.
Wake was so small that it only had one chow hall that was divided into an officer and an enlisted section; the food and service were the same. Rather than a cafeteria line, waiters brought food to the table just like a real restaurant. There was also a combined Officer/NCO Club called Drifter’s Reef. The Reef was nothing more than an improved grass roofed hut, right on the beach. The beer was cold, the weather great and the water clear. What more could one ask for? Well, okay, wives and girlfriends would have completed the picture, but we were fresh out of them.
Later that evening, I drove back to the flight line with the C-l30 pilot to check the aircraft. On the way back to our quarters, we noticed a couple of military police milling about. As we pulled into a parking place, one of them walked over to the truck and said, “Would you mind removing the keys and locking the vehicle, Sir?” This was not standard procedure on a place as small as Wake, so we asked why. “Well sir, it seems like some guy got all boozed up at the Reef and went wandering off down the beach. He decided to take a joyride on a construction company’s bulldozer. It took six of us to chase him down and get him off the damn thing before he drove it into the ocean.” I visualized a scene from the Keystone Cops and one of my guys going to jail. I fully expected to find a message waiting in my room, but much to my surprise, it was the C-130 pilot who got the message. Our support ship co-pilot was the infamous bulldozer driver!
By nine o’clock the next morning all six aircraft were on the way to Anderson AFB, Guam. About an hour before our C-130 departure time, an Air Police vehicle pulled up in front of the aircraft and deposited a very humbled co-pilot. He had been allowed to sleep it off in the local lock-up. They weren’t about to let him loose until they were sure he would leave the island. They really did the guy a favor, no formal report sent on to higher headquarters, no damage done to the bulldozer, the beach, or the co-pilot’s career.
The team (EST) at McChord AFB had received the part they needed and was leaving for Hawaii, then on to Guam. So, once again we followed the gunships to their destination; it was becoming a matter of pride for my team to hit every stop.
Guam was a large island and landing there was like returning to civilization after the slower pace at Midway and Wake. Anderson AFB was a huge facility and a major staging facility for the Strategic Air Command B-52 strikes on Vietnam.
The morning after arriving we completed all the usual preflight preparation. The weather was fine, but there was no air-sea rescue support available for the flight route to Clark AB. The Aircraft Delivery Group and our mission commander elected to delay until we had air-sea rescue coverage. That meant we had the day off. Two crew chiefs volunteered to baby-sit the gunships and the rest of the team set off to do some sightseeing.
The other Enroute Support Team arrived later that same day. My team naturally jumped all over their squadron mates about their “vacation” while we had done all the work. It was all in good fun, except that the Maintenance Officer for the other team, who was not a member of our squadron, took it all too seriously and became defensive. He let me know that “his” troops were not vacationing. He was a Major; I was a Captain. I listened; he talked.
The next morning one of the gunships had a serious problem with its left piston engine. The engine needed replacing. Our Team elected to fly to Clark AB to support the remaining gunships while the other team remained behind to change the engine. Our C-130 flew a lot faster than the gunships, so we arrived at Clark in time to grab a late lunch at the flight line snack bar before the gunships landed.
On the way to Clark AB, the gunships flew through some thunderstorms and a bolt of lightning struck the nose of one of the gunships. Lightning strikes on aircraft are common and usually cause little damage. Static discharge devices are installed and electrical equipment is grounded to the airframe to help prevent damage. A lightning strike can, as in this case, provide a very impressive display of static electricity. The lightning ball rolled through the cockpit and down the crew ladder into the cargo bay. It then rolled across one of the long-range fuel tanks in the cargo bay, out the side of the fuselage, down the left tail boom and exited the aircraft by blowing off one of the three static discharge wicks on the left rudder. A discharge wick is a bolt-on piece that is easy to replace.
The crew chief was riding in the cargo bay and watched in horror as the “ball of fire” rolled down the cockpit steps and across the fuel tank. He put on his parachute and was poised by the door, ready to jump, when he realized that the excitement was over and that the aircraft was not going to blow up. The rest of the crew swore he wore his parachute the rest of the trip and never got more than ten feet away from the door. They remain convinced that the crew chief came within seconds of activating the air-sea rescue service.
Clark Air Base: Snatching a Spy
Clark AB was a huge facility with a tremendous amount of activity. It was the primary base for staging in and out of Vietnam. Several men on our team were previously stationed at Clark, so we did not lack for guides to Angles City, the closest town to the base.
After completing the through-flight inspections and securing the aircraft, we headed downtown for dinner. Angles City was the first real downtown we had seen in a month. We enjoyed a great meal at a small restaurant and washed it down with San Miguel beer. It was the local brew, stouter than the export version found in the States. Thus fortified, we set out to check out the local nightlife.
A couple of the guys spent the night downtown, but everybody showed up for work the next morning to preflight the gunships for the flight to Vietnam. As the morning wore on, our supply man walked over and started a conversation. “You remember that girl I was with last night? Well, she was asking some really strange questions about the gunships.” He went on to tell me she wanted to know things like the number of guns and the kind of radar. After some further discussion, I agreed it was a suspicious situation. We hopped in the truck, drove to the local Office of Special Investigations (OSI), and had the supply man file a report with an investigator. I figured that was the last we’d hear about it. As it happened, unfavorable enroute weather delayed the gunship departure from Clark for two days. That gave us time to shop the many on-base vendors and to purchase the Monkey Pod wood lazy susan and large wooden spoons and forks that were popular at that time.
On the third morning at Clark, I was sitting in my truck watching the gunships start engines when the OSI investigator drove up. He came over to the truck and thanked me for the report and explained that they had picked up the girl earlier that morning. Our supply man saw the car and joined the conversation. The agent said Philippine government officials did not allow OSI action unless there were three complaints on an individual, and that the supply man’s complaint was number three in the case. He reported the girl was off the street. He also explained that the girl’s parents were living in China and that the Red Chinese were using threats against the parents to force the girl to provide them with information.
Of all the guys on the team, our supply man knew the least about the aircraft systems and was the least likely to disclose sensitive information. Essentially, if it didn’t have a part number, he had no idea what it was. Best of all, he had the good sense to tell someone about the incident. Well, needless to say, being courted by a real spy was exciting for our supply guy, and just about all he could talk about for the rest of the trip. I have to admit, it was rather exciting, and way out of the ordinary.
Launching that last day was not without incident. As the right engine of one of the gunships fired up, a spectacular 3-foot flame shot out the exhaust. An exhaust stack fire is a common incident with a piston engine aircraft and usually causes no damage. It happens when excess fuel flows into the exhaust pipes or stacks where it can catch fire. Procedure calls for cutting off the ignition and allowing the airflow from the propeller to blow out the fire, usually with no damage done. The aircrew had already cut the ignition and the crew chief was in the process of rolling a portable fire bottle closer, just in case the fire continued, when the base fire truck rolled up, lights flashing, siren blowing and eager to douse the offending engine with highly corrosive fire-retardant foam. The fire was out, but our biggest problem was convincing the fire crew we didn’t require their services. They had seen a fire and, by God, they were going to do something about it. By talking really fast for several minutes, I finally convinced their team chief that the situation was under control. It would have taken the better part of the day to clean and flush the engine nacelle had I not been able to stop them.
End of the Journey
At Phan Rang AB, we off-loaded the aircraft. For the first time on the trip, we had no through-flight and no refueling. Our job was done. I said goodbye to the guys I had worked with for almost a year and then joined the other three guys who were also returning to Lockbourne AFB. The next morning the four of us were back on the C-130 starting our long trip home.
The whole ferry trip had taken 32 days. It was one of those experiences that one never forgets. In retrospect, it would have been good if we maintenance officers had been reassigned into the theater along with the aircraft. The guys on the ground at Phan Rang, with one exception, were not familiar with the aircraft and had to learn what we already knew. I wound up returning to Vietnam on a regular tour several months later, on a different aircraft. But then, that’s another story.