Bad Night on the Trail
By Peter St. Jean and Bob La Rosa with Notes from John Bielstein

“PANAMA, PANAMA, Stinger zero three on Guard!”

“Go, Stinger three.”

“PANAMA, Stinger three is squawking 7700, making a dash for the fence and channel 69. We took a severe triple-A hit and are leaking fuel badly – request you have PAMPER shut down all Arty on the 270 of channel 77.”

What you just read are actual radio transmissions as recorded on cassette tape by Major Peter St. Jean on a Stinger combat mission out of DaNang on 15 May 1971. Following are the crewmembers of Stinger 03 (zero three) that moonlit night:
AC – Captain John Bielstein
CP – Captain John McCartney
FE – T/Sgt Tommy Scoggin (now deceased)
FLIR – Major Peter St. Jean
NOS – Major Jack Deal
NAV – Lt. Col. Brubaker
Lead Gunner – S/Sgt Bob La Rosa
Gunner – A/1C J.D. Hughes
Gunner – A/1C Joe Alvarez
IO – unknown

It all started out as a routine mission for this “seasoned combat crew” into the Hotel Route of the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos, searching for VC trucks headed south. Triple-A was especially intense, as was the truck traffic that night. We were glad to have been “acclimated” to the combat environment by now as the scanners called only close breaks, and the two sensors coordinated smoothly in locating and verifying valid targets before giving the pilot “consent” to blow them away!

We did not appreciate the sizeable moon and haze in the air that night, as it silhouetted our AC-119K gunship for enemy AAA gunners on the ground, especially while flying in firing orbits over targets. When BOTH scanners called, “break right” and “break left” at the same instant enemy anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) rounds came streaking up under Stinger 03, we puckered because we knew the ‘you-know-what’ was about to hit the fan!

Lead Gunner Bob La Rosa and Aerial Gunner J.D. Hughes were both seated on empty ammo cans behind the forward- most number one twenty 20mm Vulcan cannon, insuring the cannon fired properly. The aircraft commander, pilot Captain John Bielstein had Stinger 03 banked in a left turn firing orbit. The 20mm gun was blazing away at the target on the ground when suddenly it jammed. Gunners La Rosa and Hughes feverishly worked at clearing the jammed weapon while the aircraft winged its way through waves of AAA ground fire coming up at it.

La Rosa informed Captain Bielstein over the intercom that the #1 20mm cannon could not be fixed and that he was shutting the gun down to be replaced online with the rear 20mm cannon (gun #6). La Rosa and Hughes immediately picked up the empty ammo cans they had been sitting on and carefully walked to the rear of the plane and checked the cannon. La Rosa then turned on the arming switch for #6 gun (the rear 20mm Vulcan cannon) and informed Captain Bielstein that the gun was armed and ready to fire.

Approximately, 25 seconds later…. and exactly where Gunners La Rosa and Hughes had been sitting behind the # 1 cannon, two rounds of AAA ground fire ripped through the belly of Stinger 03. The first round of AAA ripped open the belly of the gunship just below where the gunners La Rosa and Hughes had been seated. The round exploded as it passed through the aircraft’s fuselage, sending pieces of shrapnel flying everywhere in the gun compartment. Shrapnel tore into a nearby fully loaded 20mm ammo storage can called the “609 can”; so named because the can held six hundred nine rounds of spare twenty millimeter ammunition.

The two AAA rounds were later determined to be Soviet made/supplied .57 mm shells that smashed through the outer skin and detonated in the gun compartment before exiting through the top of the fuselage. In so doing, the enemy rounds took out the co-pilot’s rudder control cables, a primary hydraulic line that all but emptied the main reservoir, and a FUEL CROSS-FEED LINE that started spraying 115/145 octane aviation fuel all over the lower crew (gun) compartment and its occupants… first one tank, then another. Miraculously, not one crew member was hit by the flying shrapnel!

Note: PANAMA Control came up on “Guard” to warn us that our escort “Gunfighter 44,” an F-4 Phantom fighter/ bomber jet flying out of Udorn Air Base, Thailand was circling high above us, watching an ever-growing white cloud of fuel vapor trailing behind us, just looking for any spark to ignite it!” The onboard APU (auxiliary power unit) was shut down by the crew to help eliminate the chance of an electrical spark igniting the fuel that was now pouring down on crewmembers in the cargo/gun compartment. Gunners La Rosa, Hughes, and Alvarez started dumping all live ammunition and spent brass cartridges overboard to lighten the aircraft. Everything that wasn’t needed or tied down was thrown overboard from the battle damaged Stinger Gunship.

All of the crewmembers in the cargo compartment had by this time strapped-on their chest parachutes and were readying themselves for what looked like a good chance of having to bailout! Up in the cockpit on the flight deck, Captain Bielstein and his co-pilot, Captain McCartney, were hard at work attempting to keep the badly damaged gunship in the air while flying it out of hostile enemy territory toward home base.

The 45 minute dash for DaNang seemed like 45 hours. Worried about the loss of fuel with continued fuel leaks and the danger of a fuel explosion, the flight back to DaNang did give Captain Bielstein and the crew time to formulate plans for approach and landing if we actually made good on our “RTB”(Return to Base).

At about 12 miles out of DaNang, Flight Engineer (FE) Scoggin and Gunner La Rosa started manually hand-pumping the left main landing wheel and the nose gear down because of hydraulic pressure loss. We would have to do without landing flaps for the same reason. It would be a no-flaps landing!

The nose gear and left main landing gear indicated “Down and Locked” with two green lights on the pilot’s panel; but no amount of pumping could do the same for the right main landing gear. A bailout into the South China Sea started to look like a better alternative than landing with a collapsed gear, showering sparks on a fuel trailing slide down the runway!

When FE Tech Sergeant Tommy Scoggin was sure we were all convinced that our efforts for landing were in vain, he had our full attention when he suddenly called out, “Hey! We’ve got 3 in the green.” “Let’s land,” John said, as we turned final for 27. One hurdle remained as the brake disks got white hot from one continuous application of the emergency air bottle brake pressure. Emergency fire trucks zoomed in around us and the firemen considered hitting the brake disks with cold water! Thank goodness, the firemen didn’t and we taxied off the runway and stopped with ten guys setting a new world record for aircraft egress with no step-down ladder, lights or anything but adrenaline! Maintenance was glad to get the bird back, but it was soon determined that our bird was no longer flyable as field repairs for that much damage were impossible. It was decided that our Stinger gunship would be cannibalized for parts to repair operational AC-119 gunships in the Squadron.

Our aircraft commander, Captain John Bielstein, was most deservedly put in for the Air Force Cross while the rest of the crewmembers were nominated for Distinguished Flying Crosses. For Major Peter St. Jean, 15 May 1971 was the first day of his 20th and final year in the United States Air Force. Peter only hoped that all his fellow-crewmembers realized that their safe recovery and landing was living proof that God had something else planned for each of them in the furtherance of His Kingdom and that each of them stay as close to Him as they did on that Bad Night on the Trail. (Pete St. Jean 9/11/06).

Notes from John Bielstein

The flight back to DaNang was indeed forty-five minutes while losing 4,500 lbs. of 115/145 Avgas on the return flight (115/145 Avgas was the most potent fuel made back then.) We turned final and landed on runway 18 at DaNang. I called for Scoggins to shut down the Jets on short final, no reverse power after touchdown, just airbrakes for stopping. I was able to turn off the runway at mid-field using the airbrakes. After we stopped the engines and everybody bailed out, the aircraft dripped gas on the taxiway for nearly another 45 minutes. Crewmembers in the cargo department were saturated with 115/145 Avgas. What a king-size shower! Needless to say, we all headed to the barracks for a real shower and then we all met at the O’ Club for some much needed beer. I did receive the Distinguished Flying Cross for that “Bad Night”, thanks to my crew and the outstanding support they gave to me.