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On the fifth of March, 1971, our AC-119K Stinger gun- ship (tail number 879) crew of ten launched from Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base (NKP) located in northeastern Thailand on an armed reconnaissance mission to an area known as the “Barrel Roll” in Central Laos. Lieutenant Colonel Botbyl was the Aircraft Commander (AC).
Our preflight inspections, takeoff, climb-out, and ensuing mission were routine until we were accomplishing the post- strike checklist after firing on enemy targets. Our Illuminator Operator (IO), Staff Sergeant Robert Johnson, advised the Flight Engineer (FE), Staff Sergeant James Moore that there was a massive oil leak on the #2 reciprocating (recip) engine. A cross check of the oil quantity indicator of #2 engine confirmed his report. Most of the eighty-five gallons of oil contained in the engine’s oil tank had been pumped overboard. The oil pressure and oil temperature gauges on #2 engine were still reading in the green, but an emergency engine shutdown was quickly accomplished before oil pressure and oil temperature were affected. We were located over enemy territory approximately 108 miles northeast of NKP when the engine was shutdown, a very long distance from home base for the aircraft and its crew!
During our mission, there had been unusual flight characteristics of our gunship tail # 879 when we entered a firing circle to attack enemy targets. Upon rolling left into a 30-degree banked turn to fire, the aircraft would buffet or shake mildly-to-moderately to a point where it appeared, we were approaching an aileron stall. These same flight characteristics had previously been experienced and reported to ground maintenance by previous crews who flew 879. Maintenance had performed numerous visual inspections and flight control adjustments to keep the aircraft status at operational ready. With all four engines (two reciprocating and two jets) operating normally, the flight characteristic was not deemed critical enough to ground the aircraft.
However, on the mission of March 5, 1971, our Stinger gunship 879 seemed to have a mind of its own. With the #2 reciprocating engine on the right wing shut down, the aircraft was not performing well at all. Trying to remedy the situation, we first shutdown the jet engine on the left wing in order to conserve fuel. It quickly became evident that this setup would not work because the aircraft could not maintain altitude even with METO (maximum power except for takeoff) power on the good recip and 100% power on the right wing jet engine. We then restarted the left wing jet engine. Even with the increased power from the jet, we were still losing altitude and there was still imposing and treacherous mountainous terrain between us and home base.
Realizing that running #1 recip engine at METO power could only be maintained for thirty minute intervals with- out risking the danger of severe overheating and possible engine failure, its power was reduced to 2250 RPM (revolutions per minute), and we continued our gradual fall from the sky! There was only one choice left at this point in descending flight, reduce aircraft weight. Lt Col Botbyl ordered the jettison of everything that wasn’t bolted down. The order was carried out quickly but to no avail. We still descended! We were getting closer to Thailand but it was still doubtful if we had sufficient altitude to clear the high Karst, the limestone projections which shot up a thousand or more feet in some places and it was questionable if we had enough fuel to make landing at NKP.
Even though several thousand pounds had been tossed overboard, the aircraft was still descending but at a much slower rate. At least we were now in friendly airspace on the Thailand side of the Mekong River. That much was in our favor! But with fuel gauges lurking near zero and the aircraft still descending, Lt Col Botbyl made a very difficult decision to abandon ship and ordered the crew to prepare for bailout. A night bailout, even in the best conditions, is very dangerous, especially when jumping into a dark black Thai jungle.
Crewmembers heard the command every airman fears from Lt Col Botbyl, “Bail Out! Bail Out! Bail Out!” The “controlled” bailout went smoothly considering the circumstances. Most crewmen landed in good condition with the exception of the last two, Major Warner and Staff Sergeant Johnson; one sustained a compacted spine and the other a split pelvis upon landing.
Following the bailout command, only the pilot, copilot and I (the flight engineer) remained onboard the aircraft. Circumstances made it doubtful we could reach the rear of the aircraft if we needed to abandon the aircraft. Lt Col Botbyl ordered me to deploy the flight-deck bailout escape hatch. The flight deck escape hatch consists of two doors, the upper door located on the flight deck floor and the lower door located on the outside of the aircraft fuselage. Between the doors is a small chute big enough for a man with a parachute backpack to dive through head first. When the upper door is opened, the lower door is supposed to open and fall away from the aircraft. Well, that didn’t happen. The lower door did not open! We had nearly run out of options to save our own lives. We were well aware that the C-119 had a very poor record for successful crash landing. Upon impact the aircraft cockpit typically rolled under, nose to tail, like the lid on a sardine can.
Lt Col Botbyl had one last trick left. The jet engine on the left wing, the side with the good recip engine #1 was shut down and our descent slowed somewhat. The lights of NKP Air Base were now in sight and with the longest heartbeats you could imagine and a good deal of prayer, Stinger gunship 879 made it to the runway and landed. As we rolled down the runway, the right jet engine flamed out and the left recip engine quit. We had run out of fuel. Later investigations by our maintenance crews discovered there were thirty gallons of fuel remaining in the fuel tanks, but not useable. During heavy ground maintenance, crews discovered that the left wing spar was cracked, causing deformation of the left wing that impaired lift production from the wing.
As the old saying goes, “Any landing you can walk away from is a good one.” For many years, this particular landing has stayed with me as I am sure it has with the rest of the crew.
Recollections of Robert Johnson, IO
When the order was given to jettison everything, I attempted to jettison the flare launcher, which was loaded with flares. I broke the safety wire that held the emergency launch switch cover and stepped back. I turned the switch to “Launch” and nothing happened! I checked to make sure the air bottle was open and it had 3,000psi of air pressure. The ground safety pin was still in the rack beside the launcher. This pin was removed and stowed before takeoff and then replaced in the launcher on the ‘Before Landing Checklist’.
After several attempts to jettison the flare launcher, I asked a gunner, who I believe was Staff Sergeant John Rice, to help me push the launcher out of the aircraft. This was accomplished successfully. After we jettisoned the flare launcher, we threw out everything that we could. This included ammo, life rafts, ammo cans, and anything else that was loose.
When the order came to bailout, the NOS (night observation scope) operator, Major Warner, and two gunners bailed out. The last gunner, SSgt. Rice, helped me with my chest pack parachute. The last thing he said to me before he bailed out was, “Don’t forget to pull your rip cord!” I then exited the aircraft and pulled the “D” ring. The chute opened without any problems. On the way down, I realized I still had the “D” ring in my hand. I don’t remember ever being told in training what to do with it, so I put it in the leg pocket of my flight suit (I still have it today.)
I anticipated hitting the ground but hit a large rock. This resulted in breaking my pelvic bone on the right side. I didn’t know this at the time but I knew that it really hurt. After getting my bearing, I released my chute by pulling the “J” hooks on the chute harness. I crawled to a ditch and got on my survival radio. I don’t remember how much time passed, but a “Pedro” helicopter from NKP picked me up and a P.J. Sgt. Parker helped me get onboard for the flight home to NKP. I spent several weeks in the hospital at NKP while my bones healed. On approximately 15 June 1971, I reported to the FOL Commander as being fit for duty.