It began as a routine mission; but before the night was over, people would learn of the incredible flight, the flight that became……
There was no doubt that the men of 883 were an experienced crew. If they hadn’t been, there’s no telling what might have happened when their . . . but before getting to that part of the story, we should tell it from the beginning. It is May 8, 1970. An AC-119K, an Air Force gunship, tail number 883, sits outside waiting for its crew, waiting for tonight’s mission — an armed reconnaissance mission over one of the most heavily defended road sections in SEA.
In one of the briefing rooms, a group of men are gathering around in that special closeness that only an air combat crew knows so well. Captains Alan D. Milacek, pilot; Brent C. O’Brien, copilot; Roger E. Clancy, navigator; James A. Russell and Ronald C. Jones, sensor operators; flight engineer TSgt Albert A. Nash; illuminator operator SSgt Adolpho Lopez, Jr.; aerial gunner A1C Donnell H. Cofer, and crewmembers SSgt Ronald R. Wilson and Sgt Kenneth E. Firestone. The crewmen didn’t know that the mission they were about to fly, their 100th together, was going to be just a little bit different from the rest.
Weather, targets, coordinates, rescue procedures. A normal briefing. Soon, the engines are warming up, taxi is underway, and 883 and crew are airborne. For a while all is “routine.” The crew has already discovered and destroyed two trucks when Sensor Operators Russell and Jones spot three more trucks on the road below. Pilot Milacek begins maneuvering the aircraft, placing it in a firing orbit. The crew is alert, each man at his post. Ready for action. Suddenly, the equilibrium of the night, such as it is, is gone. All at once the odds have turned against the crew of 883. Bursts of antiaircraft fire begin cracking, and 883 is now engaged in the classic air battle. Co-pilot O’Brien clears two F-4 escorts in on the six-gun positions and they respond immediately. Again and again the F-4s are called in as 883 maneuvers through the deadly circle of fire. Seconds and minutes. They remain on target. After 17 minutes of the deadly duel, guns firing away at the trucks below, 37 mm rounds whizzing by 883 from the positions below, the crew feels that a “tenuous balance” might best describe the situation. One more truck has been hit and the fire from it lights the area.
At exactly 1 a.m., everything changes and makes the previous few minutes seem as though they had been spent in Disneyland. “The whole cargo compartment lit up and I felt the aircraft go into a right bank dive,” recalls Airman Cofer, aerial gunner. No one knew exactly where they had been hit, the gunners didn’t answer right away. All they knew is that the nice steady left bank that 883 had been flying had been violently wrenched into a violent right-bank dive. Milacek called out, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, we’re going in.” He gave instructions for jettisoning the flare launcher to the Illumination Operator, Sergeant Lopez, and told the crew to prepare for an immediate bailout. If they were going to go in, they had picked a mighty bad spot to do it.
Things became a bit more complicated for the pilot. The plane was coming down fast, having already lost about 1,000 feet in altitude, while the crew struggled with the worsening problem. Milacek and O’Brien put in everything they had to try to pull out of that dive. Finally, with full left rudder and full left aileron, along with maximum power on the two right engines, they regained ‘stabilized flight.’ They pulled out of the dive. It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. Navigator Clancy said later, “When you go on these missions, you brief for rescue procedures, where to head for and so forth. But this plane was going where it wanted to!” On top of that there was an additional problem. With the right engines at full power, they began to glow, providing an easier target for gunners below. That wasn’t all the crew had to worry about. After a quick evaluation, they discovered that they were headed away from their home base. Even worse, there was a range of mountains between them and home base, and they were too low to go over in their present condition.
There wasn’t much they could do about their existence as a bright target in the sky. They had to remain in a stable flying attitude. But Milacek, with guidance from the navigator, Clancy, edged 883 around to the correct heading. Slowly, slowly, like a trickle of sand in an hour glass, 883 strained around until she was pointed in the right direction. Now there were the mountains to overfly. The entire crew began throwing out everything they could to lighten the load. Adrenalin working at full bore, like the engines on the right wing, Sergeants Wilson and Firestone found that they could rather easily throw out the cans of ammunition with only one hand. It was working. The aircraft began a slow climb to get over the mountains. Once over the peaks, Milacek began a slow descent. Sergeant Nash recomputed the expected dry-tank time and discovered that the fuel consumption had been reduced considerably. For the first time since they had been hit, the crew could think realistically of landing the stricken bird instead of bailing out. It looked like the emergency might be ending.
Approaching the landing area, Milacek carefully performed a controllability check on 883. He found, after some experimentation that, at reduced speeds and with gear extended, control could be maintained with almost full left rudder and aileron. Since flap damage couldn’t be assessed, he decided to do a no-flap approach at 150 knots, somewhat faster than the usual landing technique.
Down they came, each crewmember wondering what the dark night held for them as they came closer to touchdown. Finally, the first bump, then wheel roll, then finally, taxi up. They had made it. They were down, after their 80-minute ordeal. It was over, and no one was hurt. Perhaps, though, no one was more relieved than Milacek, who was heard clearly over the intercom, saying as they went onto the taxiway at the end of the runway: “Thank you, Lord, thank you.”
It wasn’t until the crew got out of the aircraft that they saw for themselves, for the first time, just what damage had been done. One-third of the right wing had been shot away and one aileron along with it. Technically, the aircraft was almost unflyable. Fourteen feet of the wing and one aileron on Stinger 883 was shot off. The plane should not have stayed airborne.
A year later, the crew of 883 was together again, this time to receive the coveted Mackay Trophy for the most Meritorious Flight of the Year. The citation reads, in part: “Working as a team and displaying the highest degree of airmanship and courage in the face of extreme danger, they managed to successfully return to their home base, thereby saving a valuable aircraft. The exceptional distinctive accomplishments of Captain Milacek and his crew reflect great credit upon themselves and the United States Air Force.”\
Editor Note: Following the 2016 AC-119 Gunship Reunion, Al Milacek agreed to be the 2017 Reunion Banquet Speaker. But, as fate would have it, Al passed away in February 2017. Al’s wife Pat and his Nav Jim Russell knew how important the story of 883 was to Al, and they chose to honor him and this mission, with Jim agreeing to be the Banquet speaker. Thank you, Pat. Thank you, Jim.
Jim’s speech follows:
As presented by his Navigator James Russell at the AC-119 Gunship Reunion Banquet
September 30, 2017
Al Milacek was really looking forward to speaking here tonight but, God had other plans. One of Al’s goals in life was to tell the story of aircraft 883 to as many people as possible and over the years, he has told this story to many different audiences. My mission tonight is to tell his story to this audience. I have used one of Al’s speeches as the basis for my presentation and added a few observations from the rest of the crew. We’ll start out with a brief history of Al’s crew as we moved from base to base and I’ll throw in a couple of war stories as we go. Then, I’ll tell the story of aircraft 883.
A couple of years ago, Al was approached by an author that wanted to write a book about 883. Al agreed to work with the author and asked the crew to do the same. When Al called me, he told me to do two things, tell the truth and don’t exaggerate. I followed that advice then and I will follow that advice tonight.
The 18th SOS had just been formed at Lockbourne when we started arriving during the first few months of 1969. By early summer there were enough crew members on board to form 18 crews. At that time, all the aircraft commanders were assembled to select their crews. The most senior pilot chose first and so on down the line. At the time they selected crews, Al was the junior ranking pilot so he ended up with all the leftovers once the other pilots had made their selections. Since Al had absolutely no choice in the selection process, he was fond of saying that his crew had been hand-picked by God. We deployed to Vietnam in November and December of 1969. I deployed a couple of weeks early in order to escort a pallet of classified material to Phan Rang. The NOS and the gunners followed shortly thereafter. The rest of the aircrew ferried one of the aircraft in the second wave over to Vietnam. There were six aircraft being ferried in what turned out to be a race across the Pacific. The more senior crews set out on a leisurely pace. They were in no rush to get to Vietnam. But, Al was in a hurry and determined to win the race. He set out early on the final leg of the journey and arrived at Phan Rang well ahead of his nearest competitor. The prize for first place was a basket of adult beverages and the opportunity to be the first crew of the second wave to fly a combat mission in Laos.
We flew that mission with a full Colonel from the 14th SOW. He sat in the left seat and Al sat in the co-pilots seat. We entered Laos and began our search. Eventually, we spotted a truck just south of Tchepone and started our attack. We went around and around the firing circle, firing hundreds of rounds without hitting the truck. The longer we stayed on target the heavier the anti-aircraft fire. It soon became clear that the Colonel was having trouble lining up the crosshairs and he was not going to leave until the truck was destroyed. Al finally had enough, he put his hands and feet on the controls and helped the Colonel line up the crosshairs from the copilot’s seat and we finally destroyed the truck. That was our introduction to combat and we knew it was going to be a long year!
Phan Rang was too far from the target area so the squadron was split between Phu Cat and Da Nang. One of the interesting stories from Phu Cat involved the F-4 Wing Commanders Tennis Court. He was an avid tennis fan and across the street from our hootch was a professional tennis facility. Two immaculate side by side courts with white bleachers on one side and two white judges stands. The whole thing was surrounded by a 20’ high chain link fence. The rules for playing on the court were posted beside the entrance. Players were required to wear; white shirt, white shorts, white socks and white sneakers and were required to vacate the court any time the Wing Commander arrived for a game. I don’t know who was involved. Perhaps it was someone in tonight’s audience that took the 119 stencil and painted dozens of black gunship silhouettes on the white bleachers. There was a gunship silhouette every place a person could sit, even on the judges’ stands. Needless to say, the Wing CC was not pleased and within a day or two of that incident, our detachment was transferred to Udorn RTAFB, Thailand. We thought that we had been evicted from Phu Cat and thrown out of Vietnam because of the tennis court. The real reason was a North Vietnamese, Pathet Lao offensive into the Plain of Jars.
When we arrived at Udorn, there wasn’t enough room for us on base so we lived in hotels in downtown Udon Thani. We started flying missions in north eastern Laos the following night. Some of the key points in northern Laos are; Vientiane, the Plain of Jars and the village of Ban Ban. Route 7 runs up, from the Plain of Jars north east to Ban Ban and then south east into the fishes mouth toward the city of Vinh. Route 6 and 61 went North out of Ban Ban and then east to Hanoi. The ABCCC aircraft in the northern part of Laos used the call sign “Alley Cat”. Udorn was our base of operation in Thailand.
The story of aircraft 883 started on the night of 7 May 1970. Al Milacek was the aircraft commander and the crew included Brent O’Brien Co-pilot, Al Nash Flight Engineer, Roger Clancy Navigator, I was the FLIR, Ron Jones NOS, Ron Wilson, Ken Firestone and Donnell Cofer were the Gunners and Adolfo Lopez was the Illuminator Operator. This was the 75th combat mission for most of the crew. The exception was the co-pilot. He was the new guy on the crew and had only been with us for 6 missions. We had the late take off time and departed Udorn at 11:15 in the evening. Our call sign was Stinger 21 and our fighter escort was a pair of F-4s.
We crossed the fence and picked up Route 7 in the Plain of Jars and worked our way to the north east looking for trucks. As we approached Ban Ban, the NOS spotted a convoy of 5 trucks at the intersection of Route 6 and Route 7. We began our attack and destroyed the first and then the last truck in the convoy. They turned out to be fuel trucks and exploded in large balls of fire. The rest of the convoy was now trapped between the two burning trucks. However, by the time the second truck was destroyed, we were receiving heavy AAA from several sites so we broke off the attack and cleared the F-4 in to suppress the AAA. The fighter dropped a couple of bombs and once he was clear we resumed our attack and destroyed the third truck. Again, the AAA was intense and we had to break off the attack and clear the F-4 in for another strike. As soon as he was clear we began our attack on the fourth truck. We had emptied the number 1 gun on the first three trucks and had the number 2 twenty on line. The gunners were in the process of reloading the number 1 gun. We were in the firing circle and firing at the 4th truck when we were struck on the right wing by a 37mm. The explosion severed about one third of the right wing and the aircraft went into a right, diving, spinning turn.
At this point I need to pause for a moment and tell a story from Al’s childhood. When he was about 8 or 10 years old he started having a recurring nightmare. He was in an aircraft that was out of control and headed for the ground. The dream always ended before he found out what happened. This nightmare continued into his adult life and his wife, Pat indicated that he would wake up from the dream all tangled up in the covers.
Well, Al had been in this situation so many times in his dream that it was almost routine. He was cool, calm and collected. His May Day call was a simple “May day, May Day, May Day, we’re hit and we’re going in”.
On a personal note, I didn’t realize we were hit until I heard the May Day call on the radio. The Nav and I were behind the blackout curtain with no visual reference and it was not unusual for Al to yank and bank the aircraft to avoid AAA. As soon as he finished the May Day call I asked him if he wanted me to open the escape hatch on the floor of the cockpit and he said “negative”. At that point, my primary duty was to open the hatch if Al gave the order to bail out.
Everything was happening all at the same time. Al applied full left rudder, full left aileron, maximum power on the two right engines and reduced the power on the left engines to idle. Gradually the aircraft dished out and started flying straight. But, we were headed in the wrong direction; we had lost a lot of altitude and were below the terrain on our escape route. The navigator provided the new heading and altitude but Al had no ability to turn the aircraft to the left. He had to maintain full left rudder and full left aileron just to go straight. So, he eased up on the rudder pressure and slowly skidded the aircraft around to the right and a southerly heading toward Udorn. Unfortunately, the new heading took us directly over the anti-aircraft sites in the target area. We were at a much lower altitude and with the right engines at max power their exhaust flame was clearly visible from the ground. We were lit up like a Christmas tree and flew straight through another barrage of anti-aircraft fire. Miraculously they missed.
It required all of Al’s strength to hold full left rudder and full left aileron. The co-pilot alternated at the controls and at times had to work with Al in order to maintain the aircraft heading. During the entire flight home, I don’t think Al ever took his hands and feet completely off the controls.
We were an hour and twenty minutes away from Udorn. We had a series of mountain ranges between us and Udorn including a 9300’ peak at about the half way point. Our altitude was too low and Al couldn’t get the aircraft to climb so, he ordered the crew to jettison everything that wasn’t nailed down. They jettisoned the flare launcher, threw out all the boxes of ammunition and anything else they could find. As weight was reduced the aircraft began a slow climb. The cylinder head temperature on the right reciprocal engine was pegged in the red. That engine had already been at maximum power longer than the flight manual recommends. But, Al couldn’t reduce power and still maintain a climb. Our Flight Engineer, told Al to just fly the aircraft and he would watch the engines. So, the engineer kept a close eye on the gauges, monitored fuel flow and maintained the fuel balance by cross feeding the fuel from one tank to another. As the aircraft struggled to climb, we approached the first mountain range. We cleared that first ridge line by less than 300 feet and continued our climb to 10,000’.
Our fuel flow was too high and we weren’t going to make it home at our current rate of consumption. Alley Cat cleared us to use the Air America facility at Vientiane (Laos) as an alternate. It was a little bit closer but Al was focused on Udorn. He knew that Udorn had the ability to foam the runway in the event that we had to do a gear up landing and they also had better medical care available.
Once we finally passed the 9300’ peak, Al set up a slow descent toward Udorn trading altitude for airspeed. He was able to reduce the power on the two right engines and still maintain control as long as he kept the airspeed up. The fuel consumption improved slightly but, the cylinder head temperature on the right recip remained in the red.
During our climb out from the target area we discovered that Al could not bail out of the aircraft. As soon as he let go of the controls the aircraft would spin out of control and he would be trapped in his seat. The crew had tried everything including the co-pilot’s t-shirt to tie off the controls so that Al could bail out. Nothing worked. Al’s plan from the beginning was to get as far away from the target area as possible and take his chances on a crash landing close to Udorn. Al Nash said he would stay with Al no matter what and the rest of the crew decided to do the same.
Al didn’t know how much damage was done to the right wing. So, he performed a At about this point, we were joined by two Jolly Green helicopters and also received word from Alley Cat that General Brown wanted the crew to bail out. General Brown was a 4 star and the Commander of all Air Force operations in Southeast Asia. Despite the Generals order to bail out, there was no way that Al could get out of the aircraft and we were not going to leave him in the aircraft by himself. So, we were all headed for Udorn with the Jolly Greens flying in formation.
Al didn’t know how much damage was done to the right wing. So, he performed a controllability check at altitude to make sure that he could control the aircraft for landing. He wasn’t going to take a chance on asymmetrical flaps so he planned for a no flaps landing. Even though we were faster than the recommended speed for gear down operations, Al cycled the landing gear. It worked properly and he was able to maintain control with the gear down as long as he kept the airspeed at or above 150 knots. About 20 minutes out on final approach the fuel gauges were all hovering on empty. The cylinder head temperature on the right recip had been running in the red for over an hour and Al was concerned that the engine could detonate at any time. He was also worried about running out of fuel. When the aircraft reached 1000’ above the ground Al leveled off and told the crew to bail out if any of the engines failed.
As we approached Udorn, Al could see the flashing lights of fire trucks but could not see the runway lights. He didn’t have enough fuel or maneuverability to make a go around. So, one way or another, he was going to put the aircraft on the ground on this approach. He asked the tower to turn on the runway lights and the tower responded that they were already on. Al told the tower that he was on final approach, he could not see the runway lights and was going to crash land between the two rows of fire trucks. About 1/2 mile out on final the runway lights came on and Al was lined up perfectly. He didn’t even have to adjust the heading.
We touched down smoothly at 160 knots and at that speed the aircraft is still flying even though the wheels are on the ground and rolling. Al didn’t have enough strength to take one hand off the yoke to adjust the throttles so the flight engineer reached up and pulled the power back. The aircraft stayed on the ground and as soon as the speed dropped below flight speed, the aircraft handled normally. Al put the engines in reverse, applied the brakes and managed to stop at the end of the overrun. He taxied back to the ramp and shut the engines down.
At 2:30 in the morning we were surprised to see such a large crowd waiting for us. If any of you were in the crowd that morning I would like to thank you for your prayers. Lt Col Casey our ops officer was the first person on the plane. He was carrying a bottle of Chivas Regal and told Al that General Brown wanted to talk to him as soon as he returned to the squadron.
When we got out of the aircraft we could finally see the extent of the damage. A section of the right wing measuring 14’ 3” on the leading edge and little over 17’ on the trailing edge was missing. In addition, the right outboard aileron was damaged and one of the fuel tanks was visible at the end of the wing. We found out later that when maintenance dipped the fuel tanks they found that all the tanks were dry.
We went to Life Support, turned in our equipment and then returned to the squadron. Al called General Brown. The conversation was one sided with the General doing the talking and Al responding with the occasional ”Yes Sir”. Al said the General’s final words were “Damn fine job Captain but you should have bailed out”. All Al could say was “Yes Sir”.
We remained on the flying schedule and flew our next combat mission two nights later. That mission was uneventful. The damaged wing was removed and sent back here to Wright Patterson for repair. The aeronautical engineers couldn’t believe that the aircraft was able to fly, let alone land, with that much wing missing. About 3 months later the wing had been repaired, returned to Udorn and reattached to the aircraft. Al volunteered to perform the first test flight. Jim Pueppke was his co-pilot, Al Nash the flight engineer and Ed Lopez was the loadmaster. The test flight went well and the aircraft was eventually put back in service.
The following year the Mackay Trophy was awarded to Captain Alan D. Milacek and crew for the most meritorious flight of 1970. The award was presented by the Air Force Chief of Staff, General John D. Ryan, and is kept on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The trophy is a large ornate silver goblet on a mahogany base and stands about 3 1/2 feet tall. The winners’ names are engraved on plaques surrounding the base. The silver goblet is about 20” in diameter and has 4 equally spaced angels protruding from the side of the goblet. Their wings are folded back against the rim and their arms are outstretched. Each angel is holding a replica of the Wright Brothers bi-plane and, in the early morning hours of May 8, 1970 the angels were holding our aircraft in their outstretched arms.
Thank you Lord, thank you Allen and thank you Albert.
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