Body Bags and Aluminum Coffins

IMG_0113After I published my article the Red Blood of Patriots, one of my friends commented that “these stories need to be told.” In that article I wrote an experience I had one night when my C-130 crew was diverted to an emergency air evacuation mission out of Dong Ha. There is another side to that story, and the story of the Vietnam experience as a whole, and this is my attempt to tell it – the transporting of the dead.

As a boy, I was not fond of graveyards and didn’t want to be around dead people. I was exposed to a graveyard every day at Lavinia School because the local cemetery was adjacent to the school yard. Some of my ancestors are buried there but it still bothered me. As for the dead, I once feigned sickness to avoid going to the funeral of a man I knew well and respected. Fortunately, there weren’t a lot of funerals in my family and circle of acquaintances although I did lose a few friends, one to a tragic accident when a hole he and some friends were digging into the side of a gulley fell in on him, a girl to leukemia and a boy who was hit by a car. I didn’t go to any of their funerals. As for graveyards, I finally got up enough nerve to wander through the cemetery at the church on the other side of the woods bordering our property and look at the old tombstones, but I was older by then. All of that changed for me, along with a lot of other things, in Vietnam.

The Air Force had two terms for the dead. Those who were killed on the battlefield or died of wounds were referred to as KIAs before they were transported to a mortuary. After they had been embalmed or processed – there were many who couldn’t be embalmed – they were called human remains. KIAs were transported in olive drab rubber battle bags; human remains in aluminum shipping coffins. I saw a lot of both.

I don’t remember the first time I transported a KIA in a body bag. It was sometime in the fall of 1965 when my squadron was TDY to Mactan, a tiny island ofnd f of the Philippines island of Cebu, from our home base, Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina. I know I was traumatized, which is probably why I don’t remember it. I no doubt picked it up at some airfield and carried it to either Da Nang or Saigon where the US had mortuaries. Originally, there was only one and it was operated by the Air Force at Tan Son Nhut but as the US role changed to ground combat, a second was established at Da Nang. I don’t believe the Da Nang mortuary was open yet because the first body bag I remember came out of there and went to Saigon. The flight wasn’t memorable because of the body bag, it was memorable because I also had a Vietnamese coffin on board and the deceased’s grieving young widow accompanied it. Vietnamese coffins were made of aluminum and weren’t that well made. Vietnamese undertakers put bodies in coffins partially filled with sand or something, and the bodily fluids tended to leak. When we got to Saigon, the US Graves Registration ambulance was there to meet us but the South Vietnamese were nowhere to be seen. The girl – she was around 19 or 20 – became hysterical while we were waiting and started trying to open the coffin. I was about ready to pull my .38 but she finally calmed down.

There was one flight with a body bag – it may have been the one with the grieving widow – I remember because I had become so used to carrying them that I sat on a nylon seat in the back of the airplane next to the litter with the body bag and ate my flight lunch.

My crew went back to Pope a few days before Christmas and I went on leave. When I got back, I learned I had overseas orders. I was going to Naha, Okinawa. I knew it meant more Vietnam flying. I got to Naha on a blustery Monday evening in February. The following Sunday I went to the newly opened air base at Cam Ranh Bay on a special mission for two weeks of flying in South Vietnam. I was flying with an instructor loadmaster because this was my first flight in the C-130A – I had been flying C-130Es and there were some minor differences so I had to be signed-off. We shuttled ammunition from Cam Ranh to Ban Me Thout and Tuy Hoa in support of a large operation. One morning we had a passenger on a sortie to Ban Me Thout. Although passengers were not normally allowed on flights with Class A ammunition, a waiver had been issued. The passenger was an Army Specialist Sixth Class. I remember what he looked like – he had dark hair and was wearing dark-rimmed military issue glasses – but I didn’t talk to him much. We dropped him off with the load and went back to Cam Ranh for another. That afternoon, we went back to Ban Me Thout. The ground radio operator – we called the forward field operations Transport Movement Detachments or TMD at that time – advised us that we’d be carrying a KIA on the outbound flight. By this time, I’d hauled quite a few KIAs and was used to the sight of body bags. The air freight guys brought the litter on and put it down at the front of the airplane and I wrapped straps around each end and ratcheted them down. As we were taxiing out, George, my instructor, said on the interphone that the KIA was the same Spec 6 we had brought in that morning. Now, I don’t know it if was or not. I do know that Spec 6s were not that common.

For the next 18 months I spent most of my time in either South Vietnam or Thailand. I have no idea how many I carried, but KIAs in body bags and South Vietnamese aluminum coffins were common. Fortunately, the number of Vietnamese coffins declined. I’m not sure why, but I believe there was some kind of policy change and that Vietnamese became responsible for transporting their own dead. It was fine with me. We didn’t have KIAs on every flight or even on most of them, but it was common to go into an airfield and take a KIA or two out. Since the KIAs were going to Saigon and our operating base was Cam Ranh Bay, we probably didn’t carry as many as the crews operating out of Tan Son Nhut did.

One night I was on a mission to Pleiku, a large base in the Central Highlands. An Army Chinook helicopter that crashed there the day before. On the way in, we were advised by the ALCE (the name of the Transport Movement Detachments had been changed) that we were carrying the remains. The helicopter had exploded. We came out of Pleiku with the remains of five men in a single body bag. Everything Graves Registration could find was lumped together. There was about a 5-pound lump inside the bag, and there was the odor of a meat market in the air. I’ve never forgotten that smell.

My four year enlistment was up at the end of my tour at Naha but I decided to reenlist. Believe it or not, my job as a loadmaster was a decent job. My new assignment was to a Military Airlift Command squadron based at Robins AFB, Georgia. The squadron’s primary mission was transporting nuclear weapons and they were in the process of transitioning out of Korean War vintage C-124’s to brand new Lockheed C-141s. The C-141 was essentially a jet version of the turboprop C-130, but it was longer and could carry ten pallets of cargo while the C-130 carried six. Our mission was transporting nukes and I flew nuke missions but we also flew Military Airlift Command “channel traffic” missions, and most of them went to Southeast Asia. We often had human remains as our cargo on the way back.

MAC used the crew stage system. Instead of keeping the same airplane all the way to our destination and back home, we flew different airplanes in stages. We’d take a squadron airplane from Robins to an onload point, usually Dover, Delaware, then proceed to Elmendorf AFB, Alaska where we’d surrender the airplane to another crew and enter the stage. After crew rest of some 15 hours, we’d pick up another airplane and take it to the next stage point at Yokota AFB, Japan. We’d crew rest then take another airplane on to its cargo’s destination, usually an airfield in either South Vietnam or Thailand. Most went to one of three airfields in South Vietnam – Cam Ranh Bay, Da Nang and Tan Son Nhut at Saigon. We’d then go to our next crew rest stop at Kadena AB, Okinawa. From Kadena we went to Elmendorf. After Elmendorf we’d take an airplane to it’s home base, hopefully to Robins but as often as not we’d go to one of a number of MAC bases on the East Coast then catch a scheduled shuttle back to our home base. Airplanes coming out of South Vietnam often came out empty, but those that went to Saigon as often as not came out with a load of human remains.

In the Vietnam years, human remains were transported without ceremony. There were no flag-draped coffins and no escorting officers. Human remains were considered to be cargo and were handled as such, with certain conditions. Air Force policy was that human remains were always loaded in the airplane headfirst and they were loaded so they’d be the last item on the airplane to be jettisoned. (I never heard of a C-141 crew ever jettisoning anything.) I believe there was a MAC policy that only three coffins could be loaded on a single pallet and they could be stacked no more than three coffins high. These coffins were not typical coffins. In fact, they were actually shipping containers and they were virtually identical to other shipping containers used for other items. The only way to know they were for human remains was – well, there really wasn’t a way. I suppose they were all unpainted aluminum. The name of the person’s whose remains were in the container were recorded on documents contained inside a plug on the end of the container.

Human remains went to one of two places, Travis Air Force Base, California or Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. That’s where the two military mortuaries were (and still are) located. Since we were East Coast, any human remains we carried were Dover bound. I was later based at Dover and remember the building well. It was a non-descript facility located by itself just off the flight line. Military morticians removed the remains from the aluminum coffins and placed them in cardboard containers for shipment to mortuaries near the deceased’s home. They were then transported to Philadelphia International and turned over to the airlines. A special unit at Dover provided escorting officers and enlisted men to accompany the remains.

We could pick up an airplane with remains anywhere from Saigon to Elmendorf. I don’t remember going into Saigon and picking up remains myself, but I do remember getting airplanes at Kadena with remains. We’d try to get a Robins airplane at Elmendorf but sometimes we’d get a Dover airplane and take it to its home base, and they sometimes were loaded with remains. Now, most of the time, there were only a few remains on board, anywhere from one or two to a dozen. There were times, however, when we got on an airplane and learned that it was practically full. Since number one pallet position was normally kept open, a full airplane would have eight pallets (human remains weren’t loaded in the last pallet because it sat at a slight angle on the ramp.) Each pallet would be loaded with up to nine containers, a total of 72. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, we often had several pallets of nine on board.

Some of the other crewmembers were distressed because of the remains we carried. It didn’t bother me. We were carrying processed remains of men who had been embalmed and prepared for shipment. The only odor was of embalming fluid; it smelled a bit like a funeral home. I had carried so many KIAs in Vietnam that I’d become desensitized to them. I was about to get another dose.

I’d only been at Robins for a year when a message came in that I was going back overseas. I was going back to C-130s, but this time I’d be at Clark AB, Philippines on the C-130B. I knew that the B-models had been bearing the brunt of forward field operations. The message came in toward the end of September but the squadron managed to get a waiver for C-130 training because I had previous experience so I didn’t have to depart until the end of November. I reported to my new squadron at Clark in February 1969. I was twenty-three years old and had been in the Air Force for six years, and had almost five years flying experience. The war had changed during the time I was at Robins. Conditions were worsening when I left Naha. The intensity of combat had peaked the previous year but it was still high, and US forces were still taking heavy casualties. We were flying into forward airfields like the one shown above, which I believe is Bu Dop. Bu Dop was one of about half a dozen airfields along the Cambodian border that we frequented, as in nearly every day we flew.

We didn’t pick up KIAs every time we went into a forward field but we did often enough. I remember one conversation with a young airman who had come over from Robins with me. He was having trouble dealing with carrying KIAs. I told him to not think about them as dead soldiers, that what we were carrying was what was left after the soul departed. (I believe I referred to the remains as pieces of shit, since vulgarity was common in the military. After I said it, I wished I’d used a different term.) That must be how I dealt with it because I have no problems from carrying so many dead, but I know men who do.

The most pathetic KIA I ever carried was the body of a young nurse. The girl had been killed in a communist sapper attack on a military hospital. There is a discrepancy in my recollections and the records shown on the Internet of women killed in Vietnam. Only one woman is shown as having died as a result of enemy action. First Lieutenant Sharon Case was killed on June 8, 1969 at Chu Lai. My recollection is that the girl whose remains I carried was killed at Cam Ranh during an attack on the Army 6th Convalescent Center on Thursday, August 7, 1969. The convalescent center was just up the beach from Herky Hill where we stayed when we were at Cam Ranh. The flight engineer and I were in bed in our quarters when we heard the sound of explosions. We went out on the balcony of our barracks and saw the fires burning and heard firing at the Army facility. Helicopters were flying low over us. The next morning, as I was on my way in to C-130 Operations, I ran into Fred Sowell, one of the detachment loadmasters who was assigned permanently at Cam Ranh. Fred told me that a nurse had been killed the night before and I was taking her body to Saigon. He said her body was in a refrigerated CONEX container.

I went on out to the airplane to preflight and check the load. A little while later, an aerial port truck came out with the body bag. He back up to the crew entrance door and we brought the litter in through it and I tied it down. God only knows how many KIAs I’d carried by this time – there were dozens and perhaps even hundreds. This one was different. The body in that bag was that of a young American girl, the object of every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine’s eye. The aerial port people, the airplane’s ground crew and the rest of my crew all came to take a look. I looked at the name tag, which was something I rarely do. I did not unzip the bag to take a look – I never did that. The girl’s name came out in Stars and Stripes a couple of days later.

Now, I am almost positive that the body of the nurse I carried was of someone other than Lt. Lane. Lt. Lane was killed on June 8, a Sunday. I am pretty sure that was the day I departed Clark for my first shuttle with my new crew. I know I had been in country in late May and early June to check out on the delivery of the M-121 bomb (that’s another story). We were still in country on June 23 when another significant accident occurred and we left for Clark the next day. The only explanation I can think of is that the death of the nurse was classified because Cam Ranh was supposed to be a secure base and her name somehow slipped through the cracks. Some would say, “people would have known.” Actually, the only reason I knew a nurse was killed was because I carried her body. The attack occurred at 1:00 AM and we took off for Saigon with the body around seven hours later. Graves Registration had taken the body and transported it to the aerial port on the West Ramp and it was put in a CONEX until it was brought out to our airplane. One reason I don’t believe the nurse was Sharon Lane was because I’m certain Fred Sowell told me about her death and that I would be carrying her body. Fred took a consecutive overseas tour to Clark and got there just before I left to go back to the States. I left in late July or early August, which means Fred wasn’t at Cam Ranh in June.

I have no idea how many KIAs I carried in some 40 months of flying in South Vietnam (I wasn’t in South Vietnam all the time, but spent much of those months at either Cam Ranh or Saigon. Nor do I know how many human remains I transported in a year on C-141s. All I know is there were a lot of them.

Before I close this, let me mention that there are myths about the dead from Vietnam. A common expression is that a soldier might “go home in a body bag.” That did not happen. KIAs were transported to one of the two mortuaries where they were embalmed and prepared for shipment. If they couldn’t be embalmed, they were processed as best as the military morticians could. They were then shipped to the States in an aluminum shipping container. Another myth is that a buddy accompanied a body home. This is ridiculous because units couldn’t spare men for such duty. Escorts came from units at the mortuaries and were “professional escorts” if you will. I only remember one passenger during my year in C-141s who was escorting a body to the States. I’ve forgotten the details, other than that he was a young Marine and the body was either a buddy who had made some kind of special request or was a family member. I’ve also seen claims by sailors that they transported bodies on ships. Nope – all remains were turned over to the Air Force and transported by air, first by Military Air Transport Service, or MATS, then by Military Airlift Command, MATS’ successor.

Records exist of 58,300 men (and a handful of women) who died in Southeast Asia. It’s not unreasonable to estimate that I transported the remains of some 200-300 of them, either as KIAs in South Vietnam or as human remains on C-141s.

 

 

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What the Heck?

I had no intentions of watching last night’s debate. If heaven opened up and announced that God has his hand on Hillary Clinton, I’d know it was one of Satan’s many deceptions. She’s NEVER going to get my vote no matter what. However, after we discovered that the damned debate was on every channel, my wife suggested we give it a few minutes. So we watched, and there were so many things that Clinton said that made me say or think “what the heck?” (That’s not really what I said but I want to keep this PG at least.)

Hillary claims that her “economic plan” will create millions of jobs but she has yet to explain how she plans to pay for it. She says “the wealthy will pay their fare share”, whatever that means since the hated 1% currently pay almost 40% of all Federal taxes paid. In fact, the top 25% of Americans pay 86% of all taxes and the bottom 50% pay less than  3%. Hillary’s plan is the same as the one Barack Obama pushed in 2008, a plan dependent on Federal spending of funds the government doesn’t have. One part of her plan is free college tuition – where’s she planning to get the money? Most of Hillary’s money has been given to her, leading her to evidently believe money grows on trees. As Trump pointed out, the nation is already currently $20 trillion in debt. Hillary is planning to spend money she doesn’t have. Not only that, if she is elected, she’s going to be dealing with a House dominated by Republicans and possibly a Republican Senate as well. She must think she’ll be able to obtain the funding from her fairy godmother. She said that helping people get college degrees would boost the economy, but a major problem today is that are already too many people with college degrees and not enough jobs to accommodate them. Consequently, many college graduates with worthless degrees are waiting tables and tending bar while there’s a shortage of skilled laborers. There are too many chiefs and not enough Indians in modern America.

Hillary loves to jab at the wealthy and talk about “income equality,” whatever that is. Since she has never created a job in her life, she doesn’t know that every job in the United States is somehow dependent on the wealthy. The “wealthy” in Clinton’s mind are those who own the corporations that create the high-paying jobs that fund the nation. It is the taxes paid by the wealthy, their employees, those who contract with them, those who sell their products to corporations and those who sell products produced by them that funds the country – taxes paid by government employees and contractors are not increasing the Federal tax pool, they’re merely putting a portion of their income from it back into the pool from whence it came. Hillary’s plan seems to be to create her own distribution of wealth plan to take MORE money from those at the top of the money heap to put in the pool to fund her programs. She refers to Trump’s plan as Trump Down economics but hers is actually Take From the Rich And Give it to Government to Distribute economics. Yes, her plan has been lauded – by fellow Democrats and Hillary supporters such as Paul Krugman, some of whom are stated socialists. Clinton seems not to know how wealth is distributed – it can only be distributed from the top down. Any other attempted means will result in failure and ultimate economic collapse. She and her fellows criticize the theory of “trickle—down economics” but that is exactly how economics works – those who have employ and buy and their money trickles down and fills the pool.

“Income inequality” has been a buzzword for the Democratic Party in recent years. Party wonks whose income is hardly unequal rant about how women make less per dollar than men, without recognizing that men and women don’t perform the same jobs. I worked for two major corporations and know that there are many different jobs in a company and that the pay is not the same for all of them, not to mention that pay is based on seniority and performance. A female accountant in an accounting department is not going to be paid the same as a male engineer in charge of a pipeline project. She’s not going to be paid the same as her female supervisor. Secretaries aren’t paid the same as those to whom they are assigned. Yet Democrats are convincing people that everyone should be paid the same, regardless of the various factors used to determine pay scales.  It appears that this is a belief of many Americans who don’t realize that this is a major precept used by Marxists in order to garner power.

Hillary also shocked me when she said how she would “defeat ISIS.” (Never mind that she had a lot to do with the rise of ISIS in the first place and there is evidence she was behind their arming.)[1] There’s no doubt that the debate was watched with interest by Islamic terrorists. Clinton clearly telegraphed her plans so they now know what to inspect if she become commander in chief of the military. She also telegraphed her plans to “provide security” against domestic attacks. She stated she would “increase intelligence”, which is a euphemism for domestic spying, which the NSA already does. Speaking of the NSA, there was discussion of hacking of American Email servers by foreign governments. Now, Clinton knows full well that the NSA, the National Security Agency, is charged with both monitoring communication of foreign governments and detecting revelation of classified information by US military and government officials – which is why Hillary sought a means of communicating outside of official government military channels, which she knows are monitored.  Hillary not only revealed classified information in her Emails, she revealed information that should be classified last night. She knows American hackers work overtime hacking foreign government and foreign business servers. That’s what the NSA does.

Hillary is a slick one all right. She knows how to throw out “policy” for the media to lap up like dogs and after three decades in the public eye, she knows how to give the appearance that she’s an expert in things she really isn’t. She knows that her base is made up of those who feel left out and think everything should be handed to them. She’s a deceiver, and if she is elected, the American people are going to suffer for a long, long time. What the heck?

[1] The United States maintains forces that are basically gunrunners for the CIA. They operate clandestinely, either with aircraft and ships provided by the military or with civilian contractors. Their operations are highly classified, not so much to keep the enemy from finding out but rather to provide “plausible deniability” and conceal them fro the American public.

 

Why?

IMGP0877

I began this post in November 2015. The NTSB report has since been released. Accident Report. It turns out the copilot was flying and apparently stalled the airplane.

Day before yesterday two pilots killed themselves and their seven passengers when they flew their airplane into the ground while trying to land at an airport in Ohio. I know the airport; I’ve been there a few times during my flying career. It’s one of those old airports that was originally a city airport but has since been replaced by a much larger airport a few miles away that was built primarily to attract the airlines. Such airports now are used by “general aviation,” a catch-all term that the aviation industry and the FAA use to describe all civilian aviation that doesn’t involve scheduled commercial operations. Because they’re not intended to handle large transports, the runways at general aviation airports are usually only a few thousand feet long and the instrument approaches are often “non-precision,” meaning they are something other than the Instrument Landing System found at large airports and which provide both directional and glide path information to the pilots.

The general public – and some aviation professionals who came from military backgrounds and have never been a part of general aviation – are  under the false impression that airline airplanes are better equipped than the “small” jets and turboprop airplanes used by corporations and non-scheduled commercial operators. In fact, the opposite is often true and, furthermore, the equipment installed on corporate jets is identical to that used on airline airplanes. Not only that, all airplanes with a maximum gross takeoff weight of 12,500 pounds or more are built to the same standard, a standard that guarantees that the airplane can lose an engine on  takeoff and continue the takeoff and fly. Pilots of such airplanes have to be type-rated by the FAA to fly them and they have to be able to demonstrate that they can lose an engine during the takeoff roll and continue the takeoff if the airplane has reached the published “decision speed” for the gross weight and atmospheric conditions existing at the time of takeoff. In short, “large” airplanes, meaning any airplane certified under CFR Part 25, are designed so that they will fly after the loss of an engine; they are designed to be safe – and they are. Accidents in the United States involving Part 25 airplanes are infrequent almost to the point of being rare. When one is involved in an accident, the question is always “why”.

Although it’s commonly believed that if an airplane loses power it will fall out of the sky, in reality even if all power is lost and the proper airspeed is maintained, they’ll glide. The higher they are, the further they’ll glide. Depending on the glide ratio and altitude, an airplane may glide for close to 100 miles. Part 25 airplanes are required to continue flying after the loss of an engine, regardless of whether they have two, three or four engines. (Naturally, the loss of the engine on a single-engine airplane means it’s going to come down. In short, engine loss on a Part 25 airplane is not going to cause an accident as long as the pilot flies the airplane in the manner in which it was designed to be flown.

By far, the majority of aircraft accidents are what is known as “controlled flight into terrain”, or CFIT for short. Furthermore, such accidents are always caused by some kind of pilot or crew error. The error can be an improperly tuned navigational aid but in many cases it’s due to the pilot’s failure to observe proper actions, particularly published instrument approach procedures. Instrument approach procedures are either precision or non-precision, with the difference being whether or not there is an electronic glideslope as part of the approach. ILS approaches use two transmitters, one to transmit a signal to line the airplane up with the runway and another to provide a glide path. ILS approaches normally take the airplane to 200  feet above the runway but with the proper equipment and crew training, some may take the airplane to 100 feet and some are certified to take the airplane all the way to the runway. Non-precision approaches do not have glide path information. Consequently, instead of having a “decision height” at which the pilot decides  either to land or miss the approach, they take the airplane down to a “minimum descent altitude” or  MDA. MDAs are established to keep the airplane clear of terrain and obstacles.

The “why” in aircraft accidents is why did the crew do what they did that resulted in the accident. Why, for instance, did they continue their descent below the published MDA and fly into the ground? At this point, the NTSB has  issued a preliminary report http://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Pages/cen16fa036_preliminary.aspx which does not speculate on a probable cause. However, it does state that a single-engine Piper Warrior on an instrument training flight shot the approach and landed just before the Hawker crew started the approach. As they exited the runway, they radioed that they had broke out  “right at minimums” which means they came out of the clouds right at the published minimum descent  altitude or MDA. This leads me to believe that instead of flying a normal descent path, the Hawker crew rushed their descent to the MDA in an attempt to get below the clouds so they could see the airport. A normal descent is predicated on a descent rate of approximately 500′ per minute, which will put the airplane at the MDA at a point where the pilots should be able to see the runway and land safely. Since the airplane impacted the ground  some two miles short of the runway, the crew obviously went below the MDA although why they did has yet to be determined. It is likely it was a deliberate act.

Sadly, many accidents involving flight into terrain are the result of deliberate actions on the part of the crew. Others are due to improperly set avionics, meaning the crew had one navigational aid set in their navigational equipment when they intended to use another aid. Since the approach the crew was flying at Akron is a localizer approach, one would think they were using the proper frequency but it is possible that they were set on a VOR frequency. Since the measured visibility at the time of the crash was 1 3/4 miles and the airplane impacted 1.8 miles short of the runway, it is unlikely that the crew had the runway in sight. Normal procedure on a non-precision approach is to descend to the MDA then maintain that altitude while remaining on the approach until the airplane is in a position to land or until the missed approach point is reached, at which point the pilot initiates a missed approach. Don’t be surprised if the accident report reveals that the pilots descended too rapidly in an attempt to get below the clouds and simply flew into the ground.

Association with a Legend

FirstFlightScan

As I write this, it is August 22, 2015. Tomorrow is the anniversary of three important events of my life – August 23, 2003 was the day we buried my father, August 23, 1954 was the birthday of my youngest sister Shirley and on that same day Lockheed’s C-130 Hercules took to the air for the first time. While the first two are events of my life, the third was the one that, some ten years later, would begin to affect my life in a profound way.

I was eight years old the day the YC-130 took to wings for the first time, but as the son of a World War II airman and the nephew of an  Air Force pilot, I was part of an “air-minded” family. Earlier that year, an Air Force C-119 had crashed on the outskirts of the county seat – http://www.sammcgowan.com/c119.html – and seeing the place where four young men and an airplane died made an impression on me. Whether or not I was aware of the event in far-away Burbank, California that day I can’t say but I know that within a few years I was well aware of the new Air Force transport called the C-130. My first “association” with it was probably when I bought a Revelle model of one in the Ben Franklin Store in nearby Milan, Tennessee. By that time, Sewart Air Force Base, Tennessee, where my dad was last stationed during the war, was home to two C-130 wings. We sometimes heard  and saw them fly over, although they were usually at high altitude and I couldn’t tell much about them. They were easy to recognize because of their distinctive sound, they were jet-props and even though they were powered by jet engines, the engines turned large propellers that gave them a sound like that of some kind of machinery.

During my senior year at Trezevant High School (not the one in Memphis – the one in Trezevant, Tennessee), I applied for a Congressional appointment to the new Air Force Academy. I didn’t get the appointment – it was a competitive appointment and another boy received it – but as a result I saw a C-130 up close for the first time. My dad was injured in an automobile accident the day before I was to go to Sewart for a flight physical so my Uncle Larry took me. We drove close to the flight line where a C-130 sat just across the fence with all four engines running. I was back at Sewart a few months later for more examinations and saw more C-130s, and the men who flew them. Some were officers but some were young enlisted men only a few years older than myself.

Blues

After my high school graduation, I enlisted in the Air Force. After basic training and mechanics training, I was assigned to Pope AFB, NC where the 464th Troop Carrier Wing was transitioning into the C-130E after several years of flying C-123s and C-119s. When I went in the Air Force, I wasn’t particularly interested in C-130s but after I got to Amarillo for maintenance training, I decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea to be stationed at Sewart since it was only a little over 100 miles from my folks. I also wanted to fly and the best means for an enlisted man to go on flying status was to be assigned to transports since bomber crews were mostly officers and I wasn’t excited about tankers. I arrived at Pope a few days before Christmas 1963. I had to go through several more weeks of training before I would work on those beautiful silver airplanes but I was finally given an assignment as a member of the post dock crew in periodic maintenance. However, a few months later I had an opportunity to fly and I took it. Fifteen young mechanics were selected to crosstrain into the aircraft loadmaster career field and be assigned to flight crews and I took it. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. I left the maintenance squadron and went to the 779th Troop Carrier Squadron. Once again, I had to go through training but once I had completed the six-weeks loadmaster training course, my training was in the air. Actually, I had been placed on flying status just before the course started and made my first flight one Sunday afternoon while I was in it.

After ground training and the award of the loadmaster Air Force specialty code, I was qualified for basic aircrew duty as a loadmaster/scanner. Then the fun started. Pope was a Tactical Air Command base in those days and the mission of TAC was combat. Although TAC transports weren’t armed, we had a combat mission which was to deliver US Army and Marine personnel into combat and resupply them either by air-landing or airdrop. Air-landing was fairly simple for everyone on the crew but the pilots, who had to be proficient at maximum performance landings, but airdrop involved training for us loadmasters in the rigging and operation of the airdrop mechanism. Rigging and inspection of loads were performed by loadmasters assigned to the 3rd Aerial Port Squadron, which was separate from the wing administratively but attached to it for operational duty. Aircrew and aerial port loadmasters went through the same training but squadron duties were different. Aircrew loadmasters were assigned to an aircrew while aerial port personnel were assigned to sections in their squadron and while they flew, it was to supplement a “formed” crew from a squadron. Our training consisted of a couple of paratroop training missions – which were very simple as all the loadmaster had to do was open the paratroop doors and extend the jump platforms then retrieve the static lines – and a number of cargo drops. TAC C-130s were not equipped with the 463L cargo handling system at the time. Instead, the “dual rails” were kept in storage and installed in the airplane prior to a drop or palletized cargo mission and it was the loadmaster’s job to install them. It was a pain in the ass. Eventually, TAC got smart and made the rails part of the airplane’s extra equipment but by that time I was no longer in the command. We also made a drop using the old “skate wheels” conveyor system that dated back to the C-82. One skate wheel drop was of a platform and one was of containers.

Tactical training  missions were flown at low altitude, as in at 300 feet above the ground normally and 500 in the mountains. Now, Rising heat causes turbulence and we were subject to it. The airplane bounced around as we flew a training route and a lot of people got sick. Fortunately, I wasn’t one of them. Although I got nauseous, I never threw up. The drops themselves were thrilling to watch. An extraction parachute would deploy into the slip stream and pull the load out behind it. The load would just be setting there then all of a sudden it started moving and was gone. Some drops were double and triple extractions of multiple loads. They were even more thrilling to watch. After the drop, we usually went back to Pope or to the assault landing strip on Fort Bragg where the pilots practiced takeoffs and landings. Once we had completed all of the tactical training requirements, we new loadmasters were designated as “combat ready” and assigned to a crew.

A TAC C-130 crew consisted of five men, two pilots, one designated as the aircraft commander, a navigator, a flight mechanic and a loadmaster. On cargo drops, a second loadmaster was assigned, usually from aerial port. On flights recovering at another field where no C-130 maintenance was available, a member of the ground crew would be assigned to accompany the airplane to take care of it on the ground. Although they were on aeronautical orders for hazardous duty pay, ground crew were not members of the flight crew. They had no inflight duties or duties of any kind pertaining to the flight. Their job was to take care of any maintenance items while the airplane was on the ground. Early in C-130 history, the flight mechanic worked on the flight line when he wasn’t flying but that soon changed when crew duty day requirements were established. Another member of the ground crew flew as a scanner but that also changed and scanners were relieved of flight line duties. By the time I started flying in the summer of 1964, scanner and loadmaster duties had been combined and scanners were done away with except in the “school squadron” at Sewart.

Once I was assigned to a crew, I was gone from Pope most of the time. My new crew consisted of Captain Marvin “Gene” Shoupe, AC; Captain Cornelius J. Carney, copilot; Lt. Dereck J. Eller, navigator; A1C Don Sweet, flight mechanic and me. By that time I had been promoted to airman second class. Our first mission was a week dropping experimental loads at the joint Army-Air Force A&E board across the ramp from our squadron. The 779th has just assumed a rotation at Evreux, France and right after the A&E Board stint, we deployed. We deployed a week early because a squadron crew was killed in a night training accident. The loss hit the squadron hard. I knew all of the crewmembers well. We were only in France for about three weeks because the White House decided to mount a bombing campaign against North Vietnam and additional C-130s were needed in the Far East. A squadron from Pope had deployed without notice to Kadena AB, Okinawa and we were to relieve them. From then on, my overseas C-130 flying was all in the Pacific except for a trip to the Congo later that year through Recife, Brazil (where my profile picture was taken.)

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 Flying in the Far East involved mostly flights into Southeast Asia, although by the time our crew got to Kadena, the deployment of troops to South Vietnam was in a lull. We made our first trip into South Vietnam; it was the first for everyone but Capt. Shoupe, who had come to Pope after a year flying C-123s out of Saigon. On July 4, 1965 we left to return to Pope. When we got back, the crew went on leave then came back to Pope expecting to go on rotation to the Congo. However, the White House decided to terminate the Congo mission so we only went over to pick up cargo and personnel and return them to the United States. Right after that, the 779th deployed to Mactan, a tiny island in the south central Philippines just off of Cebu. This time, we got our fill of flying in Vietnam. We also spent two weeks in Bangkok flying around Thailand. We were on a mission into Dong Ha, an airstrip on the demilitarized zone that separated Vietnam into two countries, when I took the above picture. Although we didn’t know it, we were hit by ground fire that day. I found a bullet hole in our left flap when we got on the ground at Mactan. Some of our missions were taking troops into South Vietnam. One mission took the Korean Tiger Brigade from Seoul to Qui Nhon. We were “Chalk One,” meaning we were the lead airplane. The Korean general rode on our airplane, along with his staff, which included his private nurse. Another mission was a week at Vung Tau shuttling Australian troops who had just arrive by ship to their new base near Bien Hoa. We set a record for the most cargo ever carried by a C-130 in a single day during that move. It was something like 350,000 pounds. We flew 24 sorties that day, with most of them only ten minutes in the air. One more would have qualified us for an Air Medal. (I was told by the officer in charge of the operation that I was being put in for a Bronze Star for that week’s work but if I was, I never got it.)

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Tent City

When I got back to Pope after the leave we took after our Mactan tour, I got a shock when I walked into the barracks and the clerk, Willy Singletary, told me that orders had come in for me. I was going to Naha, Okinawa. I had escaped a mass relocation when the 776th left Pope for the Far East on a permanent assignment. Some of my buddies went but I was held back to go into a new mission involving special C-130s. Somebody in TAC personnel thought otherwise and when a sudden need for loadmasters developed at Naha, I was picked for one of two loadmasters from Pope. The other was John Kilcher, who was in 3rd Aerial Port. We were supposed to leave immediately but I had to take a flight evaluation check flight first. Personnel told me to go home and wait. Overseas assignees were supposed to have a 30-day leave but when I left Pope, it was with the expectation of only being at home a few days. However, the travel office at Pope had a hard time getting a seat for me on a MAC flight out of Travis AFB, California due to the volume of personnel traveling to Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the Pacific. I finally went over on a commercial flight out of Seattle, along with a whole passel of loadmasters who, like me, got special orders and were supposed to be high priority. When I got to Naha and reported to my new squadron, the 35th Troop Carrier Squadron, I learned that the reason for my sudden transfer was because the four Naha squadrons were heavily involved in classified missions that required more than one loadmaster. One mission, dropping flares over North Vietnam and Laos, required three additional personnel.  Maintenance personnel had been supplementing the crew as flare kickers but someone in a higher headquarters feared that an airplane might be lost and the loss of men who were not supposed to be flying would cause problems.

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PSP ramp at Cam Ranh

At Pope I had been flying brand new C-130Es. The 6315th Operations Group at Naha  flew C-130As. The A-models were the original C-130s and some of those on the Naha ramp were already ten years old. While there was no difference in operations, the A-models had different systems and were lacking in amenities such as underfloor heat, which meant they got really cold at altitude, especially in the cargo compartment. They were also extremely noisy. When I go to Naha, only a handful of airplanes had yet been painted in camouflage colors. Most were still unpainted, except for a few that had gray anticorrosion paint. After a trip to Cam Ranh Bay to shuttle ammunition into Tuy Hoa and Ban Me Thut in support of some operation, I flew a couple of leaflet missions, one over North Vietnam and another off of North Korea, a trip to Gifu, Japan to take an airplane for paint and pick up another – with some of those “this never happened” missions in between – I went to Ubon, Thailand for the flare mission. The mission had originally operated out of Da Nang but had moved to Thailand shortly after I got to Naha. It was an interesting and potentially dangerous mission. We were shot at it every night, at least we could see it. We were shot at all the time in South Vietnam too, but that was with small arms. The folks in North Vietnam had big stuff although most of what we saw was 37-MM. http://www.sammcgowan.com/flareships.htm

While I was at Ubon, we got word that the 6315th and the 815th TCS at Tachikawa, Japan had started rotating to Cam Ranh. I wasn’t happy to hear the news. I’d been to Cam Ranh, once while TDY to Mactan when the sand dunes were so high you couldn’t see anything but the aluminum runway, and then the two weeks there right after I arrived at Naha. For one thing, Cam Ranh was restricted in that personnel were not allowed too leave the base. There wasn’t anything there anyway, no towns, no bars, no whore houses like there were in Saigon and places like Vung Tau and Nha Trang. It was basically just one big pile of sand. For the next year, most of my time was split between Cam Ranh and Bangkok, where the 6315th had  picked up the Bangkok Shuttle, with a few days at Naha in between (usually very few, not more than three.) Our flying was either scheduled passenger runs or flying cargo from Cam Ranh or Da Nang – sometimes from Saigon or Bien Hoa – into forward airfields where the Army and Marines had established bases. Dong Ha was a frequent destination. Nearly all of the airfields had paved runways;  some were old French or even Japanese airfields and some had been built by Army engineers using pierced aluminum planking or the old Marsden Matting from World War II. There were experiments with “membrane,” which was some kind of  rubberized material that was sprayed over dirt to keep down the dust. I don’t recall going into very many, if any, dirt runways during my Naha tour. A few weeks after I got to Naha, a crew from the 41st suffered a malfunction while landing on the old French airfield at Tuy Hoa and ran off the end of the runway into a ditch. Another C-130A that had been modified to carry drones had a similar malfunction while landing at Bien Hoa and as a result, all C-130As were restricted to paved runways with a combined landing distance – including overruns – of 4,000 feet.

Cam Ranh Sunrise

Cam  Ranh Sunrise

Although Viet Cong took potshots at us every time we flew, our flying was generally “routine,” although routine in Vietnam was a lot different than routine flying anywhere else. We carried a lot of body bags, so many that eventually most people got used to it. Once in awhile, a Viet Cong gunner would get lucky and hit an airplane. One of our crew was hit and a passenger was killed. I had a Marine died on my airplane after we picked him and a couple of dozen others up at Dong Ha one night when we were sent in there on an emergency air evacuation mission. The poor guy was the reason for the mission, him and that the airfield was under attack and the local field hospital was over capacity. We were shot at by AK-47s going in and going back out, but weren’t hit. The Marine died about halfway between Vung Tau and our destination at Da Nang. When we got back to Cam Ranh at daybreak, there was so much blood and gore on the airplane floor that I had to wash it out with a firehouse. The crew chief stuck his head in the door then turned around and started puking. The fire department guys took one look and handed the hose to me. I washed the blood and water run off the back of the ramp. One night we landed at Tan Son Nhut and when the aerial port people came out to meet me, they asked if we knew we were being shot at on the way in. I said no, and they said they had watched us come in and that there were tracers following us all the way to the airfield boundary.

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Ubon, Spring 1966

My enlistment was due to end while I was at Naha so I agreed to extend for six months so I’d get an assignment when my tour ended. Then I decided to reenlist. I reenlisted at Cam Ranh while I was there on duty loadmaster duty. It was a good thing I did because my place of enlistment for my second tour is shown as being in South Vietnam, which saved me a lot of hassle when I applied for a VA disability due to diabetes caused by exposure to herbicides (Agent Orange). My assignment came  in. I was going to Robins AFB, Georgia which came as a surprise to me because I didn’t know there were any airplanes there that used loadmasters. It turned out there was a former Logistics Command squadron there which operated C-124s, but I soon learned that it was converting to C-141s. I left Naha thinking my C-130 days over. I was wrong.

After leave at home in Tennessee, I reported to my squadron at Robins in early September. When I walked up to the door, another loadmaster dressed in fatigues met me there. We recognized each other instantly. It was Stony Burk, who had ridden with me to France over two years before. Stony was stationed in France and had been home on leave. He’d married a French girl and stayed in France then moved to Mildenhall, England. He’d just returned to the States. Almost a year later to the day, Stony and I got orders back to C-130s, only this time to Clark Field, in the Philippines. We were supposed to be at Sewart in two weeks to start C-130 training but MAC got a waiver for the two of us because we had previous C-130 experience. We remained at Robins until November. I left the night before Thanksgiving to go on leave prior to attending survival school in Spokane, Washington right after the first of the year. Stony and I decided to drive out together. We ended up on the same airplane to Clark and when we reported to the 463rd Tactical Airlift Wing, we found out that we were going to the 29th Tactical Airlift Squadron, which was commonly known as F Troop.

The Air Force had re-designated all of its troop carrier units as “tactical airlift” just as I was leaving Naha. The 29th had formerly been at Forbes AFB, Kansas where a SAC B-47 wing was shut down and it’s personnel transitioned into C-130s. The 29th was one of eight TAC C-130 squadrons that transferred to 315th Air Division in the Far East in late 1965 and early 1966 and was the least experienced. The squadron had so  many accidents and incidents that it came to be known as F Troop after the TV series that was popular at the time. As I was getting on the airplane in Memphis on my way to Clark, I had a premonition I wouldn’t be coming back. When Stony and I found out we were going to F Troop, I was convinced. At it turned out, the 29th was the best assignment of my USAF career.

Since we hadn’t gone to Sewart, Stony and I arrived at Clark unqualified because we’d been out of C-130s for over a year. A special training program was set up for us, which meant we spent two weeks at the local field training detachment bullshitting then took a check ride. The first thing we did was fly a training mission a few days after we got there. When I walked into the cargo compartment of that C-130B, I felt that I had come home.

During the 18 months since I left Naha, a lot had changed in Vietnam, particularly with the C-130 force. A year before I got to Clark, all hell broke loose when communist troops attacked Khe Sanh then launched their Tet Offensive. The war rapidly escalated and was reaching its peak just as I got back in it. I found that I had suddenly become a hot commodity. A lot of new loadmasters were arriving at Clark but I was the only one with previous 315th Air Division experience except for some who had been TDY from TAC during the Tet Offensive. I had over two years experience in SEA under my belt. Consequently, the squadron lost no time in not only checking me out, but upgrading me to instructor. A few days after I got to Clark, I went in-country with a crew whose AC was TDY to 834th Air Division as an airlift mission commander. The engineer was Chick Anderson, with whom I would become very close. Chick told me that the 463rd was starting a new mission dropping 10,000 pound bombs. That crew had flown the test drops several months before.

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Freddie Banks working on flat tires

The first crew I was assigned to had a real lulu for an AC. I want mention his name but he was the worst aircraft commander I ever flew with, at least in C-130s. One day he screwed up big time when he ignored the engineer’s advice and took an airplane with a low tire into a dirt strip at a Marine base in I Corps. We blew two main gear tires and a Marine colonel ended my AC’s flying career. Another AC was sent in to finish the shuttle and when I got back to Clark, I learned that I was going right back in country to check out on the bomb mission, which was known as COMMANDO VAULT http://www.sammcgowan.com/bomber.html

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Dropping bombs was interesting, if not downright fun. I had visualized turning the C-130 into bomber right after I started flying at Pope when I was on a local and had nothing to do but sit in the cargo compartment and daydream. Now I was actually dropping bombs and they were big ones. I still flew cargo missions and an occasional passenger missions but bomb dropping was what I did most.

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I finally had a good crew with a great AC. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to last. Through a comedy of errors in which I wasn’t involved due to having gone in country early to replace another loadmaster, my crew were busted back to student status and I was without a crew. That’s when I got on Howie’s crew. https://tennesseeflyboy.wordpress.com/2015/07/24/howi-the/

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Bu Dop

My eighteen months at Clark turned out to be some of the best  days of my life, At Naha, I had been gone from home most of the time but at Clark we got more time at home, in part because we had formed crews that flew together nearly all of the time. Because we were a highly qualified crew and a bomb crew, most of our missions were into forward fields along the Cambodian border. After I’d been at Clark for a little over a year, I was asked to extend and go to Stan/Eval. I did but then PACAF disapproved the extension because they said I was too close to my date of my return home to extend. I was told that the wing could pull some strings because of my experience and qualifications but then my orders came in and they were to Charleston, SC which had been my first choice on my dream sheet. This time when I left Clark, I was leaving the C-130  forever. It had been a great time.

To read more about my flying experiences – http://www.sammcgowan.com/haulingtrash.html

To read more about the C-130 – http://www.sammcgowan.com/trashhaulers.html

Howie

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The other day I was on one of the groups on Facebook where  I posted this picture awhile back. The subject is Major Howard (nmi) Seaboldt, who was my aircraft commander when I was assigned to the 29th Tactical Airlift Squadron at Clark AB, Philippines in 1969-70. I first heard about Howie when I went in country on my first shuttle at Tan Son Nhut right after I got to Clark in early February 1969. The crew I was with was Howie’s crew, but he wasn’t with us. He was on a stint as an airlift mission commander and our squadron operations officer was the AC. Chick Anderson was Howie’s engineer and he told me all about him. I met him a few weeks later when I was on duty NCO one Saturday morning and he came in after returning from a trip to the US to take an airplane for modification work.

Sometime around September I found myself without a crew after my crew got into trouble while I wasn’t with them and were all busted back to student status. I had joined that crew after I was qualified on the M-121 bomb – http://www.sammcgowan.com/bomber.html. It turned out that Howie’s loadmaster had just left to return to the US. Howie was without a loadmaster and I was without a crew. One Saturday morning we were at the squadron for commander’s call. After it was over, I was standing in the hall in front of the operations desk when Chick and Howie came over to me. “Sam, we want you on our crew,” said Chick. From that time until I went to Stan/Eval nine months later, I was part of Seaboldt’s Flying Circus.

There is one word that describes Howie Seaboldt; he was a character. He’d been in the Air Force for about twenty years when I first met him. I found out later that he had started out as an enlisted man then had gone to cadets. He started out flying F-84 fighter/bombers in SAC, then went to B-47s and finally into B-52s. He was based at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana when he got orders to C-130s at Clark. It turned out to be a marriage made in heaven.

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Howie got to Clark just as the Vietnam War was escalating dramatically and he found himself involved in intense combat. One one mission into an airfield in I Corps, a round came up through the floor and hit  his navigator in the ass. Howie told me years later that he thought Vietnam flying was like that all the time. He also found himself in a bit of a sticky situation. The 29th commander was Lt. Col. Bill Coleman, who had been Howie’s commander at Barksdale and was an old friend. When he reported to the squadron, Col. Coleman told Howie he wanted him to conduct an investigation of the first sergeant, who was involved in the black market. They were just about to arrest him when he suddenly went berserk on an airplane while on the way to Saigon and was hauled away in a straitjacket. Consequently, the man was never prosecuted. Howie had been at Clark for about fourteen months when I joined the crew.

By this time I had been in the Air Force for a little over six years and had been on flying status for five. I had already had an overseas tour at Naha AB, Okinawa and flying in country was old hat to me. I think that was one reason Chick told Howie they ought to ask for me for their crew. Another was that I was laid back while their previous loadmaster had been high maintenance. That I was asked to join the crew was a great honor for me. In the past, operations had simply put me on a crew. Most of the crews I had been with were a pleasure to fly with but my first crew at Clark was commanded by an idiot. (That wasn’t the crew that was busted, although that AC was sent to supply after he made a major boo-boo at a Marine airfield in Vietnam.) The crew had a reputation because of Howie. He was one of these people that you either love or hate. Most people loved him but there were some officers – and officers wives – who looked askance at the way he conducted himself. He was divorced but lived off base with a beautiful Filipina and had a daughter with her. He was a major but didn’t act like one. One night I went to the American Legion with a couple of C-141 flight engineers I had known in the States. We were eating dinner when Howie came in. He saw me and came over. I introduced them. After he left, they said they couldn’t believe he was a major. They said he looked like an old alcoholic airman first class. The alcoholic part was probably right. Howie loved to drink, particularly San Miguel Beer. However, he was never drunk on a flight.

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We were a bomb crew so when we went in country to Cam Ranh Bay where our wing, the 463rd Tactical Airlift Wing, had moved its operation, we spent a good part of our time on bombing missions.  I found out later that if our crew was in country, we were number one for bombing missions because of Howie’s reputation. Some people called him “The Mad Bomber. The bombing itself was not particularly exciting. It was actually quite routine. However, once we’d dropped both bombs, we were turned back over to 834th Air Division, the organization responsible for airlift operations in Vietnam, for airlift flying. This meant we got the missions that had popped up during the day, missions that usually meant they were combat essential and were mostly carrying either ammunition or fuel into forward airfields. http://www.sammcgowan.com/bomber.html

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One of Jim Sweeny’s comments about Howie is that he “didn’t fly an airplane, he wore it.” Truer words were never spoken. Howie was a natural born pilot and the master of any airplane he flew. It’s not surprising because he had been flying since he was sixteen. In fact, he had his own airplane, an Ercoupe, and flew it from he and his mother’s home outside of Philadelphia to Miami when his mother decided to move south. We did things that most pilots would think twice about. One morning we went out on a mission to a special forces camp somewhere in the Highlands. When we got there, we found that the airfield was socked in. Howie found a break in the overcast and dropped down through it. We broke out at about 700 feet and found the airfield. This is a picture I took of the tower that day below. Note how the clouds are starting to break up.

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There were about half a dozen airfields that were our “favorites,” meaning they were out in the boonies and surrounded by enemy forces. There were three that were especially noteworthy – Bu Dop, Katum and Tonlecham. They were all right on the Cambodian border and North Vietnamese rocket crews had them zeroed – except that their rockets weren’t very accurate. One day, I think it was a Saturday, our crew didn’t have a bombing mission. Another squadron bomb crew was also in country so they scheduled us to take off at about the same time for Bien Hoa, where we were to spend the day shuttling into Bu Dop. Our crew was just ahead of the other crew on every flight. We’d land, drop off our cargo and get the hell out. The other crew would come in behind us and get caught in a rocket attack. I think they were rocketed at least three times. We never heard or saw a single rocket. We were told that it took the rocket crews more than five minutes to get ready so if we could get in and out in five minutes, we were safe. Apparently the rocketeers would set up for us and would be primed for the other airplane that came in right behind us. Fortunately, none of the rockets hit close enough to do any damage. The two crews rode the shuttle bus up to Herky Hill together. There were several older sergeants on the bus. We were kidding the other crew about being snake bit. The other passengers were intent on our conversation. It was the closest to the war they ever got.

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Bu Dop

I don’t know the circumstances but Howie somehow was put in charge of the construction of an officers club on Herky Hill. Just before it opened, he called me up in my trailer at Clark and told me he had an important piece of cargo to take to Cam Ranh the next day. It was a velvet nude that he had made to hang behind the bar. The next morning he brought it out and supervised as I tied it down on the ramp. He insisted that I had to come to the club on opening night to see it. I wasn’t too excited about going to an officers club but I went. They treated me like a king. Howie put a drink in my hand as soon as I walked in the door and took me to the bar to see the painting. Although I never saw one, Howie was famous for the skits he put on at the officers club at Clark. My former AC was busted to student by our wing commander, who no one ever saw. He was like Major Major Major in Catch 22. Although the wing commander made the decision, Steve never saw the colonel. One night, Howie and Steve put on a skit about it.

Although I never saw it, Howie somehow managed to scrounge a Jeep that he kept somewhere, I think at Nha Trang. I’m not sure I heard how he got it other than that it was while he was on his mission commander duty. There was also a rumor that he had a helicopter stashed somewhere. I don’t know if he was helicopter-qualified or not.

Howie had a reputation as a fantastic pilot but for some reason he refused to accept designation as an instructor pilot. He may not have been an IP but the squadron put new copilots with us to break them in. Our crew consisted of Howie, Dick Sullivan as navigator, Chick as engineer and me as loadmaster. All of us but Howie were instructors. We never had an assigned copilot but instead had new copilots with us for a couple of shuttles. One young pilot who flew with us on several shuttles was Bill Leneave, who was also from West Tennessee. Bill’s family had a bottling company in either Fulton, KY or South Fulton, TN. They lived in Tennessee. Bill liked to talk on the radio and often carried on conversations with air traffic controllers and GCI operators. Bill went with us to on our stateside trip. We were flying along somewhere over the West when Bill got into a conversation with an air traffic controller. It was late at night and there was little traffic. Bill said to the guy, “Say, you’re from Hazard, Kentucky. I can tell from your accent.” The guy said he was. Bill then told us “They drink more Pepsi in Hazard per capita than anywhere in the world.” Howie was flabbergasted. When I saw him years later, he brought up Bill’s Hazard comment.

In early 1970 we had two plum missions. The first was to take a mod bird back to the Lockheed factory for modification and inspection. We took off out of California and learned that the airfield at Dobbins was closed until 7:00 AM. We diverted to Robins, where I had been stationed. A guy I knew at Robins came through Clark and told me that someone had sworn out a peace warrant on me. A woman I knew casually told her husband, who was overseas at the time, that she had been having an affair with me to protect the guy she was actually involved with. She gave him my name because I had already left for overseas myself. I wasn’t too happy about landing at Robins but Howie thought it was a hoot that his loadmaster had a peace warrant out on him. As it turned out, we hardly saw a soul. We sat on the ramp until time to takeoff so as to land at Dobbins when the tower opened There wasn’t an airplane ready for us to take back so we went back on a MAC contract flight. When I got to Travis, the first person I saw was Howie. He rushed me to the pax service rep and made sure he got me on the flight with him. We were both dressed in our Class A blue uniform. Everybody in the place was looking at us and wondering what was so special about this staff sergeant who had a major with him, We went into the civilian side at Hickam. Howie and I went to the bar and sat with a bunch of young Marines on their way to Vietnam. They couldn’t believe Howie was giving them the time of day. Howie loved Marines His son was one. The second was to Sidney, Australia to take some communications people for one of the space shots. We were only supposed to be on the ground for 12 hours. Everyone was disappointed and we were all hoping the airplane would break or something so we could have  a chance to go to town. As we were on approach, I looked down and saw two beady little eyes looking up at me. We had a mouse on the airplane! Believe it or not, a rodent on an airplane is a grounding item. We ended up getting two nights at Richmond RAAF Station and got to go to Sidney. Then we had a few nights at Townsville due to an oil leak. We were supposed to go in country on Sunday. Howie was on the phone to Clark daily, Col. Wolfe, our wing commander, told Howie he wanted to see the two of us in his office as soon as we got back. He said, “Tell McGowan he’d better have a damn mouse.” We never saw the colonel. We got back to Clark on Sunday and left for Cam Ranh early the next morning.

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Not long after the Australia trip our crew went to Kadena, Okinawa for two weeks of alert duty. While we were there, MACV invaded Cambodia. Two 15,000 pound bombs kicked off the operation. Howie was fit to be tied that we weren’t there. We went in country soon after we got back and found an entirely different war. Before, if a C-130 was on the ground for more than five minutes, the crew could count on a rocket attack. Now, those forward fields were secure. We were able to shut down engines and offload our pallets one at a time with a forklift. It was like being at a country airport in Georgia. I took the above picture at Quan Loi.

When my tour at Clark was up, Howie was there to send me off. The night before, he had gone to the NCO Club with me, a young WAF I was hanging out with and my buddy Chuck who Howie had picked to replace me because he was an airline pilot in civilian life. We went to the club again the next morning for breakfast and Bloody Marys. We went from the club to get my bags and then to the passenger terminal where they waited to see me off,

I saw Howie again twice in 2000 and 2003. Howie retired in the Philippines and initially worked for Bird Air flying missions into Cambodia on USAF C-130s. He was there the day the war ended. He went back to the Philippines and settled in Baguio, where he edited the base paper at John Hay Air Force Station. His Filipina wife got involved with some kind of religious group and started giving them all their money so he left her and moved to Angeles City. He’d come to the States every year to check on his property in Miami and have a physical at the VA hospital since the US military had left the Philippines . I had  a trip to West Palm while he was there and drove down to see him. He was the same old Howie, but older. We went to an Irish pub by the airport where he told me about the movie he had made about C-130 flying in Vietnam, then to his house. In 2003 I happened to have a few days at MIA while he was there for what turned out to be his last visit. He was selling his property and gave me some pictures of the original bomb crew. He said he wanted to come and stay with me in Houston the next year and get together with Chick Anderson and some of his other close friends. It never happened, Howie died of kidney failure the following spring. By chance, I had a trip to Sun Valley the next weekend and was able to drive over to Boise and visit with Chick. Our main topic of conversation was Howie.

I learned a lot from Howie. I believe the most important thing is to never ask for permission. Tell whoever is in charge what you’re going to do and they’ll most likely approve it. If they have a problem with it, they’ll tell you.

My novel “Mortar Magnets” is based on my experiences with Howie – http://www.sammcgowan.com/mortarmagnets.html.

Jonathon

JonathonI’ll never forget the first time I saw him. It was New Year’s Day 1973. I had gone to a party the night before at Jim’s apartment in Building D. It turned out that I was the only one there who either wasn’t with a date or hooked up with one of the single girls that were there. Sometime after midnight, feeling lonely, I left the party and went back to my apartment and poured myself a glass of Jack Daniels over ice and put some bluegrass on my stereo. I drank and listened for awhile then got out my guitar and played and drank some more. The next morning I slept in. Sometime in the afternoon there was a knock on the door. Some girls from the Up Country who had come down for the party were leaving and wanted to tell me goodbye. As they were leaving, I heard my phone ringing. It was Mary, from the airport at Summerville. “Sam, you’re airplane is here. It’s beautiful. The pilot is ready to take your old one as soon as you can get here with the check and paperwork. I invited my roommate to go along and we jumped in my Cougar and headed for Summerville. Mary was right; the airplane really was beautiful. It was blue with a white underbelly with blue stars on the bottom of the wings and a blue and white sunburst on top. The interior was white naugahyde with wood grain on the panel (it was laminate, not real wood.) It had a “greenhouse” roof, meaning part of the roof was Plexiglas.

The blue Citabria was the third and last airplane I ever owned. My foray into aerobatics started in early 1970 at Clark Field where I had a run-in with a young WAF from Tennessee. I’m not sure who dumped who but when she showed up at a party a few nights later, I ignored her and decided right then I was going to become an aerobatic pilot. I left Clark later that year and went to Charleston where I initially spent a lot of time in the NCO Club drinking with other guys who had just returned from overseas. Most of them were married. I wasn’t. Never had been and had zero prospects that I ever would. After a few months of hard drinking, I awoke one day and realized I was headed down the road toward alcoholism. I decided right then that I should use my GI Bill to obtain my commercial pilot license. I went across the field and talked to the aero club manager. He told me that John Shelton, a retired USAF flight engineer who owned Summerville Aviation, was in the process of getting FAA approval for his commercial pilots course. He also told me John had a Cessna Aerobat.

I went to Summerville and started flying. I was one of the first students for the FAA approved course. I took a couple of aerobatic lessons in the Aerobat but all we did was wingovers and spins. Impatient, I decided to learn them on my own. I read the pilot’s manual and then tried the maneuvers, which most people would not consider to be a good idea. I started thinking about buying an aerobatic airplane of my own. My initial plan was to buy a clipped-wing Cub, but John said that was not a good idea because most Cubs had been used as dusters and their wing spars were shot. John had a Champion 7FC Tri-Champ that his mechanics were just finishing rebuilding. He said it would was licenses for aerobatics. I had some moey in my bank account so I paid him most of the $3,600 and borrowed the rest from the base credit union. Not only did they finance cars, they also financed airplanes.

The little Champ was a good little airplane and I learned aerobatics in it – on my own. At first I had a little trouble with aileron rolls but then one day somebody mentioned that you need to raise the nose well above the horizon. After that, I was off. It wasn’t long before I was looping, rolling and doing Cuban 8s. However, the little Champ was somewhat lacking in performance so I decided to find something with more Oomph. I bought a 150 HP Citabria from Hawthorne Flying Service at the Charleston airport. It had Oomph alright, but it didn’t have an inverted fuel and oil system. After a couple of months, I decided to trade it for an airplane that did. It was back to Trade-A-Plane, this time to look for a 7 KCAB Citabria. Originally developed by Champion before the company was purchased by Bellanca, the 7KCAB was the top of the line of the Citabria family. (Bellanca would develop another airplane based on it but it had a new wing and model number, the 8KCAB.) It featured a 150HP Lycoming fuel-injected engine that had been modified with a flop tube in the oil pan so the engine would get oil when the airplane was inverted. Fuel-injected engines aren’t affected by gravity like carbureted engines. The engine on my first Citabria would quit whenever it was upside down. One afternoon I flew my Citabria to Lake Norman, NC to talk to a Citabria dealer. Although he didn’t have a new 7KCAB in stock, he was part of a dealer network. He had two new 7KCABs on his board, a red one and a blue one. Although I like red, for some reason I decided on the blue. It was at Lake Elmo, Minnesota near the Bellanca factory. I told him how much I had paid for the one I had and he said he would allow the same amount on a trade-in. I got back in my airplane so I could fly back to Summerville before dark since it wasn’t equipped for night flying.

All of this took place just before Christmas. I went to the credit union and applied for another airplane loan. It was approved right after Christmas and the check was ready for me to pick up. Since the new airplane was in Minnesota and the old one was in South Carolina, they had to get together. Looking back, I should have took a couple of days leave and flown to Lake Elmo myself, but the dealer had a son in his early twenties who was building time for an airline job and he said he’d fly the new one down and pick up my trade-in. I wasn’t expecting him on New Years Day. The dealer had said he’d be down a day or two after and he’d call first. It turned out they had friends in Tennessee so he flew down there for a visit, then hopped over the mountains the next day and flew on to Summerville. He was supposed to call and let me know he was coming but, if he did, I must have been out of the apartment. We didn’t chat; he was in a hurry to get back across the mountains to Knoxville before dark. I offered to let him spend the night at the apartment but he declined. I saw my old Citabria again years later. It  was parked on the ramp at Nashville.

I’m not sure if I did it that day, but I named my new airplane Jonathon, after Jonathon Livingston Seagull, the character in Richard Bach’s famous book by that name. The chief instructor at Summerville Aviation was Mike Reid, who called himself an “aerobatic fanatic” and was a big Bach fan. I was familiar with Bach myself from his articles in FLYING. The day after the delivery, Tuesday, I was in my office at the base. I made up a label that said “This airplane must be flown upside down every time it leaves the ground” and put it on the inside of the door where anyone who was in the back seat could see it. I had taken a lot of people up for rides in my airplane, most of them female, but few actually enjoyed the aerobatic maneuver I always threw in before going back to the airport. One girl freaked out when I raised the nose and she realized what I was about to do and I had to land and kick her out. That was in the old Citabria. Later on, she did ride through a roll but I don’t think she enjoyed it.

Now that I had an airplane in which I could do the full spectrum of aerobatics without the engine quitting, I became quite good at it, so good that I started doing things that were somewhat dangerous – and illegal. The FAR’s specified a minimum altitude for aerobatic maneuvers but I started doing them right off the ground. Early one morning I was feeling particularly exuberant after a routine of low-altitude aerobatics over the tree farms south of Lake Moultrie and when I got back to the airport, I made a couple of low altitude passes down the runway – upside down. When I landed, I saw John Shelton standing in the door of the office. He was livid. I wasn’t the only one doing aerobatics over the airport and he was afraid the neighbors were going to complain and shut him down. I felt bad because John was a good friend. After that, I never made low-altitude inverted passes over the runway (at least not when John was there.) Earlier, I had started wearing Hush Puppy desert boots because I found out somehow that was what aerobatic pilots wore. The foam rubber soles allowed the wearer to feel the rudder bars. Desert boots also looked good with jeans and shorts.

My new airplane arrived on New Year’s Day. A few weeks later, I went home on leave and flew the airplane. I’d made several flights to West Tennessee by that time and knew the route. The weather was really good going up. I flew low on my final leg after refueling at Jasper, an airport just west of Chattanooga. My return flight followed a winter storm that came through although the weather was beautiful along my route. The winds were strong and I made good time. It was Ground Hog Day and I wanted to be back for a party that night in honor of one of my neighbors. It was her birthday and she’d made me promise to have a party for her. The winds were really strong in Summerville. I landed in a direct crosswind of about 30 knots. Everybody in the FBO came out to watch me land. I guess they thought I was going to wrap my new airplane in a ball. It was a non-event. That night changed my life. There was a girl at the party I had never met, a WAF from the base. We got to talking and I found out that she liked airplanes. It was almost eighteen years before the relationship fell apart. The next day I took her flying and went through a full aerobatic routine. She loved it.

Mike Reid, the chief instructor at Summerville, decided to organize an air show troupe with the aerobatic pilots at the airport. We went to Orangeburg and met an FAA examiner from Columbia, who came down to watch us fly. I went up for a 500-foot waiver. After everyone had flown, he asked for our licenses for the waiver letters. I was about to take my commercial check ride in a few days. Mike told him I was a private pilot but was going to take the commercial ride soon. He asked if he had my folder with my written test. He said if he did, he’d give me the ticket on the basis of my aerobatics. He also said he’d have given me lower if I’d asked for it.

A few weeks later we learned that my squadron was moving to Dover, Delaware in a swap of us and our C-5s for a C-141 squadron. My new girlfriend and I had decided to get married so she could transfer with me. Someone was putting on a party in our honor in her hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia. We were going to fly but Mike wanted to use Jonathon for an airshow at Wings and Wheels. We saw him practicing over the airport when we passed by on I-26 on Friday afternoon. The last time I had flown the airplane was on a trip to my folks in Tennessee. On the way back, I noticed a momentary RPM drop but thought nothing about it. When we got back home from Lynchburg, I drove out to the airport on a whim and Jonathon wasn’t there. The next day I learned that the engine had been making a loud metallic noise when Mike landed at Santee that morning. It turned out that a rod bearing had failed. We made the move to Dover without the airplane. Lycoming was saying it wasn’t there problem and Bellanca was saying, yes it was. Hawthorne Aviation was a Lycoming dealer. They said the best they could do would be to ship the engine to the factory for a teardown. If it turned out to be their problem, they’d fix it. If not, I was going to out $8,000 or so – which I didn’t have – for a rebuild. Lycoming looked at the engine and changed their tune when they found that the bearing was defective. They rebuilt the engine then sent it to Bellanca for the modification to the oil system. Meanwhile, we had been transferred to Dover. I got word from John that the airplane was ready but the all hell broke loose in Israel and I was on alert and flying back and forth hauling ammunition for the next four weeks. Finally, I was able to hop the East Coast shuttle C-141 to Charleston to get the airplane. The next day I flew up the East Coast to Delaware.

Things were not the same in Delaware. I had the airplane at another grass strip but it was private and there wasn’t an airport crowd around as there had been at Summerville. I don’t remember doing a lot of aerobatics. Most of my flying was taking my bride up for rides and trying to teach her how to fly again. She’d taken some lessons from Mike at Summerville but we were in a minor accident in my Tri-Champ and she became ground shy. She never did solo. That Thanksgiving we flew to Tennessee for a visit with my folks. The next summer I was approached about towing banners with my airplane and I decided to do it. So far, the airplane had been costing me money. My wife was pregnant and had been discharged so we lost her paycheck. Banner towing paid $50.00 an hour. I damn near got killed in another Citabria, a story in itself. That winter I decided to put the airplane on a lease with the dealer in North Carolina I had purchased it through. The next summer I got out of the Air Force after 12 years and we moved to Tennessee. Right after I got there, I went to North Carolina and picked up Jonathon. for the next two years I used him commercially, mostly giving people tail-wheel checkouts and giving aerobatic instruction. I installed post lights on the instrument panel and a rotating beacon so I could fly him back and forth to Memphis, where I was taking college courses at night. It was fun to fly along in the dark.

Our daughter was born before we left Dover and was still an infant when we moved back to Tennessee. The following summer we learned that my wife was pregnant again. I had a wife and family to support and was in a dead-end job where I had to ask my “employer” for every check I ever got from him. The money I made with Jonathon allowed us to survive. But things started getting tight. I still owed money to the Charleston AFB Credit Union and I had fallen behind on the payments. I was afraid I might lose the airplane so I, regretfully, decided to sell it. I ended up selling it back to Lake Norman Aviation at what was basically a wholesale price. My little daughter rode to North Carolina with me on our last flight. We flew back to Memphis on American Airlines.