“Who’s on First, What’s on Second, and I Don’t Know is on Third,” but my story is called, “Who is in Charge”.
In the spring of 1972 US forces reentered the war in southeast Asia to support South Vietnam against the invading North. I was assigned to a Marine KC-130 squadron based in Okinawa, supporting US operations. This day I was in Da Nang preparing to take off, when my story began.
I had taxied into the hold short pad of the southbound runway facing east perpendicular to the runway and could easily see a South Vietnamese T-37 approaching to land. The airplane hit hard, breaking off one of the landing gears and began spinning down the runway shedding parts as it went. The airplane came to rest in a cloud of dust off the right side. The runway was now covered with broken pieces of the plane. No sooner had the tower closed all departures and arrivals than a flight of four USAF F-105 Thunderchiefs checked in. They arrived from the north over the Hai Van Pass, asking for landing instructions. Informed by the tower that the only available runway was currently closed, the flight leader immediately asked for the fuel state of the other pilots. All the action was now on tower frequency so there was no hiding any conversations. I don’t remember how much fuel they had, only that it wasn’t much, and the number four man had far less than the other three.
A flight of four airplanes is referred to as a division comprised of two sections of two airplanes each. There are designated division and section leaders in the flight and often the number two and four positions are flown by pilots with less experience than the leaders. When the flight leader called his wingmen for their fuel state the voice of number four was much higher in pitch indicating a real sense of urgency. With fuel state now reported, the flight leader repeated the call for immediate landing due to low fuel. The tower operator responded again that the runway was closed. He asked the flight leader to state his intentions. This request is not uncommon for the tower under the circumstance, but tower response remained, “No Can Do, No Runway!”
“How about the east side taxiway?” I thought to myself. The KC-130 has very good directional control on the ground because of differential power from the propellers. In my opinion, if you can taxi on it, you can land on it! But, being neither in the USAF nor a fighter pilot, I’ll leave the decision to not consider the taxiway for others to ponder.
I looked around the cockpit at the other four crew members who were obviously thinking the same as me. We were on the ground. The fire crew was hosing down the aircraft. Fortunately, the T-37 was not burning, and its crew was crawling out of what was minutes before a perfectly flyable airplane. People on the runway were picking up airplane parts while at least four or more airplanes in the air needed to land. We were not a priority! We cranked up the APU, shut down the engines and sat back to see what would happen next.
Meanwhile, the F-105’s had taken up a holding pattern north of the airport over Da Nang Bay clearly visible from our position. We saw a helicopter come in and land on the east side of the airport as the F-105 flight leader called for another fuel check. It became apparent number four was getting desperate because the octaves in his voice increased as he announced the continuing decrease in fuel state. In spite of his frequent requests, the runway was still unavailable.
The dialog between the pilot and tower became increasingly animated.
Pilot: “We need to land!”
Tower: “Okay, I understand, but the runway is cluttered with parts and closed. So is there another way I can help? What do you want to do?”
As a Naval Aviator and Marine, I wondered what the U.S. Air Force was going to do next to get out of this mess.
Then it happened. Out of nowhere a deep steady voice came up on the radio and stated in an authoritarian manner, “I have control of this situation!” I do not know whether this person was airborne or on the ground. I do not know how long he had been listening to the ongoing conversation between the pilot and the tower operator. From the tone of his voice, I could tell that he was comfortable assuming control of this rapidly deteriorating situation. He calmly directed the F-105 flight to remain over the bay, but for number four and a wingman to approach the runway, pull up and turn left toward the ocean. He instructed number four to prepare for ejection. He then directed the tower to launch the SAR helicopter. All this he did in one decisive transmission.
We watched as the jets flew to the runway, then turn left toward the ocean. We could see the SAR helicopter launch; I presumed it had previously been alerted. As we listened to directions being passed to the low fuel number four, we could see the canopy blow off from the airplane as the pilot ejected followed by the blossoming parachute. The airplane continued flight for a few seconds then did a gradual wingover and crashed into the ocean with a huge splash. What a sight! The runway was opened not long after the big splash and normal operations resumed. The remaining F-105’s landed as did some other awaiting airplanes. Soon it was our turn to start the engines and we departed.
“What did we just witness?” I asked the crew as we turned toward our destination. We all agreed that aviation can be sometimes hours of constant boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror. This is especially true under the stress of a combat environment. When chaos occurs, it takes only one voice to calm it.
I have often thought about that day so many years ago and how one person exercised the initiative to calm the chaos.