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Old 12-29-2009, 07:45 PM
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Post Firefight at Katum

Source, my buddy Sundown, and the trash haulers at:

What happens when you give a big airplane to some 25-year-olds, tell them to haul stuff around Vietnam in the spring of '68, and whatever they do, don't make a mess, 'cause we're not supposed to give this airplane to 25-year-olds? Everything went pretty much according to plan until one day when their wing started burning off...

The 50th Tactical Airlift Squadron has a proud history of close air support of America's combat troops. Its first combat mission was flown over Sicily in June, 1943, dropping paratroops from C-47 transports. In 1968, 50th TAS C-130s were flying into postage stamp airstrips in South Vietnam, often flown by young men who hadn't been born when the campaign for Sicily was fought.

The Squadron's Commander, Col. Clay Balch, had a well developed sense of both history and drama. Balch entered combat at about the same time as the 50th TAS, winning the coveted Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) as a B-25 Bombardier over Sicily. Years later, when Balch was an English Professor at the Air Force Academy, he and Catch-22 author Joseph Heller discovered they had been doing the same job at the same time and had been similarly decorated.

Col. Balch decided the squadron deserved a birthday party since a 25th anniversary is worth celebrating but mostly because trash haulers seize any excuse to throw a party. Having this party may just have been the 50th's logistical high point, since the crews were never home. The 50th was based at Ching Chuan Kang (CCK) Air Base, Taiwan, but the crews spent about 25 days a month in Vietnam, flying out of Cam Ranh Bay or Tuy Hoa Air Bases. Bringing them back for a celebration meant getting the 50th's sister squadrons, the 345th and 776th, plus others out of Japan and the Phillipines, to pick up the slack. What would be wrong with that, fellas? Sure, Clay.

Balch was clear: Unless every crewmember, officer and airman alike, could attend, there'd be no celebration. We'll never know how many chits Colonel Balch had to call in, but it all got put together and the party was scheduled for the weekend of July 11, 1968. The preceding May, Balch was looking over the crew lists and realized that his personnel were varied enough that he could put together a crew of 50 year-olds and a crew of 25 year-olds. As part of the month long observation, the crew assignments were switched around to make it so. A newly designated (but singularly talented) aircraft commander, Pat Hatch, 24, was given the crew, accompanied by the most seasoned lieutenants in the squadron, Britt Blaser, 25 and Jon Alexander, 23, as Co-pilot and Navigator. Joe Basilisco, the Flight Engineer, was the gray eminence on the crew at 32. Loadmaster Jerry Willard was the baby at 19, appointed to offset Basilisco's advancing years. Average age: not quite 25. Hard as it is to believe, the C-130 was a joy to fly and much of our time was a celebration of being young and skilled and landing safely every night. We knew our mission was a rarity in this miserable war, but we took advantage of it anyway.

Balch probably was out on a limb on both counts of age discrimination. It can reasonably be argued that the crew was not as experienced as most, although Hatch had been flying since he was eleven. Looking at flying from the far side of 50, it's easy to imagine that a crew of fifty year olds might miss something which at least one set of younger eyes and ears might not. It turned out that neither concern was justified.

The Day Before: June 24, 1968

A day off! Pat, Britt and Jon go down to the beach at Tuy Hoa lugging an ample supply of refreshment, and are surprised when a Navy PT boat pulls up on the beach. The young captain, eyeing our refreshments, asks if we'd like to go for a ride, "Y'all just throw your gear up on deck!" including, of course, our refreshments. We soak up some rays and suds and watch the crew check out the native fishermen, who seem to love the attention. As soon as they are interrogated, the Navy guys throw a grenade in the water, bringing a whole days' catch to the surface for the gathering. A surprise R&R cruise for the Air Force lieutenants! The trash haulers never knew what they'd be doing next. At the end of the day, the Navy brings the guys back to the beach, where they jump down from the boat's deck, unencumbered by the refreshments, of course. Blaser stretches an achilles tendon. No big deal, certainly nothing to hamper flying a Herk which is, essentially, a desk job.

June 25, 1968

Up early and out to Nha Trang and Kontum and over to a little place two miles from Cambodia called Katum. Sam McGowan, a retired C-130 Loadmaster, describes Katum at the C-130 HQ web site:

"If there was a name that struck fear in the heart of airlifters in Vietnam, it would have to be Katum...It was a place whose name on a mission frag order instantly put an airlift crew into a sober and somber mood...

The problem at Katum was that it lay very close to the Cambodian border, so close in fact that North Vietnamese artillery across the border in South Vietnam's "neutral" neighbor could shell the airfield at will. It was also close enough that the Communists could transport crew-served weapons across the river and position them off the approach end of the runway and shoot up landing C-130s and C-123s whenever their little hearts desired. It was because of this that Katum was a name that caused men who were scheduled to go into there to search their hearts and souls."

There are already two C-130s holding over the area, waiting for a low fog to lift. Total radio silence at Katum, although we can coordinate with the "Allen Alpha" Forward Air Controller, who assures us that someone's home, but the lights aren't on. Interestingly we can look straight down through the fog and see the ground fine, even though we can't see the runway from short final approach due to the restricted slant range visibility.One of the other guys makes a low approach but has to break it off, leaving fog swirling around a wake of clear air on final approach. It occurs to us that if we all make a low approach in trail formation, maybe the third guy (us) can land before the fog rolls back in. That's the kind of rodeo flying C-130s routinely did to deliver the goods. Sure enough it works, so we land, offload and haul a few army troops twenty miles over to Tay Ninh.

Then we go over to Phuoc Vinh then back to Ton Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon which at the time was the busiest airport in the world (actual quote from the Control Tower: "F-4 declaring emergency, you're number 3 in the emergency traffic pattern"). We're supposed to go back to Tuy Hoa and call it a day, but Airlift Command and Control Center in Saigon (ALCC, callsign Hilda) tells us that one of our people from CCK, Major Jerry Smith in Homey 303, has a blown tire from .50 cal. machine gun fire landing at Katum and could we fly a tire and a jack and a mechanic in so he wouldn't have to spend the night amongst all those unfriendlies.

What are we gonna do? Leave one of our own out there over night? Impossible. Trash haulers may accept insupportable mission risks, but every one of us has a God-given right to a hot shower and a cocktail at the end of the day. While waiting for the gear to load, we go over to see the damage sustained by Lt. Col. "Ace" Worthington in Homey 304, who had just taken a single .50 cal. round through the fuselage while maneuvering to land at Katum, but not a wire or hydraulic line damaged. Demonstrating the wisdom which got him his silver oak leaves, he had elected not to land. Would that lieutenants were so wise.

Before we leave, Hilda says, "Oh by the way, could you also grab a load at Katum and drop it off at Tay Ninh before returning to Tuy Hoa?" Hilda could be a wheedling bitch when it comes to milking another frag out of a tired crew. Hilda also assures us that Allen Alpha will order in fighter support for us on final approach. Sure, Hilda, whatever.

The Mission

We check in with Allen Alpha as we fly past Tay Ninh, about 20 miles out from Katum, Allen has just heard that we're supposed to have fighter cover, so no one has scrambled yet. We see no sense in trolling around the local area for action, so we land immediately, emboldened by Allen's promise that he'll do his best to scramble some fighters if we take fire on final approach. Landing at Katum about 1315 was uneventful, if you can say that about a maximum effort assault landing on a blistering hot 2900 foot runway surrounded by 100-foot-high triple canopy jungle: just another day at the office. No ground fire, no radio contact, just our conversation with Allen Alpha. We land from the south in calm conditions, allowing us to avoid an approach over Cambodia 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) to the north.

Reg Manning, Command Sargeant Major (Ret.), who was assigned to Katum for a year, describes the pak-time ritual that takes place every day after lunch: "Everybody takes a nap. The good guys. The bad guys, everybody. The whole war comes to a screeching halt at pak-time." Is it possible that the bad guys were simply napping when we landed, lulling us into a false sense of security? Perhaps.

We spend less than an hour on the ground. As Robin Williams says in Good Morning , Vietnam, "It's hot. It's damn hot." But it starts to rain just before our takeoff at 1405. We take off to the south, since Charlie hadn't bothered us on this route coming in. It never occurred to us that maybe they'd just been on pak-time. Our destination, Tay Ninh, lay straight ahead. Although our official report says we took a hit at 3000 feet elevation, our recollection is that we were less than 1,000 feet. Blaser's on the radio giving the outbound report to ALCC, callsign 'Hilda', the last calm moment of the flight: "Hilda, Homey 302 is out of Katum at 1405, with 4000 pounds on board, bound for Tay Ninh..." Suddenly there's a high pitched 'ping' in his headset, although the rest of the crew remembers only a thud which feels like a combination of turbulence and a bird strike. "Stand by, Hilda, we've just taken a hit." The rest of our conversations were to be somewhat more urgent.

Of course we'd taken a hit - it was another day at the office. Hadn't everyone else been hit who stopped by Katum that day? But unlike Smith and Worthington, we were not talking tires or aluminum here. The #1 engine fire light immediately lit up.

[1406 pm] Pat tells the crew he thinks they'd been hit. Loadmaster Jerry Willard, from the cargo area, "Sir, there's a fire back here" It's not immediately obvious to him that the fire is on the wing casting a red glow into the cargo area aft of the left gear. Going for a fire extinguisher, he sees that the fire is on the left wing.

"Number one is on fire and I'm feathering it," shouts Hatch, pulling the #1 engine fire T-Handle, which cuts off fuel from #1, stops the engine, and feathers the prop (streamlines the prop blades so they don't add drag). He also set the prop condition handle to feather manually, because that's the procedure. Pat also has Blaser sequentially trigger the two fire bottles to spray fire retardant into the engine. The first has no effect, but the second noticeably reduces the flames - at least at the engine. With the engine fire out, Pat is able to see beyond to where the real problem is--a raging fire in the fuel tank outboard of the #1 engine. No fire bottle is going to put this fire out.

From the ground, Jerry Smith sees the explosion when the wing is hit and sees the airplane engulfed in flames from his vantage point. He also sees what appear to be two parachutes as the aircraft disappears over the trees. Major Smith reports to Hilda that Homey 302 has been lost. He must have seen a liferaft falling out of the left wing compartment.

With three engines struggling for altitude in hot, unsupportive air, Pat and Britt are working the Engine Fire Emergency checklist as they had often done in the simulator. As seasoned crew members, they recognize that every procedure should be treated as a recommendation and not necessarily a commandment to be followed sheepishly. They believed in using what was obviously beneficial, but not in doing something stupid just because it was in writing. Meanwhile, deal with every checklist item in the right order and with appropriate respect or suspicion.

For example, the C-130 flight manual says you should slip the airplane sideways and down away from a wing fire, which seemed like a suggestion for a crew with an abundance of airspeed, altitude and ideas. We had precious little of those and no desire to donate a foot of altitude to an idea we'd read in a book. Both the pilots looked at each other and said, "Slip?!" and smiled at the futility of the maneuver. But Pat knew they'd later be asked if they'd followed the checklist (they're not questioning yet whether they'd ever have a conversation with anyone but each other). He threw in a little right rudder and left aileron, immediately corrected to a sane climbout configuration and declared, "That didn't work, what's next?"

[1407 pm] Landing the airplane seemed to be high on the list. The overwhelming instinct of a pilot with an emergency close to a perfectly good airstrip is to immediately land, and Pat started a gentle turn back to Katum. In moments he discarded that option, considering the guns on the ground, Katum's short runway and the perils of maneuvering at low altitude - banking a crippled airplane is a complex tradeoff of lift, power, luck and disaster. In the case of Homey 302, the cards were stacked in favor of disaster. Even if the VC gunners had gone home for the day, returning to Katum was a low-odds choice. The siren call of the departure runway behind a stricken aircraft has taken many lives. Better to press ahead and accumulate some airspeed, altitude and ideas.

Now came the most controversial decision of the flight. Jerry was watching the fire from the aft left porthole, reporting that the flames stretched aft out of sight, then receding to no further back than the tail, then out of sight again. "Make up your mind, Jerry!" shouted Hatch, looking for a trend he could make sense of. "Sorry sir, it keeps changing, but it ain't goin' away." That was it, in Pat's mind. "Dump the fuel from the left wing fuel tanks!"

Big airplanes carry their fuel in the wings, and there are times when you want to get rid of it fast, usually to lighten the aircraft in an emergency. Pat wanted to get rid of the burning fuel to increase the chances of the fire burning itself out before it burned the wing off or exploded. And parts of the wing were burning off. Jerry reported that white blobs of molten aluminum were dripping off the wing. However there is no recommendation that fuel should be dumped from a burning wing. The fire is not likely to burn faster or slower based on volume in the tank, and there is a significant chance that the tank will explode when it is emptied down to the fumes. But later it would be obvious that the decision was crucial to survival.

Flight Engineer Joe Basilisco, at 32 the most seasoned crewmember, was in charge of all the airplane's systems. He immediately reached up to flip the red guard cover protecting the dump switch from accidental actuation. This red plastic guard cover has a piece of lightweight copper wire to insure that the user really means to open the cover, since dumping fuel in the wrong circumstances is not A Good Thing. On this day the wire was neither copper nor lightweight. Instead it was the kind of stainless steel safety wire used to make sure the nuts in the engine never, ever vibrate loose. Blaser saw Joe pull on the guard as hard as he could, then dive into his toolkit for a screwdriver to break the wire. Figuring he already had an appropriate tool, Blaser slides his right forefinger behind the wire, pulls his finger down to the bone with his left hand until the fingerbone breaks the wire. After flipping the dump switch, Blaser sucks his bleeding finger the rest of the trip, reinforcing the general opinion that, in any real emergency, the co-pilot can be found sucking a digit. Then Joe breaks the wires on the other two dump switches on the left wing and starts dumping fuel.

When a four engine plane loses an outboard engine and applies full power to the rest of the engines, the assymmetrical thrust causes the plane to turn toward the missing engine. Fortunately, the C-130 has a rudder so big it's called the "barn door." Pat discovers that full right rudder is perfect to fly straight and level with the ailerons in a neutral position, at least for now. "Britt, give me full right rudder until I say different." Blaser makes it so.

[1408 pm] Pat and Britt spot Tay Ninh Army Base twenty miles to the south, and Britt broadcasts a Mayday distress call with their location on the UHF Guard frequency which every airplane monitors continuously. Suddenly they have an abundance of advice. Dustoff 159 is an Army helicopter in the area who heads in their direction. Tay Ninh is in sight but no one on board thinks this sick mother can fly that far. Especially Pat. Pat's the only one with a clear view of the left wing and his eyes confirm what the feel of the elevator and ailerons tells him. Their problem is even worse than assymetric thrust and an impending explosion: the outboard third of the left wing is burning off the aircraft! Everything outboard of the dead engine is bending down and twisting forward.As it burns, straight and level flight is requiring an increasing amount of right aileron. As soon as it requires full right aileron to keep the wings level, he will no longer be flying the airplane, which will gradually roll to the left while Pat and Britt helplessly hold full right aileron and rudder. It's one of those facts not worth reporting to the rest of the crew. The combat corollary to "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." is "If you can't fix it, don't dwell on it." What they can do is get their fannies on the ground real quick.

The area around Katum is triple canopy rain forest, but clears to savannah-like foliage and rice paddies toward Tay Ninh. At least the crew is less likely to bail out into a tree over there, and maybe there's a rice paddy to skid into. Oddly enough, the crew was more likely to prefer bellying in to a paddy than jumping out of even this mess. Transports don't have ejection seats and their crews are focused on keeping as much aluminum around them as possible, even when the aluminum is as promiscuous as this collection is proving to be. Heading toward Tay Ninh makes sense. "Nav, what's the heading to Katum?" Pat shouts to Jon Alexander, the Navigator. "200 degrees!" Jon shouts, while he and Britt point enthusiastically toward Tay Ninh, 10 or 20 degrees to the left of the aircraft's nose.

Despite the preference for riding the airplane to any patch of land not covered with trees or Viet Cong, Pat orders the crew to prepare to bail out, and Jerry brings the parachutes up from the cargo area and straps one on himself.

[1409-1412 pm]

Number 1 engine out, resulting in assymetric thrust (yaw) to the left
Outboard third of the left wing increasingly twisting down and forward, deflecting the wing down, exacerbating the left rolling tendency
Left hydraulic system inop, reducing effectiveness of the flight controls to correct
Flaps stuck in takeoff position, adding drag during flight and not allowing landing flaps for optimum (slow enough) landing speed
Left aileron damaged and inoperative, further reducing compensation for the multiple aerodynamic forces causing the airplane to roll to the left
Full right rudder required to approximate level flight, no reserve for corrections on landing
Increasing requirement for right aileron to approximate level flight as conditions worsen
No hydraulic pressure to lower the landing gear
This was nothing like their day at the beach. Landing gear is now the number one priority. If this pig were going to put down with people in it, gear would be good to have, even in a rice paddy. Without left hydraulic pressure, the gear must be extended manually. Not a bad proposition when there's time to spare: sometimes the main gear free falls into position, and sometimes it needs 450 turns of a hand crank. Pat sends Joe and Jerry to the cargo compartment to do what they can with the gear. The left gear freefalls into position and shows green on the flight deck. The right gear refuses, so Joe starts cranking. The heat in the cargo area is intense.

The progress toward Tay Ninh is not a single decision, but a series of unfolding options. Pat spots a rice paddy nearly lined up with the path of flight, and considers bellying it in. But oddly enough, even though everything is worsening rapidly, this amazing airplane is controllable. The closer we get to Tay Ninh, the better for us but the worse it handles. At least the terrain is pretty open and the Friendlies own most of the real estate over there. Pat is able to maintain 180 knots airspeed and an altitude of 800-1000 feet above the field. To the left of the approach end of the runway at Tay Ninh stands the 986 foot summit of Nui Ba Den mountain. The boys in front would prefer to be flying above the high terrain than below it. It's just something else to not talk about.

[1413 pm] At three miles out, Tay Ninh is beginning to look less like a pipe dream and more like a destination. Pat orders Joe and Jerry to the flight deck, knowing the right gear is barely extended. Almost immediately he adds, "Hit the manual nose gear handle on the way up here!" By that time, Joe's off the cargo headset and never hears the command.

What the hell, no flight is perfect.

Jon and Jerry clear the flight deck of briefcases and parachutes as Pat is setting up for a high speed landing. Pat knows this is the most crucial part of the flight. Half flaps dictates a high approach speed, and Tay Ninh is a full thousand feet longer than Katum but at 3,900', it's not generous. High landing speeds and short runways are a bad combination. But the real problem is the extreme right aileron input required for level flight. The controls are just off the right stop at 160 knots as Pat feels for the slowest possible safe landing speed. The lift generated by an airfoil varies with the square of the airspeed. As the airplane slows to landing speed, there's no way of knowing when the critical point is passed when it will start rolling left despite full right correction. Even at a "hot" touchdown speed of 120 knots (vs. 90 knots normal), the little wing we call an aileron is generating only 44% of the aerodynamics we'd been uncomfortable with at 180 knots, and the right aileron is the only thing keeping Homey 302 level. At 120 knots though, it's hard to stick the airplane on the runway, especially with takeoff flaps designed for lift, not drag. The last thing anyone wants is one of those little balloons you can get at high speed on a hot day.

[1414 pm] Britt advises Tay Ninh to clear the runway, and the chatter on Guard Freq fades away, almost eerily. As the airplane crosses the threshhold, Tay Ninh Tower's by-the-book transmission is almost humorous: "Homey 302, you're cleared to land." Well, duh.

Just before touchdown, the fire obscures much of the left wing. Dustoff 159 reports that the fire reaches from the wing to the tail plus forty feet.


To paraphrase Goose in Top Gun, "Let's see ya do some of that pilot shit, Pat." Pat's feeling his way to the sweet spot of just enough airspeed to stay upright and not enough to float to the middle of the runway. As if there's a bar bill riding on it, Pat lays it on the centerline, 150 feet in from the approach end. A textbook touchdown - as long as you don't count a wing on fire and no right main or nose gear. Pat immediately puts the inboard engines in full reverse, gets on the brakes (er, brake) and rolls the yoke all the way to the left to hold the right wing as high as possible.

Now there's a whole new set of problems. How long can our trusty little aileron keep the right side of the fuselage from contacting the runway, since there aren't any wheels over there? As we slow down (a Good Thing), there's less lift to hold up the right wing (a Bad Thing).

Landing Roll-Out

Moments before, SP/4 Tom Allbritton (call sign "Tay Ninh Tower Power") had been supervising 15 Vietnamese workers repairing holes in the runway. Tom's crew had been making good progress when he spotted a burning C-130, mostly gear up, approaching his runway over Nui Ba Den.

That's the frustration of repairing runways - if it's not one thing it's another. Click here for Tom's full story.

This picture of Tom was taken just after he alerted the Fire Department that there was something going on even more exciting than their volleyball game.

The fire on the left wing is barely visible in this picture. The feathered number one prop is obvious. At this point, the front of the aircraft, missing the nose gear, has not yet contacted the runway, but the right side of the fuselage has just started dragging on the ground, and the #4 prop appears to be digging into the tarmac. The aircraft is beginning to veer to the right, headed for the helicopter landing pads. Hatch and Blaser are visible at the controls, but they're not actually controlling anything.

When the right side of the fuselage digs into the runway, there's a screech of grating metal and the plane yaws violently to the right, off the runway and toward... the Helicopter Landing Pads.That's the frustration of crashing an airplane - if it's not one thing it's another.

This is the only time in memory that none of the pads have Hueys on them, so rather than a major collision with another container of jet fuel, we're bounced around the cockpit by a half dozen speed bumps two feet high and eight feet wide. If there had been even one helicopter left on the ground that afternoon, no one would be telling this story.

Finally the airplane comes to rest, tilted to the right at a crazy angle. Now all the fire that's been traveling with the plane's parasite air catches up with the nose, reinforced by the flames touched off from the newly ruptured right wing. The cockpit is surrounded by an orange-red and black inferno for a few seconds. Pat's thinking, "I'll be damned if I survived this only to burn to death sitting here." Flames enter briefly through the open emergency escape hatch above the back of the flight deck where Jon, Joe and Jerry are sitting. Then the fire recedes to the wings and continues to burn violently but not explosively, with flames rising a hundred feet in the air.

Bailing Out

Without waiting for orders, everyone gets out as fast as possible. It's obvious that Hatch has lost control of the crew.

Jerry is closest to the overhead hatch and dives up and over the right side, landing face down in the gravel - it's a big drop to the ground, maybe twelve feet. Jon climbs up on top of the fuselage, sees that the left wing is completely burning but the right side is clearer. He runs downhill along the right wing and jumps to the ground between the #3 and #4 engines, which have no propeller blades left to worry about. Joe follow's Jerry's example, and all three of them run to a spot a couple hundred feet to the right of the aircraft. Pat's right behind them, having jumped out the left of the two pilots' emergency exit windows, which are at least eight feet off the ground. He notices there's a low circle of fire around the front of the aircraft. Jon yells, "Where's Britt?!" Blaser is surprisingly slow in exiting his emergency window, and actually stands on the window frame and pauses before jumping down, as if to make sure he'd remembered his keys. Even though it hadn't occurred to him that they would die in the fire, he envisions himself further spraining his achilles tendon and having to crawl ignominiously to safety. He finally jumps, runs up to the crew and suggests celebrating even further away from the fire. The mood is somewhat more joyous than a winning Super Bowl touchdown.

Except for the fire crew, the Tay Ninh Army Camp is in the same mood. It seems that everyone in camp has heard about or witnessed or photographed "The Landing." An ambulance and fire equipment is first to the scene.

An off-duty tower operator, Jerry Pruitt, ran to the aircraft as it was burning and pulled open the left cockpit door, burning his hand in the process. He couldn't see the crew celebrating on the right side of the fire and thought they were still inside. Jerry received the Soldier's Medal and his friend Tom Allbritton received an Army Commendation medal for their actions.

While the fire department is dousing the flaming fuel, the crew is treated for minor scratches and singed hair and released.


It was ten minutes before the fireworks started. That's when the 2000 pounds of white phosphorous flares in the cargo compartment go off. We'd each thrown back a couple of beers by then. Everybody in camp KNEW we were dead - they'd watched the whole show from their tents. Pretty soon, guys started showing up with some refreshment - a case of Hamm's beer, a pint of gin and an unopened fifth of Johnny Walker Black Label - all this in the remote SW corner of Vietnam, 25 miles from Cambodia! We finally get it that this is a good luck ritual - maybe if they could find a reason to meet us, they'd be spared from their demons as well.

Pretty soon a jeep pulls up and the Major driving it tells Hatch that the Base Commander wants to see him pronto. When he walks into the Command Tent, the first thing the Colonel barks is, "What in the hell have you done to my 155 mm gun?" he asked. "You've made a hell of a mess on my runway."

Pat has no idea if this guy is kidding or not, but he's a little tired for being ranked on. "Colonel, I've got five guys who are alive. I don't give a damn about your gun." The Colonel gives him a big grin and laughs, "I'm just giving you a hard time, Lieutenant, Well done!"

The Major drives Pat back to what passes for Base Ops at Tay Ninh, which looks and acts like the set for M*A*S*H. He comments that he too was not sure if the Colonel was kidding about his howitzer, but he had to make a joke out of it after Pat's comment about his crew.

After a while a C-7 Caribou takes us to Ton Son Nhut for debriefing by a General at ALCC.


While we're waiting for the General, Blaser calls Col. Balch in Taiwan, who's already heard the story. "Listen, Britt, everyone and his dog is going to want to re-invent history, and they're all going to focus on your experience level. You and I know Hatch may be the best pilot in the squadron, but you're going to have to get one-up on the second-guessers. You've got to put a crew report in writing with as much detail as possible, as soon as possible - I mean tonight."

Fer chrissake, is this mission ever going to end? Oh well, tired as we are, we commandeer a typewriter and write up the official CREW REPORT ON THE COMBAT LOSS OF C-130 TASK FORCE ALPHA 302.

It was a real long crew day and it showed:

Sure enough, everything goes as Balch predicted. Pat tells the General that we are already documenting the incident and we'll finish it before we leave for Tuy Hoa in the morning. From then on, every time we're asked about the crash, we hand them a copy of the report which means they can't cross-examine us to find out if our stories don't match. As a result, the loss is classified immediately as a combat loss, with no questions about our procedures or experience level. Major Jerry Smith puts the crew in for a Silver Star which results in a Distinguished Flying Cross for Heroism awarded to each member of the crew.

What Went Right

Every experienced pilot gradually notices a funny phenomenon that nibbles around the hard edges of circumstance: slightly more things go right than ought to. This causes some to get religion and others to develop confidence that five strong young sphincter muscles acting in unison on seat cushions CAN keep a C-130 in the air one minute longer than it has a right to fly. Sometimes they just conclude it's all too complex and grand to describe in detail.

Despite everything that went wrong, there were five factors which, if any had not been true, this report could not have been written:

The weight of the fuel dumped from the left wing lessened the tendency of the aircraft to roll left. The controversial decision proved to be correct.
Tay Ninh's sole runway was lined up with the course of flight, 200 degrees. Any maneuvering that late in the flight would have been impossible.
The left main gear free-fell into place. If instead we had only had the right gear, the left side of the fuselage would have struck the runway on landing at 120 knots, causing immediate break-up of the airplane and probably a cartwheel. As it was, touchdown was on wheels which also allowed for some braking initially and reverse thrust on the inboard engines.
Tay Ninh was not further away. Level flight required full right aileron by touchdown - flight became uncontrollable as the airplane touched down.
There were no helicopters parked on the built-up pads the airplane bounced over on the right side of the runway. The locals told us that was the first time they remembered all of them being gone. Usually at least one Huey was broken, waiting for repairs.


[The following is a verbatim copy of the report typed at Saigon, Vietnam on the evening of 25 Jun 68]

We arrived in the area just before 1000 local, 25 June 1968. There was a low, thin undercast at 500 feet, so we penetrated a hole about eight miles south, in the vicinity of the abandoned Prek Lok field. We were forced to remain at 300' under the overcast, following a road up to Katum. We made a low pass, spotted some army trucks, and landed on runway 34 at 1005. We were in good radio contact with "Allen Alpha," a ground-based forward air controller whom ALCC had told us to contact, but who knew nothing of the status of the airfield. There was absolutely no radio contact with Katum the entire day. We advised ALCC of the field condition, weather, altimeter setting, and that it was possible to get into the field.

While loading, we were told by ground troops to expect a mortar attack, since hostile troops were in the area, and invariably fire whenever fixed wing aircraft land. They had taken mortar rounds every day for the last week.

We took off at 1020 on runway 16, the recommended procedure with calm winds and we flew to Tay Ninh. The fact that we had been into both Tay Ninh and Katum later proved invaluable.

The 303 mission landed at Katum later, and had a blown tire. Mission 304 was circling overhead a while after, and took one .50 caliber round through the cargo compartment.

ALCC diverted us into Tan Son Nhut to pick up tires, a jack, and maintenance team to take to Katum for Homey 303. At Tan Son Nhut, we were briefed by 304 on firing at Katum and saw his damage. He mentioned he had taken his hit a couple of miles north of the field and was never able to land. ALCC once again told us to contact "Allen Alpha" approaching Katum and said that fighter escort would meet us and could be contacted on Allen's frequency.

We took off from Tan Son Nhut at 1245 with a jack, tires, and two maintenance men. Twenty-five miles south of Katum, we called Allen Alpha and asked about our fighter support. He had just learned that we were to be supported by fighters. Since the fighters had not been scrambled, we told him we would land immediately, to get Homey 303 out as soon as possible. He told us to advise him if we took fire, and he would try to get fighter support. He seemed unable to scramble any fighters immediately. As a matter of fact, Homey 303 took two or three mortar rounds just before he took off.

A maximum effort landing was made on runway 34 with a straight-in, steep approach at 1315, and no hits were taken. The maintenance team, tires and jack were unloaded; a 155 millimeter howitzer and two thousand pounds of flare were onloaded. The howitzer was loaded in H compartment and the flares in front of it, which was the only possibility for center of gravity limitations. A pallet of barrier nets was also loaded on the ramp.

Ground time at Katum was fifty minutes, and just before takeoff, it started to rain. A maximum effort takeoff was made from runway 16 at 1405. Climb out was on the 165 degree radial with 50% flaps, gear up, at 130 knots. We used the same area as our approach, since we had taken no hits going into Katum.

Three miles out at 3,000 feet, we felt an impact and the Aircraft Commander said he thought we had been hit. The Loadmaster called, "Sir, there's a fire back here!" He first thought the fire was aft of the left gear because of the reflection of the flames. Going for a fire extinguisher, he saw that the fire was on the left wing, and told the rest of the crew.

Simultaneously, the Aircraft Commander noticed that number one engine and the left wing were on fire. He called, "Number one is on fire and I am feathering it!" He pulled number one fire emergency control handle, and moved the condition lever to feather. He accomplished these actions himself because both controls were close to him and time was vital. The Aircraft Commander had the Copilot discharge the fire extinguisher agent, and then the second bottle. This limited the engine fire somewhat, but had no effect on the wing fire.

The Aircraft Commander turned back toward Katum, but decided against landing there because the only course took us over the area where we were hit, and we did not want to go into a short field under those conditions. As it turned out, it was the correct decision. The Aircraft Commander asked the Navigator for a heading to the nearest field. The Navigator suggested Tay Ninh and a heading of 200 degrees. Tay Ninh has a 3900' runway vs 2900' at Katum, which was also a consideration. The Aircraft Commander turned and the Copilot switched to guard channel and declared an emergency, while the Navigator called on all other frequencies, and the Flight Engineer set the IFF to emergency. The Engineer later stated that he saw No. 1 fire light come on at this time.

The Aircraft Commander slipped the aircraft away from the fire, but this was ineffective. However, the fire did not seem to be moving toward the fuselage. Homey 303 later reported a fifteen second burst of automatic weapons fire was observed when we were hit, and said that the aircraft appeared to be engulfed in flames. The sighting of two parachutes from our aircraft was also reported by Homey 303, which was still on the ground at Katum. We think the left outboard 20-man life raft left the aircraft at this point; and the sighting of this and airplane parts burning away caused the erroneous report.

The Copilot, using a visual fix on Tay Ninh, reported our position as twenty miles north of the field. Several aircraft answered the call, and Dustoff 159, who was in the area, followed us from fifteen miles out and was ready to give aid in the event of a forced landing before Tay Ninh.

While the Copilot broadcast the Mayday, the Aircraft Commander raised the flap handle, but apparently there was no power to the gauge, and the flap position indicator remained off scale. The flaps did not retract, but this was unknown until after the landing.

The Aircraft Commander told the Flight Engineer to dump fuel from the left wing. The operation was severely hampered by the double thickness of safety wire on the switch guard. The Copilot managed to break the number two main tank safety wire with his hand and open the dump switch. Then the Flight Engineer broke the wire on number one and auxiliary tanks with a screwdriver. We later felt that dumping the left wing's fuel allowed us to remain airborne an additional 10 - 15 seconds, because the heavier right wing counteracted the rolling tendency to the left during the later portion of the flight.

The Aircraft Commander then gave the command to prepare for bailout, and the Loadmaster brought parachutes forward for the crew, and put one on. The Aircraft Commander had the Copilot hold full right rudder, which was continued until short final.

The Aircraft Commander considered landing in a nearby rice paddy whose longitudinal axis was within ten degrees of our course (about 11 miles northeast of Tay Ninh), and actually turned the aircraft toward it, but decided to continue toward Tay Ninh, since the aircraft was still controllable, and he saw the runway at Tay Ninh and thought we had a chance to make it.

Utility hydraulic pressure was lost almost immediately after we were hit. However, it took us a couple of minutes to realize this. We had auxiliary and booster hydraulic pressure at all times. The Engineer and Loadmaster were sent to the rear to crank the gear down manually. They were told to attempt to jettison the black powder if they had time, but they did not get the opportunity. (The conditions in the cargo compartment were worsening quickly, and their courage was extraordinary.)

Fortunately, the left gear free fell to the extended position, indicating safe in the cockpit. The Engineer told us that the right gear was in transit and he started cranking it down.

About this time, the Aircraft Commander noticed that the left wing was bending at a point some three feet outboard of the number one engine. The Aircraft Commander had been feeding in right aileron to counteract a tendency of the airplane to roll left. By the time we were established on a four mile final, full right aileron was required to keep the aircraft level. If any of the left aileron was left on the wing, it was apparently useless. The wing fire was increasing rapidly in intensity as the fire burned into No. 1 fuel tank. The Copilot told Tay Ninh to clear the runway, and we were advised that crash equipment was standing by.

The Aircraft Commander told the Flight Engineer and the Loadmaster to come to the flight deck to strap in. The Engineer said he did not have the right gear fully extended. They were ordered to the flight deck anyway and told to prepare for a crash landing. The Aircraft Commander noticed that the nose gear was still retracted, and told the Engineer to hit the nose gear emergency extension handle. The command was not heard, because the engineer was off headset returning to the flight deck. Perhaps this was fortunate, for the extra drag of the nose section helped slow us, and the roughness of the runway shoulder could have forced the gear into the flight deck.

The Engineer pulled the flight deck escape hatch on the way to his seat, and we contemplated jettisoning the crew entrance door, but decided against it because of the possibility of hitting the only working propeller on the left side. The Navigator and the Loadmaster cleared the flight deck of briefcases and parachutes. The Aircraft Commander gave the order to lock shoulder harnesses.

Throughout the flight, the Aircraft Commander maintained 180 knots, bleeding down toward a 130-knot threshold speed at four miles. Touchdown was at approximately 120 knots, on the runway center line, 150 feet down the runway. The left main gear contacted first, and the Pilot attempted to hold up the right wing up as long as possible. The right side of the fuselage and then the nose section struck the runway. The Copilot selected emergency brakes and the Pilot brought the engines to ground idle and reversed engines two and three, with little result. With reducing airspeed, the aileron become ineffective, and the right wing began dragging. Left rudder and brakes were partially effective, but the aircraft yawed violently to the right and ran off the runway 2100 feet from the approach end. Several helicopter landing pads were struck, and the airplane came to rest about 3,000 feet down the runway. (Runway length: 3900')

As it came to a halt, the airplane exploded, and was temporarily engulfed in flames, which quickly retarded to the wing area, but both wings continued to burn violently. The Engineer called for T-handles and Numbers 2, 3 and 4 fire handles were pulled by the Copilot.

The Loadmaster exited first through the flight deck overhead escape hatch, followed by the Navigator and Flight Engineer. The pilots both escaped through their windows. Everyone assembled on the ground and ran to a safe position. At this time, the crew noticed one of the life rafts was inflated and sitting on the left wing.

We were met by ambulances of the 25th Medical Battalion and examined at their dispensary, where we were treated for minor cuts and bruises.

The Party

Everyone but Blaser made it to the party. Three days after the Katum incident, he received word his father had passed away, so he went to the States on emergency leave, never to return. On the weekend of 13 JUL 68, all the planning came together at CCK to celebrate the 50th TAS 25th anniversary.

Notable was the Officer's Mess Dress with the 50th's Chinese sister squadron at CCK, which flew F-104's. The first week of July, an F-104 driver named Lt. Lee tired of waiting for the Red Chinese to attack and made an unauthorized low pass over a MIG base on the mainland. Although his approach to combat was illegal, his commanders applauded his victory in the dogfight that followed.

After dinner, the Chinese commanding officer proudly introduced their squadron's "Young Tiger," Lt. Lee. Not to be outdone, Col. Balch introduced the 50th's own tiger, Pat Hatch. Nothing else would do but for the young tigers to engage in a series of admiring "Gombey" toasts - a thinly disguised drinking contest - with the potent rice wine the Chinese had been drinking since youth. Calling on his extensive training at Tulane University, Lt. Hatch unexpectedly outlasted Lt. Lee, by less than five minutes.

Sunday, 14 JUL was Col. Balch's last day as Commander of the 50th TAS. In the spirit of the weekend, a flight line party was held to see him off, champagne all around. Flying him to Clark AB Phillipines would be, of couse, Pat Hatch's 25 year-old crew, with Chris King flying as Co-pilot. Pat recalls trying to help himself to a fortifying glass of bubbly in the shadow of the airplane but was remonstrated by Col. Balch, who knew that any such public violation of the regs was not to be tolerated. The operative word was "public."

The mood of the crowd and the weekend seemed to call for an aerial celebration so, with Col. Balch and his wife sitting on the lower bunk at the rear of the flight deck, Pat made a high speed low pass, climbing steeply away from the field with an enthusiasm hard to believe from this ungainly aircraft.

Leveling out at cruise altitude, Hatch swears he hears the pop of a champagne cork on the flight deck. Sure enough, there's a beaming Col. Clay Balch, pouring drinks for the crew from the back bunk.

Who said war was hell?

The crewmembers dealt with their experience in different ways, although each was changed by the experience.

Pat Hatch felt that "We couldn't have flown another 10 seconds. I was so sure we wouldn't survive that day, for a long time after this, I was a lot more appreciative of life in general. . . . I felt, in a way, that everything after that day was gravy." From a practical standpoint, Pat threw all the Katum memorabilia in a footlocker for thirty years. But getting together with these guys was one of the highlights of his life, as it was for each of us. His Air Force career was the beginning of a lifelong career in aviation. He is currently the Director of Aviation for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco in Winston Salem. (If you ever watch the opening scene in "Barbarians at the Gate", remember that it would be Pat at the controls of the RJR corporate Gulfstream). Pat can be reached at

Britt Blaser felt the same as Pat, "I felt pre-disastered...When you come through something like that unscathed, it's hard to take things as seriously as before, which allows a fairly youthful attitude." Britt was awarded three DFC's for service in Vietnam (Katum, Kham Duc and Khe Sanh - "No more 'K' frags!"), and left the Air Force for a career in Real Estate development, computer manufacturing and consulting. "My willingness to try new approaches in life and business was enhanced by my experiences in Vietnam." Britt can be reached at

Jon Alexander was a frustrated pilot in Vietnam, so he figured out how to get into pilot training and became a highly decorated fighter pilot, serving in Vietnam and Europe. Jon's skills as an F-4 pilot earned him the Air Force's single highest award for airmanship: the Kolligian Trophy: It was presented to him by the USAF Chief of Staff at a special ceremony at the Pentagon. In attendance were the Kolligian family, the Secretary of the Air Force, his congressmen, and a passel of Generals. Jon can be reached at

Joe Basilisco served 23 years with the Air Force, including acting as a Standardization and Evaluation Crewmember. His Vietnam experience helped him train scores of airmen (and officers, he points out) in the subtleties of the C-130's complex systems. The only drink he has ever taken was on June 25, 1968. Joe can be reached at

Jerry Willard served another 15 months in Vietnam: "Needless to say, that was real uncomfortable.I kept telling myself, 'You don't get blackjack two times in a row.'" Jerry left the Air Force for a career with Pitney Bowes Corp. His avocation is computer programming. Jerry can be reached at

So, on the weekend of July 25-28, 1998, the crew met again for the first time in thirty years, and fell right back into the wisecracking that marked all their conversations except for those eight minutes thirty years ago. Pat, Britt and Jon took Pat's RV-4 home-built for some formation flying and local area acrobatics. Jon and Britt confirm that this is the most exciting RV they've ever seen:

Their reunion was reported in the 7/5/98 edition of the Winston-Salem Journal.

And, of course, since every twelve-year-old has a web page these days, the crew put together this web site. Hey, it's the 90's.
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