Pat Hatch's PhotoJournal A blog about photography & other musings…

Fire in Flight – Page 3.

So we thought our day was going along pretty routinely, we departed Tay Ninh for Phouc Vinh and from there to Tan Son Nhut, the main airport serving Saigon, and, at the time, one of the busiest military bases in the world.  It was also the headquarters for the tactical airlift operations in Vietnam.  Known as ALCC (pronounced "alcee") it stood for Airlift Comand Control Center, or something like that, but we knew it as "Hilda," their radio call sign.  While there, we were briefed on a couple of incidents that had occurred at Katum since the time we had left.

The radio call sign prefix for the C-130E's that day was "Homey," and we were Homey 302.  We were told that Homey 303 had blown a tire upon landing at Katum and was disabled.  Homey 304 had been circling overhead and taken a 51-caliber round through their cargo compartment.  Hilda informed us that they were going to divert us back into Katum to attempt a rescue of Homey 303.  I seem to recall that they asked us to volunteer, but that may have been just a courtesy--we were going.  We went out on the ramp when Homey 304 arrived to see their damage and get briefed by the crew.  There were holes in both the floor and ceiling where the round had gone through the airplane.  They had taken their hit a couple of miles north of Katum.

Joe Basilisco, Flight Engineer, Jerry Willard, Loadmaster, Jon Alexander, Navigator, on the ramp at Tan Son Nhut air base.

Fig. 3 - Joe Basilisco, Flight Engineer, Jerry Willard, Loadmaster, Jon Alexander, Navigator, on the ramp at Tan Son Nhut air base.

So Hilda changed our itinerary to proceed to Katum with a maintenance team, spare tire and tools to get Homey 303 repaired.  Because it was getting hot around Katum, Hilda told us to contact Allen Alpha upon arrival in the area and there would be a fighter escort to accompany us into Katum.  We departed Tan Son Nhut at 12:45.  About 25 miles south of Katum, we contacted Allen Alpha who basically told us that there was no fighter escort, but be sure and let him know if we take any hits going in.  We made a straight-in, steep approach, and maximum-effort landing (slow approach speed, maximum reverse thrust and braking) on runway 34 arriving at 13:15.

We shut down the outboard engines but kept the inboards running in low-speed ground idle while we watched the maintenance guys work on Homey 303.  We were also in radio contact with the AC on the crippled airplane, Major Jerry Smith.  In the meantime, a 155-millimeter howitzer, 2,000 pounds of flares, and a pallet of barrier nets were loaded onto our aircraft.

Fig. 4 -  Katumn Airfield Looking South

Fig. 4 - Katumn Airfield Looking South.  This would have been the view out the cockpit as we departed runway 16.

When we got the signal that the tire was on, we started our outboard engines and taxied into position on runway 16.  I noticed that it had begun to rain a little as a small cumulus moved overhead.  We made a maximum-effort takeoff (rotate at 80 knots with a steep climbout) at 14:05.  All was well as we raised the gear, cleared the airport boundary and climbed out over the rain forest below.  Flaps remained at the 50% position for the steep climbout.  It seemed to me that we were about at the base of the puffy cumulus clouds scattered around the area when we felt what I first thought was just a bump caused by the clouds, but something wasn't right because this had a metallic sound to it.  Had we taken a hit?  I was making a comment to the crew that it sure felt like a hit, when I heard the loadmaster, Jerry Willard, come up on the intercom with, "Sir, there's a fire back here!"

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  1. Pat, I was somewhere north of Saigon on 25 June 1968, flying an airdrop mission. I heard a lot of chatter on Guard channel, figured out there was a C130 on fire headed for Tay Ninh with some fighters and helicopters chasing in case he had to ditch in a rice paddy or something. I recognized the call sign so I knew the C130 was from our squadron’s detachment at Tuy Hoa, but I didn’t know until later that you were the pilot.

    As you know, we were classmates at C130 Combat Crew Training at Sewart AFB, Tennessee, in 1967. There were eight of us in that class. After a few weeks the word began to circulate that we had a couple of gifted lieutenants in our group, you and, if my memory holds, Joe Rollins.

    After training we shipped out to CCK Air Base, Taiwan, and you and I ended up in the 50th Tactical Airlift Squadron together. A year later you were flying around with your wing on fire.

    There was a standard rule in C130 squadrons at the time: a copilot could upgrade to aircraft commander after a thousand hours in the aircraft. For most of us that meant we could start our upgrade lesson plans after we had that thousand. They bent the rule a little in your case. It is my understanding they started your lesson plans early so they could upgrade you immediately upon reaching the magic thousand.

    There was another standard rule: if a lieutenant upgraded to aircraft commander he would continue to fly as a copilot until he reached the rank of captain. Again, they bent the rule a little in your case. Partly because Col. Balch had a point to make, but mostly because you were considered to be imminently qualified, they assigned you a crew and sent you off immediately to Vietnam as pilot in command. On 25 June I was still flying with an instructor, working on my lesson plans.

    I mention all this because it is pertinent to the story you are telling here. You were pilot in command on that flight because you had demonstrated an uncommon level of flying skill and maturity of judgment. It was that uncommon flying skill and judgment that got your flight onto the runway at Tay Ninh. In case your readers might have the idea that any Air Force C130 pilot would have been able to accomplish that, I would like to assert that there were not very many of us flying around Vietnam that day who would have made it back.

    Shortly after that day you rotated back to the States. I extended for another year because I had my family in Taiwan, living on the local economy on a tourist visa, and the Air Force offered me government sponsored status for them if I’d hang around awhile. Our youngest daughter was born there in a missionary hospital.

    You and I never crossed paths again, but we came close. In 1982 my company was roofing a billion-dollar cigarette manufacturing facility for RJ Reynolds near Winston-Salem. You were an RJR company pilot and our homes were about two miles apart. Small world, nearly.

    I reread this story every once in a while, and it always amazes and inspires me. Your photography is a delight. It was an honor to serve with you.

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