A Memory of Baron 56
By: the Navigator, Lee Vandergriff

Dear Speedy, Sept. 7, 2000

I enjoyed your phone call. Other than Tom Way, I've never talked to anyone who flew on the old EC-47.

This is the way I remember that day, Nov. 21, 1972. We had a normal briefing, preflight and takeoff. Our area was west of "Nixon's Nose"; on the border of Vietnam and southern Laos, east of the Mekong River.

It was a nonproductive flight and very boring. A gunship was giving somebody hell down low in our area and it kept the VC off the radio. We flew out our time and returned to NKP. We werenít allowed to land because a flight of several "Jolly Greens" were returning from picking up a downed airman. The rescue aircraft were always given priority. I donít remember how long we were kept waiting, about half an hour. We were getting low on fuel so we were cleared to land just before the Jolly Greens showed up. If we had been cleared to l and when we first got back to NKP we could have landed and been to the bar by the time the rescue aircraft got there. Go figure!

Now Speedy, some of my hairiest moments throughout my career were landings in the C-47. It was, as you know, a tail dragger. Most pilots, if not all, learn to fly on tricycle landing gear. It takes a very skilled pilot to land a tail dragger. Anyway, this landing was the worst Iíve ever experienced.

I got into the habit of watching my Doppler Groundspeed and Drift Meter on landings. The more drift I saw, the harder I held on to my desk. If the drift meter showed 0 degrees then the aircraft was lined up with the runway and the landing was likely to be good. If the drift was between 0 and 5 degrees the landing wasnít bad. Anything over 5 degrees, I held on tight. On this landing the meter was pegged all the way to the right. When we touched down all hell broke loose. The guys in back swayed like a field of corn in a high wind. We were all over the runway. By the time the pilot took over the controls we were pointing 90 degrees to the runway.

I'm not blaming the co-pilot. I think this was one of his first flights. Jack, the pilot, was trying to give him some training, a very normal thing to do throughout the Air Force. How are new pilots going to learn unless they are trained? Anyway the rest of the Accident Report was accurate.

After we cleared the trees I used my drift meter, the periscope poking out the bottom of the aircraft, to check the underside of the airplane and reported to the pilot that the landing gear looked O.K. I thought we were going to make our go around. Then I heard the pilotís command to feather #2. COMPLETE SILENCE!! Both engines quit. So quiet I could hear the wind noise around the aircraft. I heard the pilot say "Oh Shit" over the intercom. I hugged my desk but it didnít help. We hit right away. I think the pilot did his best to miss the trees. We crashed in a small clearing. I remember thinking "so this is how it is". My arms flew over my head and to the right. I wrapped my ribs around the drift meter. Thatís when I lost consciousness. I must have been slammed back left into the fuselage. My collarbone was shattered.

When I woke up I realized I was alive. A hot flash of relief went through my body, I was so thankful to be alive. Nobody was in sight and it seemed the dust had settled. I glanced out my window and saw the left engine was beginning to burn. The magnesium was dripping on the ground. I noticed a RO lying out under the left wing, I didnít know how he got out there. I unfastened my seat belt and stood up. The door to the cockpit was closed and I couldnít see the pilots. Then I noticed the plane was cracked wide open on the right side. Msgt Ryon, who was sitting right behind me during the flight, was laying on the ground in the crack. He was dead.

I crawled over the crack and tried to unfasten the fire extinguisher. I thought I might be able to slow down the fire. I was so weak I couldnít unfasten it. I then noticed one of the ROís was lying right outside still in his seat. He had fallen thru the door-sized crack on the right side of the plane. That must have also happened to the RO lying out under the left wing. I crawled over to him thinking I may be able to pull him away from the plane, but I couldnít budge him. The other four RO's came running back to help. They moved Msgt Ryon and the RO who was under the left wing away from the plane. They moved the RO still in his seat away and helped me away and took my boots off to immobilize me, I thought that was kinda mean. One went to check on the pilots. The third pilot had a broken leg and was helped away. The pilot was dead. The co-pilot was thrown thru one of the cockpit windows. Those are small windows and he was badly injured.

A lone fireman made it to us and got the pilot out before the aircraft was consumed by fire. A small helicopter in a small clearing about 100 yards away dropped off the fireman. I learned later that a base firetruck was almost demolished by trying to ram its way though the trees. The fireman and a Thai officer helped everybody to the small helicopter about a hundred yards away to get us back to base. It had to make more than one trip. I think I was the last one out. I'm not sure how long it took to get us all out. The sun was still shining when we crashed and it was pitch dark before we left. While we were waiting we listened to our pistol rounds popping off and watched the plane burn. I did not know at the time that some kind of fire retardant was in the fuel tanks and the plane burned slowly.

I was surprised by the base response to our crash. One fireman, bless him! No attempt to put out the fire. I remember sometime in my career watching a fire demonstration where a helicopter would drop off fire- fighters and a barrel of foam and try to control the burning aircraft. Maybe even a paramedic would come and give assistance to the injured. Not this time.

I didn't know Msgt Ryon but he seemed to be a nice man. We had talked a little during the flight. It was his orientation flight.

I knew Jack, a nickname for the pilot. He roomed across the hall from me at Ton Son Nhut before we were shipped out to NKP. My wife and daughter came to visit me at Ton Son Nhut. They liked Jack. He was quite a man. He learned a little of the Vietnam language and was studying a lot so he could go to med school after his tour. I only flew with Jack a few times. He was a good pilot and performed his duties in a very professional manner. It was an honor to serve with him and all the other who crewed the old EC-47.

On a lighter note Speedy, when we were flying to our area that day we flew in a loose formation with another EC-47 who had an area near ours. Now those ROís were a mysterious bunch. Hard working and cheerful but they must have had a secret code. They kept pulling down their flight suits and pasting their bare butts to the windows. The RO's in the other plane would answer in kind. Do you, Speedy, have any clue to this form of secret communication?

Still lighter, and humorous now, but rather upsetting at the time. I was assigned to fly a test flight and we flew around the base while the RO's and a mechanic worked on their gear. This Thai fighter shows up in his prop job and fires his guns across our nose. He forced us to turn away from NKP and indicated for us to follow him. He wouldn't let us turn back to NKP. He liked firing his guns. We did not know where he wanted us to go and the command post was not telling us much. I was later told not to use bad language on the radio, but damn it, I wanted to know what was going on. Was this Thai for real or what? He finally waved to us and left. On the ground later we found out the Thaiís did not get a copy of our flight plan. The CO of the ROís unit asked me what would we have done if the fighter forced us across the river into Laos. He was very serious. I told him we would have ditched his equipment into the river. That made him feel better. To be honest I never even thought about it until he asked me. I don't know what we would have done, other than messed our pants.

Please feel free to do what you want to with this rendition James. It did bring back some memories and made me feel better.

Lee Vandegriff