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Third time is charm—but not always . . .

In March of 1969, I had the privilege of taking a 13-month tour of South Vietnam with all expenses paid—my tour began in the the capital city of Saigon and ended at Da Nang Air Base in April of 1970. While at Da Nang I made two week-end visits to Hong Kong. The first was rather harrowing, but turned out okay. To read my posting on the first flight click here.

The second week-end trip was even more harrowing, and I wisely declined  all invitations for additional trips. Had another aircraft been available—another model a bit less vintage, I perhaps would have returned—no, belay that—the only circumstance that would have gotten me on a third flight to Hong Kong would be the imminent fall of Da Nang to North Vietnamese regulars. In that case I would have made a third flight to Hong Kong on any conveyance that could get me off the ground, whether on the Gooney Bird, in a lawn-mower-powered ultra-light or under a parasail towed by a child in a rowboat.

This posting will reveals the details of the second flight, details that would cause anyone, particularly my mother’s youngest son, to forego a third flight to Hong Kong.

Saturday dawned bright and clear at Da Nang, South Korea on a day in 1969,  and we lifted off for our flight to Hong Kong, the star of the Orient. We were ensconced in a C-47 transport plane affectionately nicknamed Gooney Bird. Powered by two reciprocating engines, our Gooney Bird was assembled in the late 1930s or the early 1940s—a durable bird, but not exactly a state-of-the-art conveyance. However, its age and its continued use by the United States Air Force were testaments to its reliability.

Our flight from DaNang to Hong Kong was routine, uneventful, with nothing to portend the nature of our return flight to South Vietnam. We arrives at Hong Kong in mid-morning and passed the the day shopping—I purchased a a reel-to-reel tape recorder, one of the finest units available at the time, along with a plentiful supply of tape, some jewelry for my wife, and a wooden model of a Chinese junk—the recorder was junked, the jewelry is part my wife’s heritage to our three daughters, and I’m still stuck with the Chinese junk—it’s still accumulating dust and it’s still an eyesore. I can’t decide what to do with it—I’ve offered it as a present to several people—all expressed their appreciation of the offer, but none accepted it. I hate to give it up, and I hate to keep it—bummer!

But I have digressed—back to our return flight:

We left Kong Kong in mid-morning on Sunday. Our flight was routine until a short while after passing the point-of-no-return to Hong Kong—regardless of circumstances we were required to press on to Da Nang—if an inflight emegency should 0ccur, our options would be to ditch into the ocean, land somewhere in China, either on an island or on the mainland, or land somewhere in North Vietnam.

An emergency did in fact occur, and a mayday call—a call for assistance—was made to DaNang. Our #2 engine—that’s the engine on the left if one is facing the nose of the aircraft—began coughing, a series of sounds indicating a problem with fuel intake or ignition problems. The coughs were infrequent and minor at first, but soon  became more frequent and longer in duration. I was privileged to be seated at the window closest to that engine, and each time it coughed the propellers would stop, only for a tiny instant at first, but the stop  was clearly visible.

Our loadmaster told us that a mayday message had been sent to DaNang and that a Navy PBY, an aircraft with the ability to land on water as well as land, had been dispatched to meet us in the event that our aircraft had to be ditched in the ocean. The loadmaster began moving all our luggage and our Hong Kong goodies to the cargo door. I asked him why, and he said our load had to be lightened to help the Gooney Bird remain aloft in case we were reduced to only one engine. I protested—mildly, of course—and was told something to the effect that the load had to be lightened, one way or another, and that it was either my new reel-to-reel tape recorder or me. Naturally I chose to remain on board and sacrifice the recorder.

However—and that’s a really important however—I, my tape recorder, the passengers, the crew and the aircraft landed safely at DaNang. The ailing engine stopped completely several times–all three prop blades became clearly visible for a few seconds—but the engine recovered enough each time to contribute to the other engine’s efforts.

Following the loadmaster’s explanation of our current situation and his description of possible changes to that situation, the passenger section became eerily silent, with each of us enveloped in our own thoughts. I venture that my thoughts were identical to the thoughts of others.

Yep, I prayed. I prayed to my god and to the gods of others, regardless of the nature of their gods. I prayed that the engine would recover, that the PBY would arrive soon, that ditching would not be necessary, and that we would land safely in South Vietnam. If their prayers were anything like mine, then they made promises they knew the would not—or possibly could not—keep.

I have no doubt that our combined prayers were answered, all except my prayer that the engine would recover—it was still coughing mightily when we landed at DaNang. The PBY soon arrived—its pilot made a 180 degree turn and placed his aircraft near our starboard wingtip—a position taken in order to observe the ailing engine—and escorted us to a safe landing. Made all the gods bless PBYs and their pilots!

A quick aside at this point, just in case a viewer is unsure of the difference between left and right in nautical terms—port is left, starboard is right. Running lights on vessels are red and green—red is for left side, green is for right side. Here’s a memory aid that may help one remember which is which—memory aids seem to be items for which I have an ever-increasing need as I advance in years!

Just remember that port, left and red are short words with fewer letters than starboard, right and green, so port and red are on the left side—starboard and green are on the right side.

Got it?

Below is an image of today’s Da Nang—it did not look like that when I was there!

Speaking of inflight aircraft malfunctions, Brother Dave Gardner (1926-1983), an old-time stand-up comic, created a skit to use in his comedy routines, a skit dealing with an inflight emergency on a commercial flight in the United States. An engine caught fire inflight, and a little old man seated near the burning engine prayed long and loudly for his god to rectify the situation, saying “Please get me on the ground safely and I’ll give half of everything I own to the church.”

The fire was instantly extinguished and the plane landed safely.

When the little old man deplaned he was met by his minister and the minister said, “Brother, I heard what you said up there! I heard you tell God that if he got you on the ground safely you would give half of everything you own to the church, and I know you’re going to start right now!”

The little man said, “Nope, I made a better deal—I just now told God that if I ever get back on another one of those things, I’ll give Him everything I own!

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 

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1969 C-47 flight, Vietnam to Hong Kong, emergency landing at Kai Tai . . .

The information in italics below was extracted from an Internet site. For an interesting read of Hong Kong and its airport, click here.

“The government of Hong Kong said Tuesday that a second cruise terminal would be built at the southern tip of the old Kai Tak Airport runway. Closed in 1998 when a new airport was built on an outlying island, the Kai Tak runway was famous among pilots because it required them to navigate planes through mountains and high-rise buildings before landing on the needle-like strip, which led right into the eastern center of Victoria Harbor.”

hkfly4-thumb

Way back in 1969, early on a Saturday morning with the Vietnam conflict in full sway, a twin-engine cargo aircraft, a prop-driven C-47, produced by the Douglas Aircraft Corporation sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s, was enroute to the city of Hong Kong, just off the coast c-47 douglas skytrainof mainland China. On board the aircraft were its crew and six US Air Force military personnel, all looking forward to an early arrival and an overnight stay in the city, with adequate time for shopping, dining and sightseeing before returning to Da Nang late on Sunday.

The flight was routine until the pilot put the aircraft into a gentle bank, made a 180-degree turn and headed back toward Da Nang. The loadmaster told the passengers that Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport and the city were enveloped in dense fog with a low cloud overcast, and visibility was severely limited. Instrument landings were the only landings permitted, and those landings were permitted only for aircraft with a declared emergency—inbound aircraft with enough fuel remaining would be rerouted to other locations, and those without sufficient fuel would be allowed to make an instrument landing

More photos of Hong Kong and Kai Tak airport may be viewed at http://simonworld.mu.nu/archives/158834.php

Everyone on the flight was disappointed by the news, but all understood the difficulties of landing under such conditions—pilots would have to depend on instruments only until the runway became visible. Everyone accepted the fact that their weekend in Hong Kong was out—no shopping or dining or sightseeing—nothing to break the monotony of 12-hour work days in a six-day work week at Da Nang, and no chance to have one night of sleep without being disturbed by incoming rockets donated to the air base almost nightly by the enemy—the Viet Kong and North Vietnamese regulars.

The rockets had no particular targets—they were usually aimed by felling a tree across a pathway in the jungle, angling a rocket on the opposite side of the tree in the general direction of the air base, then touching it off. Sometimes the rocket fell short, sometimes it overshot, sometimes it exploded harmlessly in an open area, and sometimes it fell on a building, sometimes when it was occupied and sometimes when it was not occupied. The erratic nature of these rockets made them fairly effective in preventing and disturbing sleep, which perhaps may have been the enemy’s objective.

But I digress—back to the flight from Da Nang:

Sometime after the first 180-degree turn, the pilot executed a second 180-degree turn, and the loadmaster explained that the fog had lifted, at least enough to allow landings other than those under emergency conditions. This was good news for passengers and crew—the hoped-for weekend was again in sight.

The aircraft began its descent to line up with its approach to Hong Kong’s runway in a cloudless sky, but as altitude was lost visibility decreased rapidly to near zero—only the wingtips were visible in the dense fog until the plane broke out of the fog with the runway in sight. Also in sight were cargo ships and pleasure craft and Chinese junks, with the C-47 no more than one hundred feet or so above the junk’s tall masts.

Landings at Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak international airport were always tricky, even under perfect weather conditions. A significant portion of the runway extends into Victoria harbor on man-made land, created and brought to a level above high tide with rocks, then covered with dirt and concrete.

The reason for the double 180-degree turn? The pilot had computed the “point of no return’ for the flight, reversed direction away from Hong Kong and later again reversed direction, this time towards Hong Kong. He then requested landing instructions from the Hong Kong tower, and was told that only emergency landings were allowed.

The pilot declared an emergency, stating truthfully that he was past the point of no return—he did not have enough fuel for the return to Da Nang. And in truth it was a real emergency—the aircraft’s flight, from takeoff in South Vietnam to landing at Hong Kong, ran parallel to, and outside of, the international boundaries of North Vietnam and mainland China—any landing other than Hong Kong would have to be in North Vietnam or communist China—the only alternative would be to ditch the aircraft in the South China Sea.

Bummer.

Permission to land at Kai Tai airport was granted. The C-47 broke out of the overcast just above the masts of junks moored in Hong Kong’s harbor, and the fog had thinned enough for the landing to be accomplished without incident. The aircraft, its crew and its passengers with a load of goodies purchased in Hong Kong (bolts of fine silk, various electronics, jewelry, wooden carvings, etc.) returned to Da Nang on Sunday—the return flight was routine in every respect.

I feel qualified to report the details of that flight because I was on that aircraft—that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I made the weekend flight once more on the same aircraft, before my return to the states. The second flight was also harrowing, and is the subject of a future posting—for now I will only say that the second flight imbued me with a firm resolve to not make a third flight, fearing that the “third time’s charm” bromide would become “third time’s fatal.”

I’ll get back to you later with more details.

 

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