A minor electrical problem in Vietnam becomes a major problem

I was stationed in Saigon, Vietnam, with the 19th Air Commando Squadron, flying C-123 aircraft. The missions that we flew each day were given to us on a printout, and each segment was on a separate line that we called a frag (fragment) mission. This day, our last frag mission was to fly to Can Tho to pick up a load of supplies for a Special Forces team up near the Cambodian border.

We loaded up the supplies and then took off and headed for the Special Forces team. At level off, we got out our booklets and looked up the frequency for the radio at our destination. About 15 minutes out, we made a call to the team informing them that we would be there shortly. We were informed that it would take a little bit of time for them to load up and come out to the airfield and secure it. It took about 20 minutes before we got the call that they were in position and had secured the runway. He also told us to land to the north as they had only secured the north end of the field. The runway had been cut out of a heavily forested area. It had trees on both sides of the runway, and at the south end. We landed to the north and swung around into the parking area that had been cleared at the north end of the runway.

C-123
The C-123 was a workhorse in Vietnam, delivering loads to some barely-improved landing strips.

They had a weapons carrier and trailer, as well as a Jeep and trailer, to haul the supplies back to their compound. They loaded the weapons carrier and trailer first and left with that load. We then loaded the Jeep trailer. The load that we brought up fit into the weapons carrier and trailer and the Jeep trailer.

This was our last mission for the day, so when the major with the Jeep struck up a conversation, we were eager to participate. I’m not sure how long we talked but the sun, which was setting when we arrived with our load, had gone behind the trees and it was now twilight. The major said he needed to get going because he did not want to be out on the road after dark. It was just too dangerous. He hopped in his Jeep and left. We watched him go and I said, “there goes our security.”

We scrambled towards the aircraft and I headed straight for the cockpit. The flight mechanic fired up the APU (power supply). As I got into the cockpit, I hit the starter switch for the number one engine. Nothing happened. I called back to the flight mechanic and asked him if he had the APU online. He said yes he had it online. I tried the number one starter again with no results. I reached over and hit the number two engine starter. Again nothing.

I called back to the flight mechanic and told him to switch the APU offline and back on again. I tried the number one starter again with no results, so I determined that the APU was not coming online for some reason. I knew from my training that the battery would not come online if it was putting out less than 18 volts. I also knew that our security was putting distance between us and them.

We had an emergency communications switch in the console to put on one of the radios with no power to the aircraft bus. I pushed the button so I could get the radio to call our security back, but it would not depress. I tried several things to get it to move but it would not. I even took the heel of my boot and put it on the switch and tried to push it in. It would not budge. That eliminated all calls for security and for help from the Airborne Launch Control Centers or aircraft in the area.

I knew I had to locate the electrical bus relay, so I told the flight mechanic to get me the electrical wiring diagram manual. After a few minutes, he said that all of the manuals were there except for the aircraft electrical system. During my first five years in the Air Force I was in avionics (aircraft communication and navigation system repair), so I knew the avionics manuals showed parts of the electrical system. I asked the flight mechanic to get out the avionics manual.

He located the avionics manual and handed it to me. There was a large folded chart inside the manual, which I opened up and spread on the floor of the cargo compartment. It was an electrical diagram for all of the avionics equipment. As I was looking over the chart, I noticed an area that was enclosed with dashed lines and labeled “electrical power junction box.” It also said that the box was located in the right wheel well.

The right wheel well area is covered with large metal panels with Dzus fasteners fasteners holding them in place. I told the flight mechanic to get some screwdrivers—we needed to remove some panels. There are numerous Dzus fasters in each panel, so it took a little bit of time to get all of them loosened in order to remove the panel. Finally we were able to get the panel off.

When the flight mechanic removed the panel I got down and looked inside the wheel well. On the forward wall there was an electrical junction box that had slide fasters with thin copper wire securing the fasteners. I reached inside the wheel well area and ripped the copper safety wire off of the fasteners. I then reached in and slid each of the fasteners away from the securing posts. As I pulled off the cover from the junction box, the flight mechanic and I both saw a wire drop away from the inside of the box and hung down on the outside.

I pulled the wire up and looked at the end of it. It had part of a securing fastener still on the wire. I then started to look for where it had come from and found the rest of the securing fastener inside the box. The rest of the fastener was on what appeared to be a terminal strip that had wires secured by nuts securing connectors to posts.

I started thinking about how I was going to get the wire to stay in place on the terminal strip. I then remembered the copper safety wire that I’d pulled off of the slides, holding the panel cover in place. I asked the flight mechanic to retrieve the wire and hand it to me. I doubled the wire and wrapped it around the broken post on the end of the wire that had fallen out of the junction box. I then wrapped the other end of it around the post that had the remaining part of the connector still bolted to it. I told the flight mechanic to switch the APU online and told the other pilot to try the starter switch on one of the engines.

C-123 cockpit
There are a lot of wires that need to stay connected to run this airplane.

It didn’t take long until I heard the noise of an engine turning over. I yelled, “okay, let’s get the hell out of here.” I also told the flight mechanic not to worry about the panels; the aircraft would fly fine without them.

I then scrambled to the cockpit and hit the starter switch for number one engine as I slid into the seat. As soon as I had number one running, I started number two. We finished the checklists as rapidly as we could and I decided to take off to the south as quickly as we could. By the time we broke ground, it was definitely well into twilight time.

I don’t know if we were in any danger from the Viet Cong being there with no securing force, but I do know that I was extremely relieved to be able to get out of there. If we hadn’t been able to fix it, there would’ve been considerable time before they (the ALCC or our squadron) realized that we hadn’t checked in. We may have been forced to spend the night there defending ourselves because of several factors. First, the runway had no runway lights. Second, the runway was completely surrounded with thick trees. Third, we had no radios to communicate with anyone, and no power to turn on any lights to help them locate us.

If we had been forced to defend ourselves, each of the four of us carried as sidearms .38 caliber revolvers. In addition, each flight carried a gun box consisting of M-16 rifles and 500 rounds of ammunition—certainly not enough to defend ourselves from a large attacking force.

Lesson: learn as much as you can about the aircraft that you fly. You never know when it might come in handy to keep you out of a lot of trouble.

11 Comments

  • Thanks for the humor. I love it. Actually, all assault landings in the C-123 were hard but the aircraft could take it.
    Have you read my other submissions?
    Ralph

    • Great stories! Love that the officer was teaching the Non-Coms!! lol. Usually the other way around. Look forward to future stories. BTW, Did you fly the C-97 or a real Stratocruiser? Welcome home & thanks for your service!! Cheers!

  • Guess I have been very lucky during my flying career? The only failure I have had so far in flight was the drive cable coming apart to the tachometer. I lost the tach on a long distance cross country. From Illinois to Colorado. Since nothing else was wrong, all gauges in the green, I continued on. Made it there and back. When I got it back home, I told the FBO about it. It was a simple fix. But luckily I have enough hours in that bird to fly the plane by my sense of sound.

  • Our unit received an excellent KC-97. We were based at Kelley AFB. We converted it to a C-97. Took all of the refueling plumbing out and even put on the rear doors.

  • Had a similar thing happen under much different circumstances. I was a new co-pilot on the DC-6. We landed someplace down south and the #2 engine would not come out of reverse. Captain and F/E went to call the company so for lack of anything better to do, I decided I would go and look at the engine. On each prop blade there was a pigtail connecting the blade to the hub. One of those pigtails was hanging loose. I went and got the Captain and told him that I thought that if it was re-connected, we would be good to go and that’s what happened. I flew with that Captain many times over the years and he told that story every time. He thought I was a genius.

  • as an old car/boat/airplane/home mechanic, i try to tell my kids and son in laws that before there were computers, 87% of diagnosis was inspection. open the hood, pull the cowling, go down into the engine room
    many times you can look like a genius

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