One day, quite a few of us were tasked with missions to resupply Quan Loi in our C-123 Providers. The weather was not too bad as we broke out on top at approximately 1500 feet. I flew on top to the general location of Quan Loi, but could not see a thing except the clouds that we were flying over. I contacted the Army controller and found out that the runway was overcast, with the cloud height above the ground at 50 feet at the west end and about 100 to 150 feet on the east end.
As I was maneuvering over the location of Quan Loi, I spotted a hole in the clouds and spotted rubber trees below. I descended through the hole in the clouds and broke out about 150 feet above the trees. Knowing that rubber trees were all about the same height, as opposed to the jungle where you can have a ragged canopy of small trees up to 200+ feet high, I started flying around over the rubber trees looking for the runway. The terrain was kind of rolling hills, and I was following the terrain over the rubber trees.
When I spotted, up to my left and a higher elevation than I was flying, the runway, I turned 90 degrees and started climbing up towards the runway. I was climbing towards the west end of the runway, and when I passed over the end of the runway, I went in to the clouds at 50 feet. I told the other pilot I was flying with to time me for 30 seconds. He asked what I was going to do. I’m flying crosswind. I’m going to go 30 seconds and enter downwind.
The runway at Quan Loi was 05/23. When the time was up, I turned to a heading of 050 and asked him to time me for two minutes. As I was still climbing during these maneuvers, I did break out on top at about 1000 feet. When the time was up, I turned 90 degrees to the left and asked for 30 more seconds. When the time was up, I turned to the heading of 230, dropped the gear and flaps, and started descending.
On descent, we went back into the clouds. We broke out of the clouds at about 100 feet, east of the runway with the runway perfectly aligned about a quarter of a mile in front of us. We landed and parked.
While they were unloading the aircraft, I walked over to the Army controller and asked if any other aircraft had called in. He said, “Negative.” But while we were talking about what I had done, another aircraft called in. The pilot asked if anyone else had made it in.
The controller told him, “Yes one other had made it in.” The pilot asked the controller how the other aircraft had made it in. The controller told him that the other pilot was standing right here and asked if he wanted the other pilot to be on the radio. He said affirmative and the controller handed me the mic. I told him that I had found a hole in the clouds and let down above the rubber trees. I then explained how I had maneuvered to come back to the runway and land.
He said OK, but about 10 minutes later, he said he couldn’t find any holes in the clouds, but that he had an idea. He told me to ask the controller if he had any parachute flares. Since the controller could hear the conversation he said yes he did. The pilot asked that he pop one to see if he could see it. The controller had the type of flares that you take the covering off of one end, slide it on the other end, and pop it with the palm or your hand while holding it in the vertical position.
The controller walked out onto the runway and fired the flare. The pilot said he could see it and asked to get three more flares available. The controller asked me what the pilot was going to do. I told him he was going to maneuver the aircraft so that the heading of the aircraft was the same heading as the runway with the flare straight ahead. A few minutes later the pilot asked for another flare. A few minutes later, he asked for two more. That’s the last we heard of him until he broke out, perfectly aligned with the runway.
We were the only two that made it in that morning. Don’t try this at home. We had several factors going in our favor. One: we were extremely proficient in the aircraft and maneuvered them with precision. Two: the rubber trees are all the same height. Three: we knew the height of the base of the clouds. Four: we had complete situational awareness of the field, the runway, and the surrounding area. Five: we had eyes on the ground with the Army controller giving us the up-to-date, actual weather conditions.