Another day in the life of an Air Commando living by our motto: any time any place. This is about my experiences in the 19th Air Commando Squadron, South Vietnam for about a year beginning in 1966.
BUON BRIENG survey in March 1966 for inclusion in the RVN OPERATIONAL AIRBASE for the 315th Air Commando Wing.
RWY LENGTH WIDTH SURFACE ELEV TYPE REMARKS
09/27 2100 50 CLAY 2390 SLIPPERY WHEN WET
This is what was shown for Buon Brieng in the listing that we had dated for June 1, 1966. There was nothing listed in the column of TYPE which should show aircraft capability (which aircraft type had the capability to use this runway). There is nothing unusual about this description so it should be easy right? Uh, not exactly. Here’s the rest of the story.
First of all this is a one way in, one way out runway. Runway 9 is ok but it takes about a 15 to 20° turn about two thirds of the way up. The runway has a considerable upslope and slants noticeably left to right. The runway was cut into the side of a mountain. Drainage is a problem caused by the water coming down the side of the mountain on the left. They dug a drainage ditch on the left side and piled all the dirt in a berm between the ditch and the runway. They also dug a drainage ditch on the right side of the runway with the dirt piled up in a berm on the other side of the ditch from the runway.
The width of the runway is 50 feet. The C-123 has a wingspan of 110 feet. There is very little room to maneuver and keep the props out of the dirt berms and the wingtip from scraping the downslope of the mountain on the left. When approaching the runway, you are flying over a plateau. Approaching the runway at an altitude above the runway elevation, the approach and configuration of the aircraft are pretty standard for a straight-in approach. As you get closer to the runway, you get a sinking feeling and, in order to keep your decent and approach speeds, you have to start adding power to overcome the downslope winds from the mountain.
Sometimes it requires a considerable amount of power just to keep from going below and climbing back to the runway elevation. On very short final you must have the wings level because of the mountain slope on the left. You must use rudder for positioning. On touchdown, with the slope from left to right, there is no way to lower that wing into the wind that is coming down the side of the mountain. The wind from the left is attempting to raise the wing that is already raised by the slope of the runway. By being able to get under the wing, the wind is attempting to lift the aircraft to the right. You have to use a combination of rudder, brakes, and differential power in reverse to keep the aircraft in the center of the runway.
The upslope of the runway helps considerably to slow the aircraft down. By the time you come to the curve in the runway, you can usually come out of reverse thrust. It’s a landing that requires instinctive maneuvering of the controls. I have already labeled this runway as the WORST runway that the C123 was using while I was there.
One day I was flying with another pilot (Buck) who was on his last day of flying before rotating back to the states. He was flying from the left seat. We had flown in and off-loaded supplies. We had already run the checklists and released the brakes for takeoff. We rolled out of the parking area and down the runway. I might add you cannot see the runway beyond the turn until well into the turn. We rolled into the turn and as we came out of the turn and were accelerating rapidly down the runway, we were surprised by an Army “deuce and a half” (2.5 ton) that had entered the runway from a road on the left side.
Buck swerved the aircraft to the left and pulled back on the column. With the nose raised I could not see the truck anymore. I remember thinking it was going to be a lot of noise when we hit the truck. All I can remember was a forceful bump that raised the aircraft into the air. Afterward, I was thinking that we must have hit the berm of dirt. Buck lowered the nose and we descended down into the valley and picked up speed. We flew from there to Ban Me Thuot and landed.
I got out and went around the airplane to assess any damage that we might have and see if we may have hit the truck. The only noticeable thing was on the main landing gear. On both side walls of the tires there were aluminum markings. I remember thinking that we hit those berms so hard that the tires flattened out and then wrapped around and turned on the rim to get the markings. I told Buck this was just what he needed to finish off his tour of duty on his last day.
After flying for the day, I would usually go to the O Club for my evening meal. One night, I met a pilot who was an instructor while I was in Air Force flight training. He said he was a FAC (forward air controller) and he related to me what had happened during his day. While flying his mission he saw something unusual in a field. It looked like someone had planted some bushes. He kept getting lower and lower trying to figure out what he was curious about. Finally, on his last pass, he was low enough that his landing gear was just above these bushes. He passed over and looked straight into the face of an enemy soldier who was manning a quad machine gun position. He pulled up and radioed for support. He was not fired on because the FAC would bring in fire support.
As the FAC was getting lower and lower, his wheels were almost brushing the bushes. The support aircraft, A1E (Skyraider) lead, still in a circling bank, replied that he had the target. At that instant, the gunner fired at lead and knocked his engine out. Lead related that to the FAC and the FAC directed him to the closest runway which was Buon Brieng.
The next day at the squadron it was stated that a C123 crew was getting ready for takeoff when the A1E made it to the runway and came rapidly around the curve in the runway. Seeing that he could not get stopped before hitting the C123, he put the gear handle in the up position. He slid to a stop prior to hitting the C123.
Two aircraft were fragged (scheduled) to go into Buon Brieng to get the remaining Army troops out of there. We landed and found that they had already divided the loads and we would take a Jeep and water trailer along with a load of soldiers. It was late in the afternoon when we arrived. The commander of the remaining forces was concerned that we would not be able to get all of them out before dark. He was very concerned that an attack was imminent. He said that he did not want us to leave with our load until the other aircraft was ready to land. He said they would need everyone to defend themselves if they had to spend the night.
I got on the radio and got in contact with the other aircraft and asked what their position was. They replied that they had to go into Pleiku to get more fuel. I replied that it was dusk now and that it would be dark before they could get back down here. We discussed it with the commander on the ground and he reiterated that we either get everybody out or leave everybody. We discussed it with the loadmaster and he counted bodies and equipment and said we would be over gross but we could do it. We told the commander that we were to leave everything they absolutely did not need and especially to dump all of the water out of the Jeep trailer.
We loaded everybody in the aircraft, started engines, went into reverse and backed the aircraft as far as we could up the bank out of the parking area and slammed on brakes. I looked back into the cargo compartment and saw that they had closed the ramp but not the overhead door. There were soldiers lying on the closed ramp with their weapons pointed out over the ramp. The loadmaster on interphone said that they were afraid that they would be attacked before we could get off the ground.
We ran up to maximum power, released the breaks and rolled around the curve in the runway and were picking up speed. We looked down the runway and saw the end of the runway approaching which has barb wire fencing on the end of it. We pulled the column back and with the stick shaking and stall warning sounding we cleared the fence. We then moved the column forward and descended into the valley picking up airspeed. We made it. We took them to Ban Me Thuot and landed. When we parked, every single man on that aircraft came up to the cockpit and thanked us for getting them out of there.