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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.

c-123

The C-123 has a wingspan of 110 feet which leaves very little room to maneuver.

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.

Douglas A1E Skyraider

Support was proivded by the Douglas Skyraider.

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.

Ralph Grigg
16 replies
  1. Cal Tax
    Cal Tax says:

    Ralph,
    That is some pretty hair raising and incredible story about flying into a tiny runway in a very hostile place with a pretty big airplane. I never had to do anything like that in my career and I take my hat off to you and the guys who put their lives on the line everyday. Keep those stories coming and I enjoy reading about your exploits.

    Reply
  2. Mark Scardino
    Mark Scardino says:

    Great story, amazing airplanes both C123 & A1E. Think I was an E3 stationed at Moody, caught a hop on a 123 to Hurlburt. Mag Grigg did you ever find out if it was in fact the berm and not the truck? I’m visualizing that truck driver veering off the runway, hopefully surviving.

    Reply
    • Ralph W Grigg
      Ralph W Grigg says:

      Thank you for your comments. I did my Air Force pilot training at Moody and my C1 23 transition training at Hurlburt. We never heard anything from the Army about the truck. I remember there were two GIs in the cab and they had the windshield flat on the hood. I wondered if they bailed out and left the truck. I just hope no one was hurt.

      Reply
  3. Howard ‘Huey’ Deever
    Howard ‘Huey’ Deever says:

    Mr. Grigg- Thanks for your fine account of some truly exceptional flying, though one imagines that, given your remarkable overall sortie tally, at some point it became ‘just another (nutty) day at the office’. Our CAP/NEWG wing king some years back was Warder Shires, a very fine man, & only guy I ever personally knew who drove C-123’s in SEA. Later on in SAC, flew various multiengine jets incl B-47 variants-an airframe he logged time in is at the excellent SAC/Aerospace Museum between Omaha & Lincoln. But Ward recalled his time in -123’s as by far the most ‘sporting’ flying he ever did…

    Reply
    • Ralph W Grigg
      Ralph W Grigg says:

      Thank you for taking the time to post your comments. I too believe that the C1 23, hands down, was the most challenging and satisfying of any of the aircraft that I have flown. This is primarily is due 10 to the mission we were flying and the conditions that we had to contend with on these missions.

      Reply
  4. John August Stipetich
    John August Stipetich says:

    Hi Ralph: I read your story – it was great! I joined the 19th TAS (Tan Son Nhut (Saigon)) February 1970. Initially I was assigned to the 12th SOS at Bien Hoa. When I arrived there – Sep 1969 – the discovery that Agent Orange was harmful had our 30 airplanes kind of not flying much. Also, my Sq Cmdr Lt Col Fisher discovered I was also getting rides in A37 (our guys) and A1E’s (VNAF). I was bored. He felt my doing such was dangerous…ha, ha. I tried to explain it was fun. Maybe even educational for a young officer? He did not buy my excuses. As a result, I called the Wing at Phan Rang, requested a transfer so I might fly more. Off to Saigon and the 19th Tactical Airlift Squadron. At the time I arrived our Sq Ops Building was across the street from Base Ops. It was a lot of fun. I learned so much as pertained to really flying.

    I never had a chance to fly into that airport you mentioned. In 1970 working out of Saigon I never had the opportunity to fly into the airport you mentioned. The squadrons out of Phan Rang did such up there.

    But, your description brought back memories. I would like to thank you for brightening my Sunday. Enjoyed what you wrote.

    Would you like to communicate?
    My contact information:
    John Stipetich
    ph: 713-385-7825
    email: [email protected]
    Address:
    2001 Holcombe Blvd Unit 2105
    Houston, Texas 77030

    Reply
    • Ralph W Grigg
      Ralph W Grigg says:

      Wow. It sounds like you had a very interesting tour over there taken advantage of flying opportunities. They kept us busy flying for 20 days in a row with one day off half of the day off was in operations tracking aircraft. We were told that we were the last flight out of BUON BRIENG. They said they were building a new runway on the other side of the mountain ridge and further to the north of the old location.

      I would enjoy communications with you. Have you looked into the ACA (Air Commando Association)? They are having their convention pretty soon and it’s always held at Fort Walton Beach.

      Reply
  5. Terry Breckenridge
    Terry Breckenridge says:

    Read your article with great interest. You don’t ever see articles about the 123. I was a maintainer with the 19th Air Commando Sq. at Tan Son Knut, Saigon, May 1967-68. There during TET. The 123 was a great bird, tough and solid. Two great recips and two J-85 jets on her wings. I flew as inflight crew chief later in my tour. We would sit at the end of the runway, full brakes, firewall forward on the throttles, toggle up both jets and the girl would start skidding forward. Brakes couldn’t hold her. One flight, we had some ARVN guys aboard that wouldn’t listen to the loadmaster about seatbelts. When the pilot released the brakes, they all tumbled to the back. Got banged up pretty good!
    Can’t remember the island, but we made one flight out there that scared the crap out of me. Only one way in and mountain at the end. Does that ring a bell? I think it’s where some prisoners were kept? Is my memory wrong?
    Thanks for the article and the memories. I am a pilot myself now and can more appreciate what our American and Thai pilots accomplished with this great airplane.

    Reply
    • Ralph W Grigg
      Ralph W Grigg says:

      It’s good to hear from a fellow crew member who was there. First I want to say that without the Crew Chiefs and Load Masters we could never have accomplished any missions. I rotated back to the states in February 1967 prior to our squadron getting the J85 equipped birds. You are correct about the islands, I have been there, and took quite a few pictures. The prisoners that were held there were political prisoners. I am proud of you for getting the Pilot Certificate, I know it took a lot of hard work and time but it’s worth it. Enjoy it.

      Have you read my other submissions? You can get them by logging on to;
      Airfactsjournal.com/author/ralph grigg

      Reply
  6. ART
    ART says:

    1965 as a draftee, I rode in a C123 (strapped sideways w/rest of 32 along low edge of fuselage w/no outside view) from Saigon to Nha Trang. Although now a retired Pro-Pilot (ATP, Gold Seal CFI) at that time I had no knowledge of aviation at all.

    Upon landing in a stiff crosswind, the pilot correctly pointed the aircraft to align with the runway while lowering the wing to slip sideways and canceling the wind drift.

    To me; blind in the back of the plane ✈ this felt exactly like a loss of control and that we would be rolled into a wreak across the airfield.

    Throughout my piloting career, I would be sure to explain this sensation to passengers prior to any crosswind landing.

    Reply
  7. RICHARD ANDERSONflew the
    RICHARD ANDERSONflew the says:

    I piloted the C-123K Provider in Viet Nam (RVN) from July ’69 to May ’70 for the 310th SOS/TAS out of Phan Rang AFB. I left the RVN a bit early to fly, as A/C, one of our C-123’s to the boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB. That journey amounted to 60 hours total flying time after island hopping the Philippines, Guam, Wake, Midway, Hickam AFB, O’ahu, HI, McClellan AFB, CA and finally to Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ. I was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters for my actions during my tour in Viet Nam. One more Oak Leaf was awarded for KC-135 Stratotanker flights in SEA.
    I’ve always believed, and have often stated, is that I truly learned how to fly, not in pilot training, but by flying the C-123 under all varied conditions and situations in Viet Nam. What I learned with the C-123 carried over to my time in the KC-135. Gia Nghĩa Airfield in Viet Nam always proved a challenge with its 2100 feet strip and up drafts on final and then down drafts just before reaching the runway. You had to be real careful going in there!
    Rich Anderson

    Reply

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