Last Flight-2  

Lt. Col. Robert L. "Viper" Brown, USAF (Ret.)
(15 March 2009)

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On January 13, 1969, we were returning from a mission a little past midnight and the weather at Shemya was lousy with blowing snow, an icy runway, and about three miles visibility. Everyone thought that we would probably divert back to Eielson, an early go home bonus, but the tower radioed that propanol had been sprayed on the runway to melt the ice and we were cleared for landing. There were a few looks exchanged at the unhappy announcement that we were going to attempt a landing, but we didn't have a vote, so the pilot, Major John Achor, set up the approach and we came lumbering in. Most landings at Shemya were iffy, but it was clear that this one was pushing the limits. This was the part of the mission the Ravens and other backenders hated. We sat there strapped to our seats, feeling the airplane lurch around as the pilots adjusted power settings, dropped the gear, cranked down the flaps, and tried to find the runway. As we set up for the approach, "Preacher" Hall, who had an uneasy feeling that something was wrong, suddenly began to dig into his gear bag and drag out a flight suit to go over the jeans and sweat-shirt he had flown in. I thought he was just trying to get squared away, but he told me later that he had the crazy thought that if we crashed and he was killed, his wife might not get any benefits because he hadn't been in uniform. It wasn't true , of course, but I wonder now if this didn't reflect a secret fear in the back of our minds that if anything ever went really wrong, we might be abandoned. It was reflective of the strange, surrealistic world we lived in. It was a Cold War frame of mind.

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We touched down at about the 2,000 foot marker, and everything seemed normal at first. But the runway did not have "patchy ice," it was coated in slush and ice, and the runway condition reading, RCR, which had been given as an in the limits "16," was actually a "5" near the bottom of the scale--in short, dangerously slick and grossly unsafe. In the pilots' informal flying code, things were "Delta Sierra," and we were about to step in it. By the time we were half way down the runway, the pilots knew we were in trouble. There wasn't enough runway to takeoff again, and it was rapidly becoming clear that there wasn't enough to stop on. Achor had the power back and was standing on the brakes, but they wouldn't grab and we were eating up runway fast. I could hear the antiskid brakes cycling but didn't know anything was wrong yet, as I was sitting at the forward bulkhead, facing to the back of the airplane with my headset up in the Manual Tracker's dome. The second navigator, Capt. "Stu" Williams, who had his seat facing me, held up three fingers, but I still didn't get it. Then he held up two fingers, and I saw out of one of the big circular windows that we were racing past the turnoff to our hanger and realized he was counting off the thousand foot markers to end of the runway. Now I got it.

At about this time I think I said something brilliant to either Art Reid or Tom Dodds, the photo techs sitting on either side of me, that we had better get this thing slowed down. We all knew that there were no overruns at Shemya. The navigator, now with very little color left in his face, held up one finger. He very deliberately reached down and released his seat lock, rotated around aft, and cinched down his harness. Then the alarm bells went off and everything suddenly got very dark as we reached the end of the runway. Achor turned the airplane to the right, trying to avoid the oncoming approach lights mounted on huge telephone like poles, and we went into a slight left skid and departed the right edge of the runway, tearing through the green threshold lights. The left main wheels plowed through the soft earth for about twenty feet until they separated from the aircraft. Numbers one and two engine pods now contacted the ground, causing the airplane to skid farther left as we continued to tear up a lot of real estate. Then it felt like we had become airborne again as the airplane went over the forty-foot drop off at the end of the runway. We slammed into the downslope off the end of the runway and bounced forward for about another 55 feet. Inside, equipment racks tore loose from the walls and black boxes were ripped out of the consols, everything piling up in a tangled mass of gear and junk. I had my head down and one arm up in front of me as a feeble protection against the loose gear and pieces of equipment flying around. One of the camera's lead counterweights buried itself into the bulkhead above my head. The noise was incredible. Finally, the airplane buried her nose into the dirt road that ran around the base of the dropoff and came to a violent stop.

T. Dodds & A. Reid
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Kingdon R. Hawes (Webmaster)
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