Above & Beyond: Ration of Luck
- By Donald V. Courtney
- Air & Space magazine, November 2002
Donald V. Courtney
(Page 2 of 3)
Barnowsky and I checked the damage and counted bullet holes. Fuel was pouring out of the left wing, but Rich said no problem, we had an empty tank on the right we could use. He started transferring fuel, and then gas started pouring out of the right wing too, through a hole we hadn’t known about.
C-46s were famous for enduring an engine fire for about 45 seconds before the wing came off. B-916 now had fuel pouring out of each wing, over each engine exhaust. Everybody chuted up and kept their eyes on the streams of avgas. On approach to the airport in the Laos capital of Vientiane, as soon as we were too low to jump, we shucked off the parachutes and pulled open anything that resembled an emergency exit. We waited to see what would happen when B-916 backfired on final approach, as it always did, and to see if one or both of the main tires had caught bullets and gone flat.
Neither main was flat, and B-916 did not backfire. We just rolled on out to the parking ramp and shut down the engines. It was rainy season, and the ramp was submerged in several inches of water. We piled out and watched fuel pouring out, spreading avgas rainbows all over. We waded about a hundred yards before we found a dry spot where we could safely light smokes. We all stood there, shaking and cussing and puffing away.
About a year later, Fred Reilly was landing with a load of rice on the Plaines des Jarres, a field of ancient monuments in north-central Laos, just as the Lao Neutralists split in two and started an intramural firefight. Reilly was stitched across the legs by .50-caliber machine gun fire and his C-123 piled up at the end of the grass runway, crushing him under several tons of rice. The wreckage of his airplane, shining on the grassy plains, became a landmark.
B-916 went back to Tainan and was rebuilt. Right after it came back, it was hit just south of the Plaines des Jarres, got a fire in the left engine, and shed the left wing in less than a minute. Two Thai PDOs—Varaphong and Kukinchin—and nobody else got out on static-line chutes at about 200 feet. Very soon after, Kukinchin was killed when C-46, tail number 77 Victor, went straight into a ridge and blew up.
Meanwhile, back at Takhli, another C-46, B-136, came in with pilot Bill Beale. Beale had a Smilin’ Jack moustache, a laid-back outlook, a fat and interesting logbook, and an addiction to paperback westerns.
On a hot, humid morning, B-136, with Beale, a first officer whose name I don’t remember, a big load of ammo, and PDOs Art Jukkala, Russ Kapitz, and two Thai army trainees, left Takhli and headed north. Once the load was ready for delivery, the guys in the back sacked out. Onboard, even when you are in a deep sleep, one sound will bring you right out of it: a change in engine power settings. Jukkala got up and went forward, looked over Beale’s shoulder, and saw a ridge coming—a ridge that the airplane would not clear, and there were spur ridges on both sides that prevented a turn out of trouble. B-136 was in a box.
Jukkala woke up everybody and had them strap in. Then he belted himself in, listened to the power go up as far as it would go, and waited for the crash. It didn’t come, and finally he got up and went forward again. Over Beale’s shoulder he saw B-136 just barely scrape over that first ridge—and come face to face with another one that was higher still. By now, there was nothing to do but stand there and watch.