Above & Beyond: Ration of Luck

Above & Beyond: Ration of Luck

The author surveys the forbidding Laotian terrain from a C-46. (Donald V. Courtney)
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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.

B-136 buried its nose in a big tree. Branches went by on both sides of the cockpit; there was a series of thumps. The airplane stalled and nosed over.

Laos is limestone country—sheer white karst cliffs all over. B-136’s tree was on the edge of one of those cliffs, and when the airplane nosed over, it fell free, over the edge and down. It picked up flying speed. Beale nursed the nose up and flew away.

Air blasted up through the cockpit, blowing dirt and dust up pant legs and into faces. The crew went to Vientiane, dropped the cargo over the airport, and headed south to Udorn, Thailand. Beale put B-136 onto the pierced-steel-planking runway, and everybody on board was soon kissing muddy ground. Another C-46 came up from Bangkok, collected some of us at Takhli, and that night flew north to pick up Beale and company and get the roller conveyor and other drop equipment off B-136 so we could use it the next day. We went over B-136 with flashlights, whistling and making blasphemous comments in awed tones.

On the left side, a branch a foot in diameter had passed between the fuselage and the propeller arc, missing the prop but driving a hole two feet deep in the wing root. Another branch punched a head-size hole right under Beale’s feet, missing the rudder pedals but letting in the torrent of air that sent all that World War II dirt up Beale’s pant legs. All along the belly were dents and holes. The left ends of the horizontal stabilizer and elevator were sheared off about an inch from the outboard hinge. Everywhere there was damage that just barely missed being fatal.

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