21 Dec 1972

Gunner’s Moon

The story begins over a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail near Pakse, Laos on the night of 21 December, 1972.  An AC-130A with the call sign Spectre 17 had crossed the Thai-Lao border enroute to an operational area identified as Steel Tiger East located in Laos. Spectre 17 was enroute to conduct an "armed reconnaissance" mission. The purpose of this mission was to locate and destroy enemy trucks and supplies that were transiting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There was a full or “gunner’s moon” that night as the gunship left Ubon Royal Thai Air Base (RTAB) on it’s armed reconnaissance mission. 

The gunship normally had a crew of 13, but on this night 3 additional crew members were present. The additional crew members were Major Francis Walsh Jr., an Air Force pilot who was along for an orientation flight;  Major Paul Meder, an IR Operator who was also along for an orientation flight; Tech Sgt. John Q. Winningham, a Standards Evaluation (Stand Eval) Illuminator Operator (IO) Instructor who was along for a check ride with a student IO, Sgt. Carl Stevens.


The following information is based on my personal conversations with the two survivors, Carl “Ned” Stevens and Richard “Willie” Williams.


The Gunfight

Specter 17 had engaged and destroyed 2 trucks on the Trail when they came under accurate anti-aircraft fire forcing the gunship to break off the attack and leave the area. One of the sensor operators thought they had identified the location of the anti-aircraft gun that had fired on them. The decision was made to descend to a lower altitude and suppress the anti-aircraft gun with the 20mm cannons. 


The aircraft was armed with two 40mm Bofors cannons, two 20mm cannons, and two 7.62mm guns. The 40mm cannons were the primary truck killers, firing high explosive and MISCH high explosive incendiary rounds. The 20mm cannons were primarily used for anti-aircraft gun suppression and Troop In Contact (TIC) missions in low threat areas. The 20mm guns had to be fired from a lower altitude as the projectiles would tumble and would not detonate if fired above a certain altitude. Their high rate of fire (3,000 rounds per minute) and ability to saturate an area are what made them useful for anti-aircraft suppression.


The primary role of the Illuminator Operator was to alert the crew to incoming anti-aircraft artillery. The IO was able to tell if it was accurate and therefore a threat to the aircraft based on whether he could see a tail on the tracer or not. If there was no tail from the tracer, then that meant the round was coming right at the aircraft. In that case, the IO would tell the aircraft commander to to take evasive action. A call might be “Triple A, 6 o’clock, no threat” or "Triple A, 6 o’clock, break right”. By descending to a lower altitude, the reaction time for the the IO was reduced.


Spectres routinely operated in teams with strike aircraft such as F-4 Phantoms. The  F-4's mission was to provide suppression of enemy anti-aircraft defenses (SEAD) for the gunships. When working with the gunships, the F-4 would loiter above the gunship’s orbit. When an antiaircraft gun fired at the gunship, the F-4 would roll in, diving through the center of the gunship’s orbit and suppress the enemy gun with cluster bomb units (CBUs) or 20mm cannon fire. Due to their slow speed and predictable orbits, it was against 16 SOS policy for Spectres to engage in duels with anti-aircraft guns. Major Walsh, a F-4 pilot, was along for an orientation flight that night in order to understand how the gunships operated. 


As Spectre 17 decended to a lower altitude and rolled in to attack the gunsite, it was essentially a gunfight and the anti-aircraft gunners fired first. Based on the fact that Spectre 17 was hit in the left wing root, it would appear that the gunship’s guns were coming to bear on the anti-aircraft gunners’ position. Both Willie Williams and Carl Stevens stated that two gun sites opened fire on the aircraft. Spectre 17 was hit by an unknown number of 37mm shells where the left wing joins the fuselage.. Williams recalled seeing a single hole in the fuselage near the left wing root while Air Force documents refer to 5 hits. The M1939 37mm automatic air defense gun fired ammunition from a 5-round clip at a rate of 160-170 rounds per minute or approximately 2.6 rounds per second. The impact of the high explosive projectile near the left wing root severed fuel, hydraulic, and liquid oxygen lines. The aircraft lost hydraulic pressure and fuel began accumulating in the cargo compartment. This was at approximately 1912 hours local time. 

M1939-37mm-hatzerim-1

M1939 (61-K) at IDF/AF Museum, Chatzerim airbase, Israel

Source: Bukvoed, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=612482


The aircraft commander declared an emergency and began to head back to Ubon. Spectre 07 and Spectre 12 had been enroute to their target areas when they were diverted to escort the crippled gunship back to base. There was a high level of motivation on the part of the Spectre 17 crew to either get the aircraft back to base or at least get out of hostile territory as the enemy had put a bounty on Spectre crew members.


Spectre 17 was in communication with Moonbeam, the airborne command and control aircraft as it headed for Ubon. Spectre 17 reported that it had 16 souls on board, was losing fuel, and had 500 rounds of 40mm and 2000 rounds of 20mm ammunition on board. 


Spectre 07 was approximately 13 to 15 miles away from Spectre 17 at an altitude of 9,500 feet. Spectre 17 was flying at 7,500 when Spectre 07 reported seeing a large fireball or flash in the direction of Spectre 17. Crew members on Spectre 07 thought is was a flare falling to the ground. Lion (ground control intercept radar at Ubon RTB) lost radar contact with Spectre 17 approximately 10 minutes after the aircraft was hit. The last known position of Spectre 17 was on radial 080 71 miles from Channel 93,  near Pakse, Laos. What the crew of Spectre 07 thought was a flare was actually their sister gunship exploding in midair. The "flare" may have been either the fuselage or the wing falling to the ground. An EC-47 aircraft, call sign Baron, had also reported seeing a flare in the area. An EC-121 aircraft, call sign Disco, reported beeper activity in the area. Spectre 07 then proceeded to the last known location for Spectre 17 to begin the search for survivors. This map shows the approximate position of the crash site.


This is Willie Williams’ own account of the event:


At the time of the incident, I was working the 40s with Reed, Fenter on the 20s, and Eliott in the window (right scanner position). I don’t think we got half an orbit in with the 20s on the line when we were hit. After hearing we were RTB (return to base), we cleaned up the 40s and I walked up the area where we here hit and observed a hole about the size of the small coffee can and fuel was pouring out of it. It was where the wing joins the fuselage about even with the top of the booth. Fuel was flowing to the rear of the aircraft. I then walked back and looked in the booth and all were at their stations like nothing happened. I then joined MAJ Meder, who was on an orientation flight and did not have a seat in the booth, both I.O.s and Gunner Reed who were on the ramp.

The back of the a/c was saturated with fuel, not ankle deep but maybe sole deep. All this time the cockpit crew was trying to get the fuel stopped with no success. I then positioned myself at the top of the ramp looking forward and soon after someone in the cockpit called for the a/c manuals which I believe were in the booth and Winningham volunteered to get them to the front. Minutes later there was an explosion, the a/c veered hard left and the cargo compartment was filled with flames. I flung myself backwards and went out in a ball of fire. Stevens said the same thing happened to him. 

At no time did I hear any bail out bell or was anyone told to head for the rear of the a/c. We were on the ramp to get out of the fuel. Right after I got a good chute there was a bright flash under me where the a/c impacted and seconds later I felt the concussion. I landed about 200 meters from the crash site, my chute in a tree, my feet inches from the ground. I E&Ed (escape & evasion) a short distance and was picked up 2 and a half hours later by Jolly Green. SSgt Jack Stephens was the P.J. 


The Air Force report indicates that the fuel system and liquid oxygen system were compromised. The information provided by Williams appears to indicate that the 37mm round that hit the wing root severed either the fuel crossfeed manifold that connects the fuel tanks in the wings or punctured the left side auxillary fuel tank which is near the wing root. If the liquid oxygen system was compromised, then it is possible that pure oxygen was being added to the fuel situation, effectively creating a very large bomb. As some point, an ignition source detonated this fuel/oxygen mixture causing the left wing to separate from the aircraft. The loss of the left wing caused the aircraft to yaw to the left as described by Williams. During the rescue effort, aircraft reported seeing two main fires that were separated by some distance. This would have been the fuselage and the left wing.


Williams’ reference to the bail out bell and getting on the ramp to get out of the fuel was in response to numerous claims on other websites that claim the crew was congregating on the ramp preparing to bail out and that a “jump bell” was audible on the Spectre 07 audio tape. These conspiracy websites have twisted the facts to support their claims that more crew members survived and were captured by the Pathet Lao. I interviewed both survivors and neither Williams nor Stevens indicated that there was any warning prior to being blown out of the aircraft. In an effort to dispel any conspiracy theories, I have posted the Spectre 07 tape on this site. There is no “jump bell” on the audio tape nor were the crew members instructed to bail out. I received two copies of the tape from two independent sources and both tapes are consistent with each other.


Enter the Ravens

The following information was obtained from correspondence with Terry Pfaff and personal interviews with H. Ownby and Lew Hatch.


The Ravens were U.S. Air Force pilots who had been detailed to the CIA to fly as forward air controllers in support of the covert war in Laos. Air Force pilots who had at least one tour under their belts were recruited for the Steve Canyon program. These brave pilots flew O-1 Bird Dog aircraft in civilian clothing so as not to implicate the United States in the war in Laos. They normally flew with a Laotian national or “Robin" in the back seat. Refer to The Ravens: The Men Who Flew America’s Secret War in Laos by Christopher Robbins for further. 


A group of Ravens were eating dinner in their quarters near Pakse, Laos when they heard on the radio that a Spectre gunship had been shot down. Two Raven aircraft launched in an attempt to located survivors. Raven 26 flown by H. Ownby with Ed Chun was the first to arrive in the area of the Spectre 17 crash site. Ownby recalls arriving at the crash site and seeing burning wreckage. The fuselage and a wing were visible as they flew at low altitude (approximately 1,500 feet) attempting to raise survivors on Guard, the emergency radio channel.  Ownby said they contacted India (Stevens) and Juliet (Williams) as well as Kilo. Kilo stated that his leg was injured and he was bleeding. Ownby remembers Kilo coming up on the radio three times before he stopped responding. TSgt Willie Williams stated that he remembered talking to someone (Ownby and Chun) on Guard before he was in contact with Spectre 07.


Crew members were given alpha identifiers during mission preparation. Initially, it was not clear who was assigned the Kilo alpha identifier as that information was redacted on the USAF Form 484 Crew Loss Report.


In December 2014, the Liles family provided me with an unredacted crew list that they had received from the Air Force. This document confirmed that Kilo was Sgt Robert (Tommy) Elliott. According to TSgt Willie Williams who was the lead gunner on the mission, Elliott had been assigned as Right Scanner. The right scanner position is a secondary egress point during an emergency with the rear ramp being the primary egress point. Despite being located in front of the #3 propeller, this location has successfully been used as an egress point before. Sgt Eugene Fields utilized the right scanner window to exit The Warlord (54-0625) when it was shot down over the Ho Chi Mihn Trail on April 21, 1970. He was the sole survivor. TSgt Willie Williams stated that Elliott was one of the crew members who may possibly have had the opportunity to exit the aircraft due to his proximity to an egress point

Here is the crew manifest with the alpha identifiers:

Lagerwall Alpha Aircraft Commander
Kroboth Bravo Copilot
Hart Charlie Table Navigator
Macdonald Delta TV Sensor
Dickens Echo IR Sensor
Birch Foxtrot Black Crow Sensor
Liles Golf Fire Control Officer
Fuller Hotel Flight Engineer
Stevens India Illuminator Operator
Williams Juliet Lead Gunner
Elliott Kilo Gunner
Fenter Lima Gunner
Reaid Mike Gunner
Meder November Infrared Operator
Winningham Oscar Instructor Illuminator Operator
Walsh Papa Additional Crewmember - Pilot


Ownby and Chun were joined by a second Raven aircraft flown by Lew Hatch and Terry Pfaff. Shortly after the arrival of the second Raven, Moonbeam ordered the Ravens out of the area. Ordering the Ravens to leave the area may have been done to deconflict the airspace as Spectre 07 had assumed the role of on-scene commander and the Jolly Greens (HH-53) and the Sandies (A-7 Corsair II) were inbound from Nakhon Phanom (NKP). Due to the chaos of the situation, the Ravens were unable to pass on the information regarding the three crew members they had been in contact with. Keep in mind that this was an unplanned event occurring at night over hostile territory with many players talking on the radio while converging on the crash site. 


By the time Spectre 07 established communications with the survivors, only Williams and Stevens came up on on Guard. It is possible that Kilo lost consciousness due to blood loss or was otherwise unable to respond due to his injuries.


Air America

Air America helicopters based in Pakse were ready to launch in order to assist with the rescue. They were ordered to abort, despite their close proximity, in order to allow the Jolly Greens to execute the rescue. The Jolly Greens were inbound from Nakhon Phanom (NKP) which is significantly farther away than the Air America base. Although Air America was only minutes away from the crash site, their aircraft were not the best suited for the mission. The aircraft that Air America flew were Sikorsky UH-34D helicopters which were designed for troop airlift missions. The HH-53 Jolly Greens were equiped with pararescue jumpers (PJs), jungle penetrators, armor, night vision, and defensive weapons. These comments are meant to take nothing away from the brave men who crewed the Air America helicopters. They saved many Spectre crew members during the course of the war, most famously, the fifteen Spectre crew members who bailed out of Spectre 22 on March 30, 1972. Accomplished Air America aviators such as Bruce Jachens and Allen Cates overcame their outdated equipment with skill and courage to save many aviators.

 

That Others May Live

The following information is from email correspondence with Jolly 63 PJ Steve Jones, Jolly 63 pilot Jason Houk, Jolly 32 pilot Jerry Shipman, and Air Force documents.


Jolly Greens 63 and 32, King 22 (HC-130P SAR command and control aircraft), and Sandies 11, 12, and 13 (A-7 Corsair II) launched from NKP to execute one of the first night rescue attempts. King 22 aborted while enroute and returned to base. As a result, Spectre 07 continued as the on-scene commander. 


Jolly 63 was a standard HH-53 while Jolly 32 was equipped with the Limited Night Recovery System (LNRS) which consisted of a low light TV combined with a hover coupler. The crews were also equipped with early night vision googles. Jolly 63 piloted by Jason Houk and A.J. Courtese was the high bird and Jolly 32 piloted by Jerry Shipman and Ted Rabaja came in at low level to make the pickups. The purpose of the high bird was to act as a backup aircraft, but in this case, it ended up being flak magnet as Jolly 63 dodged anti-aircraft fire and a surface-to-air missile while holding at 10,000 feet. 


The positions for Stevens and Williams had been located by the sensor operators on Spectre 07. This information was passed on to the Jollys as Jolly 32 was vectored in to make the rescue. PJ Mike Walker  was lowered down the jungle penetrator with night vision goggles to pick up Stevens. PJ Jack Stephens was next down the penetrator to pick up Williams. Both rescues were conducted without incident.  Jolly 32 hover taxied over the crash site for a short time trying to contact any other survivors without success. Williams and Stevens were then flown back to NKP. 


Aircraft remained on station throughout the night trying to raise any additional survivors. No other crew members came up on Guard nor were any emergency beepers heard. The Ravens continued to fly over the area in the days following the rescue in hopes of contacting addtional survivors without success.

Continue reading about the search effort here 

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