21 Dec 1972: Flak Trap
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.
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 ride; Major Paul Meder, an IR Operator who was along for an orientation ride; Tech Sgt. John Q. Winningham, a 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.
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. They had engaged and destroyed 3 trucks on the Trail when they came under accurate anti-aircraft fire. The gunship broke off the attack and left the area. One of the sensor operators thought they had identified the location of the anti-aircraft gun that had fired on them. The gunship then went to a lower altitude and returned to the area in order to engage the anti-aircraft gun with the 20 mm cannons. As the gunship reengaged the anti-aircraft gun, other anti-aircraft guns in the area that had held their fire up to this point began firing. As the gunship entered the “flak trap”, it was hit by an unknown number of 37mm shells. Willie Williams recalled seeing a single hole in the fuselage near the left wing root while Air Force documents refer to 5 hits. The impact near the left wing root severed fuel, hydraulic, and liquid oxygen lines. Fuel began pouring into the cargo compartment of the aircraft. This was at approximately 1912 hours local time.
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 know position of Spectre 17 was on radial 080 71 miles from Channel 93, near Pakse, Laos. The crew of Spectre 07 realized that what they thought was a flare falling was actually their sister gunship. 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 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 and 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.
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. 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 . I received copies of the tape from two different 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. 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.
A group of Ravens were eating dinner in their quarters near Pakse, Laos when they were notified 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. It is not know for sure who Kilo was, but according to the USAF Form 484 Crew Loss Report, Kilo may have been Sgt Robert Elliott, who was the Right Scanner on this mission. The right scanner position is a secondary egress point during an emergency with the rear ramp being the primary egress point.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. The identity of Kilo is not known with certainty as the alpha identifiers that are located in parenthesis after the crew member name on the Form 484 were redacted. While the alpha identifiers were generally consistent based on crew position, they sometimes changed when there were additional crew members onboard.
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 likely that Kilo lost consciousness due to blood loss or was otherwise unable to respond due to his injuries.
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 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.