The Dyess Air Force Base C-130 Crash of 12 October 1966
David K. Vaughan
Early in October 1966, as the late summer breezes blew across the runways at Dyess Air Force Base, near Abilene, Texas, the C-130 crew with which I was flying was notified that we were scheduled for our annual simulator training. The simulator training lasted for an entire week and included classroom sessions as well as time in the simulator. We did not need to report to the squadron building, located on the east side of the flight line; we would proceed each day to the simulator training buildings. In the simulator we practiced basic cockpit procedures and most importantly, emergency procedures. The Dyess C-130 simulator had been recently installed and incorporated the most modern features of the time, including simulated engine noise, a modest amount of cockpit movement, and even a semi-realistic visual environment as seen through the cockpit windows.
Our crew was happy to have some down time, as we had recently returned from a two-month temporary duty assignment flying NATO missions in Europe, first out of Evreux, France, and then, for the final week or two, out of Mildenhall AB, England. Although I had enjoyed our flights across Europe and the Mediterranean, our families were happy to have us home for a few days.
Only three of us were required to participate in the simulator training: Major Dusty Watkins, the aircraft commander; me, the co-pilot; and Sergeant Jerry Coleman, flight engineer. Dusty sat in the left seat, I sat in the right, and Sergeant Coleman sat in his seat centered just behind the pilots’ seats. All three of us were involved in take-off and landing procedures, and most importantly in the emergency procedures, which typically involved shutting down more than one engine for various simulated systems failures.
The two other members of the crew, Lieutenant Karl Klein, the navigator, and Airman Jerry West, the loadmaster, were not required to participate in simulator training because the simulator emergency procedures did not involve them or their equipment. They were free to help out around the squadron, catch up on required reading in the squadron files, or assist in other small tasks deemed necessary by the 347th Troop Carrier Squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Sidney Richardson. I appreciated the simulator practice; although the C-130 was (and still is) a wonderfully reliable flying machine, various system malfunctions could create problems if our cockpit responses were slow or incorrect.
We were just past the halfway point in our simulator training when I was awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call from Dusty Watkins. He told me that one of the squadron C-130s had crashed on a night low level mission north of Dyess and that our navigator, Karl Klein, was dead. I didn’t know that Karl was involved in flying activities.
Karl had volunteered to fly in the navigator position on the mission, whose purpose was to give the two pilots, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Johnson and Major James Ashcraft, the opportunity to complete their night low-level qualifications. They had died in the accident, and two other airmen who had volunteered to fly on the crew were also dead: Staff Sergeant John Brace, flight mechanic, and Airman Douglas Kouba, loadmaster. Another loadmaster, Airman Gary Speer, had been pulled from the wreck but was badly burned.
The aircraft was the third in a flight of three aircraft which were flying the night route. They were flying approximately 2500 feet above the ground. They had flown on a direct route north from Dyess to a point about fifty miles west of Lubbock, Texas, when they made a slight right turn to a northeast heading. Apparently the pilots (it could not be determined which pilot was flying the aircraft) became disoriented in the darkness as they tried to maintain separation from the other aircraft and overbanked to the left as they rolled out from the turn. The aircraft continued in a left turn, descending as it did so. The aircraft struck the bare Texas landscape at over two hundred miles an hour and immediately caught fire. It turned as it skidded across the ground, shedding parts until only the tail was left, pointing in the opposite direction of flight. Because it crashed in the rough terrain of a Texas ranch, far from the nearest road or trail, several minutes elapsed before the first person arrived. By that time what was left of the aircraft was consumed with fire.
When the accident review board convened, I was asked to provide comments. I had flown as a copilot on a crew with Major Ashcraft four months earlier. I had never flown with Johnson. Ashcraft and Johnson had come into Tactical Air Command (TAC) from the Strategic Air Command (SAC), as I had, and there was some concern that they might not have been familiar with TAC nighttime flying procedures. I testified that during my flights with Major Ashcraft (we had flown a two-week mission to Europe), I had never seen any evidence of hesitation or uncertainty in the cockpit. We had flown an airdrop mission together out of Erding, Germany, but we had not flown any night low-level missions. The board concluded that the cause of the accident was pilot error, not equipment failure.
The week following the accident, Dusty and I drove to San Antonio, Texas, to assist in the funeral ceremonies for Karl Klein. Karl’s family was from San Antonio. He was buried in the military cemetery at Fort Sam Houston. He left behind a wife and two young children, a son and a daughter. Less than four months later I was far away from Dyess, flying C-130s in South Vietnam.
In the middle of November, before I left Dyess for my new assignment, I found a manila envelope in my mailbox in the squadron. When I opened it, I saw that it contained an eight by ten inch black and white photograph of Karl Klein. It was the photograph that Karl’s wife had sent to the Abilene newspaper for inclusion in the story about the accident. When I asked why the photograph was in my mailbox, I was told that Karl’s wife had left no forwarding address, and the squadron administrative officer said he didn’t know who else he should give the photograph to. There was no reason why I should ever encounter Karl’s wife again, but I kept the photo. It was a nice studio portrait photograph, a head and shoulders shot, clear and with excellent detail. He must have had it made when he was promoted to first lieutenant.
I decided to take it with me when I left. It was easy to carry, lightweight, compact. It stayed in my files when I moved to a new assignment or a new location. Every time that I came across Karl’s photo in my files, I briefly asked myself if I should keep it or throw it away, but I always decided to keep it. It was just too significant to throw away.
And then, one day about forty-five years later, I received an e-mail from an individual named Joe Johnston, asking if I was the David Vaughan that had flown with Karl Klein at Dyess Air Force Base. Joe had married Meg Klein, Karl’s daughter, and he and Meg were trying to learn more about the accident that had killed her father. As Meg was growing up, her mother had refused to talk about the accident. I sent Meg and Joe my accounts of flying C-130s with Karl in Europe in the summer of 1966 and included two or three photos that I had taken. There was one photo of Karl and me standing in our flying suits on top of one of the walls that surrounded the ancient town of Diyarbakir, Turkey. The airfield at Diyarbakir had been one of the stops on a flight into Turkey in the summer of 1966. I also sent her the black and white photo that I had been carrying around for forty-five years. It was a photo of her father in his Air Force 1505 uniform wearing the rank of first lieutenant. She had never seen it before. They stayed with us when they visited the Dayton, Ohio, area two or three years later. When my wife and I moved to Texas in 2015, we stayed in touch.
In the summer of 2019, I received a call from Meg. A civic organization in Abilene had raised money to create a memorial park near the main gate to commemorate those Dyess airmen who had died in the line of duty. An ad hoc memorial had developed over the years, with commemorative markers that contained the names of the airmen who had died, but the memorial area had evolved in a random manner, and the committee had come up with a creative park design in which all markers would be placed in a meaningful pattern. A dedication ceremony was scheduled for July 19, 2019.
Joe and Meg arrived in San Antonio a few days early and visited with family members, many of whom still lived in the city. I traveled up to Abilene with them and attended the dedication ceremony. Several other members of Karl’s family, who still lived in San Antonio, attended as well. The main speaker was General Maryanne Miller, commander of Military Airlift Command. Many city dignitaries and relatives of the deceased airmen were present. The morning was bright and sunny, and the ceremony ended before the temperatures climbed into the 90s.
Meg decorated the marker containing Karl’s name with a large bouquet of roses and hung a frame with a copy of Karl’s photograph—the photograph I had carried for forty plus years—from the marker.
While we were there we drove as close as we could to the Dyess flight line to see the C-130s taxying, taking off, and landing. It was a dusty, windy day, warm and dry, but standing near the flight line, hearing the low growl of those C-130 engines, and seeing the low mesas to the southwest of the field, made it easy for me to remember how much I had enjoyed flying C-130s over central and west Texas. I remembered exactly how excited I had felt, fifty-three years earlier, when Karl and I had walked from the squadron operations building across the concrete ramp, to climb into the cockpit of the C-130 and fly across the Texas countryside to worldwide destinations.