Runway Visions: Excerpts

Runway Visions is an autobiographical account of my experiences flying C-130s in Southeast Asia in 1967 and 1968.   It was published by McFarland Press in 1998 and is still in print, both in hard copy and electronic formats.  The following selection was specially prepared by McFarland Press as part of a military autobiography promotion.


Runway Visions Excerpts

1. Bao Loc, South Vietnam, January 1968

The next morning we left Cam Ranh just after sunrise on a clear, bright morning. We flew directly to Bao Loc, the field with the humped runway. We were one of several C-130s involved in moving some Army units from there to Song Be, an Army camp close to the Cambodian border. The weather was perfect: clear air, excellent visibility. I knew there was a problem when we arrived in the area and saw two other C-130s circling the field. We were the first aircraft to arrive, so I couldn’t imagine what was causing the delay. When I looked down at the field, I immediately saw what the problem was.

The cool air that had moved in overnight had had a unique effect; in the low-lying areas surrounding the field, patches of thick fog were gathered in the valleys and depressions. The ramp area and center section of the runway was absolutely clear, but fog lay thickly across both ends of the runway. The fog was pooled over the ends of the runway, those portions of the runway that dipped down towards the small river valley that bordered the field on the west, north, and east sides. While thick fog sat on the ends of the runway, the center of the runway basked in the sunshine. I had never seen anything like it. The middle of the runway was VFR, and the ends were IFR. And it was a relatively short runway, about 3500 feet long. What a strange phenomenon. What a predicament.

I and the two aircraft commanders in the other aircraft, Captain Dennis Ward and Captain Dave Risher, discussed our options over the radio. It was clear the fog wasn’t going to burn off soon, and we didn’t want to orbit the field indefinitely. Finally Dave Risher made a decision. “What the hell,” he said. “I’m going to land.”

Dave set up on a left downwind on the north side of the field. I could see him drop his gear, then flaps. He turned base to the south, losing altitude. Then he turned on final approach, heading east, straight into that white patch of fog at the end of the runway. Then into the fog he went. He disappeared into the white cloud, except for the tip of his tail, the top of the vertical stabilizer, which stuck out of the fog. We followed the progress of his plane by the movement of the tip of his tail. We could see it level off, then bump, then begin to rise out of the fog.

The entire aircraft emerged from the pool of fog, engines clearly in reverse, shrouds of fog spinning forward through the props from the force of the reverse thrust. Up the slope it came, then over the top, now fully in the clear. Past the turn-off point, traveling too rapidly to turn off.

Dave’s aircraft continued to decelerate on the downslope side, and entered the fog at the far end. Once again the plane disappeared into the fog. Only the tip of the vertical stabilizer was visible. About the time we imagined the aircraft would be running out of runway, the plane came to a stop. Then we saw the tip of the vertical stabilizer move back and forth, slowly turning to the left, as the aircraft executed a series of backwards and forwards movements, so that it could taxi back up the runway.

The aircraft reappeared from the thick fog, wisps of fog streaming off the props, as it taxied, slowly, proudly, up the runway to the top of the rise, where it turned left, taxied to the offloading area, and stopped in the bright sunshine. “No problem,” Dave announced over the radio. I wasn’t so sure.

Dennis Ward was next. I was happy to let him have the next go at landing. I was hoping that the efforts of the two aircraft would help to dissipate the fog. Dennis followed Dave’s example, set himself up on downwind, dropped his gear and flaps, turned base, then final. Into the fog. Then out, props in reverse. Over the top. Then back into the fog. Slow stop at the end. Back and forth in the fog. Out of the fog, slowly and proudly. Turn off at the top and park. My turn.

Well, I thought, if they can do it, I can too. I flew down the center of the runway, hoping that I could see evidence of the fog thinning out. Through the fog I could see the white markings at the end of the runway. As long as there was some visual reference once we got in the fog. Oh well. Onto a crosswind. Downwind. Gear down. Flaps down. Slow the aircraft. Try to judge where to turn. How do you decide where to turn when the end of the field is covered by fog? Turn base. Pull the power back. Hold a little extra altitude until lined up on final. Turn to final. Flaps full.

The white stripes and line at the end of the runway are just visible through the whiteness of the fog. Thank god. Line up on those marks. Lock onto them with my vision. Pull the power back. Slow the airspeed. Closer and closer to the fog. Into the fog.

Suddenly surrounded by dark, greyish-white environment. Oh no! The white runway markings have disappeared! Where the hell is the runway? Then suddenly, the markings are there in front of us! Flare! Pull the yoke back, hard. Here comes the runway. Power off. Yoke back some more. Wham! Definitely a firm landing. But no worse than many others I’ve made in perfect weather. Power to idle. Pause. Into reverse pitch range. Clear to reverse. Full reverse. How’s my directional control? Hard to tell in the fog. Looks okay. On the brakes. Slow this sucker down. Wish I could see where we’re going.

Then, suddenly, out of the fog. Blinding, bright sunlight. Hard to see. At least we’re under control, slowing, more or less in the center of the runway. Here comes the top of the rise. A quick look to the right, at the two planes parked there. On the wings, on the ground, the crew members of Risher’s and Ward’s crews, waving at us as we tear past, handkerchiefs in their hands. Bastards. But no time to dwell on their cute antics. A quick obscene gesture from one of us, then we turn our attention to completing the landing roll.

Over the top of the rise, now downhill. Still on the brakes. Into the fog again. Whiteness, no visibility. Oh man. Where is the end of the runway? Are we still in the center? Then through the fog appear the white hash marks at the east end of the runway. We can see them coming up at us, but slowly. Yes, we can stop in time. We will stop. We stop. Son of a bitch. Don’t want to do this again any time soon.

Like the others, I slowly move the aircraft back and forth. Forward thrust. Turn to the left. Edge of the runway. Reverse thrust. Back up, turning to the left. Forward thrust. Reverse thrust. Back up the runway. Finally, out into the sun. Bright, blinding light. Slowly, steadily, up the slope, to the top, then off to the access ramp. Park it. Shut it down. Out of the aircraft, to swear at Dave and Denny. You bastards. They are laughing, tears in their eyes. They swear they could see the whites of our eyes as we thundered past.

This was probably the most bizarre landing I’ll ever make at the most unusual field I’ll ever see. Only in Vietnam. Only at a place like Bao Loc, with its strangely, excessively humped runway. But Dave and Denny and I and our crews, we did it. I think about it now, and I shake my head.

2. Khe Sanh, Vietnam, January 1968

We were once again scheduled to fly four pallets of ammunition into Khe Sanh. Since our last visit, Khe Sanh had been heavily mortared and the tower had been destroyed. Radio contact was with ALCE personnel in one of the bunkers. Only one cargo aircraft at a time was allowed on the ramp. We were to do a really rapid offload: drop the pallets on the ramp ourselves. It was too hazardous for the ground troops to operate the fork lifts due to exposure to enemy fire.

We were off with our first load, ammunition, just after eight o’clock. When we arrived in the area, haze and clouds partially obscured the field. Smoke was rising from fires burning southwest of the field. We landed to the west, as usual. I angled in from the south, turning to land at the last possible moment. I was lower than normal as well, hoping to throw off the aim of any enemy gunners who might be on the hill to the north. Small pieces of shrapnel lined the edges of the runway, and two or three blackened spots indicated where mortar shells had hit recently. The tower was gone, a pile of rubble where it had stood. Only a few buildings remained standing. The area had become one large target for VC mortars.

We slowed and turned left into the ramp. A few helmeted heads watched us from a bunker that had materialized on the southwest corner of the ramp. We taxied as close to the edge of the ramp as seemed safe, then turned to the west. I stepped on the brakes. The loadmaster opened the rear cargo doors. He raised the top door to the fully open position and lowered the lower door until it was about three inches off the ground.

“Ramp is open.”

“Roger,” I said. “Get ready to unlock the pallet locks.”

I shoved the throttles forward, and the aircraft surged ahead. It moved a few feet, and then I retarded the throttles and stepped on the brakes. The aircraft rocked forward slightly. “Okay, unlock them.”

“Pallets unlocked.”

“Roger.” I added power once again, moving the throttles rapidly forward to the take-off power setting. The aircraft accelerated swiftly, and as it did so, the pallets rolled off the rear of the aircraft, one by one.

“First pallet out. Second pallet out. Third pallet out. Last pallet out. All clear and in good order. Hold your position.”

We had effectively taxied out from underneath our load. There might be a little damage to the trailing edges of the pallets as they exited the aircraft, and the trailing edge of the lower cargo door might receive a few nicks from the departing pallets, but if we had been smooth, the damage should be minimal.

We paused for a short count to see if anyone needed a ride out. Anyone who wanted to leave would come on a run and climb aboard through the lowered cargo door. In the meantime, we sat in the cockpit, nervously looking around for signs of mortars or hostile fire. Though smoke was rising along the western perimeter, it was a steady rise of smoke, something burning steadily, not the sudden black smoke associated with a mortar hit. But no one ran for the aircraft. We taxied to the west end of the ramp, completing our abbreviated pre-takeoff checks as quickly as we could.

I taxied onto the end of the runway and added full power. We were airborne quickly and I climbed out with maximum climb airspeed, aiming for the safety of the broken cloud deck overhead. Only after we leveled off on our way to Danang did we begin to relax.

The aerial port personnel at Danang worked rapidly, and we were soon loaded with ammunition for another run into Khe Sanh. The weather was good: clear with high cloud. But just as we arrived in the vicinity of Khe Sanh, we were told to return to Danang; Khe Sanh had just come under attack again and was receiving more mortar hits. We could see a number of Air Force F-4s and Navy A-4s maneuvering in the area. We returned to Danang, half relieved not to have had to land at Khe Sanh and half worried about what would await us when we did land there again.

We were sitting under the wing on the ramp at Danang, waiting for the word to take off again, joking around. F-4s and other aircraft were landing and taking off to the south. Then I saw an F-4 on the west runway heading south, on the go with his tail hook down. F-4s were supposed to take off with tail hooks up, not down. I was puzzling this vision in my head when the noise of the F-4’s engine abruptly changed into an eerie whine. That was definitely not normal.

We scrambled out from under the wing to get a better view of the runway. When I moved out from under the wing, I saw that the F-4 was pointing straight up, flying in what appeared to be slow motion, stalled out five hundred feet in the air. It was turned slightly, angling to the west. As I watched, the nose of the aircraft slowly fell over, as if the aircraft were executing some sort of slow motion loop. Then one pilot ejected from the aircraft, then another, Bang! Bang! The parachutes deployed immediately, but the direction of travel of the seats was down, not up. One seat, pilot still in it, slammed into the concrete ramp in front of the Marine aircraft hangars. The parachute of the other seat was almost fully opened, but not in time to slow the speed of the other seat, as it slammed into the concrete as well, and the parachute settled over the pilot, still in his seat, like a shroud.

The aircraft continued its strange slow motion combination of loop and roll and fell near the Marine hangar on the west side of the field, smoke and fire erupting instantaneously. Fire trucks and emergency vehicles raced to the west side of the field. After a while, aircraft once again began to land and depart. When we departed for Khe Sanh half an hour later, smoke was still rising from the burning wreck of the F-4 and a helicopter was hovering over the wreckage.

We had our usual load, four pallets of ammunition. It was hazy in the Khe Sanh area, but some of the clouds had thinned out, and the sun was shining. The voice from the bunkers at Khe Sanh cleared us to land but warned us that mortar attacks had been occurring all morning and that we should be prepared to do an immediate go-around if an attack occurred prior to the time we touched down. The voice was tight and so was my gut. Smoke was rising to the west and north of the runway. I positioned the aircraft on a low, turning final approach. We were apparently the first cargo aircraft to arrive after the last mortar attack, as there were no other cargo aircraft on the ramp.

Smoke was rising from the camp area immediately to the south of the runway, and large pieces of shrapnel littered the runway. Most of the large pieces had been cleared away. While I was concentrating on our final approach, an F-4 flashed past the cockpit on the left, making a run to the west. Two large objects dropped away from the aircraft, and then black smoke rose suddenly from the impact of his bombs hitting the ground, just to the southwest of the field.

I landed on the end of the runway, hoping the small pieces of shrapnel we were rolling over would not puncture our tires. As we turned left to the ramp, a Navy A-4 zoomed past on the west side, flying from south to north. An astounding amount of smoke rose around us: black smoke, brown smoke, dust. The noise of our engines prevented us from hearing any of the explosions that appeared to be occurring at various locations around the field.

We pulled into the offloading ramp; the loadmaster called “ready to unlock the pallets,” and I depressed the brake pedals slightly. “Pallets unlocked.”

I added power, suddenly and rapidly, and the pallets left the aircraft one by one. “Load clear. Checking for passengers.” Pause. “Hold it. A couple of guys are coming on the run.” Pause. “Okay, they’re on board. Closing the ramp. Let’s go.”

I added power and we moved to the west end of the ramp, turned north onto the taxiway and then out onto the runway. “Cargo compartment secure,” the loadmaster called. Flaps set. Full power. Smoke drifted across the runway. We charged through it. Nose up. Airborne. Climbing right turn. Aiming for Danang, out of the inferno of Khe Sanh.

3. Dak To, South Vietnam, January 1968

Our first hop was down to Nha Trang to pick up a load of ammunition for Dak To. The sky was cloudy and grey, a high overcast above us as we cruised up at 4500 feet.

About ten miles southeast of Dak To, I called the tower and requested landing information. There was no answer. I called again. Still no answer. I rechecked the radio frequency. Dave Risher and I had just flown in there six days earlier, so I was fairly certain we had dialed in the right frequency.

Suddenly a breathless voice on the radio said “Aircraft calling Dak To tower, be advised we are under mortar attack. Do not land. Hold your position and wait for further instructions.”

I looked towards Dak To. I could see the hills that provided the backdrop to the field. Over the field there was a dark cloud of smoke. As I looked another burst of black smoke appeared against the base of the south hill.

We were now within five miles of the field and could more clearly see the details of the scene. The smoke was beginning to thin, and two helicopters were in the process of lifting off. Men and vehicles were moving about on the runway. The voice came on the radio: “Aircraft calling Dak To, say type and position.”

I responded that we were a C-130 five miles southeast of the field.

“What cargo do you have on board?”

“Four pallets of ammunition.”

A pause. I imagined they were debating the value of running the risks of having us land. The decision probably depended on how badly they needed ammunition.

Then: “We are still in a state of alert, although mortar fire has ceased for the time being. There is a large enemy force in the hills north of the field, and another attack could occur at any time. Be advised we received a mortar hit just past the midpoint of the runway. There is a large hole in the runway with numerous mortar shell fragments around it. You’ll have to land within the first 2000 feet of the runway. Advise intentions.”

“What about mortar fragments on the good part of the runway and the ramp?”

“We’ve got men out right now sweeping the affected areas. If you avoid the area of the direct hit, you should be okay.”

“We’ll give it a try.”

“Roger. Cleared to land at pilot’s discretion.”

The approach to the field was clear. But there was no question of setting up any kind of downwind, for that maneuver would have placed us in the vicinity of the hills where the attack had come from. So we would have to shoot a straight-in approach.

As we descended on final approach I could see the large black spot ahead where the mortar had hit, dead center on the runway. Numerous large shell fragments lay on the dirt strip around it. I aimed directly for the end of the runway. Idle power. Over the stops. Brakes. Into reverse. Full reverse. On the nose-wheel steering. More brakes. We slowed with runway to spare.

After we landed, men with brooms and shovels returned to their clean-up tasks around the mortar hole. They had wisely moved to the sides of the runway during our approach. Smoke was rising from two other locations west and north of the runway.

I taxied slowly into the offloading area to the south, scanning the ground in front for large pieces of metal. There were too many pieces of debris to avoid; I hoped that none of them were large, sharp fragments. We pulled into the ramp and the loadmaster opened the cargo doors. We left our engines running. They kicked up dust in the faces of the ground troops, but that couldn’t be helped. The tower cleared us to taxi and take off any time we thought it necessary if the mortar attack should resume.

While we were stopped during the offloading, I asked the flight mechanic to inspect the tires to see if any fragments had become embedded in the tires. He reported that as far as he could see, our tires were clean.

While we sat on the ground, I scanned the hilly terrain in front of us for signs of smoke or fire that might indicate that a mortar had been fired. It occurred to me that had the mortar attack taken place ten minutes later, or had we arrived ten minutes earlier, that still-smoking hole in the runway could have been us. Or what was left of us.

“Cleared to taxi,” said the tower, after we had been offloaded.

We taxied slowly to our right and moved out on the runway. I positioned the aircraft at the end of the runway, almost on the overrun. We were taking off toward the mortar hit and needed all the room we could get. While we were offloading, the men with brooms and shovels had cleared away most of the large fragments, so we could use the runway up to the edge of the hole the mortar shell made. I hoped we would be fully airborne before we neared the mortar strike. I also hoped that the mortar crew that had launched that shell so accurately wouldn’t decide to launch another one while we were taking off.

I ran the engines up to full power, depressing the tops of the rudder pedals with my feet to hold the brakes. Then I released the brakes. We leapt forward with that comforting lurch that indicated we had good power and no load. We accelerated rapidly, and the scorched spot of earth quickly approached. I lifted the nose and we were up and over the mortar hole, climbing rapidly.

The tower alerted us to helicopter activity on our right side, so I held the takeoff heading to the northwest, even though we would be flying directly across the hills that bordered the field. As we climbed out of the valley, two Army gunships maneuvered on our level to the right. While we watched, one of them fired two rockets directly into the ridge line; the rockets slammed into the trees just below the peak of the hill. The white smoke that trailed in the wake of the rockets seemed like a rope tied to harpoons that were being fired into the humped back of a passive, immobile, tree-covered leviathan. Another Huey was firing its machine guns into the ridge line farther to the east.

We continued our climb and then began a gradual turn to the right, rolling out on a northeast heading. As we looked back to our right, we could see the Huey helicopters hovering around the top of the hill like bees attacking an intruder. Beyond the ridge line, smoke continued to rise over the field at Dak To.
Military History of David K. Vaughan

David Vaughan graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 1962 with a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering sciences. Commissioned a regular officer in the United States Air Force, he attended pilot training at Webb Air Force Base, Big Spring, Texas, from 1962 to 1963.  While at Webb AFB, he flew T-37 and T-38 jet trainer aircraft. At the time he entered pilot training, the T-38, the Air Force’s first supersonic trainer, had just entered the Air Force inventory. Upon completing of pilot training, he was assigned to fly the KC-97G, a four-engine, propeller-driven air refueling aircraft, flown by units of the Strategic Air Command (SAC).  In SAC, Vaughan served often on alert status at Selfridge AFB and at remote sites in Canada.  In 1966 he transitioned into Tactical Air Command’s C-130 aircraft, a four-engine, turbo-prop, tactical airlift aircraft.  In the spring of 1965, he was assigned to the 347th Tactical Airlift Squadron at Dyess AFB, Abilene, Texas, where he flew a variety of missions to England, France, Germany, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Libya, Senegal, Liberia, Japan, and Alaska.

In 1967 Vaughan was assigned to the 345th Airlift Squadron, located at Ching Chuan Kang AB, near Taichung, Taiwan, where he flew the C-130E from February of 1967 through April of 1968.  Vaughan flew a variety of airlift missions to the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Guam, Thailand, and South Vietnam.  As an instructor pilot, he flew almost continually on the in-country shuttle in South Vietnam from December 1967 through March 1968, during some of the most intense activities associated with the 1968 Tet Offensive.  During this period he was involved in aerial re-supply efforts to numerous small forward operating airfields, including An Khe, An Hoa, Dak To, LZ English, Kham Duc, Hue, Bao Loc, Song Be, and Khe Sanh.  He flew into Khe Sanh many times and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his last flight into Khe Sanh on 4 February 1968, when he and his crew delivered a load of ammunition in marginal weather conditions while the base was surrounded by hostile forces.  During his fifteen months in Southeast Asia, he accumulated over 1000 hours of flying time, 500 of which were combat hours.