Phnom Penh, Saturday January 30, 1971

Our destination was classified:  Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  The airfield had been attacked a week earlier-- here's a newspaper article about it.  But the runway was apparently OK again so we loaded up 10 tons of class A (explosives) and took to the skies. 

As the crow flies, it was just 110 miles from Saigon to Phnom Penh, but between the two were restricted areas where bombs fell.  To avoid ground fire, traffic, and artillery we frequently flew "feet wet"--parallel to the coastline.  So from Saigon we flew south across the Mekong Delta until we reached the South China Sea, then around the southern tip of Vietnam and up the Gulf of Thailand into Cambodia--about an hour's flying time.
I mentioned that this day's flying might be interesting and indeed it was. We flew less than 2 hours but it was the ground time that was interesting...  There's more to the story and if you remind me in March I'll relate it.
When I landed and turned off the runway I was amazed at what a scene of destruction the place was-- collapsed hangars, burned out buildings,  burned out passenger terminal, burned out control tower.  Spooky and deserted.  The only thing moving was a T-28 taxiing down the runway with its crew chiefs taking a ride.

There was no aerial port to talk to, but eventually a guy with a forklift came out and offloaded our 5 pallets of class A.  So far so good, and we started engines to leave this godforsaken place.  Unfortunately, when we tried to start our #1 engine, its starter shaft sheared off.  Bad. 

There were no maintenance facilities so we shut down the other engines so our flight engineer, Bruno Fronzaglio could climb up and remove the broken starter.  There were no maintenance stands, so he found an empty pallet and got the forklift driver to lift him and the pallet up to the #1 engine.  He still couldn't reach the starter so he found a ladder and extended it up from the pallet.  From this rickety perch he removed the offending starter, buttoned up the engine, and climbed back down.

So  now what?  One of our 4 engines would not start and we were on our own, but C-130's were uniquely designed to work around such problems in remote locations.  We still had some good options available:
  1. Buddy start:  Pull up very close behind another C-130, allow their propwash to turn the dead prop until it could run on its own.  I did this for another C-130 a few weeks earlier and it worked fine.  But we had no buddy here.
  2. Windmill taxi start:  Charge down the runway on 3 engines until you're going fast enough that the airflow starts turning the dead prop.   Cram on the brakes and allow the engine to come up to speed.  Be sure to do this before reaching the end of the runway.
  3. 3-engine takeoff:  Too often this is followed by a crash so it is not recommended.
(Aside:  At boondock airfields C-130's were considered "mortar magnets" because they made such a nice target for bad guys with mortars outside the perimeter fence.  GI's liked getting mail and supplies, but did not like the mortar rounds we attracted.)

A windmill taxi start was the best option available to us and I'd done one a few months ago at Danang, so I felt ready.  We started up our three good engines, but before we reached the runway another C-130 unexpectedly arrived!  This was especially good news because he could give us a buddy start.  So we called him up on the radio and he agreed to give us a buddy start before offloading his class A.

Getting a buddy start (also called a blow job) is a very sensory experience, full of sight, sound, and movement.  First you pull up close behind the other C-130--really close--so close that their ramp and duckbutt fills your field of vision.  The flight deck of your bird needs to be under the tail of the other bird if you want it to work the first time.  As the other pilot advances his throttles to max, the noise and the turbulence increases until you're bouncing around like you were in a thunderstorm.  Now you're watching that dead #1 prop waiting for it to turn.  Come on, turn!  Now it begins to slowly rotate--not even enough to register on the tach, but it is moving.  Slowly turning and...  WHUMPWHUMP!   I could feel the concussion more than hear it--mortar rounds! 

Talk about a sitting duck--not a good time to be sitting under the tail of another C-130 carrying 10 tons of class A.  The prop was accelerating imperceptibly--it takes over a minute to come up to speed this way.  Then the tower called telling us to clear the runway.  I was wondering when the next round would hit, but I was staying put until the engine was running.  So were our buddies. 

The prop was slowly accelerating now.  Tower called again for us to clear the runway so they could launch a T-28 to hose down the bad guys.  Eventually the engine was turning fast enough that it was time to add fuel.  Now the tower was calling frantically--clear for takeoff, clear for takeoff.  Finally the engine was accelerating on its own power, so we thanked our buddies and said we were on our own.  As they released the brakes I expected them to take off, but instead they turned off at the taxiway! 

I was pretty surprised--I didn't think it was a good idea to hang around while the field was under attack.  But there was no time for questions or contemplation so I called for the before-takeoff checklist.  Even before they cleared the runway the tower was calling clear to take off, clear to take off.  I released the brakes, put the power to max, and began rolling for a downwind takeoff.  Longest minute of my life.

We flew feet wet back to Tan Son Nhut expecting to get the starter replaced and take another load to Phnom Penh.  Anticlimax:  no starter was available so we terminated early.

Tan Son Nhut, Sunday January 31, 1971

I was feeling sort of low because of the mail situation and then as I walked out of the chapel I noticed a GI outside who had no legs.  And like the man who had no shoes I silently thanked God for what I do have.



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