I flew firebombers in Alaska for seven seasons. In my fifth season I survived an event against all chance. I follow accident investigations when I can, an interest from being involved in that business in the past. As a ex-firebomber pilot, I took considerable interest in the two air tankers, one helicopter, and their six crewmen that were lost in the 2002 fire season and was finally encouraged to write down my own experience.
On June 27, 1981 we took off from Fairbanks, Alaska on a paracargo (cargo that's delivered by parachute) mission to deliver fuel and supplies to a wildfire base camp about 50 miles south of Bettles, near the center of Alaska, then make another fuel drop on a second fire camp near Fort Yukon. We were flying a military surplus Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar, a twin piston-engine tactical cargo airplane, the predecessor to the C-130 Hercules.
Late in the day, after making several slurry drops on the Bettles fire, we were dispatched to Fairbanks for a paracargo mission. In Fairbanks we pulled the slurry tanks and reconfigured the airplane, loaded paracargo, refueled and launched again within a few hours. We were hauling three 500-gallon jet fuel bladders, called rollagons, and numerous smaller fire-fighting supplies. The rollagons were each on a wooden pallet, with two 64-foot parachutes atop the rollagon. With pallet, rigging, parachutes and all, each unit weighed 4,000 pounds. The smaller stuff would be dropped with 28-foot chutes.
We had six guys on board, my co-pilot, Jim, and I, and four smokejumpers, friends who would handle the cargo as "kickers" (they deploy the paracargo out of the back of the airplane). I had flown paracargo missions before but for the first time, the smokejumpers were wearing personal parachutes, a fortunate happenstance on this flight. Both Jim and I were sport skydivers and always carried our parachutes as a matter of course.
I had been worried about this particular airplane for some time. Now without the ability to dump the cargo fast, as with fire retardant slurry, and with four more friends onboard, I was much more concerned but the take off and climb-out were uneventful. Leveling off I turned to Jim and said, "The worst is over." With altitude and significant fuel weight burned off to get our heavily laden beast up here, I felt we could more easily handle any problem.
It was late at night after descending for delivery on our first target south of Bettles in the 24-hour "day" light in the Alaska Summer. Two passes for fuel rollagon drops first, to support the project's helicopter living on the fire, then numerous passes for smaller stuff at a lower altitude. After the last drop I started a turn toward our next target near Fort Yukon for the last fuel rollagon drop, for a helicopter based on that fire. I called for cruise climb power and as Jim was adding it, my head "kicker" called "We're getting a lot of smoke from the right engine."
I said, "OK, we'll watch it."
Jim looked right and said, "We're smoking heavy from the top exhaust stack," (the only one he could see from the cockpit).
I started a turn toward Bettles, scratching the Fort Yukon drop. The engine was still running smoothly. I felt the smoke was likely from a failing power recovery turbine (PRT), an endemic problem on the R-3350 engine. Three of these units are installed in the exhaust gas stream and their turbines convert some exhaust gas energy into torque, hydraulically coupled back to the crankshaft, adding 450 horsepower of the 3,500 at take off. A PRT bearing or seal failure in the exhaust heat causes rapid loss of engine oil, producing lots of smoke.
Before we got the power set, "Whomp," followed by another, "Whomp!"
"There she goes," I said. We feathered #2, or so I thought, and brought #1 to climb power. I said, "Start the jet!" I don't remember who did it. Perhaps it was a co-effort. (We had a small jet engine mounted on top of the airplane, a modification that added 3,000 pounds of thrust.)
"We're on fire!" my kickers called.
Jim confirmed, "Number two is on fire."
I already had the fuel mixture control at "cutoff" and the propeller control in "feather." I turned the fuel selector (an electric rotary switch on the overhead panel) to "off." Our jet engine quit. I thought, "What a time for the jet to quit."
We had maybe 400 feet of air underneath us.
Jim pointed at the fire bottle switch and I nodded. He hit the switch and it was only then that I learned the right propeller wasn't feathered. It was windmilling (turning freely in the wind and creating drag), which is why we were still at 400 feet. Jim watched the results. The fire extinguisher knocked the flames down for a moment, but that was all. I slammed the prop control hard several times into "feather" position without any effect.
My smokejumpers called, "We're standing by." They were asking for orders, but not for long.
I mashed everything about the left engine into the instrument panel, including the left rudder pedal. The airspeed was 105 knots.
We still weren't climbing.
I closed the left cowl flaps to minimize drag, hoping to get a little altitude and then open them again for some engine cooling.
"Spark snap boink!" The electrical system quit.
No response from my query to our smokejumpers and at this low airspeed, maximum engine power and with the cowl flaps closed down, the left engine was going to severely overheat. We had 105 knots with the nose high, trying to hold onto some sky.
I couldn't go faster.
I had to start a descent to go faster and there wasn't altitude for that.
I couldn't go slower.
I had both feet holding full left rudder but at 104 knots it started a right roll I couldn't control. 105 knots was the only speed it would fly and we weren't doing so good at that.
I asked Jim to "Go see what's going on back there." He donned his parachute and went back.
When he returned, he said, "They're gone."
Our kickers had jumped out.
I told him to "Get the rollagon outta here!" (our last 4,000 pound unit of jet fuel was still in the front of the cabin).
He went back and started working on it but couldn't get the blocks loose that held it in place. The rollagon sat on roller tracks, with wooden blocks set in the tracks to hold it in position. At our low airspeed the deck angle was steep. Normally when the kickers are ready to move cargo to the back edge they asked me to lower the nose so they can get the blocks out and ease the cargo aft with a jury rigged-belay system (a coordinated effort of the whole crew).
Jim came up and asked me to lower the nose. "No way!" I said.
Looking out the windshield and seeing the tundra level with it, Jim did not ask again and went back to try some more. With his back to the rollagon and his feet wedged in the roller tracks, he got it to move forward (something akin to pushing a bus up your driveway). He pulled the blocks and stepped aside. The rollagon went down the roller tracks the full length of the cabin and out into the flaming air behind us. I felt the aircraft heave as it left. I felt a lot better and thought we might get some altitude now.
We gained maybe 50 feet and that was it.
The fire was burning away skin off of the right tailboom, burning the tailboom ventral fin and some fabric off of the elevator and right rudder. The airplane was starting to shake, more like a buzz actually. Flying more sideways than ever, the increased drag scotched any hope for a climb despite everything I could get from the left engine.
Jim came back up and I said, "Take the controls so I can get my parachute on." Then changing my mind I said, "Go back and throw everything out." There wasn't much left back there but it was the best I could think of. Jim grabbed the previous captain's tool box, thinking "Is he ever gonna be pissed." At 75 pounds Jim said it felt like nothing. He ran to the back and tossed it out. Some of the drawers came open and Jim noted in irony as wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers and numerous small special tools and parts scattered in the air like skeet.
I had both feet planted as hard as I could on the left rudder pedal and was giving it full left aileron. I was starting to tire and everything I did cost altitude. When I'd reach for a switch (for some reason hoping it might work) or shift my position to use different muscles, it would cost a few more feet.
Everything I did cost altitude.
Jim came back up and said, "We're still on fire, pieces are coming off and I don't think it's gonna hold."
I said, "JUMP!"
He had a look of disbelief in his eyes. He almost froze.
I yelled it again, "JUMP!!"
I think he knew the plight but didn't want to leave me with it alone. He hesitated in his retreat off the cockpit deck but then left and went to the back edge of the cabin. Looking at the ground, hardly more than 200 feet now, he thought, "That's too close." Then looking at the low hanging tail and through the left skeleton of the right tailboom (much skin having already been burned away) he thought "No point to stay with it, I might as well bounce" (a skydiver term meaning hitting the ground in freefall without a deployed parachute).
He jumped and pulled as soon as he felt his pilot chute would clear the drooping tail. Knowing his main sport parachute canopy wouldn't have time to open he used his emergency chute and got a fast hard opening, hitting the tundra a few seconds later.
Looking at the flame, fire and smoke, still trailing from the sideways flying C-119 as it flew away, he thought, "That's the last I'll ever see of him."
I continued on another ten miles or so, maxed out and not knowing what to do. I had been in tight spots before but this time I didn't see any way out. I looked at the left engine. All the power I could get from it, low airspeed, cowl flaps closed down, I didn't even consider looking at the cylinder head temperature. I thought, "The left engine has got to be about to blow."
Maximum cross-controls and a shaking airframe, maybe 200 feet of sky left and not quite hanging on to that.
The landing gear lever was an electrical switch and with the electrical system failed, any landing would be gear up, not a good situation in a C-119. The cockpit had a bad habit of curling under in a gear up slide, shredding the front seats and anyone in them.
I was still headed for Bettles, I didn't know why but I had nowhere else to go. Then I came onto the Koyukuk River with a large bend that had a wide gravel bank on the inner curve. I decided to risk being shredded beneath a curling-under cockpit. The left engine couldn't hold much longer and the airframe couldn't hold together much longer either.
I set it down.
It didn't slide very far but the structural members at the rear of the cockpit fractured in the last 30 feet or so of the slide. I instinctively lifted my feet as it came to a stop, only inches from the gravel.
I jumped up and started through the overhead escape hatch, then thought "The radio!" Realizing that the hand radio would be important now, I ducked back in, grabbed the radio and, noticing my camera that had fallen off the back deck, grabbed that too, then I went out the top and got some distance between me and the airplane. The right engine was hanging low on its mount, the members weakened by the still burning fire. I tried to shoot some pictures but my camera had taken a dent when it fell off the back deck and the shutter wouldn't fire. I remember thinking, "What a time for a once in a lifetime shot, and the camera won't work."
I made my way around the still burning airplane, pulling my jacket around my head and face, with the mosquitoes nearly lifting me off the ground. There was mosquito repellent in the cockpit but with 900 gallons of gas on board and the airplane still on fire, I declined retrieving it. On the inside bank, I climbed a 200-foot hill and called "Mayday, anybody on red?" (red was the prime radio frequency we used). At least the mosquitoes up here were from lesser duty squadrons.
After several calls, I finally got a response.
The fire base camp had been monitoring our flight (plight?), as, due to a malfunction, we just happened to be transmitting when talking between the cockpit and the cabin. The camp helicopter launched and almost immediately picked up my four smokejumpers. Returning them to base camp, he launched toward my smoke, a burning C-119 on a river bank some 25 miles away, readily visible in the pristine Alaskan environment. He responded to my call and shortly I could hear his rotor blades beating in the still air.
"I'm coming towards you," he said.
I said to "Take it slow, and look for my co-pilot. I'm OK. I'm breathing hard because I just climbed a big hill, but I'm OK. Look for my co-pilot."
I heard his rotor beat grow quiet, then, after a time, resume.
He had picked up Jim and was heading for the still burning C-119. I went down the hill into the mosquito quagmire again and started waving the inside of my flight jacket, lined with international orange until he said, "I've got ya'."
The relief from him landing near me was significant, as his rotor wash wooshed away hordes of mosquitoes.
Jim jumped out with an amazed look at something he never expected to see ... me still alive. We flew back, gathered our smokejumpers and flew to Bettles.
They had to scour the bars in Fairbanks that night to get a team of EMT qualified smokejumpers together to come and get us. But the response was fast and we got back to Fairbanks in only a few hours.
Early the next day we did interviews for the crash investigation and then flew to the crash site. We found that the number five cylinder on the right engine had completely blown off, ripping away the propeller control cable routed across it, which is why it wouldn't feather the prop. The windmilling propeller pumped engine oil out of the hole where the cylinder had been, which lit off and fed a fire we couldn't put out with the flames engulfing the entire right tailboom. Flames had swirled around and into the aft cabin, scorching insulation on the back walls, which was why our kickers had made a hasty decision to bail out.
The first point of ground contact had been just past a one-foot rise. Has I landed shorter and hit that rise, the nose would have slammed down and in true C-119 fashion, the cockpit would have curled under the airframe, shredding me along with it.
There were numerous other happenstances that just happened to occur, without any of which it would not have been possible for me to survive.
We had for years been using old military stocks of purple 115/145 octane avgas because fire contracts in Alaska were "wet." The Government supplied all the purple gas you could waste, all without cost to the contractors. My airplane was designed for purple gas, so it had been good for me. Other airplanes had to change leaded-up spark plugs every few hours but these old Alaskan gas stocks had run out. We had been seeing more and more green 100/130 octane avgas in recent years and this year the contracts went "dry" and contractors had to buy the gas. In this fire season, this was the only load of 115/145 gas I got all year, near or possibly the last purple gas load ever pumped (as these stocks had completely run out). Without purple gas I could not have mashed full throttle on the left engine and survived. Detonation would have blown the engine apart in short order.
Had it been the left engine that had failed, due to P-factor (propeller factor) with high nose up, the extra speed required to maintain control would have required a descent that would have been a short trip into the Alaskan tundra. (P-Factor is an aerodynamic effect that causes propeller-driven planes to yaw left when they are flown at high power and low airspeed. This is based on the differences in thrust on each side of the propeller [the right side has more thrust in a clockwise-rotating prop].)
Had the jet been available (the jet got its fuel from the same source as the right engine) I'm afraid I might have tried to fly it. The airframe would not have held, and the left engine would have blown. Without the jet I survived.
Had Jim not been able to get the last 4,000-pound rollagon out, I could not have survived.
Later the next day we got on an airliner to Anchorage to pick up a replacement C-119 that had just finished the seasonal fish haul. We boarded carrying parachutes slung over our shoulders. I was surprised that nobody said a thing. I guess people figured they were just backpacks.
The flight attendant handed out Anchorage newspapers. The front-page's lead story was our C-119 crash with a picture of our airplane crunched on the riverbank. Getting off in Anchorage, I asked if I might have another paper, we were the crew on the front-page picture. The flight attendant gave me another newspaper as we deplaned parachutes still slung over our shoulders.
Details of this crash of C-119G N8682 (c/n 10859) on Aviation-Safety.net
Michael Clayton and Jim Eastham forwarded me this compelling story around the same time, I thank them for it.
Jim added: "This message was received from Jim Kyle. He was a pilot in the 39th Troop Carrier Sq at Neubiberg and Evreux whin I was in. He was the Air Force Colonel at Desert 1 when the Helo collided with the C130, thus aborting the rescue attempt. He wrote a book "The Guts to Try", well worth reading. Its now in paperback."
Aad van der Voet provided de link to the official NTSB Report. This C-119 is former RCAF 22115; the Canadian Air Force livery on photo below is easily recognised.
Nils Rosengaard added: "The C-119 was N8682 (Tanker 138) from Hawkins and Powers. Propliner No.14 has two picture of the crash - one close up of the bose section and one photo from the air showing the C-119 on the sand/gravel bar by the river (Kayokku River). The pictures are on page 16 (Crash Log 81 article)."
Here is more info on Propliner magazine.
I made a Google Earth screendump of Bettles and the river (Kayokuk River?), but it hasn't enough detail to see if something remains of this wreck. I would welcome information on this.
Lance Carey wrote me:
"I have flown in Alaska for 32 years and remember the story well when it happened. We were all proud of the pilot that saved the passengers and lived to fly again. From watching a dozen other aircraft with wing fires crumble and fall out of the sky you were very smart to take the gravel bar. Sometimes it take a strong will to sacrifice the plane and live to do it again. I always said it would be better to have to pay from wages for a crashed plane than pay with life insurance.
I flew out of Bettles for 11 years and have recently left Alaska and taken a job in North Carolina. As of the summer of 2005 you could still see most of the C-119. The Koyukuk River is slowly covering the aircraft and the willows are covering it so it is mostly not visable from the river.
Good story and it ended well, except for the 119."
Leon Riche wrote me in Feb.2012:
"Ed Dugan and me, we skydived together in Covington,LA during the middle-1970's!
He was a Convair 106 Delta Dart pilot at the time. I flew skydiver in a D18S Twin Beech, out of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
It was an instrument trainer.
Dugan used to jump his ram-air parachute backwards, just for the adrenalin rush!
He used to buzz my airport in his 106, doing barrels rolls, disappearing into the clouds... Ed at one time was the Olympic champion for his weight class in judo.
Him and me, we had a few... no many beers together!
We lived in another world at that time; it wasn't on Earth."
Greg Lee sent me these images in Feb.2013.
Greg wrote: "My source of the photos of Ed Dugan's C-119 is Tony Pastro, one of the four smokejumpers/paracargo specialists in the back of the airplane dropping the fuel bladders when the engine problems began. He received copies from the Bureau of Land Management, the US agency he worked for as a smokejumper/paracargo specialist."
"The photo's were taken during the investigation of the crash a day(s) later. I would have to ask Tony if he knows any of the details as to who took the pictures. My guess would be someone with the Bureau of Land Management (who had contracted the C-119), the Federal Aviation Administration, or the National Transportation Safety Board."
And... a MEMO !
Two images I found posted on Facebook Feb.2014:
From http://smokejumpers.com/documents/magazine_pdfs/staticline-1996-10-9.5MB.pdf (page 14)
According to this newsletter the C-119 wreck has since been removed.