Week 4 – The Crash at Tra Bong

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    Week 4 – The Crash at Tra Bong

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    The Flight

    The C-7A Caribou is one ugly airplane.  It was built by DeHaviland of Canada for operation into extremely short runways or non-standard landing surfaces – like roads, or aluminum plank runways, or grass strips in remote areas.  It was perfectly designed for those situations – if it is flown well.  As I saw the cliff at the end of the runway at Tra Bong approaching far too quickly to stop the airplane, I knew that this Caribou would not fly again and maybe I wouldn’t either.  Let me fill you in on the details.

    For my first assignment as a pilot in Viet Nam, I flew the “Bou”.  It was a great opportunity for a rookie pilot to get his own airplane and learn to fly “by the seat of his pants”.  I had flown enough hours to move from the copilot’s seat into the pilot’s seat when the war brought a sudden turn of events. In one week we had three Caribous shot down while flying in support of a Special Forces camp that had been overrun and was under siege by North Vietnamese troops.

    As a result, our headquarters decided that we needed “more experienced” pilots for the difficulties of flying up north.  What they meant by experience, was senior officers who had been sitting behind a desk for four years and were now on their way to Viet Nam.  We experienced lieutenants who knew how to fly in Viet Nam were put back in the copilot’s seat and told to keep these majors alive.  That was not an encouraging scenario, but we had our orders.

    This went OK until one fateful day flying into the U.S. Special Forces camp at Tra Bong.  Tra Bong was a typical mountain village with terraced rice fields, banana trees, and always lots of happy kids wanting to hang around Americans.  It was usually nice to be there, not much fear of enemy fire, but the rough asphalt strip at Tra Bong presented an equal challenge.  It was only 980 feet long, the shortest field into which we flew.  It couldn’t be made longer because there was a river off one end and a steep drop off the other end.  I had seen pictures of a Caribou that landed short there and had torn off the landing gear. Everyone knew that you didn’t want to land short at Tra Bong.  Of course the opposite was true, too.  The runway was so short that you couldn’t land too far down the runway either or there was not enough runway left to get stopped.

    We were scheduled to make seven trips into Tra Bong that day to provide the essential supplies for the Special Forces.  The first six landings by the major were actually pretty good and I was beginning to change my opinion of these senior pilots.  Then came number seven, the last flight of the day.  A huge thunderstorm had begun to build at the head of the valley and the winds were swirling and unpredictable.  On the first attempt to land we were too high and too fast to touch down and stop safely on this short strip.  So the major went around again for a second attempt at putting us on the ground.

    Although it seemed that we might land a bit long on the second try it appeared do-able.  When we were still 5-10 feet in the air, the major, fearing that we would land too long again, reversed the angle of the propellers.  This should never be done while still in the air.  The props were no longer pulling us forward, but pushing us backward.  My heart was in my throat.  As a copilot, there was nothing I could do.  We slammed into the asphalt and began to bounce forward speeding past precious needed runway.  The major’s alarmed response was to lock the brakes and the aircraft went into a skid. Over the intercom, I told him to release the brakes to stop the skid, but it was too late.  There just wasn’t enough runway left.

    Now, I’m not afraid to die, but I never thought that a great way to go would be to burn to death in an aircraft crash.  I could envision that we would go off the cliff at the end of the runway and the wings would snap.  The cockpit would fill with fuel and we would be toast.  I always thought that if I knew I was going to die that I would say something like, “Here I come, Lord.”  Instead, all I could think was, “What a jerk!” as I saw what the major had done.  I sure am glad those disappointing thoughts, natural as they may have been for the circumstance, were not my last earthly expressions.

    As the Caribou left the runway surface the left main landing gear collapsed and the left propeller dug into the dirt spinning us sideways.  The nose wheel was compressed up into the cockpit. The radio rack came crashing down on top of me.  When I opened my eyes we were suspended on the edge of the cliff.  Still fearing fire, I shut off the engines and the ignition switches.  The major was in shock.  In seconds the local army troops had opened the roof hatch and were pulling us out. The airplane was badly broken, but we were alive.  Gratefully my death visions were not fulfilled.  Only my pride was hurt from my unspiritual response to the situation.

    The major was sent back to flying a desk and within weeks I had my own airplane as the pilot in command. I had also been given something meaningful to think about. How do we deal with situations where we disappoint ourselves by our thoughts, words or actions?  Let’s consider that together.

    The Debriefing:

    When we took off that morning I had no idea what the day would hold.  Today isn’t going to end in an airplane crash for most of us, but it can often bring something unexpected.  How will we respond?  Perhaps even more important, how will we view ourselves when we don’t measure up to how we think we should respond as a follower of Christ?

    Think of a time when your actions or words were less than Christ-like.  Share that now.  After confessing your sin, and receiving God’s forgiveness, how did you deal with your failure?

    In this story was my expectation of myself too high?  How do we set realistic expectations?  What standard do we use?

    How will you prepare yourself for the unknowns of today?  Read the verses below and pray for one another.

    Lessons For Flying Higher:

    I Cor. 15:10  The apostle Paul, looking back on his life before turning to Christ, had to face regrets, but his summary statement was, “By the grace of God I am what I am.”  God’s grace is the only thing that truly allows us to continue to grow and not dwell on our failures.

    II Cor. 12:9  “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is perfected in weakness.”