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I came back to Vietnam in the beginning of 1972 and reported to the 530th fighter squadron in Pleiku just after Tet. The battlefield at the time was very hot, a time called "The Red Summer"; there was a great need for closed air support pilots. As a result I was rushed into familiarization training. Pleiku air base had a very narrow and short runway, 60 feet by 6000 feet. It was quite a challenge to take off and land a tail dragger with a single propeller engine of 2700 horse-powers, especially for an inexperienced pilot like myself. This was a lot different from those training days at Hurlburt field, Florida where the runway was wide and long.
On an early beautiful morning, I was practicing landing with Maj. Duc as an instructor pilot (IP) in the right seat; our call sign was Jupiter 30. This was my third flight after coming back from the US. Everything was normal after the first two landings on Runway 09; however, upon the third touchdown, I could not hold the wings level. While the left wing continued to drop, the aircraft veered to the left half of the runway. At that time we heard on the radio: "Jupiter 30, your left gear is collapsing!" Maj. Duc immediately took the control and executed a go-around. The aircraft was floating slowly trying to accelerate while continuing to drift toward the left. Dirt was kicking up around the aircraft. At last we were able to get airborne safely. Without that early warning on the radio, I don't think we would have made it.
The aircraft accelerated and climbed quickly to altitude. I looked at the landing gear indicators. The right and tail gears indicated down and locked as expected, but the left one indicated unsafe. We made a low slow pass right in front of the tower for a visual check, the left gear was halfway down. We climbed up to about 5000 ft. staying right above the airfield, and recycled the landing gears several times without success. A final attempt was made with about 3-G pull up but still failed to get the left gear fully down. We raised the landing gears and made another low pass for a visual check. The right and tail gears were up but the left one was still halfway down. We declared an emergency and our intention to perform a belly landing. I took the control back and circled the base at about 9000 ft at high power setting to expend fuel quickly to reduce fire hazard. The runway was closed and in-coming aircraft were diverted to nearby airfields while the runway was prepared for our emergency landing. Fire retardant foam was spread over about one third of the runway.
Maj. Duc pulled out a cigarette pack, took one and asked if I wanted one. I shook my head. While circling, I tuned to an armed forces radio station to listen to music. Ironically I tuned right into a song that was attributed to a famous VNAF pilot who lost his life during a mission to the North a few years back. I was neither anxious nor nervous since while in Keesler AFB, I've witnessed another belly landing by a classmate during his first solo flight, also due a gear problem. Additionally, Maj. Duc was an experienced IP with several thousand A-1 hours; he had also handled several emergencies during his career.
After about two hours and with about 800 pounds of fuel left, we made a low pass to assess the runway for the last time. White foam covered part of the runway, cranes, fire trucks, and ambulances stood ready. There were probably about a hundred spectators waiting. We informed the tower that we were coming in for landing. We reviewed one more time what each of us had to do. Maj. Duc had the controls, my job was to raise the flaps, cut off mixture, and turn off the ignition switch just before the aircraft came in contact with the runway. We made a big circle to line up with the runway on a slow power-on approach with full flaps. We were on final at about 90 knots with the nose slightly high.
The aircraft slowly approached the airfield. The runway gradually raised and appeared bigger and bigger as we were getting closer and closer. I quickly glanced outside; fire trucks were standing by at each taxi way entrance. A couple of ambulances were not too far away. Several spectators gathered at the air terminal, other maintenance folks got a better view by standing on top of aircraft bunkers. They looked toward our approaching aircraft.
When the aircraft was about a few feet off the overrun, Maj. Duc cut off power and slowly pulled up for a smooth impact. As soon as the aircraft impacted the runway, I quickly raised the flaps, cut off the mixture, and turned off the ignition. I then looked up and saw that the tips of the propeller were already bent back! Foam was flying all over the aircraft. As we were sliding straight down the runway, fire trucks ran after us. As we slowed down almost to a stop, I quickly open the canopy. It took only about 10 to 15 seconds for the aircraft to stop completely; we were so quick to get out. A few seconds after stopping, we already stood next to an ambulance about a hundred feet away. A couple of fire trucks continued pouring foam over the nose of the aircraft. I looked back at the aircraft just prior to stepping into the ambulance. A strong and macho Skyraider now resembled a big iron grasshopper lying on belly with its crippled antennae.
That night, the squadron threw a party for us. Each pilot in the squadron greeted me. They took turns to bottom up their glasses of beer with me. I passed out, when, I did not know! The next morning, I woke up in my room with a big hang over. What's an experience! "I didn't have a good start!" I asked myself.
I learned later that the voice on the radio was Maj. Thang's (Thang Fulro). He was holding number one for take off. I was grateful for his warning. Unfortunately Maj. Thang lost his life during a closed air support mission in Kontum. At least I was able to pay tribute to him as a honor guard during his funeral. He was a big guy with a dark complexion and an authoritative voice, I'll never forget him.
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