PHAM QUANG KHIEM'S "AMAZING STORY"
Today, January 24, 2006, marks 35 year from the day I first made a terrible landing January 1971 was when it all happened. I was coming back from the US after 1 year of training to become a “pilot”. The Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) immediately sent our group consisting of 8 copilots and 8 Aircraft commanders to Phang-Rang Air Force base to begin the “In Country Training” with the US Air Force on a C-123K transport. This aircraft’s max T/O weight is 60,000 with 2 Prat & Whitney, 16 Cylinders, R2800 brake horse power engines and 2 small jet engines (The J-85 2850lbst), similar to the ones used on VNAF A-37 but redesigned to burn regular aviation fuel. The 2 small jet engines are used to assist for shorter take off distance and achieve greater altitude in a very short time to avoid ground fire. They are also used as an alternate thrust if the main engine is shut down. The C-123K is big and ugly but is well suited for short fields like in the Vietnam War theater. This training is similar to the Initial Operation Experience or IOE in the airline industry. The 8 aircraft commanders, in terms of the Air Force, are captain on the transport aircraft, all of them are experienced on C-47 Sky train/Goony Bird. For the rest of us 8 co-Pilot, we were all brand new with the total flying time around 200+ hours logged in after 1 year of training.
I was assigned to fly with First Lieutenant Minh and our US Instructor was Captain John Mastronardi. We switched legs on every flight. 1Lt Minh as Aircraft Commander occupied the left seat and the right seat was Captain Mastronardi. When it was my turn, I sat in the right seat and performed co-pilot duties. Throughout the flight training I made very good landings every time, which created a level of trust from Captain Mastronardi.
It wasn’t until Sunday afternoon, the 24 of January 1971 (according to this time frame, some of you were not yet born or were very young then...), we had a mission to carry 48 of 175 millimeters high explosive bullet heads from Bien-Hoa Air Base to re-supply a US firebase 70 miles to the north near the Cambodia border. Since we carried high explosive material, the aircraft had to taxi into the area call “Hot Cargo” or the explosive dump area which was isolated away for safe distance from any airport facilities. This was the 3rd leg of the day and we had to land on the short dirt strip at the small remote air field named Djamap (Bùi gia Mập). This dirt strip could only be used in the dry season. The runway was 3000 feet, runway 3 and 21 sat on top of the hill at field elevation 1620’ and we only could land on runway 3 but had to turn around and take off on runway 21. The crew on this type of aircraft consisted of 4: pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and load master. For this training, the flight instructor was with us which made a crew of 5. After loading the cargo, we performed the safety and normal operation briefing as usual. For this short field operation as co-pilot I was not allowed to make any landing on any runway shorter than 3600 foot. 1Lt Minh was supposed to handle this flight, somehow Captain Mastronardi kept me in the right seat and said, “Khiem, I think you can easily handle the landing. Stay with me in your seat
Well as a young pilot with no experience, I did not know the difference between a long or short runway. All I ever did was just land on a runway that appeared in front of me. Since this was a hostile area, in order to avoid ground fire we could not just come in and make a normal landing like at any other airport. We came in high above the airport traffic pattern and spiraled down until 2000 feet, 2 miles out of the end of runway 3, with full flaps we dove into the end of runway 3, used the power while maintaining an airspeed of 78 Knots throughout the final phase. I was so excited to make this kind of approach and maintained exactly 78 Knots on the dial. A perfect approach as Captain Mastronardi commented on the Interphone. In tactical terms we called this type of landing an “Assault landing” procedure used in any hostile area, the final approach is very steep. We had practiced this kind of approach landing many times on other airports with long runways during my initial training in the US (at Lockboune Air Force Base, Columbus Ohio from Nov.–Dec. of 1970).
As a flyer some of you already know, if you make a perfect approach, you will make a perfect landing. Not in this case! When the aircraft was about 20 feet in the air crossing the end of the runway I pulled the power back to idle. This caused an excessive sink rate for this heavy landing. I just heard Captain Mastronardi yell in the intercom, “No Khiem”! The aircraft touched down very hard but with no experience I still did not know what was going on. The left main landing gear collapsed into the belly breaking the wheel well and scratched all the red dirt on the runway as it shot back directly into the cockpit (C-123k and most of military transport do not have a cockpit door). We could not see anything in front of us except a red antiskid light glowing red in the heavy dust inside the cockpit. Captain Mastronardi quickly reversed the right engine, brought the aircraft back to centerline and stopped the aircraft with 2/3 of the runway remaining. The left engine quit when the left wheel collapsed because the aircraft tilted to the left and that caused the left propeller to hit the left runway shoulder that bent 3 blade tips backward stalling the left engine immediately. The left side jet engine was also damaged, but it shut down automatically when the propeller engine went into reverse. We all got out of the aircraft O.K, but Captain Mastronardi and I emerged from the flight deck looking like 2 Indian warriors (giong 2 ten moi da do), because our hair, face and flight suit were all cover with red dirt. If Captain Mastronardi had not quickly brought the aircraft to a stop, the whole aircraft may have run off the dirt strip dropping a couple hundred yards and explode on the side of the hill. (We were carrying 48 high explosive canon heads in the cargo bay as I mentioned earlier). If that happened 35 years ago I would have already"tieu dieu noi mien cuc lac"= dissolved into the region of Paradise, (Forgive me for the wild translation!), hence would not be alive today to write this story.
After that accident, Captain Mastronardi no longer instructed VNAF Pilots, however he still instructed new arriving American Pilots. On the report he claimed that he made that landing and took 100% responsibility. (Yep! Any damage on the left side of the aircraft is property of the Captain !).
After his tour of duty in Vietnam ended in 1971, I met him once in Saigon and took him out for a big treat at a famous restaurant "Dong-Phat" located near the Old market "Cho Cu." He went back to the US and flew for the National Guard for a while and then ended up with Delta Airlines in late 1972.
In April 1975 I arrived in the US as a war refugee with my wife and 2 kids (my daughter 2 and 5 months old son). We temporarily settled in the city of Al-Cajon east of San Diego. Captain Mastronardi somehow located my address and sent me a check for $500! I was shocked, do you know how much $500 dollars was worth in 1975? (At that time you could rent a single engine for $9 and only $6 for an instructor!).
I knew that he was only a flight engineer for Delta for not more than 3 years and you do not make good money when you first start with any airline. When he sent me $500 it broke my heart. He told me later that he had to be a flight engineer for Delta on the Boeing 727 for 12 years before he could move up to the right seat. In the mid 80’s when he saw that I got hired by Piedmont Airlines, (which later merged with USAir and now US Airways) and only 3 years later I was in the right seat, he couldn’t believe it. He said he expected that I would be a flight engineer at least 5-8 years. The airline industry had changed and I was lucky to upgrade that fast. Captain Mastronardi retired in 2002 as a Captain on the Tristar L1011. He now resides in Atlanta and we still keep in touch with each other. After the accident during my training until I was transferred into the C-130 in December 1972, I never made anymore bad or hard landings on either the C-123K or C-130.(None , zip..) All of my landings were very smooth like silk (allow me to self promote myself; praise myself to make me feel good.."Meo khen meo dai duoi O.K.!).
And what about the last 26 years flying in this country from small light twins to big jets have I made any “Bad” landings? The answer is “medium Yes”.
January 30, 1991 (twenty years later) I was on a Boeing 737, after leaving Raleigh NC, we headed up to Washington National Airport (at that time the airport did not change the name to Reagan National Airport yet). The weather was perfect for VFR flying. We approached from the south for runway 36. About 3 miles from the end of runway 36, tower control cleared us to land while also clearing a Northwest DC-9 for take off. For some reason the DC-9 aborted, the tower instructed the DC-9 to clear the active runway but the DC-9 missed the exit, which caused us to prepare to go around. We were still a mile+ away from runway 36. The tower then asked us if we could swing around and take runway 33 instead of going around. Runway 33 is shorter but still good for a 737. We accepted runway 33 and with the gears and flaps still down I swung right over the Potomac River to the east then l turned left to align myself for runway 33. I had never landed on this runway before. With the shorter runway and the water of the Potomac River on one end and the Pentagon on the other end, the procedure for going around on runway 33 was somewhat more strict than other runways. I felt like I was going to land on an Aircraft carrier. With full flaps and maintaining airspeed as the computer indicated I did try to touch down on the runway numbers which are only 500 feet from the end of runway instead on the big white marking 1000 feet as usual. Guest what? Low and behold I concentrated so much on the numbers that I let the air speed drop 5 knots below target bug. With 87 revenue passengers on board the 737 slammed on the runway at 3 points, (2 Main wheels and Nose wheel touched down at the same time) just like a Navy jet landing on the deck of Aircraft carrier. Normally when you land a big and heavy jet on a hard touchdown with the nose wheel still in the air, sitting in the cockpit you do not feel much. But a 3 point touch down like this one, I could feel this was hard hits for everyone. I was so embarrassed. This was the only time I remember that I made a “bad” landing during my career as an airline pilot. (That was also the only time I marked on my personal log book in RED “Very Bad Landing”. (… must resign fron the Airlines and join the Navy). After landing we didn’t say anything. We parked at the jet way, I got out of my seat and stood at the front door to say good bye and thanked the passengers as usual, some of the passengers smiled at me others gave me a stern dirty look ….
Well folks, those are some short stories about flying that I would like to share with you on this forum. I have never told these stories with anyone anywhere even the members of my own family or posted on the VNAF web site.
In closing I wish that all of you as a young generation will achieve your goal in the aviation industry and become an airline pilot flying big and modern jets just like Captain Nguyen, Danny, Hung and Hoang...
Pham Quang Khiem
Dayton Ohio Jan.2006