Sunday, March 1, 2009 05:01 pm
In February, 2009, C141Heaven received this email from J. Cleary, USA (RET), regarding the crash of 66-0150.
I was the senior Ranger Instructor on the ground the day this aircraft made its final flight and the only eyewitness of it during the last remaining seconds. I have kept this incident to myself over the years, why, I'm not really sure. I guess it started with the investigators requests not to have any contact with the media or discuss the details of the crash with anyone else.
The day started out like any other winter day in February. No swamp or boat movement this day with the Ranger Students, only a reconnaissance and a raid mission. Sometime that afternoon, the weather began to turn. Movement continued. Sometime en route to the security halt, it started to drizzle. Then it started to rain steady. Then harder still. I figured maybe the students would take advantage of it (sound masking sound) as they were beginning to fall behind their time schedule.
By now, the rain is really starting to come down-hard. I'm thinking, these guys better get their heads out of their butts and start picking up the pace. Hit time was 2030 hrs. The remainder of the platoon is already situated to move out (support, assault etc) I'm telling the Platoon Sergeant he had better give the Platoon Leader a hint to move with a purpose.
We finally start moving and for some reason, we already have a break in the formation that has to be fixed, slowing us down even further and then, all hell breaks loose with a full blown electrical storm. I mean, this was a storm that was downright mean and nasty. Unusual for February, happens later on in the year, not now. I had the students halt, conferred with Nieves (The other Ranger Instructor that was with me) gave them instructions to stow their antennas and I then moved away from the formation for administrative communication. I took a moment, leaning on my walking stick, looking at the formation, from front to rear, up against the swamp line, looked at my watch, getting more pissed as they're moving like pond water just to accomplish one simple task.
All of a sudden, out of the NNE, I spot red and green lights, breaking through the ceiling (which I estimated to be about 300 feet or so) recognizing it as an aircraft, but not seeing the outline of the rest to make out exactly what it was that was flying. I can't hear the engines. My next thought was "Who in the hell is flying in this weather anyway?" Being approximately north of Hurlbut AFB, I'm thinking maybe the SOS flyers are practicing approaches in suck ass conditions. Who knows? Still can't make out who or what it is. All I know whomever it is, I can tell has their hands full hanging onto it, watching the nav lights dipping up and down.
I'm still watching the angle of descent and start doing a mental reference where Hurlbut is, where we are and realize if his angle of descent does't change, he's not going to make it.
At this point, I'm no longer even thinking about the students as I begin talking and telling myself to have this guy pull up ... pull up ... pull up ... God damn it...........
And then I watch as the nav lights disappear behind the silhouette of the treeline. Then, it happens....first a fireball, then a roar.....and then one big explosion.
I yell at Nieves to have the Platoon secure all of their equipment, and move up to where I was standing. I then attempted to contact the Principle Instructor. I make contact with him, inform him I was declaring a real world emergency and that an aircraft had crashed NE of our location. His next transmission was "remain stationary and await further instructions." While remaining "stationary" Nieves and I had the Ranger students start dumping their ruck sacks and bringing forth all the pyrotechnics (flares etc) in their possession, Combat Life Saver Kits,and ponchos (for litters)
I then asked who in the platoon was a qualified medic. I still remember this guys name - Stalik was a Special Forces qualified medic, who came forward as did another. Meanwhile, I attempted to make contact with the PI, several times, no answer. 10 minutes had passed and I'm thinking no one else is around or going to be available to help out anyone involved in that crash except us. I gave Sergeant Nieves instructions to break the platoon into 2 groups and that we would handle this just as if it was a "Downed Pilot Mission". I made contact with Sergeant Hislop, Kolodetsky and Healy (the bad guys) on the objective and tell them to yell into the woodline, get the remainder of the platoon, get everyone and put everybody, including themselves onto the deuce and a half (Truck) and meet me at an intersection 100 meters away from where I was standing.
I finally make contact with the assistant principle instructor on the Motorola letting him know what was going on. I then asked him had he heard from the Principle Instructor. He said no, not for several minutes. I tried again and was unable to raise him on the radio either. With that, I gave him a quick run down of what I was fixing to do and where I was going.
Myself, Nieves and the 3 OPFOR did a quick map recon. Nieves would take half the platoon on a north easterly azimuth into the swamp (Which in this area of the Eastbay Swamp never gets more than 2 feet deep) until he either found the crash site or came out onto the firebreak 800 meters in with the high tension wires that ran east to west as a limit of advance and would hold up there until we both linked back up with each other. We made a communications check and moved out.
I took the rest on the vehicle, moved to the firebreak, turned east and began to parallel the power lines along an unimproved road until we can't move any further. I have everyone dismount, and we continue east. With the lightning now illuminating the backdrop, we move until I can see the silhouette of smoke coming out from the swamp/treeline into the open of the firebreak from the right. We continued moving to Liveoak Creek. Once there, I turn, walk a few feet into the treeline along the creek and there it is. One huge vertical stabilizer sticking out of the swamp. Then and only then did I first realize it was a C-141.
There's the visual of all this, hydraulic fluid and jet fuel mixed with swamp water, the fires around the A/C and the smell of burning flesh. I make contact with Nieves and ask for an update. He lets me know he was about 100 meters out from it and can now see it from his location.
I tell the Platoon Leader to start locating tree limbs for improvised litters. I attempt to contact Stevenson (Assistant Principle Instructor) by radio and can't make contact with him or anyone else. I have the radio operator bring his radio up and attempt to do the same. All I can do is make contact with a sister platoon and relay info. I then take Stalik (the medic) and 3 other students with me to move up to the a/c. It appears the entire left wing and fuselage section from the wings on back are intact. (**NOTE-In the photographs, the left wing section is missing. During the recovery operation, by the time this photo had been taken, the left wing had already been removed) The landing gear is detached. We move around and find the entire right wing is gone. The front of the A/C is obliterated. My concern at this point was to try and get inside the A/C in case anyone was seated toward the rear. The left troop door was jammed and the right troop door was not accessible.
I moved forward, got up on Stalik's back, and popped open the emergency hatch just forward of the troop door. I was able to make entry, yelling out for anyone to answer. As I looked inside, the smoke and fumes were choking me. All of the troop seats from the wing section on back were still intact. An Igloo cooler was tied down with a CGU strap between both troop doors, and was still intact without a scratch. I finally had to exit, realizing no one was in the rear.
Once out, I started walking around to the front and found the first victim with his leg sticking up out of the swamp water and vegetation. Nieves and his group were now linked up with us. I was then told a bunch of lights were coming at us from the east. I moved and had everyone else move back away from the A/C. The lights were that of some Air Force SP's. They moved up and made contact. They wanted to come across Live Oak Creek. I got in the creek and told them to cross where I was standing. They want to cross without getting wet.
They move down the creek to a fallen pine, climb on all 4's across it. The first guy gets halfway across and I watch a $3000.00 secure Motorola drop into the creek. He says "Oh well, they'll just write it off." I'm thinking you just gotta love the Air Force.
When they finally get across, they begin telling me they received stories the A/C went down in the gulf (Of Mexico) another one that said it crashed into the fairgrounds and so many stories were floating around, no one knew where it was. I asked if he had another radio and communications with his higher element, which he said he did. I told him to get the location back to his guys. He wanted Long/ Lat fix. I told him I didn't have long/lat, but told him to relay exactly as I called a 6 digit grid coordinates, which he did.
We then established a makeshift Command Post and began to dry our own radios out. Once dry, I was able to make contact with Stevenson. It wasn't until around 2200-2215 that we began to hear a helicopter in the background. When they began getting closer, I shot a red star cluster up (flare) and waited to determine its course. I put 2 more in a row up and kept some in reserve along with my gyrojet.
When it finally got over us, I could see it was our MEDEVAC UH-60 doing the flying. Colonel Oakes, the base commander from Eglin was on board. I was handed a radio from one of the SP's, talked a minute or so with the Colonel, told him I was pretty sure no one survived. They stayed on station for several minutes orbiting the site and then left.
The aircraft returned at approximately 0030 hrs hovered and began to lower rescue personnel and fire-fighters at our location. We moved around to the front of the A/C and found what was left of the pilot and copilot. I stayed until 12pm the next day and finally left after vectoring personnel and machinery in and out of the location.
I don't remember the name of the AF Major in charge of the investigation, but in my final official statement in May when asked if there was anything further I wanted to add, it was to let the families know they were in all our thoughts and prayers. Army Rangers have always had a history of going in after downed pilots and always will. This was no exception.
God Bless all the family members who lost loved ones 20 years ago today.
Ranger Instructors on the ground with me that day:
RANGERS LEAD THE WAY>
J. Cleary USA (RET)