PLATTSBURGH — Tonight 50 years ago, it was a dark and stormy night.
On Sept. 29, 1972, Lt. Col (Retired U.S Air Force) Dale E. Wolfe was the Launch and Recovery Officer for the Combat Crew Training Squadron (CCTS) at Plattsburgh Air Force Base.
Wolfe was on the flight line “supervising” the students.
“This was as a student crew flying their initial night solo mission, which consisted of the normal profile,” he said.
“The situation was at night. The weather was moving in with a southeast wind. A hurricane was coming up the East Coast. The decision was made to recover the crew early. So as the crew, who was flying low level south of the base, we called them to come back and land.”
The FB-111A crew was under Boston control.
“They exited low level at a very close area here at Plattsburgh,” he said.
“This crew was trained to discipline complete checklists. Boston brought them back at a low altitude, 7,000 (feet) roughly, back to Plattsburgh. The aircraft had not been configured for landing. There were about six checklist items that need to be accomplished before you can configure for those speeds.”
The pilot was flying the airplane over 100 knots of that normal configuration.
“He had refueled, so the aircraft was heavier than normal,” Wolfe said.
“He was under approach control for Plattsburgh flying northeast when he leveled off. The aircraft was heavier. We had advice on the aircraft that said if you’re slow, turn on the red light, blow the horn, and it was a stick shaker. A real adrenaline pumper if you’re in night instrument-flight conditions.”
The pilot recovered the aircraft, increased the speed and started a left turn.
“They put him in a left turn to come back to the final approach course,” Wolfe said.
“The fact that he was flying faster, put him to the west of what would have been approach control. He was doing what he was told to do. The checklist is coming. The checklist is coming.”
The pilot was told he was well right of center line, and he thought he saw the runway.
“Clinton County (Airport) at the time would leave their lights on high intensity because it was not under radio control at the time,” Wolfe said.
“They misinterpreted these lights as Plattsburgh Air Force Base. He did an excellent job of flying that airplane as a student. This was their first student night solo mission. Configure that the airplane landed on a 5,000 (foot) airstrip was great, since we have 11,760 at Plattsburgh. He then realized he was running out of runway. He deploys the hook still thinking he is at Plattsburgh. The hook doesn’t work because there is not a cable there. They go off the runway. Minimum damage to the airplane.”
A lighted tetrahedron was a big clue the crew was not at PAFB, where different versions of this story circulated for years.
“If you go into a book called, ‘F-111 Down,’ Mack McNeil tells the story differently,” Lt. Col. (U.S. Air Force Retired) Frank Baehre said.
“It sounds like Dale was a lot more up close and personal. Anytime a CCTS crew was flying, you had a CCTS instructor. They are going to be the more experienced instructors out on the flight line with radio access to the crew, and the crew could talk to them if they ran into problems.”
NIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT MISSION
In this infamous incident, an Aardvark legend, the student pilot who was qualified to fly the airplane, but hadn’t completed the program, as hadn’t the navigator, who was also a student.
“But they were qualified enough that they could fly together,” Baehre said.
“They were doing what was called the night heavyweight mission,” Col. (U.S. Air Force Retired) Joseph B. McNichols Jr. said.
“They come in, and the wind is blowing because of the hurricane that’s coming up the East Coast. The wind is blowing out of where it was.”
“Out of the west,” Baehre said.
“And you’re coming in like this,” McNichols said.
“You’re looking out the window, and the controller says, ‘You’re well right of course.’ and you say, ‘I see the damn runway.’ Then, he goes and lands.
“Plattsburgh is concrete, really wide and with different lights. It’s 11,760 feet at Plattsburgh and 5,000 feet at Clinton County, and it’s made of asphalt and the lights are different.”
“But remember it’s night time,” Baehre said.
“So what are you going to see? You’re going to see the runway lights. When you come back to Mack McNeil’s story, part of the runway lights were out at Plattsburgh. He’s another CCTS instructor, who is quoted in ‘F-111 Down.’”
Baehre points out though the former Clinton County Airport was narrower and shorter, crews lack depth or width perception at night.
“I think they’re guilty,” McNichols said.
“They land and run off the runway.”
“Because the runway is short, they only have 5,000 feet instead of 11,760. He touches down like you always do, pulls back on the stick to slow the airplane down by aerodynamically braking, and all of a sudden realizes there is no more runway in front of him,” Baehre said.
“He goes off the end of the runway. They’re in the grass heading toward the Saranac River. The nose gear collapses. The airplane stops.”
“It takes longer to tell it than it did to happen,” McNichols said.
The FB’s nose was dinged and front of the airplane was dented.
However, the crew was down. Safe.
The Pilot stayed with the plane and instructed the navigator to find a telephone to alert the Command Post of their status.
“Navigator walks to the County Airport Terminal,” Baehre said.
“The navigator finds a telephone booth, reaches into his flight-suit pocket and pulls out the dime. Puts the dime in the payphone and calls the Command Post, and they say, ‘Can’t talk now. Just lost a plane.’ Click. That was his last dime.”
The navigator hustles all the way back down the runway to get a dime from the pilot.
“’Don’t hang up, we’re down but we’re okay,’” Baehre said.
“When I got here in November of ‘72 from Vietnam, you rode the crew bus out to your airplane,” McNichols said.
“I was a tanker guy then. There were always two dimes taped inside of the blue van. Being new to the base, I said, ‘What the hell is that for?’
“Everybody launched into the story. This is a true, urban legend.”
“You can’t make up something this good,” Baehre said.