A Heavy Artillery Warning and Guard Channel

By L. Gordon Bassett
Aircraft Commander, 362nd TEWS, Pleiku Air Base, Vietnam (1968-1969) 

In late June 1969, southwest of Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam, there were ten of us on board an ancient USAF “EC-47” plane flying airborne surveillance. The aircraft, affectionately known as the “Gooney Bird”, was older than most of the crew members. It had flown during WWII, probably flying paratroopers on D-Day. Our job was to detect the enemy presence and report its location. I was the aircraft commander and near the end of my tour.

This “electric-super-goon’s” call sign was “CAP”; the ‘front-end” crew and bird belonged to the 362nd Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (TEWS) at Pleiku Air Base. We teamed with the “back-end” crew from 6994th Security Squadron to pinpoint enemy movement. On this day, we were flying at 8,000 feet altitude (about 7,000 feet above the ground) – it was a cloudless day.

I was in the center of the plane (taking a break from hand-flying the Goon after several hours), talking with the Navigator at his station, when the plane began to vibrate violently, producing a succession of banging sounds and began to descend rapidly. The co-pilot and the flight mechanic were at the controls in the cockpit. (It was customary to allow any one of the ten onboard to fly in order to spell one of the pilots. These old airplanes were without autopilot, and we hand-flew our 8-hour missions, most of the time in the clouds, often getting wet doing it.)

I was certain that either we had collided with another plane, or that groundfire had hit us. (The enemy on the ground would often shoot at our slow flying goons circling low overhead.) As the EC-47 abruptly rolled left and began to dive for the ground, I struggled and scrambled to my seat and to get control as the flight mechanic quickly exited it.

After recovering to straight and level flight, now several thousand feet lower, a “controllability check” proved the old goon was still flyable. Aside from the exploding noise, heavy vibration and violent turbulence (like riding on a washboard-type road), I could find nothing to threaten continued flight. During the recovery from the diving left turn, I could see black and red flashes coming from the ground. I thought it was anti-air-artillery (AAA) firing at us.

It took only seconds to realize that we were in the middle of an ARC LIGHT strike. Bombs from the higher altitude B-52s fell all around us and impacted on the ground directly beneath us. I knew then that the noise, vibration and turbulence were the high-explosive iron bombs hitting the ground and we were feeling the concussions. I could see the “bomb train” pattern on the ground as it moved away from us. I had thought that one of the bombs had hit us (each B-52 carried more than 100).

It was over in a matter of seconds. We were still flying! All on board were shaken by what could have been a disaster. Fortunately, no one was hurt, and we survived only with frayed nerves.

I declared an “emergency” and landed safely at Da Nang. I thought the EC-47 had structure damage from the concussions or a falling bomb actually hitting us, causing damage. Close inspection by maintenance personnel found no noticeable damage and the old bird was cleared for flight. I contacted the Squadron Commander at Pleiku and requested permission to abort the rest of this 8-hour mission. He approved—the shaken crew could not continue to work effectively this day.

Flying rules called for all airborne planes in Vietnam to monitor the “Guard Channel” on UHF radio (243.0 MHz). We were to listen for a “recall” message, emergency calls and warnings about “heavy artillery” impact zones above the normal radio traffic and intercom talk. Usually a warning on the “Guard Channel” forecasted “heavy artillery” impact zones just before a Strategic Air Command B-52 ARC LIGHT strike. The warning gave a general location relative to a local navigation aid with bearing and distance from it.

In practice, however, we often turned off the “Guard Channel” because the chatter on it interfered with our onboard communications. On this flight, the co-pilot temporarily turned off Guard and we missed the warning, and we were flying, unknowingly, in the “heavy artillery” impact zone. We were there at 8,000 feet altitude, in our gooney bird, under a three-ship formation of B-52s flying at an altitude high above us as their bombs fell all around us.

Our flying mission often put us in harm’s way as ARC LIGHT strikes, our own ground artillery, other low flying aircraft and enemy anti-air-artillery were a threat—as was flying in adverse weather. Flying, however, was considerably safer than being on the ground at Pleiku, as the Viet Cong regularly attacked the base with rockets. Pleiku became known as “rocket alley.”

This event happened near the end of my year tour (155 combat missions/about 1,000 combat hours). I flew the goon only one more time in Vietnam. I have had a few unusual experiences in my military flying career but recalling what occurred on this day still quickens my pulse.