In September, 2017, retired USAF Lt. Col. Gary Craig toured Lyon Air Museum. Like so many of our visitors, Gary had some amazing stories to tell about flying C-130 forward air control (FAC) missions and KB-50J in-flight refueling missions in Vietnam.  Here is an excerpt from an interview conducted by David Wensley, a Lyon Air Museum docent. The story is about an inflight refueling mission that went wrong, terribly wrong

 

Col. Gary Craig

Lt. Col. Gary Craig

 
“Gary, I understand you were enrolled in ROTC at the University of Washington and received your pilot training in Texas. Your first assignment was to an aerial refueling squadron in Yakota, Japan, and you were there when the Vietnam war started in August of 1964. Tell us about your experience.”
 
Lt. Col. Craig: “The start of the war came as a complete surprise. I was called to a briefing at our squadron headquarters and told that we were at war in Vietnam and were to leave for Saigon immediately. I didn’t even know where that was but I soon found out. We proceeded to Saigon and from there to Thakli, Thailand, to start refueling fighters. The tanker aircraft we were using was the KB-50J, which is a derivative of the B-29 bomber. The KB-50J was equipped with four huge R-4360 reciprocating engines plus two jet engines and a “probe and drogue” system for refueling fighters.
 
Our base in Thailand was very primitive. We were living in tents next to the runway and there was no fencing or security. Animals roamed freely throughout our camp and every day we would have to clear the runway of pythons, water buffalo and other animals. One night, shortly before dawn, I was rousted out of bed and ordered to report to my aircraft for a mission. I was scheduled as back-up that day and wasn’t expecting to fly but two other KB-50J tankers had experienced multiple engine fires soon after take off, so I was assigned to fly the mission.”
 
“Gary, what happened to the other two aircraft that had fires on board, were they able to land successfully?”
 
Lt. Col. Craig: “Yes, one actually aborted on the runway and the other was able to turn around and make an emergency landing. We didn’t know what caused the fires at the time, but we had no choice, so we took off.  Everything seemed OK until we got to about 8,000 feet and were about to cross over the Thai border into Laos. Suddenly, we also had multiple engine fires and had to get out in a hurry. A few weeks before, a friend of mine had experienced multiple engine fires and he had warned me, if that happened, to bail out as soon as possible. He had bailed out and survived but the rest of his crew went down with the plane because a wing broke off and the aircraft went into a violent spin. So, I didn’t waste any time. I made a Mayday call and ordered my crew to bail out even though it was dark and we didn’t know exactly where we were.” 
 
“Gary, what happened when you hit the ground?”
 
Lt. Col. Craig: “I couldn’t see the ground but I landed OK and just rolled over. I realized I wasn’t hurt and I knew that, fortunately, we had bailed out just inside Thailand and not in Laos. I had heard that pilots captured in Laos were tortured and usually didn’t survive, so I felt we had a chance. I couldn’t locate my other crew members because we didn’t have radios, so I was all alone. It was early morning but still dark. I couldn’t see anything but jungle but then I made my way into a clearing and saw several grass huts. Suddenly, I was surrounded by nearly naked men armed with blow-guns, spears and knives. I had a .38 pistol but I decided it would be a bad idea to try to use it so, instead, I tried to act friendly. I gave them candy and everything else I had in my pockets. I showed them a cloth I carried that had messages printed in several local languages and dialects that explained they would get a big reward if they returned me to U.S. forces. However, I don’t think any of them could read the words. I also don’t think they were aware that the Pathet Lao, just to the north of us, would pay them a huge ransom if they turned  me over to them.”
 
“Well, Gary, you seem very casual talking about that experience. You must have been extremely nervous at the time. Weren’t you afraid they might have you for dinner?”
 
Lt. Col. Craig: “I really didn’t know what they intended to do. I just kept smiling and talking, trying to be friendly and they seemed to relax. I don’t know how long I had been on the ground, probably a couple of hours, when I heard the sound of a helicopter behind me and I knew it was one of ours. When I realized it was close, I turned and ran as fast as I could. I didn’t know if the villagers were shooting darts or throwing spears at me, or not. I just ran toward the sound of the helicopter. It came down in a field near there and I just jumped in and they took off.” 
 
“Gary, did the rest of your crew get out OK?”
 
Lt. Col. Craig: “Yes, they were all rescued and safely returned to Thakli airbase.”
 
“Gary, I’m still curious about those engine fires. That just doesn’t seem normal. Do you know what caused them?”
 
Lt. Col. Craig: “I wasn’t too surprised because we had lots of problems with those aircraft. They were old and in poor condition. But, after this string of events, all the KB-50s were grounded and an investigation was conducted. All of our aircraft were inspected and it was discovered that there had been sabotage. Apparently, people were infiltrating the base at night to cut into our fuel lines so, when the engines got hot, fires would start. While that investigation was going on, one of the inspectors pushed his hand through the skin on the tail of the airplane. He discovered extensive corrosion and metal fatigue so all of our KB-50 were taken out of service.”
 
“At least you didn’t have to worry about in-flight fires anymore, did you?”
 
Lt. Col. Craig: “Unfortunately, it wasn’t over. I then received orders to take one of the KB-50s back to the ‘Boneyard,’ at Davis-Monthan AFB, near Tuscon, Arizona. During climb-out, an engine fire warning light came on and smoke started pouring out of the cockpit instrument panel. Cutting off some of the power, and using extinguishers, we were able to put the fire out and continue on to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. At Clark, the ground crew didn’t repair the damage, they just patched it up and sent me on my way. I flew all the way to Davis-Monthan without use of the autopilot which had been damaged by the fire. I think there is now a KB-50 at the Pima Air and Space Museum at Davis-Monthan. Maybe it’s the one I delivered to them. All the rest were scrapped either in Vietnam or Japan.”
 
…..
 
After these events, Lt. Col. Craig’s squadron was disbanded and refueling duties were turned over to KC-135s flying out of Guam and Thailand. Lt. Col. Craig was then assigned to C-130 forward air controller duty flying low altitude night missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and North Vietnam. He also transported cargo and troops within the region, flew for CIA Air America and, later, flew C-124 and C-141 missions out of McChord AFB, Washington. Lt. Col. Craig now lives in Bellevue, Washington. 
 
Article Written By: Dave Wensley
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