September 30, 1969
DaNang Air Base, South Vietnam
Major John Dingle was tired, really tired. His crew had launched their C-130 aircraft from Ching Chuan Kang Air Base, in Taiwan, and flown to South Vietnam two weeks earlier, and it had been non-stop, frantic flying ever since. Missions usually consisted of six or seven sorties all over the country, with duty days stretching to sixteen hours. Then, after a 12-hour crew rest, they’d have to do it all over again. And the oppressive heat and humidity were unrelenting.
Most of the missions were min-time turns, with refueling and cargo loading done with engines running. And most of the deliveries were LAPES – Low Altitude Parachute Extraction System, one of the most challenging events a Herc driver had to perform. And the enemy gunners were usually waiting for the Lockheed Hercules. They usually had the runways registered with their mortars, and the Herc was a really lucrative target. At Khe San, the marines called the C-130 the “mortar magnet”. And after a day of ass-busting flying, it was hard to get a good rest.
Unlike the permanent-party pilots, transient C-130 pilots at DaNang were billeted in tents. Hot, non-air-conditioned, smelly tents. And, other than breakfast at the DaNang chow hall, most meals were box lunches provided by the flight kitchen. The box lunch would typically consist of a ham and cheese sandwich, a small bag of potato chips, a candy bar, and a pack of four Marlboro cigarettes.
Major Dingle and his crew were anxious to get back home to CCK. But they didn’t want to go today. If they stayed in-country for one more day they would get combat pay and tax exemption for the entire month of October. But, no, now the Command Post told Dingle that he was fragged to fly back to CCK today. It was almost, he thought, like there was this giant conspiracy to fuck over him and his crew. First, they were sent down-range two days earlier than scheduled. Now, they were brought home a day early. It was, he was convinced, because they were TAC Airlift.
It was no secret that Tactical Air Command didn’t really want trash-haulers, called TAC Airlift, in their command. The C-130 crews were treated like red-headed step-children compared to the fighter jocks. Hell, even the pilots of the dinky little O-2s were held in higher esteem.
“If I can’t get a fighter for my next assignment,” he said to no one in particular, “I sure as shit want to get the fuck out of TAC.”
He knew, of course, that the only way he’d get a fighter assignment would be to go to Air Training Command and be an Instructor Pilot, preferably in the supersonic T-38 Talon. Then, after a few years as an IP, if the war was still going on, he could volunteer for fighters to Vietnam. If the war ended too soon, he’d be stuck in ATC until his retirement. At the rate his career was going, he’d be retiring as a Major in another five years. The key to promotion as a field-grade officer, he knew, was to have high-level endorsements on his Officer Effectiveness Reports. And TAC made sure that only the fighter jocks got the best OER endorsements. Yeah, he needed to get the fuck out of TAC.
Major Dingle filed his flight plan at Base Ops and went out to the aircraft to join his crew. They were as dog-tired as he was. Fortunately, this was going to be an easy mission. The cargo load was light for the flight up-range, and there were only five duty passengers. He gave a quick briefing to his crew and went up to the cockpit. When you’ve flown fifty sorties in less than two weeks with the same guys, you don’t need to brief very much. Especially when you’re leaving the combat zone.
His copilot, First Lieutenant Benjamin Moore, was already strapped into his seat, and had completed most of the cockpit preparation.
“Paint Boy’s got real potential,” Dingle thought to himself, as he sat down in the Aircraft Commander’s seat and lifted the seat-adjustment lever to slide the seat forward.
“Did you drop something, sir?” Lieutenant Moore asked, “I heard something fall down by your seat”.
Major Dingle looked down at the cockpit floor and saw what appeared to be a key ring. And protruding from the key ring was a pin about an inch long. He looked at it for a full second before he realized what it was.
“What would a grenade pin be doing on the cockpit floor?”
Then he realized what had just happened. When he’d slid his seat forward, the pin had been pulled out of the hand-grenade that was fastened under the seat. It was going to explode in three more seconds.
And there wasn’t a thing in the world he could do to stop it.