The following is a chapter from Hamfist At DaNang:
July 20, 1969
In the lounge at Covey Operations, twenty, perhaps thirty, of us were mesmerized by the image on the small black-and-white television screen. Mission Control had announced that the Lunar Module of Apollo 11 had separated from the Command Service Module and was about to begin its descent to the surface of the moon. What was going to transpire during the next hour would be the most significant event in the history of man. And I was going to miss it.
“Lieutenant Hancock, Captain Smith,” called out Captain Todd Williams, the Intelligence Officer, “it’s time for your target briefing.”
We begrudgingly vacated our seats in the comfortable leather chairs closest to the television. Those had been choice spots to witness history being made, and were quickly occupied by whichever of the remaining crewmembers had best mastered the game of musical chairs. Although James “Smitty” Smith was a Captain, his aeronautical rating was Navigator, so I was in charge of the mission because I was the designated Pilot In Command. Air Force Regulation 60-1 left no room for doubt: “The Pilot In Command commands all persons aboard the aircraft, regardless of rank or pilot rating”.
Captain Williams was the first ground-pounder – non rated officer – that I had gotten to know on more than a superficial basis. He was a 1963 graduate of the Air Force Academy, and bad eyes had kept him out of the cockpit. He’d been the top graduate in his Intelligence Officer class, and could have gotten an assignment to pretty much any air force base in the world. He volunteered for Vietnam, and was now on his third tour of duty. If he could put the moon landing on the back burner, so could I.
“We’ve been getting reports from Igloo White of truck activity near Delta 43,” Williams noted.
“It looks like most of the traffic is headed down route 116,” he continued, “and stopping in the vicinity of Delta 43. You may find a truck park in the area, but, as usual, be careful around Delta 43. The 9-level gunner at that location nailed a Nimrod earlier today.”
Nimrod was the call sign of the A-26 unit that flew over Steel Tiger. The A-26 was an older aircraft from World War II and the Korean War. It was an antique, actually, and had picked up the nickname “the widow-maker” because of the high loss rate from both enemy fire and structural problems.
“I’ve already had my run-in with that gunner,” I replied, “I’ll stay heads-up.”
After the intelligence briefing, it was time for us to go to the Life Support section to pick up parachutes, helmets and weapons, and then conduct a thorough preflight of our aircraft before departure for the target area. Right before engine start, Major Walters approached the aircraft and leaned in through the open right side window.
“Look, guys, I know you’re missing out on a really important historical event, and I’m sorry about that. So here’s the deal: as long as you block out on time, I don’t care when you actually break ground. If you need to delay your takeoff to, uh, check aircraft systems,” he gave a big, exaggerated wink, “it’s okay with me.”
“Yes, sir,” I answered, “Thank you, sir.”
I started the rear engine, started the front engine, and taxied out of the revetment onto the taxiway. As we proceeded south along Taxiway Echo to prepare for takeoff on Runway 35 Right, Smitty tuned the Automatic Direction Finder to the frequency for Armed Forces Radio Service. Although AFRS normally played music, today they were carrying the news feed.
As the entire world listened to the NASA broadcast of the Lunar Module’s descent, I made a quick transmission to Ground Control.
“Ground, Covey 218. We’d like to hold present position to check some aircraft systems.”
“Approved as requested, Covey 218. No other traffic on Taxiway Echo. Advise when ready to recommence taxi.
“Roger. Thank you.”
Now we could listen to history being made without being distracted by aircraft duties. Walter Cronkite had stopped talking as Mission Control and the astronauts communicated.
“Hundred feet,” the radio crackled, “three and a half down, nine forward.”
And then, eighteen seconds before Apollo 11 touched down, both of our engines quit, exactly in unison, and the radios went dead.
“Shit!” I shouted, as I cycled the mixture controls and pressed the starter buttons for both engines. “The fucking engines quit at the worst possible time!”
“Uh, Hamfist,” Smitty said softly, as he made eye contact with me. There was no reason to shout now, because the cockpit was totally quiet, “I think the worst possible time for the engines to quit would have been on takeoff.”
And we were both struck with the stark realization that if we hadn’t delayed our takeoff to listen to the moon landing on the ADF radio, that’s exactly what would have happened.