Tragic Flight

by John Miles

What is the vaule of a human life? Many of us living in the protected domain of the United States take our lives for granted, but for other cultures, existence is often a daily contest. Most Americans would either have to travel abroad, or join the military service, to realize and appreciate how expandable we are. In the military there are many circumstances in which lives must be sacrificed in order to achieve an objective. Unfortunately, there are many times when lives are lost due to careless, negligence, and the desired military objectives are simply not worth the spilled blood nor the loss of limbs or life. The fact that certain precautionary measures, had they been responsibly taken, could have prevented such carnage, is a disgrace. In August 1978, one such occurrance took place in the Pacific Ocean’s Marianas Trench, south of the island of Guam.

The Navy Band in Guam had a mission that is primarily ceremonial. Occasionally, when transportation was available, the eighteen-piece band that was part of the commanding admiral’s staff accompanied the admiral when he visited the sundry islands throughout the region, playing ceremonies, giving concerts, and acting as United States representatives. Transportation, when available, always referred to the type of available aircraft.

On one such off-island journey, an ancient and decrepit World War II C-117 (like a DC-9) twin-propeller cargo plan was available for transport. The mission was to accompany the admiral and his aides, their wives, the Navy Band as well as the Undersecretary of the Interior on a three-day trip that included the islands of Truk, Yap, Palau and Ulithi; the band was to play ceremonial music whenever ordered.

On the morning of departure, a temse atmosphere prevailed aboard the C-117 while several enlisted mechanics scrambled in their attempts to make last-minute repairs to one of the engines. Bandsmen loaded their instruments as well as the various sets of luggage and scuba-diving equipment belonging to the VIPs. Also loaded and stowed onboard the aircraft were other items vitally important to diplomatic protocol: three full cases of scotch, vodka as well as a case of beer. Onboard the aircraft meanwhile, the crewemen were obviously apprehensive, stressing repeatedly that the plane not be overloaded. In a final attempt to lighten the load, two bandsmen were ordered to vacate their seats, as of all military personnel onboard, the musicians were most expendable.

As the engines started, thick clouds of black smoked billowed into the atmosphere from the engines, but the plane commened take-off procedures as ordered. Shortly thereafter, the defective engine ceased to operate, and the conspiruously overloaded aircraft began to decline in altitude.

The C-117 is designed to fly on one engine is necessary, as long as the aircraft is not overloaded. However, this was not the case on that morning, and the order was made to ride the aircraft of its unnecessary cargo. Wisely, band instruments were the first to make the plunge into the ocean, as the crew opened the hatches and threw them into the sea below. However, the plane was still overloaded with cargo as it descended rapidly to the ocean surface. Next to be thrown overboard were the cases of booze; had they not been, an outcome even more catastrophic than what was to come could have resulted.

A crash landing in the ocean was now manifest. Preparations were made for an emergency landing, as crewmembers valiantly assisted people into their seats with little regard for their own safety.

Upon impact, the aircraft bounced, skimming irregularly over the surface of the ocean, with the fuselage finally rupturing at the wings into two pieces. Of two men who were passengers on the plane, there was not a trace. Killed were Scott Smith, a trombonist in the band, and one of the daring crewmen who assisted others to safety. However, these were not the only casualties.

In the ensuing rescue, there moments of extreme bravery as well as extreme selfishness and cowardice. The musicians were naturally denied permission to exit the aircraft until the VIPs had reached the safety of the inflatable liferafts. In the meantime, water was rapidly permeating the plane’s interior, causing it to sink. Belatedly, the bandsmen were finally allowed to leave the submerging airplane, but it was not until all were outside that someone noticed that a few people were not accounted for. Alarmed, an enlisted bandsman, himself severely injured in the back during the crash, swam back to the inside of the descending plane, and noticed a saxophone player trapped underneath two feet of water. The man was rescued, although a significant portion of his inner thigh was torn-out during the proceedings.

Once everyone was outside the plane (except the two drowned men), the aircraft swifly sunk to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, seven miles deep. There was now a wait of about forty-five minutes in which the surviviors either floated in the ocean or in rafts, depending on their hierarchy or injuries. A Coast Guard cutter eventually made the rescue, while a Soviet spy vessel silently observed the entire scene from a distance of three miles.

It is remarkable that the only individuals killed or seriously injured were either air-crewmen or musicians, except for one of the pilots who broke an ankle as he was jettisoned through the windshield as the aircraft impacted the ocean. Subsequent interviews with the mechanics who actually worked on the plane prior to take-off revealed that the plane was still unfit to fly. The fact that it was ordered to fly anyway, although those in authority knew that were was a serious problem is unjustifiable. Adding to this the unnecessary loss of life and serious injuries, the question of competency arises. An investigation was made, and with the admiral acting as the chief investigating officer, the findings were made classified. One month later, Rear Admiral David S. Cruden, ComNavMar and among the first out of the plane as well as to reach safety, was awared the Navy medal for heroism and valor.