THAT OTHER ONE---FIRE IN FLIGHT
By: Jack Serig, Sr.
Our company commander, Captain Bob Felix, sent me to Da
Nang to head our detachment of Otter* aircraft deployed to support the I
Corps effort. It was May 1962.
One day, on one of our normal resupply and passenger milk
runs, we had taken off from a small MAAG (Military Assistance Advisory Group)
airfield dirt strip in the boonies northwest of
Da Nang. We boarded one U.S. officer and five enlisted men to fly them to Da Nang.
After takeoff we obtained air traffic control clearance to climb
to a designated altitude to make a simulated instrument approach to the Da
Nang airfield, for practice. The other pilot, Lou Oliverio, flew with
a hood on to restrict his vision to the instruments for the practice run.
It was a beautiful VFR (Visual Flight Rules) day with umpteen miles of visibility.
All unit pilots practiced simulated instrument flight whenever we could to
give us an edge in the unpredictable weather patterns associated with the
monsoon rains we frequently encountered.
Just as our ADF (Automatic Direction Finder) needle indicated
we were almost over the Da Nang airfield, still at the assigned altitude
of 4,000 feet, our single engine began running rough---sputtering.
Engine instruments were within normal ranges for the moment. Glancing
behind me, our six passengers appeared calm. I instructed the pilot
to begin an emergency descent after he came out from under the hood.
I contacted the tower on the prescribed VHF frequency and advised the Vietnamese
tower operator that we were experiencing engine problems and asked for clearance
to land, requesting crash rescue trucks as a precaution.
A “Roger, cleared to land,” was acknowledged. Still
on high downwind we noted the cylinder head temperature gauge beginning to
climb, the oil pressure gauge showed a drop, while the RPM needle fluctuated
with the coughing engine.
We set up our approach pattern to land north keeping
close to the field to land power-off, if necessary. The engine kept
coughing and sputtering but still provided power. We elected to keep
it running as long as it agreed. A second call to the tower operator,
on high base. Another request for crash trucks which we could see at
their fire station, stationary. Another “Roger” from the tower operator
but the fire trucks remained in position at the fire station.
Unknown to us, a U.S. Air Force radar station individual,
standing in his radar equipment compound, looked up upon hearing our complaining
engine. He bolted to a telephone and called the local U.S. Air Force
Senior Advisor, co-located on the airfield, advising him than an Army plane
(US!) was in trouble, “On Fire!”
By this time we were nearing our turn to high final, the
engine still providing restrained power. Our feet began to get warm,
then hotter, and streaks of fire began to appear in the slots of the paneling
between our feet and our knees. We were on fire and apparently the
forward and rear firewalls had not been able to retain what had to be a pretty
good blaze. We were on high, short final---still no crash rescue vehicles.
A third request and a third “Roger!”
I instructed Louie to pull off the runway at the first
taxiway and to shut down the engine. I had the fire bottle in my hand
and was ready to use it after touchdown. Using it now would blind us
inside the cockpit, even though the streaks of fire coming through the openings
were brighter, longer, and hotter. I instructed the passengers to be
ready to jump out of the plane as soon as we stopped.
We landed, turned off the active runway and I reminded
Louie again to shut down the engine. I failed to pull the emergency
gas/oil shutoff valve. My mind was on the passengers and their safety---to
get them out of the burning aircraft and as far away as possible. I
opened the right cockpit compartment door, unlocked the restraint system,
stepped onto the top step and jumped to the taxiway. My head jerked
hard. Forgot to unplug my helmet from the headset cord. The jolt
knocked off my glasses. I landed on them and felt the crunching under
The fire bottle was still in my hand and I ran around
the rear of the aircraft to reach the passenger door on the opposite side.
Surprisingly, I beat them to the door, opened it, and as they bailed out
they were instructed to run and keep away from the front of the plane.
Still no crash rescue. Louie climbed down and he ran. I proceeded
to the left side of the engine compartment and was astonished at the size
of the blaze. I looked up at the big fire---and down at the little
fire bottle---then I ran.
Looking across the airfield I could see the crash rescue
trucks finally responding. I later learned that one of their crew was
washing his truck and just happened to see us, on fire, after we had
brought the aircraft to a stop. He had alerted the emergency standby crash
rescue crew and when they finally arrived they had the fire out in short
Everything forward of the forward firewall was burned
or damaged beyond repair. This would require that the engine and all
accessories, lines, and wiring, be replaced. It was an expensive
incident, even by 1962 standards, but the passengers and crew were all safe,
HOW DID IT HAPPEN?
A little history. All you Otter flyer-types will
recall that the Otter engines had been used on the Navys' SNJs and Army Air
Corps’ AT-6s. When DeHavilland of Canada bought up some of the surplus
engines after WWII and put them on the front end of their Otters, they had
to place metal plugs in some of the carburetor’s fuel ports to reduce the
fuel and power requirements for the Otter’s engine design. A certain
gauge safety wire was mandated to keep the plugs from backing out of their
carburetor ports. We determined, during the investigation, through
a record search, that a 3rd echelon maintenance type had, for some reason,
performed unauthorized maintenance on the carburetor. When he put the
plug back into its port the wrong gauge safety wire was installed.
Over time, the weaker gauge safety wire broke and the plug began backing
out of its port. This eventually caused a steady stream of 100-octane
aviation gas, about the breadth of your little
finger, to shoot out of the now-exposed port, making direct contact
with the hot, left side manifold. This raw gas ignited the fire that
burned through oil and hydraulic lines, adding to the fire’s intensity.
So much for the cause!
WHY HADN’T THE CRASH RESCUE UNITS RESPONDED?
After seeing that the damaged Otter was towed to our space
on the flight line at the Da Nang airfield, I paid a visit to the Senior
U.S. Air Force Advisor, who was liaison with the South Vietnamese Airfield
Commander. On my questioning as to what communications existed between
the Da Nang tower and the U.S. Air Force crash rescue unit, he advised that
all calls from the tower had to go through a Vietnamese controlled telephone
switchboard. If the switchboard was busy the call placed by the tower
operator, even in an emergency, would not receive a response. I couldn’t
believe what I was hearing.
Then I asked the Advisor if he had been aware that an
Army Otter had landed, on fire. He said, “Yes!” That he had received
a call from an alarmed crewman stationed at the local radar unit who had
seen an Otter fly over with its engine on fire. When I responded that
that was my ship, with eight people on board, the Advisor laughed loudly
and said: “Yeah, the same thing happened to an Air Force fighter that landed
on fire last week. Crash rescue couldn’t be contacted because of the
telephone switchboard arrangement.” I felt my face flushing with unusual
anger and said in a tone unmistakably insubordinate, that if he didn’t have
a direct line between the tower and crash rescue unit by the end of the week,
he’d be reported to his superiors in Saigon. I turned and left his
office. The direct line was in the next day. The Advisor called
me personally to let me know.Also the next day, a call from my company commander
advised me to fly back to Nha Trang, our home field. He related that
he had to escort me personally before our 145th Battalion Commander, a Lieutenant
Colonel Richardson, in Saigon, whose armchair staff officers recommended
I face an Article 15 for improper inflight emergency procedures.
We flew from Nha Trang to Saigon the following day in
our unit 0-1 Birddog. The longest flight I ever made---my career in
potential jeopardy. Soon after landing at Tan Son Nhut we were admitted
to the Battalion Commander’s outer office. My commanding officer was
called in while I waited outside. Battalion staff officers were present
with the two commanders discussing my fate. The door remained closed
a seemingly long time. Finally, I was summoned, reporting as ordered.
The Battalion C.O. was patient and even-handed in his questioning.
I believed he was treating me fairly. I was asked to explain the sequence
of events surrounding the emergency at Da Nang. I explained that we,
the two pilots, were really not aware we had an engine fire until just short
of turning final. Once we recognized we were on fire I believed it
imperative to keep the engine running as long as it was providing power.
“Why hadn’t I pulled the gas/oil shutoff valve, even after
turning off the runway?” My response was that I had given the pilot
instructions to shut down the engine. My main concern was for safe
evacuation of the passengers and crew from the aircraft. It wouldn’t
have made a significant difference whether or not I had pulled the lever
at the same time the engine was being shut down, which would have the same
effect. He thanked me and excused me. I saluted. The door
closed behind me and I was again in the outer office awaiting my fate.
It wasn’t long before my unit C.O. emerged. He was
smiling. I felt some momentary relief. On the way back to our
0-1 he said: “Well Jack, we compromised! His staff wanted an
Article 15, I recommended a commendation. There’ll be no Article 15
and no commendation. You’re off the
The Birddog flight back north to Nha Trang wasn’t as long as the flight south to Saigon.
*Otter: An 11-place single
engine airplane manufactured by DeHavilland of Canada with STOL (short takeoff/landing)
capability. The radial engine had 9-cylinders rated at 1350hp manufactured
by Pratt & Whitney. There were eighteen in each Otter company.
This article was published in the LOGBOOK, a tri-annual publication of the
Army Otter-Caribou Association, in the July, 1992 edition.