If ever there was a sleepy quiet late afternoon flight this was it. We had departed Palmerola Airbase Honduras as the sun was just starting to touch the hills that surrounded the airfield. I can’t tell you much about my assignment other than I took a UH1-V, (Medevac model with big red crosses painted on the nose and doors otherwise known in aviation circles as targets) and it was pretty boring. Well, ok more routine than boring. Ultimately it got us to La Mesa airport (now Ramon Villeda Morales International, La Lima Honduras) towards the end of our flight.
It was late when we landed and refueling then was not possible as the fuel truck and attendant were off for the night. So we shut down, I did my post flight check while my crew secured the aircraft. We walked away with just about 450 LBS. of fuel in her (an hour of flight time if I used my 20 min required reserve, maybe). I had no idea that by tomorrow morning I would be wishing we had that full tank.
As we walked off the airfield I gave a longing glance over by the taxiway just short of the main airstrip. There a Connie sat frozen in time just waiting for a crew that would never come. The Constellation, a three tailed, 4 engine masterful piece of flying art was one of my favorite aircraft, it had a functional beauty and class all its own. This one had been seized carrying cocaine on its way to Mexico. There it sat waiting to be released from captivity by someone. Sadly hurricane Mitch in 1998 is rumored to have destroyed it.
We went and stayed overnight at San Pedro Sulu in a safe house that was located near the downtown fountain. We weren’t in a hurry to get back, we had been on duty with no crew rest for several weeks.
A real shower and a decent late dinner that wasn’t one of the new MRE’s for a change was a pleasant treat. I still preferred the older C-rations.
We arrived late back out at the airfield the next morning, it must have been somewhere about 9:30 or 10.
My crew chief had unlocked the doors and I was just trying to figure out what was the best way to get the fuel truck over to us when I saw a rather curious sight. 2 Men in flight gear running toward us as if they were being chased by a raging bull. I would have bet that a human land speed record was in the process of being broke right then and there.
As they got close enough to us I could tell 2 things, 1. They were Americans and 2. Something was very wrong. Things got a little blurry from that point. They reached us and said something like “man we need you in the air right now!” I was slow to catch on or things were happening just that fast but I said something like “what?… Why? , hey I am low on fuel”… Which was followed by a response by one of the pair, “You don’t understand our buddies just crashed”
His words rang in my head, “crashed? Where, when?” I asked.
“I’ll show you on the way let’s go!” the distraught pilot nearly screamed.
“Hey we’re low on fuel show me on the map 1st.” I had already pulled out my sectional chart and he wasted no time grabbing it and pointing to Punta Sal Lagoon. “There they went down there.” I was about to ask in what when I looked in the direction of where they had been running from. Sitting on the taxiway was an O-37 dragonfly. “In one of those?” I pointed toward it.
“Yes we saw you here as we were landing, we taxied as close to you as we could, we gota go man.” It was about 15 minutes to our north/north east. I quickly calculated that we could get there and back but we wouldn’t have hardly any time on station. Most likely they didn’t survive, but sometimes just sometimes somebody does. I turned to my crew and saw a unanimous unspoken “let’s go” in their eyes. My fellow pilot agreed with me on the fuel issue. We made the decision to go. One of the other pilots stayed with their aircraft the one who talked with us the most climbed on board ours to make sure we got the right area.
Why it went down I don’t know. The dragon fly has inboard jet engines mounted where the fuselage and the wings meet. If one flamed out it could have caused the aircraft to go inverted and into the drink. Or any of a number of mechanical failures. In addition the Soviets had 12,000 advisors in Nicaragua who were busy sending guns to the rebels in El Salvador and Guatemala. They ran guns either up by the northern coast, the long route between Nicaragua and Guatemala or the short southern route between Nicaragua and El Salvador. The rebels who were doing the transporting liked to shoot at anything flying overhead, especially in the dark. Also Guatemalan and El Salvadorian gorillas where trying to export revolution to both Mexico and Honduras. We gave close air support to fend them off at times. I don’t know, I did find out much later that they were from an Air Guard Unit in PA. the 111th Fighter wing and they were down in support of a Joint Task Force. Doing what? The only thing I knew for sure was they were not part of Southern Air Transport.
We flew to the spot pointed out to us in record time, just over 12 minutes. We were on the verge of nose tuck the whole way. A wrong wind or just a little faster and half our rotor disk would have stalled out causing us to immediately flip. A good way to ruin your weekend for sure.
We circled the Lagoon looking for evidence of the crash, we saw only an oil slick at first. Kind of a rainbow translucent sheen on the water’s surface. We had found the right place.
We came in for a hover over the water. My crew chief had put on a monkey harness while we were flying and was hooked into a cargo ring on the floor. I was hovering over the water with my skids dipped in a just a bit. I was trying to clear away that surface oil hoping we could find something through the clear Caribbean Sea beneath. We saw the top of a flight helmet rise up to our left. I hovered closer to it at the same time the crew chief hopped out on the skid, he was going to reach for it. We maneuvered closer but he couldn’t reach it, he had to get lower.
So I did, we sunk the Huey in water till I could see fish swimming through the chin bubble and water was washing over the top of the cargo deck behind me. He reached the helmet just as our master caution light lit up and warning claxon sounded. At first I thought we had used up all of our fuel, hitting 20 knots above our redline speed eats a lot of JP-4. What happened though was we had shorted out the electrical fuel pumps in the bottom of the fuel tanks. Luckily the mechanical backups did their stuff. I confirmed we did have fuel or at least the gage said so and hovered closer still.
The crew chief managed to touch the helmet, at that moment we knew the pilots had perished. Our hearts sank, there was no other evidence of survival, it was time to let the navy divers recover the bodies.
We recovered our aircraft from its semi-submerged position and flew back to Le Mesa in near silence. We pulled in choking on fumes having busted our 20 min reserve on the way back. It had been worth the chance to try and save fellow aviators. I found out years later the names and where they were from. Giving the last full measure to preserve freedom, our way of life, that day were:
Capt. Donald F. Benton, Jr.
Capt. Ronald B. Schatz
Pray for their families, and pray for our country. We forget because we have lived time these past 29 years, but if these men could see us today they would not recognize the country they died for.
That is my point, every day we allow our country to morph away from a full functioning Republic we dishonor their sacrifice. We mock what they have done. These men and the many who have died before and since then can no longer defend this Constitution, they did their job. We the living must still do ours. The Republic is in danger and the last, legal, moral, and non-violent way to save it is before us. Join with me at www.ConventionofStates.com We need you to enter the fight. Yes it’s that important…..
By Scott P. Williams
Former U.S. Army Pilot
TN State Director Convention of States Project