On November 29, 1967, the unit lost aircraft, 65-09955, and its entire crew. The crews mission was to be on standby for flare missions. This was a routine mission that rotated among the aircraft and its crew. The crew was called out for a mission, but soon lost radio contact after taking off from Pelican Roost. The next day, the main cabin section was washed upon the beach, a short distance south of Chu Lai. Speculation was that the crew became disoriented by the moonlight reflecting off the water, became inverted and crashed into the sea. Eventually, the bodies of all four crewmembers were recovered. The pilots were Gerald Latini and Daniel Steele, crewchief Clearance Tiffany and gunner Stephen Freeman.
The following represents several versions by person that were present at the time of the incident.
I think at the time, I was on standby with the Scorpions and was scrambled when we received incoming rounds. We had no sooner returned and began to relax when the rounds impacted and were again scrambled. This routine was repeated a third time. After a crater analysis was performed it was determine that the rounds were from an American 105mm battery. The Lieutenant who surveyed the battery had laid the guns 3200 mils (180 degrees) in the opposite direction and the battery had been firing Harassment and Interdiction (H&I) fire at the rate of two rounds per hour into our compound. Very little damage resulted but I believe this was the night Jerry Latini was killed.
Captain James Mouw:
They (Mouw and CWO Tommy Hall) had installed a search light in the cargo area of the aircraft. (This might mean one of those multi-light contraptions that would light up a football field). They had not had time to train anyone on how to use it. (He did not say weather or not it was intended to be used on that flight) He thinks the light was switched on shortly after takeoff. Being inside the aircraft, it blinded the pilots, which resulted in they crashing into the sea. He and Mr. Hall recovered the main cabin portion of the aircraft the next day.
Captain Donald Long:
I dont know anything about the searchlight but I do know they were on flare standby and if Im not mistaken, like many nights, we started receiving incoming rounds. (If Im not mistaken wasnt this the night we were receiving H & I fire every 40-45 minutes from arty? I can expand on that at a later time.) I was operations officer so my ops clerk had already alerted them by the time I arrived and they were arriving for the mission when I got there. Mr. Steele was still fairly new and I could see the mixture of excitement and concern in his eyes as he walked by me. It was kind of old hat for Mr. Latini. From that point the following is what I personally observed from the steps of the ops shack.
This I know:
I watched them take off to the north, turn out over the water and head south along the beach. They leveled off at about 800 and seemed to be doing okay. The next thing I noticed was they had entered what appeared to be a rapid autorotation. I dont remember any light from the interior...there could have been one but not visible, (now that it has been mentioned I do recall someone had been working on a light project) but they did have on the external searchlight. The descent appeared normal and I watched them all the way down waiting for them to flare. The flare never occurred. Because of the trees on the sand dunes I lost sight of them at about...my guess...50-75 still descending rapidly. I remember saying... flare, flare, flare! They were at about our southern boundary at that point because they had not been flying more than a minute or so. It was just a few seconds later I heard a loud "THHUUMMP" like a huge barrel would make if it hit the water side-down at a high speed. I know some of our people responded to the scene. I didnt go right away because I was needed at ops but Maj. Schenker and I were there at first light the next day. I can discuss that visit at a later time. I will say now that Maj. Schenker, one of the good guys, was thinking only of the crew.
I dont ever recall that they entered clouds and somehow came out of them upside down. Perhaps that was a way to explain why it appeared there was no attempt at a flare. I have always had my theory on that. There is no fact here, just theory but maybe other flying personnel can see why Ive felt this way. Anyway, as I said, I watched the whole thing and they did not flare. I remember that the sea, for some reason that night, was as smooth as a tabletop...not a ripple...and that is of course very unusual. I also recall that the water there was very, very clear when the sea was like that. You could see down through it quite a distance. So picture the fact that for some reason you have to enter autorotation and you do that. We all know the training said to start your flare at approx. 75 or so...forgive me IPs if I dont have it exact, its been a long time. So, as the pilot, you have on the search light, somebody is using it to look at the spot you have picked for touch down. The problem is that the spot is out over the water, the clear water, and since the sea is tabletop smooth, the light looks down through it to the bottom as if the water was not even there. Imagine that the water at that point is 75-100 feet deep. Its possible that seeing down through the water, making you feel as if you had another 100 feet or so before you needed to flare, would cause you to delay your pitch pull to the point you actually strike the water in full descent rate. Anyway, why else would either of the pilots in the aircraft not flare for the autorotation. You had to hear the big thump to know they hit at full force. Of course, the impact probably rendered them all unconscious and probably initiated the breakup of the aircraft. The water action over the next hours then completed the breakup of the Huey and, as you know, we found them on the beach the next day. Now, if they did have the search light and it somehow got turned on inside during the confusion during the autorotation, that would definitely affect their ability to identify the point at which they should start the flare for autorotation. They would certainly be night blind for a few seconds. Even if it was immediately turned off the pilots ability to do the right thing was already affected.
Thats the full extent of what I actually know and what I believe may have been the cause of the fatalities. There is one more thing I know and that is I honestly believe we can discount the "in the clouds and disoriented" theory. They were coming down in perfect autorotation attitude.
Send any comments to: 161st AHC site designer (John H. Hastings)