Valor: Making the First Team

Nov. 1, 1991

Fairchild’s C-119 Flying Boxcar was an aircraft not universally admired from the day of its debut as a Tactical Air Command troop carrier in 1947. This bulbous, twin-tailed apparition had a face and figure that only its designers could love and a temperament that didn’t endear it to the maintenance fraternity.

During the Korean War, the C-119 was rejected as an air-evacuation plane because of the high noise level and hurricane-force drafts in its cargo compartment, and its payload was downgraded due to weak landing gear. Once it was barred from carrying passengers, the C-119 became principally a trash-hauler and qualifier of paratroopers for their jump pay, but it was there when needed.

Most of the C-119s found a home with Reserve troop carrier wings in those days when Guard and Reserve forces lived largely on hand-me-downs and castoffs. There they remained until given a new life by one of the most innovative and successful weapon developments of the Vietnam era. That development was the gunship, an Air Force concept pushed through by a group of imaginative blue-suiters.

The first Air Force gunship was the AC-47 “Spooky,” used mostly for in-country area defense. It was followed by the AC-130 Spectre, a heavily armed battle wagon that could do out-country interdiction. In early 1968, the Air Force saw the need to replace the AC-47 with a larger, more capable aircraft. There wasn’t time to develop one from scratch, so DoD turned to the Reserve’s C-119s. Two versions were equipped to find, fix, and fire on enemy targets at night: the AC-119G Shadow and the more sophisticated AC-119K Stinger, which was given two General Electric J85 jet engines hung outboard of its R-3350 radial engines. The first Gs went to Vietnam in December 1968, the first Ks in October 1969. This ugly duckling that had gone unhonored and unloved for 20 years rapidly gained a devoted following, especially among the grunts, many of whose names would be carved on The Wall today were it not for the Shadow and Stinger.

One of the most extraordinary Stinger missions took place on the night of May 8, 1970. Capt. Alan D. Milacek and his crew were on an armed reconnaissance mission near Ban Ban, Laos, where they destroyed two trucks with their four miniguns and two 20-mm cannon. The sensor operators, Capts. James Russell and Ronald Jones, picked up three more trucks, and Captain Milacek entered attack orbit at 3,500 feet above ground level when six enemy antiaircraft positions opened fire. Copilot Capt. Brent O’Brien cleared their escort F-4s to silence the guns while Milacek nailed another truck.

Then a barrage of ground fire tore up the Stinger’s right wing. The plane fell off in a steep dive to the right, losing 1,000 feet in a few seconds. It looked as though they were going in. Captain Milacek ordered the crew to prepare for bailout, but before anyone took to his parachute, Milacek and O’Brien muscled the plane out of its dive. Using full left rudder and aileron and maximum power on the two right engines, they were able to level the aircraft and turn toward friendly territory. Navigator Capt. Roger Clancy gave the pilots a heading for home base at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand, some 160 miles away. He reminded Captain Milacek that they were too low to clear the 7,000- to 9,000-foot peaks ahead.

The crew threw out everything that wasn’t bolted down, and gradually the Stinger, with Milacek and O’Brien straining at the controls, climbed to 10,000 feet, staggering and skidding its way toward home. With Udorn in sight, Captain Milacek decided to land the damaged aircraft rather than have the crew bail out. Not knowing the extent of the damage, he would try a no-flap landing at 150 knots, more than 30 knots above normal approach speed. Still holding left rudder and aileron, he and Captain O’Brien managed to land. Safely on the ground, the crew found to their amazement that 15 feet of the right wing, including the aileron, had been shot off.

When Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Jack Ryan presented Captain Milacek and his crew the Mackay Trophy for “the most meritorious flight of 1970,” he faced 10 men who had come to love the old C-119 in its gunship transmutation. On the roster of Mackay Trophy winners, they joined such superstars as “Hap” Arnold, Eddie Rickenbacker and Chuck Yeager. The AC-119, descendant of the disdained Flying Boxcar, would stand forever alongside the X-1, SR-71, and B-1. A crew and an airplane had made the first team.

Published November 1991. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.