41 years ago today a CH-47 Chinook helicopter, 64-13116 assigned to the 243rd Freight Train was hovering over its eleventh sling load of the day. They were resupplying Korean firebases in the area surrounding Phu Hiep, RVN. The canvas rings for 3 loads - fuel, water and boxed items weighing 3 tons was slipped onto the hook. A young FE, who had just turned 20 called the load up and off the ground. At 30’ the loads all cleared and the helicopter continued to rise until the loads were at 50’.
After a hover check the copilot began his takeoff, but at transition to flight around 100’ off the ground the #2 engine failed. Rotor rpms dropped and the helicopter began settling back toward the earth. The pilot took control; the young FE punched the loads free with the aircraft still 60’ in the air and then the #1 engine began to fail. The aircraft lurched forward and took a nose high attitude. Unable to maintain control of the aircraft or altitude the helicopter hit a 9’ high berm making up part of the base’s perimeter and at the same time the aft rotors struck fence posts on the berm causing the blades to separate from the ship. At that point the aft section of the aircraft became airborne and pivoted around the forward rotor system. The helicopter hit the ground on its right side just inside the perimeter wire setting off claymore mines and flares. It caught fire instantly.
The pilot, copilot and crew chief were able to exit the right side cockpit door followed by the door gunner. It’s believed that the Flight Engineer and the only passenger, a Korean Liaison officer, were thrown to the back of aircraft when the nose rose after #1 failed. They were not seen by anyone after the impact. Fire completely consumed the entire aircraft in five minutes or less.
After analyzing the remains of the engines it was determined that the cause of the #2 stoppage was the failure of a small 2 to 3 inch drive shaft inside the fuel control module and that the aircraft was outside of the flight limitations for recovery on a single engine (something that was done on a regular basis - usually without any consequences).
The young 20 year old Flight Engineer was my friend, Steven Kearns. He had joined the company as a maintenance tech about three months into my tour . We shared a number of things, not the least of which was a desire to fly in the worst way. As a team leader I taught him as much as I could – unfortunately he wasn't assigned to my team. Steven was a hard worker, putting in time and effort well beyond most of the other guys. When I moved to the TI shack we didn't get to see as much of each other, but I knew when I was checking out his team’s work on one of the aircraft that it was going to be done right!
Steven wasn’t all just business, he joined with all the guys taking time off to party or just have a good time. But there were never any excuses; he was always there the next morning ready to go! That cheshire like grin and curly hair just kinda lit up your day. We would occasionally talked of home – he was from Massachusetts and was looking forward to getting back there as soon as possible. He finally made it into the flight platoon as a crew chief and he was a damn good one. He crewed for me many times and I always knew I could depend on him to do a good job – the first time. As a Flight Engineer he was top notch, it was in his character. Do whatever you have to do! An example of that was one afternoon a helicopter crashed on landing at our airstrip. He was working on his ship on our flight line when it happened. He was the first guy there and he and another Freight Trainer pulled the pilots from the wreckage with no regard for their own safety. For that he was awarded the Bronze Star. That’s the kind of young man Steven Kearns was. On that fateful day in 1971 he exhibited that same character; he stayed his post and did his job without regard for his own safety.
I was back in states on extension leave when the accident occurred. I was devastated, it couldn’t happen, it didn’t happen! Once back in country I talked with everybody I could. I just didn’t believe it. Phu Hiep was a regular run for my ship, and I found out from a guy working in Ops that if I’d been there it would have been my ship’s rotation slot. To this day I can’t reconcile that…
Just last year I finally got up the courage and resolve to meet his family, his mother and two sisters – Nancy and Sue. To this day I have the note his mother so graciously wrote back in ’71 tucked away in a safe place. And I have Steven with me every day. In forty years I could count on one hand the number of days he did not cross mind, that I did not thank him for his sacrifice, that I did not wonder “what if I’d been there instead”…
If you ever have the opportunity to visit the Massachusetts Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial you’ll find his name carved in one of the stone obelisks. And you can also find a replica of a letter he wrote home in November of ’70 – one of a very few chosen to be a part of the memorial.
In the grand scheme of things, his sacrifice may not seem like much… but to me and a number of his “buddies” in the 243rd it is… We all knew what the possibilities were and yet we dedicated our time and efforts to getting the job done and done right. Unfortunately not all of us made it through.
As solemn an occasion as I would like this to be I also think it would be befitting as a celebration; a celebration of the commitment of my generation, despite all the chaos, to our country, to our freedom, to our families, to our friends and to ourselves. We were prepared to give all and some of us were called upon to fulfill that commitment.
Steve, buddy, rest in peace… you are MY hero and deserving of much, much more.