In 1949, after returning to the States, a Berlin Airlift crew crashes in an unexplored area of Brazil. Only two of the five-man crew survive. The information is closely held—only President Truman and a select few know the cause of the crash. On national security grounds, the information is classified 'Top Secret' and sealed for fifty years.
McChord AFB, Washington, June 1949
At 0430 hours, Captain Robert 'Doc' Cairns his copilot and navigator leave Base Operations and walk across the dark, deserted ramp toward an air force, four-engine C-54 parked nearby. The aircraft's cabin lights are on and they hear the wail of the auxiliary power unit. The radio operator positions himself by the number three engine to stand fire guard in preparation for engine start while Cairns meets with his engineer, Technical Sergeant Fred Barnes, "Airplane ready to go, Fred?"
"All set, Doc."
Using a flashlight, the copilot performs a quick walk-around inspection then straps himself into the copilot's seat and starts the checklist. After engine start, Cairns gives the hand signal to remove the wheel chocks then waits for the radio operator to remove the chocks and board. The radio operator boards the aircraft and takes his position on the flight deck. When Cairns receives taxi clearance, he advances the throttles and taxies toward the runway. After the engine run-up checks are complete, Cairns points to his copilot.
The copilot, a first lieutenant, presses his microphone button, "McChord Tower, zero zero nine requests take-off clearance." After the response, "Roger, double zero niner you're cleared for take-off." Cairns turns onto the runway and advances the throttles for take-off as the copilot replies, "Roger, zero zero nine's rolling."
The take-off and climb are uneventful and the crew goes through their checklist. After Barnes sets cruise power, Cairns turns the controls over to his copilot, Al Rhynalds. Barnes, sitting in the folding jump seat, pours coffee from a thermos. He hands a paper cup to each pilot. Cairns takes a drink then sets his cup on the glare shield and lights a cigarette, "Now that the Berlin Airlift is over this tour should be a piece of cake, guys."
Rhynalds resets the directional gyro then says, "At least we won't be working our ass off hauling coal to Berlin anymore. Drawing Rio de Janeiro for our first mission with the 8th Squadron was a stroke of genius. How did you manage it, Doc?"
"As much as I'd like to take the credit, Cairns was the first name on the crew duty roster."
"Ever since we've been back in the States you've been going downhill, Doc."
"What do you mean, Fred?"
"Just last week you would have spun a yarn about how you finagled the flight one way or another."
"Doc's trying to change his image," Rhynalds joshes.
"Guys, I have to clean up my act. My wife and kids will be here next week if my request for base housing is approved."
"Do you think your wife will remember what you look like?" Rhynalds asks.
"Women never forget what a handsome guy looks like."
The interphone comes to life, "Hey, you ugly cretins steer one three four degrees."
Rhynalds makes the turn then presses his microphone button, "Roger, one three four set."
The navigator replies, "That heading looks good. Fred, do you know there's still some coal dust in the main cabin?"
"We've vacuumed a dozen times but after every flight more coal dust shakes out. To get it all out we'd have to take the whole airplane apart. In a couple of more weeks, it should all shake out."
The radio operator chimes in, "When Fred says we've vacuumed he means that he checked out a vacuum cleaner from supply and handed it to me. The dust is in the ducts, behind the soundproofing and under the floorboards. It's impossible to get it all in one shot."
"Fred has to save himself for the important jobs like emptying ashtrays and cleaning the windshield."
"Who do you think keeps this airplane flying, Al?"
"I think it's your line chief, the big master sergeant that's on your ass all the time."
Cairns jumps in, "Don't let them get you down, Fred."
"Don't worry, Doc. They worry me as much as a piss ant walking across the hangar floor."
An hour out of Kelly Field, Cairns relieves the copilot and disengages the automatic pilot. On final approach, Rhynalds places a flashlight upright on the glare shield and says "How about two bucks this time, Doc?"
"OK, here's my two bucks. The rest of you guys in?"
The copilot, navigator, and radio operator each place two dollar bills on the glare shield and Rhynalds says, "Hey, we're short your two bucks, Fred!"
"Sorry I'm broke, fellows."
Cairns 'greases' the C-54 onto Kelly's runway; the flashlight remains upright, "You guys never learn. Keep your money, boys."
Rhynalds retrieves the flashlight before Cairns applies the brakes; 009 turns off the runway and taxies behind a yellow 'Follow Me' Jeep then parks in front of Kelly's Air Freight Terminal. After the crew deplanes, Barnes and the radio operator stay behind to refuel and load cargo while the officers catch a ride to Base Operations. Barnes opens the two emergency exits, over the wing, and stands on the wing waiting for the fuel truck. After the fuel truck arrives, he fills the wing tanks.
Barnes opens the rear cargo door and watches as the radio operator guides a forklift into position. Cargo handlers enter the cabin and load two large wooden crates. After the cargo handlers leave, Barnes checks the tie down straps. He adds four extra cargo straps then moves a life raft, the cargo handlers moved, back into position by the rear cabin door. Barnes climbs down the crew ladder and performs a walk-around inspection. By then the officers return with five box lunches and a gallon thermos jug.
"What's in the crates we're hauling, Doc?" the radio operator asks.
"Some surplus hydraulic test stands for the Brazilian Air Force."
"Are we going to RON in Panama?"
"No, we'll stay in Belem tonight."
Enroute to Belem, Brazil, June 1949
Cairns lets his copilot make the take-off from Kelly Field. After they set cruise power and engage the autopilot, the crewmembers eat their box lunches. Over Nicaragua, they encounter some mild turbulence but the flight to Panama is uneventful.
Rhynalds asks, "Is this my landing, Doc?"
"That it is, lad."
On final approach Cairns places his flashlight upright on the glare shield and asks, "Want to go for it?"
"You must be kidding, Doc. Just getting this clunker on the ground is a major accomplishment for me."
"You can do it but be careful the way you talk about Fred's airplane."
"Sorry, Fred, I lost my head."
"Another crack like that and it'll be twenty lashes on the foreskin with a steel coat hanger."
The rest of the crew laughs as Rhynalds replies, "Ouch! That hurts just thinking about it."
"Enough of this frivolity get the machine on the ground, Al."
Rhynalds makes an excellent landing and the flashlight remains upright. Barnes grabs the flashlight before the brakes are applied.
"Thanks, Doc. Fred must have put some air in the tires."
Rhynalds taxis behind a yellow 'Follow Me' Jeep. He parks in a transient parking spot then goes through the engine shut down checklist. Two fuel trucks arrive and Barnes and the radio operator refuel the aircraft while the officers head for Base Operations. On his walk-around inspection Barnes spots an oil leak on the number two engine. He pushes an engine stand in place then removes a piece of cowling to investigate. He finds a loose hose clamp. Barnes tightens the clamp and replaces the cowling then pushes the work stand to the edge of the ramp.
The officers return from Base Operations and Cairns asks, "Airplane ready to go, Fred?"
"We had a small oil leak on number two but we're all set now, Doc."
"OK let's go to work, guys."
With Cairns at the controls, the take-off from Howard Field is uneventful. The navigator sets a direct course for Cayenne. From Cayenne he intends to follow the coast to Belem. Over water, forty-five minutes south of Cayenne, Cairns lays his coffee cup on the glare shield and starts to light a cigarette when he encounters turbulence. Cairns disengages the autopilot then turns a few degrees to pickup his original heading. As he reaches over to set the directional gyro, an explosion rocks the aircraft. Cairns detects the loss of power on the right side and fights to maintain control of the aircraft.
Rhynalds hollers, "Three and four flowmeters read zero! The head temps are dropping! Fire in the right wing!"
Out of the corner of his eye Cairns can see flames through the copilot's side window, "Max power on one and two! Feather three and four!"
Barnes sets maximum power on the number one and two engines. He reaches across the center console and punches two red buttons to feather the number three and four propellers. Quickly he goes through the emergency checklist and discharges the number three and four engine fire extinguishers.
Rhynalds shouts, "The top of the wing behind three and four is ripped open! Fuel is pouring out! The whole wing is on fire!"
Flames and fuel are pouring out of a twenty-foot gash on top of the right wing. The flames melt a Plexiglas cabin window and enter the cabin. Fragments of coal dust are ignited. Seconds later the interior of the passenger cabin is ablaze. Barnes rushes to the cabin and grabs a fire extinguisher. The radio operator and navigator grab fire extinguishers and help fight the flames.
Barnes hollers at the radio operator, "Help me get the life raft and Gibson Girl up to the flight deck!"
They succeed in getting the life raft forward but flames prevent them from retrieving the emergency radio. Barnes rushes to the flight deck and hollers, "The cabin and right wing are on fire! We can't put the fires out!"
Cairns shouts, "I can't hold altitude! Get everybody on the flight deck and prepare to ditch! Get an SOS out and strap the key down!"
The radio operator tries to send an SOS but the wire harness that runs through the cabin bulkhead is burned to a crisp. He straps the key down anyhow. The navigator hollers, "We've had it! The flames are burning through!"
Cairns sticks the nose down and banks to keep the flames away from the cabin. When he is just a few feet above the waves, he turns until the airplane is parallel to the trough of a wave then lets 009 slowly settle into the sea. There is a jolt as the aircraft contacts the water. Barnes reaches overhead and turns the magneto switches to the off position. The airplane slides for several hundred feet then comes to an abrupt stop with a severe jolt. Cairns shouts, "Move it, everybody out!"
Barnes tries to toss the life raft out the crew compartment door but flames force him back. "We can't get out this way! The waters on fire! The flames are too high!"
Cairns hollers, "Get it out the astrodome!"
Barnes tries to pass the life raft through the astrodome but it is too large to pass through the opening. He pushes the life raft aside and helps the other crewmembers exit through the astrodome. By then the water is up to their ankles, "Let's get out, Doc! Another minute and we'll be under water!"
"Go ahead! I'll be right behind you!"