The last moments of 917....

Thanks to Dave Crouse for this in depth update of the fate of 917....


Dear OAE et al:

I can't seem to stop myself from going back to look over the exploits and adventures of the folks that made up VX-6 and VXE-6, it was, and still is, an experience that is difficult if not impossible to describe to someone who has not "been there, done that."

Since I was on my 8th VXE-6 LC-130L/R flight on January 28, 1973, aboard Aircraft Buno. 155917, I can give some "first hand" information about the way that particular flight ended.   

As a new pilot to the squadron, and relatively new to the C-130, I felt it was my duty and my privilege to be able to "hop" almost any flight leaving from Williams Field in an effort to build time in the aircraft and learn the mysterious ways of the Antarctic Continent.  

The "final" flight of 917 was routine from the preflight to the take off and climb out.  At this point in time, I don't remember if the flight was scheduled to be a double shuttle or not. As it turned out, it was not.

The pilot, whose name I will leave out because he cannot comment on the statements I make here, was an experienced pilot in the C-130 and had accumulated a lot of Antarctic Experience.   

I was allowed to sit in the left seat for the "boring" part of the flight over Beardmore and onto the Polar plateau. This part of the flight was very uneventful.  At our first radio contact with "Old" Pole Station, we were informed that they were in and out of "White Out" conditions.  Normal procedures, as I recall them, were to make a GCA approach to the field, and if unable to land to remain in the local area for a "safe" period of time.  
If a safe landing could not be made the flight was to return to McMurdo.      

With the possible "White Out" looking at us, the Command Pilot took the left seat and I returned to my "station" on the flight deck lower bunk. . .with harness.   I was sitting next to the Navigator Instructor for the remainder of the flight.  We each monitored the GCA via out headsets.   

The let down and the approach went well up to about 1 mile from touch down. The GCA controller gave me a hand written recap of the GCA instructions that were transmitted to the aircraft: "On course-on glide path/ on glide path on course, 018 your heading/ on glide path at 2 miles from touchdown/ on glide path/ turn right now to 020, on glide path, right now to 022, picked up a slight left drift/ on glide path center line is very slightly right, 1 mile from touchdown/on glide path, center line is slightly right correcting slowly,/ on glide path coming up on course, left to 020,/ on glide path left to 018/on course now going above/slightly/above/ slightly above, above glide path, take a wave-off, too far above glide path./ climb out straight ahead.  
Upon reaching 11,000 standby for further clearance."  Inside the cockpit, the pilot, who had been following the directions of GCA shifted his scan to the outside of the aircraft. . .which, in retrospect, was the wrong thing to do.  
The pilot spotted one of the black marker drums at the approach end of the skiway, at which time he said words to the effect, "I have the runway, I have the airplane."  At this time, of course, the copilot had started the throttles forward.  The pilot took the controls and closed all 4 throttles and started a transition back to the landing attitude.  All of this took place in a short period of time, and from my position on the bunk behind the pilot, I also saw one of the marker barrels pass underneath the left wing.

From the records of the people at Pole Station we know that our rate of descent was excessive.  If my memory serves me correctly, it was over 1000 feet per minute.  The pilot made his transition to the landing attitude just at the time we contacted the skiway.  The landing was very hard, but it did not seem excessive to anyone on the flight deck at the time.  Our attitudes changed rapidly.  The aircraft was moving toward the left side of the skiway, but had a slight right tilt. At this time, we experienced the only "injury" to the crew.  The copilot was attempting to correct the left drift. By using all of the right rudder he could muster, and in the process, pushed so hard with his left foot on his right that he bruised the right foot and nearly collapsed his arch.  None of us, and certainly not the copilot, was aware that the tail had separated from the aircraft and his effort was accomplishing nothing.

After the fact, we know that the plane touched down at about the 850 foot mark from the end of the skiway. . .and nearly in the center.  The force of the landing caused the wings to flex all the way to the skiway surface.  It has been a matter of discussion that, had it been concrete runway, the wings might have survived.  Because the skiway is only hard-pack snow, the wing tips dug into the surface and broke away from the main wing just outboard of the inboard engines.  The wing tanks, outer wing surfaces and the outboard engines went their separate ways.  The propellers separated from the outboard engines and went on their separate ways.
The force of the landing crushed the main landing gear and skis.  They tore free and also went their separate ways.   

The tail section broke free of the main body of the aircraft at the head of the loading ramp.  The tail section followed right along behind the main fuselage and came to a stop about 8 to 10 feet aft of the main fuselage. 
The main section of the aircraft continued at a slight left drift from the skiway centerline and continued down the skiway coming to rest, almost level, just past the large plywood "8" (8,000 feet remaining) marker on the port side of the skiway.  Total distance covered from impact to stop was approximately 1,150 feet.   

From the cockpit, things did not appear too different from any other landing, with the exception that we started a very slight starboard roll.  This was our first clue that things were "not" normal. When the aircraft came to rest, everyone knew that we had NOT made a normal landing.  The flight engineer went down the steps to open the flight deck door. . .it would not move.  At this point the load master had moved to the bottom of the flight deck steps and was saying something about a "FIRE" To emphasize his statement, smoke was drifting from the cargo area up into the cockpit.   
As we came to rest, there was not any sign of panic, however, with the idea of fire, we were all a little eager to leave the aircraft.   
When I saw that the flight deck door would not open, I reached up and opened the overhead hatch above the upper flight deck bunk.  At this point I was ready to "lead" the troops to safety via the open hatch.  Unfortunately, when you open the overhead hatch, it comes into the aircraft and must be moved out of the way. Since I opened the hatch, I was the lucky one to have to find a place to "stow" it.   I could not tell you where I put it, but it did get
Everyone exited the overhead hatch to the sight, but no sound, of the aircraft burning.  The wings were just "stubs" and the ends of the stubs were dumping all of the remaining fuel from the ruptured fuel tanks.  Either the hot engines or the friction of the tearing metal had ignited the fuel.  Most of the fuel was consumed by the flames as it fell to the surface.  There was a tall column of smoke rising from both wing stubs into an even bigger column of smoke that was left from the "burning fire ball" of the aerated fuel that had been sprayed from the separating wings. This "fireball" was what the people at the station saw.
In order to "depart" the aircraft, it was necessary to "slide" down the side of the cockpit and make the drop of a few feet to the skiway surface.  For what ever reason, the Student Navigator tried to slide down on his stomach and ended up straddling one of the blade radio antennas.  Looking back, it was funny. . .at the time, it was something that was slowing us down.   

The one person that did not "believe" that we were in trouble was the pilot. With the aircraft burning, we did not know if there would be an explosion or not and it seemed like a good idea to "leave the area."  The pilot would allow himself to be pushed and dragged for a few feet, but would then turn and stare at the burning aircraft in shock and total disbelief.  Everyone else was eager to get as far from the aircraft as possible, including our two passengers. . .who were SeaBee Hard Hat divers wanting to say they had been to the "South Pole" . . . they got their wish and then some.
The outside temperature at the time was -57.  To my knowledge no one ever talked about "Wind Chill" even though the wind was usually blowing anywhere from 10 to 30 knots and often even more than that.  What difference does it make if it is -57 or -90 with the "wind chill"?  Cold is cold.   
At the time of impact, the only people in the crew that were wearing their parkas on were the load master and the passengers because they were the only people planning on leaving the aircraft.  Of the rest of the flight crew only the flight engineer and the Navigator Instructor were "smart enough," or calm enough, to retrieve and wear their parkas.  The rest of us were leaving with the standard "waffleweave" and flight suits.  Because of the adrenaline rush, no one noticed the cold for quite some time.
We began our transit to the "Old Pole Station" en masse.  After about 1000 feet, we were picked up by a D-8 Caterpillar that was headed back to the station.  The driver was totally stunned to find the crew walking on the skiway.   
At the station, manned by a total of 8 people, we found the remaining 7 members packing "body bags" on sleds.  To say they were surprised would be a gross understatement.  They were shocked!  From what they could see, the rising fireball and the "instant" silence from the radios, they believed that there were certainly fatalities (they believed we had all perished).  
The aircraft had, in addition to a lot of "miscellaneous" cargo, two fuel bladders holding "engine" fuel for the reciprocating engines on the equipment at the station.  One of the bladders was secured to the ramp and was pulled free when the aircraft broke in half.   The bladder caught fire from either friction or the burning fuel from the wing stubs.  It did burn for several hours and made a hole that was close to 100 feet deep.  The smoke could be seen rising from the hole for several hours.
I don't think anyone got any sleep during the time we waited for a rescue flight from McMurdo.   I was part of the group that went back and walked through the crash field before the rescue and accident investigation team arrived.  The time from the crash until our "rescue" return to McMurdo was about 18 hours.    

It was several days before I got to resume my "training", but the rest of my tour and the years that followed were concluded without any further mishaps. 

. . where I was involved. . .thank goodness.

Dave Crouse
LCDR, USN (Ret.)

917a.jpg (38164 bytes) Final Stop                 917b.jpg (84514 bytes)  Port inboard engine
        917c.jpg (30572 bytes) Starboard view tail section   917d.jpg (72525 bytes) Port Wing
917e.jpg (30244 bytes) Starboard Full View.
Note: Smoke and steam can be seen rising from the hole where the fuel bladder burned into the snow. The photo is 12 to 16 hours after the crash.
917f.jpg (87152 bytes) Wheel, strut and ski. Acft. in background.
917g.jpg (43372 bytes) Rear view from stbd. aft.   917h.jpg (47872 bytes) Debris field and wing fuel tank

                                              917i.jpg (39628 bytes) Long View of parts and skid marks   
917j.jpg (88294 bytes) Second long view of skid marks and parts


After looking at some of the "other" pages relating to 917, I realize that I did not give any credit to whoever took the pictures that I included with the "short story".   
I see that one of the photos that is credited to Ralph Lewis is identical, or very close, to one that I included in the 10 that I sent to you.   
I cannot confirm that the photos were given to me by Ralph Lewis. . .I know that there were a few people from the crew and the station that returned to the crash site while things were still "hot". . The fuel bladder was putting out black smoke from the burning rubber. . .and I didn't think anyone had a camera at that time.   I, in all of my wisdom, made a pencil drawing (Attached) of the crash area.  It was/is very crude but does give a reasonable layout of the debris and main body.   
If you know Ralph Lewis, or if you can find out who the originator of the photos was, they should get the credit for the photos.  Of all I have seen, not including the "official" photos, the ones I included seem to the the best.  They were given to me at McMurdo, but for the life of me, I cannot remember the individual.
In looking at some of the "history" of the incident, I see names that are not familiar to me. . .in particular the name of the Marine Major. . .I know for a fact that the name given is NOT the Marine Major that was the pilot of  917.
Dave Crouse
P.S.  If I can help with any research, I do have access to some of the OAEs' of the 72-76 era.

WOW, that is an amazing story. Between '95 and 2000 I have accumulated 22 months at South Pole, with a winter-over in '98. I've always have been curious as to how the events of that fateful date in '73 came about. Over the years, it never seemed anyone on station had much information about the crash. Ultimately the pilot in command made a tough call. Thankfully you all walked away without any long term disabilities. From your initial perception after set down on the skiway, it must have been shocking to soon find out that the C130 was in numerous pieces, on fire, and your evacuation was the utmost priority. Dave Pernic and I spent a few days in late '97 trying to dig down to the aft ramp beneath the tail section. We even had a few enthusiastic people assist us during that time. It was an exhausting endeavor that really didn't make much result. We did get to the base of the elevator, but that is about as far as we went. I suppose it was about 20 feet below the surface at that time. I believe the tail is completely subsurface now.  We thought it would be a great idea to unearth the fuselage and make a Ceremonial South Pole Bar out of it. Your story surely gives credence to the words 'WAVE OFF'.
Jon Conrad
South Pole electrician

I am down here now and thought you might like to know people are still
digging down and touring the wreck.  It will not be possible much longer so
I also plan to take a peak before the sun comes up.  Also thought you might
like a picture of a 130 from this summer.
Paul Daniels
Raytheon Polar Services Company

I remember that, I was at McMurdo at the time.  One story circulating around there, was that there was an RM3
Coast Guardsman aboard, who had been told that 'snow landings' were very rough, and for him not to worry too much.  After the landing, he supposedly asked the loadmaster if he could get out now, and was told, get your tail moving, we crashed.
SKCS John E. Wilson, USN(Ret), call sign, "Bozo Hammer".

The guys flying 917 tried to duck under some low lying skud. When they realized
that they were looking at the snow surface and not clouds they tried to go around but drug the aft section of the empenage. The wings flexed so much that you could see where they dug into the ski-way. The wings separated outboard of the inboard engines making what was left a twin engine fireball. The tail section pealed off from right to left and two rubber fuel bladders on pallets exited the aircraft catching fire on the way out. The hole in the ski-way was about a thousand feet deep and still burning when I arrived the next day with the investigation team.
Bob O'Keefe

The report I read concerning the last flight of 917 was that it was caused by the lack of the proper flap setting at the altitude of Pole Station. The pictures that were sent to me showed a really demolished C-130. I remember the year that we first got 917, it seems that it took forever to get her from the states to the ice. Something about range and bad winds as I remember it.

So much for the pylon tanks, huh. Lennie

I was crewmember on the aircraft when it crashed at Pole Station. Only 23 at the time and "bullet proof". It has been some time now that I had thought about it. For many years afterwards I relived the crash. It will never go away. I sensed something very wrong on the decent that day. I was in the cargo compartment and having made enough Ice landings, you have that "sixth sense" that kicks in that "somethings"

The Support personnel were rather shaken up with the landing to say the least. I guess we all were. We couldn't go out through the rear of the cargo compartment because of the smoke. I remember the details very distinctly. I watched the tail separate and the rubber "mo-gas" bladder lift up and shoot through the opening between the tail and main cargo section. It seemed like an eternity before the plane stopped sliding.

The pilot of C130 #917 was a Marine: Major Allen. He was my AC.

Patrick Yoas (former AE- USN)

3-02 ZTC-1 Loadmaster Hazard

 Crew members listed.
Maj. Allen
NAV Lcdr Wiebelhaus
Eng Don Miller, 2nd Eng Joe Donahue
Loadmaster ABH2 David Hazard
Inflight Scanner AE3 Patrick Yoas

Dave, I was the loadmaster on 155917 the day it crashed at the S. Pole. David V Hazard ABCS USN AC RET

You can add your input by e-mailing to

<bgsound src="antarctc.mid" loop=infinite>