When his B-52 bomber was struck by a North Vietnamese missile, the pilot ordered a bailout, but the navigator’s ejection seat failed and he had just seconds to find another way out of the burning plane.
A B-52 Stratofortress with the call sign Ruby Two, under the command of Lt. Col. Gerald Wickline, flew over North Vietnam the night of Jan. 3, 1973, on a bombing mission. It was supposed to be a milk run, easier and safer than a recent raid. It wasn’t. Since the first B-52s began flying in the early 1950s, only 18 of the 744 planes put into the air have fallen to enemy fire—all in the Vietnam War. The last one was Wickline’s.
Wickline and his crew had just completed a pair of missions that destroyed a railroad on the north side of Hanoi and nearby Phuc Yen airfield as part of Operation Linebacker II. More than 1,000 missiles had shot down 15 B-52s over Hanoi and Haiphong during 11 nights in late December. “There were so many surface-to-air missiles fired at us during those missions, they looked like swarms of fireflies,” Wickline recalled. When the SAM onslaught was finished, 32 crew members were dead and 35 had become prisoners of war.
Wickline’s crew was exhausted, relieved and happy to be alive after 30 combat hours in the air and a long trip from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, to their new station at U-Tapao airfield, Thailand.
On January 3, only three days after his last Linebacker II mission, Wickline was ordered to strike the city of Vinh, a North Vietnamese industrial and agricultural center midway between Hanoi and the South Vietnamese city of Hue on the main north-south coastal highway and rail line. Wickline’s Ruby Two was part of a nineship wave of B-52s that departed from U-Tapao at 2:43 a.m. Vietnam time. Their target, a truck park 15 miles northwest of Vinh, was about an hour and a half away.
Wickline had an experienced crew from Dyess Air Force Base in Texas: Captain Bill Milcarek, co-pilot; Captain Myles McTernan, navigator; Major Roger Klingbeil, radar navigator; Captain Bill Fergason, electronic warfare officer; and Tech. Sgt. Carlos Killgore, tail gunner.
Flying toward Vinh, Ruby Two was next to last in the string of aircraft.
“I wasn’t happy to be next to last,” McTernan said. “We’d learned from previous missions that the SAM operators aligned their sights on the first few aircraft. By the time the last planes flew over, they were able to aim their missiles more accurately. But I told myself not to worry; it was a milk run, and we were veterans of Linebacker II.”
As the planes drew closer to their target, “we saw lots of triple-A [anti-aircraft artillery] fire over Vinh,” Wickline recalled, “more than I ever saw before, including the two missions over Hanoi. Several missiles were fired at planes ahead of us, and at the other two waves of B-52s hitting targets west and southwest of Vinh.”
At 40 seconds before bombs away, Wickline and Milcarek saw the distant flashes of four SAMs off their left wing. All the missiles appeared stationary in the windshield, which usually meant that the North Vietnamese had locked onto the aircraft with radar, even momentarily, and the SAMs were being guided straight to Ruby Two.
“Ruby Two was the bull’s-eye,” Wickline said. “I maneuvered to avoid the incoming. The first SAM whizzed by our nose and detonated just above us. The tail gunner reported the second missile missed our tail by only 50 feet and exploded just above us. I lost track of the third and fourth missiles, but it didn’t matter. There was no time left to dodge. We were 10 seconds from the target, and I needed to fly straight and level to get an accurate bomb drop.”
As the last of the 108 500-pound bombs fell from the aircraft, one of the North Vietnamese missiles found its target.
“We were rocked by a tremendous explosion directly below our nose,” recalled Wickline. “Three windows on my side of the cockpit shattered and showered us with broken glass. The emergency light for No. 1 engine came on, and unquenchable flames spurted from the engine pod.”
Wickline shut down the damaged engine. “All of my flight instruments, including airspeed and attitude were out,” he said. “The glass in most of the engine instruments on both sides of the cockpit was shattered, and they no longer worked. All hydraulic power to the left wing was out, and all fuel gauges on the left wing were either spinning or stuck. I polled the crew. Everyone answered except Sergeant Killgore. A few minutes later we felt a thump and heard his parachute beeper go off.”
Flames, which the rest of the crew could not see, forced the gunner to bail out on his own. Killgore, riding in the gun turret at the rear of the plane and facing aft, jettisoned the turret, leaving nothing but air in front of his seat, then leaned forward, fell clear of the aircraft and pulled the rip cord to open his parachute.
Catastrophe struck the two men on the lower deck, eight feet below and 15 feet behind Wickline’s seat on the top deck. A fuel-transfer valve above radar navigator Klingbeil’s head was destroyed by shrapnel, and a highly flammable jet propellant, JP-4, poured out, soaking Klingbeil and McTernan, leaving severe chemical burns on their exposed skin. Klingbeil, the most severely burned, screamed in pain.
“The lower deck was floating in jet fuel,” Wickline said. “I worried if they could get out. The escape hatches were filled with JP-4. Any tiny spark could ignite the fumes and destroy the aircraft.”
The crew members were extremely concerned about the leaking fuel. “We didn’t even want to shut down our equipment on the lower deck because we were afraid moving a switch could create that spark,” McTernan said.
Two sister B-52s stayed with Ruby Two as Wickline started the descent. He leveled off at 12,000 feet about 90 miles north of the U.S. base at Da Nang. The huge Stratofortress was barely controllable. Every time Wickline attempted to slow down, the aircraft would start a roll to the right and could be straightened only by increasing the airspeed. “The fire in the No. 1 pod continued to burn intermittently, and I lost control over the No. 8 engine throttle,” he said. “I think it was running at idle. As near as I could tell, the other six engines were working OK, but I didn’t have reliable instruments, so I couldn’t be sure.”
Wickline and co-pilot Milcarek struggled to keep the plane in the air for the next half-hour as they flew toward the safety of the 17th parallel and South Vietnamese airspace. “As soon as I heard over the radio that rescue forces from the USS Saratoga were in contact with Sergeant Killgore,” Wickline noted, “I turned out to sea and ordered bailout about 20 miles east of Da Nang.”
Wickline fired up the big red warning light and shouted over the interphone: “Bailout. Bailout. Bailout.” It was now about 5 a.m., and the crew members prepared to jettison into the pre-dawn China Sea, illuminated mostly by the fire that began to consume their plane.
On the lower deck the spilled fuel still worried McTernan. “I tried not to think that the entire airplane could become an instant fireball if the ejection seat rockets ignited the fumes filling the cockpit,” he said. “I pulled my parachute straps so tight, I must have looked like Popeye.”
His lower-deck companion, Klingbeil, ejected. And at the same time, McTernan yanked the trigger ring between his legs. His seat was pushed back and downward. But the hatch didn’t blow as it was supposed to. “I heard the ejection seat thruster and felt the seat accelerate briefly,” McTernan said, “but there was no wind blast or ruffle of the parachute, and I felt no separation. I opened my eyes and saw the hatch must have been jammed by shrapnel from the missile explosion.” The thruster that normally propels the seat won’t fire if the hatch is not released. McTernan was trapped.
On the upper deck, Wickline heard two thumps below him and assumed that both McTernan and Klingbeil had ejected. By the time he turned his head to check on the electronic warfare officer, 15 feet behind the co-pilot, Wickline saw only a hole where Fergason’s escape hatch had been. Looking across the throttles at Milcarek, he said, “Bill, get the hell out of here.”
The co-pilot nodded, rotated his armrests and squeezed the triggers.
Wickline made a last call on the interphone to confirm that no crew member was still on board. “When no one responded,” he said, “I waited a few interminable seconds, pulled the throttles to idle and ejected.”
No one responded because a desperate McTernan on the lower deck could not reach his microphone switch.
“I heard Wickline call, ‘Anyone still on board?’ McTernan said. “I realized he didn’t know I was downstairs, but I couldn’t key my mic in time to tell him. As I reached for the foot switch, I heard the co-pilot eject, and I panicked. I wrestled with the seat belt so I could let Wickline know my predicament. I took a few seconds to get loose and climbed up to the platform between the downstairs seats. That’s when I heard Wickline eject, and my heart jumped into my throat.”
When Wickline left the plane, he felt a tremendous kick in the seat of his pants, a blast of cold air, a sense of severe tumbling and a sharp jolt, which tore the ejection seat from his hands. Then there was a loud pop, followed by intense silence.
“It all happened in seconds. I looked up, saw that beautiful big orange and white canopy above my head, and said, ‘Wickline, you lucky son of a gun. You’ve got it made now.’ Then I pulled off my oxygen mask and barfed into the South China Sea a few thousand feet below.”
Back in the plane, McTernan was all alone as the burning Stratofortress plunged toward the ocean 10,000 feet below. He knew he would die when it hit the water. McTernan had only seconds to get out.
“My only hope was to bail out through the hole left by the radar navigator’s ejection seat escape hatch,” McTernan said. “I crouched above it, rolled into a ball and fell through the hole into total darkness. I knew I bailed out a couple minutes behind the rest of the crew, and I’d land in the water miles from them. Though I remember nothing, I must have pulled the rip cord.”
As Wickline floated down, the B-52 pilot remembered he left his favorite cigarette lighter in the tray by his window. “I got furious at my forgetfulness,” he said, “but that passed quickly as I glanced at the horizon and saw Ruby Two explode into a huge reddish orange fireball.”
Wickline, Milcarek, Klingbeil and Fergason all reached the water safely, although Wickline had injured his shoulder, making his right arm useless as he tried to get into the life raft that deployed from the ejection seat, along with a survival kit.
“It took me about 15 agonizing minutes to claw my way into the life raft as waves as high as a house washed over me,” Wickline said. “Then I discovered I [had] crawled into the narrow end, which made the raft very unstable. I held on as I got tossed about, pulled out my survival radio, turned it on and waited.”
Wickline remembers sitting in his raft as the sun came up, about 6:10 a.m. Some 20 minutes later, more than an hour after bailout, the four men were picked up by a helicopter. A horse-collar device was lowered and pulled them up to the copter, which flew the men to Da Nang Air Base hospital, where they met up with Killgore.
The gunner had been rescued by the Saratoga and reported no injuries. Co-pilot Milcarek was in good shape. But Klingbeil, the radar navigator, suffered from blistering JP-4 burns. Fergason had a piece of helmet visor in his right eye (the visor must have shattered during ejection) but no permanent damage.
They had no word on McTernan, who, at that moment, was fighting the sea for his survival.
“When I woke up it was daylight,” McTernan remembered. “My chute floated behind me, my life preserver had inflated, and I was covered with blood. I couldn’t remember anything and thought I must have lost consciousness, but later they diagnosed it as pain amnesia.” McTernan’s life raft and survival kit, attached to the failed ejection seat, was back on the aircraft. “Only my life preserver kept me from drowning in 10-foot swells while I waited for rescue,” he said. “My last hope was that the choppers would come quickly.” They didn’t.
For four and a half hours, McTernan attempted to use the equipment from his survival vest worn by all B-52 crews on combat flights.
“Nothing worked, and I wasn’t doing much to help myself either,” he said. “I lost two radios and couldn’t ignite the two flare/smoke canisters. Somehow, I punctured my life preserver and needed to constantly re-inflate it by mouth.”
Barely afloat in the raging sea with no way to alert rescuers, McTernan knew death “might be only minutes away.”
The right side of his face had been smashed in during bailout. He was bleeding, burned by jet fuel and had cuts on all of his fingers. His insides were a mess from all the salt water he ingested, and—someone told him years later—he was in shark-infested waters.
“My parents even got a telegram that same day saying I was missing in action,” McTernan said recently, managing a slight smile.
Not until 10 years later at Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento, California, did McTernan learn how very close he came to being listed as killed in action.
“A fellow officer and I were sharing war stories,” McTernan recalled. “We discovered that he worked in command support at Da Nang at the time of my rescue. He told me the small fixed-wing aircraft searching for me turned back when its fuel approached Bingo [just enough to return to base]. As the craft made the turn to base, the pilot saw a spot of color on the ocean. I must have just hit the top of a wave and became briefly visible. The pilot radioed a helicopter to pick me up.”
McTernan looked thoughtful and added, “If that rescue plane hit Bingo fuel a few seconds later or earlier, or if the pilot made a right turn instead of left, or if I wasn’t at the top of the wave at the right instant, I never would have been found.”
Paul Novak, a decorated former B-52 navigator who teaches creative writing at an adult extension of Arizona State University in Phoenix, wrote about B-52 crews in his anthology, Into Hostile Skies.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.