Helicopter CH-53A 153710


Information on U.S. Marine Corps helicopter CH-53A tail number 153710
Date: 01/08/1968
Incident number: 68010863.KIA
Unit: HMH-463
South Vietnam
UTM grid coordinates: YD234260
Casualties = 46 KIA . . Number killed in accident = 46 . . Passengers = 41
Original source(s) and document(s) from which the incident was created or updated: Defense Intelligence Agency Helicopter Loss database. Army Aviation Safety Center database. Also: OPERA, MAG-16 Unit History (Operations Report. )
Summary: Aircraft accident, crashed into mountain during IFR flight.
Loss to Inventory

Crew Members:
AC CPT SCHRAM FREDERICK LLOYD KIA
P CPT CHAPMAN JOHN THOMAS KIA
CE CPL STRAND PHILIP STANLEY JR KIA
G SSG OLSON BENNETT WALFRED KIA
G CPL VENEGAS VERNON BERNABE KIA

Passengers and/or other participants:
PFC BARRY KENNETH DONALD, MC, PX, KIA
PFC CURRY HOVEY RICE, MC, PX, KIA
SMA CYR LAWRENCE JOSEPH, MC, PX, KIA
SGT DAY MICHAEL ROBERT, MC, PX, KIA
PFC DIAZ DANIEL, MC, PX, KIA
CPL DIETZ GARY PHILIP, MC, PX, KIA
1LT DORNAK LEONARD EDWARD, MC, PX, KIA
PFC EADDY ISHMELL, MC, PX, KIA
COL ELLIS GEORGE WALTER, MC, PX, KIA
PFC FENNELL ALTON JIMMY, MC, PX, KIA
LCP FOX RONALD LEE, MC, PX, KIA
SGT FULWIDER DANIEL RAYMOND, MC, PX, KIA
SGT GARZA VICENTE, MC, PX, KIA
SSG GRIMES THOMAS ALLEN, MC, PX, KIA
2LT HALL MICHAEL JENNINGS, MC, PX, KIA
LCP HETLAND RONALD LEE, MC, PX, KIA
PVT KIRSCHNER STEPHEN BENJAMI, MC, PX, KIA
LCP MAY CRAIG NOLAN, MC, PX, KIA
LCP MILLER JAMES IRVIN, MC, PX, KIA
CPL NICHOLSON DAVID DONELL, MC, PX, KIA
PFC PATRICK JERRY, MC, PX, KIA
LCP PINTAR JAMES ALBERT, MC, PX, KIA
WO1 PRICE MILLARD ERNEST JR, MC, PX, KIA
LCP PROTANO GUY JERRY JR, MC, PX, KIA
CPL RUMLEY RICHARD ALLEN, MC, PX, KIA
LCP SCHAUTTEET LOUIS L JR, MC, PX, KIA
SGT SIGMON HAROLD WAYNE, MC, PX, KIA
LCP SMITH CHARLES HERBERT, MC, PX, KIA
LCP TEETER GARY ALAN, MC, PX, KIA
PFC UGINO JOHN JOSEPH, MC, PX, KIA
LCP VAUGHT MICHAEL EUGENE, MC, PX, KIA
LCP WHITE CRAIG PRESTON, MC, PX, KIA
PFC WHITE RAYMOND, MC, PX, KIA
1LT BARDACH ALAN JENSEN, MC, PX, KIA
CPL FREEMAN GLENN WAYNE, MC, PX, KIA
HM3 JACKSON DONNEY LYRCE, MC, PX, KIA
HM2 JONES HALCOTT PRIDE JR, MC, PX, KIA
HM3 SHAFFER WALLACE CLAIR JR, MC, PX, KIA
PFC WILSON ROBERT CHARLES, MC, PX, KIA
CPT ZIRFAS EWALD, AR, PX, KIA
SGT SKARMAN ORVAL HARRY, MC, PX, KIA


War Story:
The MAG-16 Command Chronology for 8 Jan reads: "At 1915H one HMH-463 CH-53A (YH-37 Bureau Number 153710) was declared overdue and missing after disappearing during an IFR flight. Search and rescue operations commenced." On the 9th and 10th, "The search for the missing CH-53A aircraft continued with negative sightings and search operations hampered by inclement weather." On the 11th, "The wreckage of the missing CH-53A aircraft was sighted by search aircraft at coord. YD234260, no apparent survivors. Adverse weather conditions precluded a search of the crash site until 19 Jan when a recon team was inserted. The aircraft suffered severe burn damage and there was no possibility of survivors." In the casualties (hostile) section, the names of the five crew members are listed and the place is described at 18 miles S Dong Ha, RVN. Ray Kelley's request for details on Fred Schram's plane crash definitely gave me goose bumps in terms of a 30-year flashback. I have been to the mass grave site at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery outside of St. Louis several times and I have spent time both at the grave marker for Fred's crash, as well as at the grave marker for Bill Dietz and Lou Tessier's crash. This area of the cemetery is reserved for mass graves, primarily crashes from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. As you may recall, I grew up in St. Louis and my folks retired to Columbia, Missouri. So when I flew into St. Louis to visit them periodically, while they were still living, prior to starting the several hour drive to Columbia, I sometimes took a detour to the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery to spend some time in quiet revere before I went on to visit my folks. Each time that experience provoked for me a lot of the same reactions that I have when I visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. Hearing that Ron Fox's mother and sister have been wondering what the details of the crash were for over 30 years gave me goose bumps from a slightly different perspective. Fred Schram's dad was a captain for United Airlines, whom I never met. However, since Fred and I were the closest of friends and lived in the same hooch in Vietnam (together with Ben Collins, Jerry McClees and later Rich Carlson), our adjutant, Bill Arnold, asked me to write the letter to Fred's parents after the crash. After I got back from Vietnam, I always felt I owed it to Fred's dad, as a fellow aviator, to sit down and go through the details of the crash with him, thinking it would weigh heavily on my mind if I had a son who died flying. As Dante said, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions;" inasmuch as I never had Fred's dad's address or phone number, I never made the connection with him and I presume he is no longer alive. So to find out someone was still out there who cared about the details of the crash was a little eerie for me. With that said, I guess Ray Kelley's inquiry offers me the opportunity for a piece of atonement for someone else's piece of mind vis-a-vis the accident. The cause of the accident, in my mind, would be attributable to "multiple factors", including poor ground communications, poor aircraft antenna design, combat environment, weather and, most regrettably, pilot error. It pains me to say the last, as Fred was my great friend and companion but, nonetheless, it is regrettably true. The story unfolded something like this. Fred and his co-pilot, John Chapman, were flying a reasonably routine logistics flight. As I recall, they had had a mission flying out of Dong Ha for the day with resupplies to the Demilitarized Zone and/or Khe Sahn. In the afternoon, at the end of their mission, they were returning to Danang from Dong Ha and were requested to take a load of passengers from Dong Ha to Phu Bai. It was monsoon season and the weather was overcast with the ceiling at approximately 1,000 feet. As you will no doubt recall, the Marine Corps insisted on proving its full capabilities by running air traffic control for all of I Corps and refused to turn air traffic control over to the Air Force, even though the Air Force wanted to take over the job and had the communications and personnel to do the job properly. One result of having Marine Corps air traffic control was that they could only communicate within one sector and had no land line communications to the next sector. Therefore, when we took off IFR (instrument flight rules; I realize I should define some of these terms for Ray Kelley and Mrs. Fox's understanding; I, of course, know you know what they mean, Dean), we did not have a through clearance to our destination, as we normally would have, if we were flying IFR in the United States or any place else in the world. In other words, you had a flight clearance to the end of a sector, then you had to call the next sector after you were already airborne IFR to tell them where you were and to get flight clearance into the next sector. Thus, for Fred's flight from Dong Ha, he would have anticipated receiving a clearance from Dong Ha departure control for their area, and a second clearance from Hue approach control for clearance into the Phu Bai airport for landing. On the flight from Dong Ha to Phu Bai (based on my discussions with Paul Walton , who was our squadron's safety officer and who did the accident investigation), the tapes showed that Fred was cleared out of Dong Ha on the 180° radial at 2,000 feet for 10 miles, with instructions to contact Hue approach/control for further clearance. Fred took off at 16:40 (local time) and flew the route for which they had been cleared. (Since receiving your e-mail on Tuesday, I have checked my Vietnam diary notes to verify Fred's take off time, radials, DME's and some of the other details). Once they were airborne, they called Hue approach control for further clearance. (They were IFR in the clouds at this time and unable to see the ground). They reported into Hue approach control on the 310° radial of the Phu Bai tacan at 21 miles. Hue approach control cleared them for IFR flight and an approach to the Phu Bai airport, but instructed them to remain clear of various "save-a-planes". (As you know, Dean, "save-a-planes"are live artillery firings which are underway in an area and approach control would give us the location from which artillery was firing, the height of the firing and the impact of the firing or, alternatively, give us designated radials to fly to avoid the artillery). According to the tapes of the conversations, the save-a-planes apparently were complicated and it took some time for Fred and John to read them back to make sure they had them correct. In the process of continuing to communicate with Hue approach control (and presumably because they already had a flight clearance in hand), they continued past the 10-mile flight clearance limit which Dong Ha had given them and continued to fly on the same heading and altitude. Dong Ha approach control was tracking them as they flew. When they did not change heading and apparently had not started to climb, Dong Ha approach attempted to call them on "guard" (emergency) frequency to warn them that they were approaching mountainous terrain. As you may recall, on the CH 53A's which we were flying, there was only one UHF antenna and it was located in front of the "dog house" (the Plexiglas area that surrounds the hydraulics in front of the rotor mast). As a result of the location of the antenna, if a ground station was calling you from directly on your tail (which was Dong Ha departure control's location relative to Fred's aircraft), you often could not hear the transmission. You would have to turn 30° in order to allow the antenna to receive the message. This was a reasonably well known phenomenon amongst those of us in HMH 463 and the Naval Systems Command had ordered a fix, with a second antenna to be installed on the horizontal stabilizer. While some of the aircraft on the mainland had been retrofitted to solve this problem, none of our aircraft in Vietnam had been retrofitted as of January 1968. As a result, despite repeated calls from Dong Ha departure control, attempting to warn Fred of the hazard, Fred and John apparently heard none of their transmissions. Dong Ha departure control lost radar contact with the aircraft on the Dong Ha 190° radial at 17 miles. As you know, at our normal cruise speed in the CH 53 we flew about 2-1/2 miles per minute, so the time involved to go from 10 nautical miles to 17 nautical miles would have been a little less than 3 minutes. Although Fred reported into Hue approach control on the 310° radial at 21 miles, Hue never made radar contact with Fred. Fred never canceled his instrument flight plan, never landed at Phu Bai and Hue approach never reported them missing. When Fred's helicopter did not return to Marble Mountain, the squadron tried to locate him. Jerry McClees was the operations duty officer that day. When I heard Fred was overdue, initially, I was not too concerned. However, as the evening wore on without any word from his flight, I went down to the ready room. Jerry was there with Vic Lee, our operations officer. They had called every airfield in I Corps and Fred's helicopter had not landed at any of the other airfields. SAR (search and rescue) boats were launched up and down the coast without results. The weather was low overcast with rain and Phu Bai operations deemed the weather conditions too bad to launch SAR flights that night. According to my diary, I checked on the maps in our ready room and determined that in the area where Dong Ha departure control last had contact with Fred, the three highest mountain tops were at 2,800, 3,000 and 3,200 feet. The next day and the day after the weather remained too bad to conduct SAR flights. As you and I know, a number of crashes occurred in Vietnam where the effort to find the wreckage was fairly limited, if the crash site location was not readily ascertainable. For instance, Bill Dietz and Lou Tessier's crash site was not found until several months after they crashed (and not until you and I had our "40° lock off " experience leaving Phu Bai and, as a result, figured out what had happened to Bill and Lou; which, of course, is another story). However, in the case of Fred's crash, with the SAR flights grounded, a force of recon Marines and a Marine engineering company made efforts, on the 9th and 10th of January, to find Fred's crash site from the ground . This amount of effort was unusual. We were later told that the reason for this extraordinary effort was not due to the large number of people who were on board the helicopter, but instead was due to the fact that one of the people on board was the G2 officer for the Third Marine Amphibious Force, a bird colonel, who had a fire proof attaché case with him which contained all of the defensive maps for the entire DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), including the locations for all of the defensive mine fields. This was the reason for the Herculean effort to locate the crash site from the ground during the bad weather; General Walt wanted to know whether the security of the DMZ had been compromised by the North Vietnamese finding the crash site first and getting the maps. On the 11th, the weather improved enough, for intermittent brief periods, so some limited SAR flights could be launched but the crash site was not located. The crash was found on January 12 on the Dong Ha 202° radial at 16 nautical miles at an elevation of 3,100 ft. on the 3,200 ft. mountain. They had just missed clearing the mountain! I flew over the crash site a day or two later. It was clear that there had been a devastating impact and explosion and that everyone must have died instantly. The crash site was clearly visible through the 60-ft. jungle canopy on the mountain. By the way, I understand the recon Marines recovered the Colonel's attaché case with the maps intact. To my knowledge, in terms of fatalities, Fred's crash remains the worst helicopter tragedy in the history of the world. I guess two other footnotes may be worth mentioning. Because the Marine Corps' terrain maps were designed for the infantry, they were awkward to work with in the cockpit. Fred went over to the Air Force facility at Danang around November or December and acquired Air Force VFR maps for Vietnam which showed both the airways and terrain for all of I Corps in a very usable format. Fred and I had studied these maps, including circling minimum safe altitudes in each quadrant and carried them with us so that if we inadvertently went IFR, we would always know what our minimum safe altitude was. This, of course, turns out to be an ironic initiative, since at the crucial moment, Fred was preoccupied with save-a-planes, as opposed to minimum altitude. I presume this is because he felt he was in an IFR environment, and about to fly a flight clearance which should have protected him from the terrain; as opposed to improvising for minimum safety altitude in an inadvertent IFR situation. I assume, based on his movement from the 180° radial to the 202° radial and his 3,100 ft. altitude at the time of impact, that they had started to climb to a new assigned altitude and were navigating to a new fix assigned by Hue approach. It's hard to know for sure. The other footnote is that we had been flying both VFR and IFR up and down the coast of I Corps for seven months and knew the terrain well. However, I think most of the pilots subconsciously thought of the coastal route as being north-south, which basically it was. However, between Dong Ha and Hai Van Pass, (south of Phu Bai), the coastline compass heading goes slightly northwest-southeast by about 30°. If one remains along the coast, all of the terrain is flat, basically at sea level. After Fred's crash I asked 10 of our squadron pilots, without a map in front of them, what they thought the course heading was up and down the coastline below Dong Ha. 9 out of 10 of them replied "north-south or 360°/180°". That was also my impression prior to Fred's crash. My point is that while Fred had flown over this route for over 7 months, in both VFR and IFR conditions, I believe his mental mindset was that when leaving Dong Ha on the 180° radial he would be flying over the lowlands and rice paddies. I think this mistaken assumption may have meant that clearing terrain was not even a concern in his mind. Obviously, it was a very fatal mistake, one which apparently 9 out of 10 of us might have made. As we both know, when you're flying, preoccupation with one safety item can cause another one to reach up and grab you with a true vengeance. I'll leave it for you to forward this on to Ray Kelley. If he wants to provide me with either his address or with Mrs. Fox's address, I do have a newspaper clipping and photograph from the July 22, 1968 St. Louis Post Dispatch of the burial ceremony and report of the air crash. If they would like to have a copy, I would be happy to send them one or answer any other questions they might have, although I think the foregoing pretty well sets forth most of what I know and recall. If you succeed in getting a copy of the official accident report, I'd be very interested in seeing it. Semper Fi 13 Feb 1998, Peter Starn

This record was last updated on 06/13/2008


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