Aircraft 153995 Crashed and Burned.

An entry in the August 1970 Command Chronology stated, "25 Aug. 1970, Aircraft 153995 crashed and burned. There were no fatalities.  The crash is under investigation."  After locating the After Action Report, with the final entry at AT814384 of "flight terminated", and conferring with as many of the crew as could be found the following depicts what happened.

YK-16 with her crew:
 


1stLt. Don Chretien
Pilot

1stLt. Gary W. Benson
Copilot

Cpl. Charles L. Bassett
Crew Chief
and two gunners, a SSgt. D. S. Stewart and one TAD gunner identified only as Davis. 
No photographs are available for these two Marines

They departed Marble Mountain Air Facility at 0620 on Mission 85 and 73 tasked with transporting combat troops and logistical support of various units.  By 1140 they had completed seventeen sorties and were preparing to deliver two troops, an internal load of various ammunition including some mortar rounds.  They also were delivering food consisting of steak dinners and the always appreciated container of ice cream and a sack of mail.  One routine medical evacuee was also along for a ride to the nearest medical facility.  The aircraft had ben refueled one sortie prior to this approach to a hilltop out post south of the An Hoa Combat Base. 

The normal routine in the cockpit was to alternate the tasks of landing and takeoff between the two pilots.  On this approach to the hilltop LZ it was Lt. Benson's turn.  The approach began and Cpl. Bassett was hanging out his crew door getting ready to pass clearance information on the LZ to Lt. Benson when he noticed they were making their approach downwind.  It was possible that the LZ orientation to the terrain and/or other obstructions made this the only way in.  Cpl. Bassett noticed they were losing altitude too rapidly, possibly due to power settling, and keyed his intercom saying, "Get it Up!  Get it Up."  The settling continued even though power was applied and the nose of the aircraft began to pitch up but the rotor RPM was beginning to drop off.  It was too late, the aircraft slammed into a 106 recoilless rifle bunker short of the LZ, bounced into the air again with a nose high attitude and began to move backwards.

Lt. Chretien took the controls and slammed the collective down in an attempt gain rotor RPM and plant the aircraft solidly on the side of the hill.  This would have probably worked in the long run if one, or both, of the fuel tanks had not been ruptured on either the first impact or second landing.  The entire aft end of the helicopter exploded.  After the initial fireball the rotor blades went out of synchronization, made contact with each other and separated from the aircraft.  When all movement ceased Lt. Benson released the emergency door next to his seat and departed the aircraft.  SSgt. D. S. Stewart exited through the window of his machine gun location and then proceeded to the rear of the helicopter to assist the passengers who exited through the fire at the rear of the aircraft.  The other gunner, Davis, and Cpl. Bassett departed the crew door.

Cpl. Bassett began running up the hill toward the LZ only to have his pistol belt slip down over his hips, tangle around his feet and send him sprawling face first into the dirt.  Sheepishly he stood up, rearranged his pistol belt and started up the hill again only to find the men in the bunker area yelling at him, waving their arms, and pointing back down the hill toward the burning aircraft.  When he turned around he saw Lt. Chretien still in the cockpit.  Cpl. Bassett raced back to the burning aircraft, removed the pilot's escape hatch, pulled the release handle to the armor plating of the seat and noticed that Lt. Chretien had released his seat belt and shoulder harness and was ready to jump out.  Lt. Cretin had forgotten to unplug the cord to his helmet and that jerked his head back into the cockpit.  The helmet was removed, tossed back into the cockpit, and both ran back up the hill through a maze of concertina wire where they each became entangled in the wire.  Then the first of the onboard mortars cooked off, they had no additional problems freeing themselves or making it the rest of the way to the top of the hill.  Lt. Benson, who had already reached the top of the hill, dove into a hole when the first onboard mortar cooked off and broke his arm.

The aircraft burned for a considerable time due to the large amount of jet fuel on board and there were numerous associated explosions from the internal load of ammunition scheduled for the LZ.  When the fire diminished and no further explosions, their chase aircraft, YK-15, landed to extract the crew and the passengers who had suffered some serious burns.  The burn victims and Lt. Benson were delivered to the NSA Hospital at DaNang and the rest of the crew returned to Marble Mountain with the exception of Cpl. Bassett who remained at the site for the recovery team to arrive.

Epilogue 371/2 Years Later

Cpl. James L. Bassett
Recalls vividly, and in slow motion, the fire ball that rushed to meet him after the initial explosion as well as the sight of one rotor blade slicing through the cabin, cutting it almost in half.  He reflects on the pistol belt tripping him up and considers it very comical now.  He still wonders about the well being of those passengers who suffered extensive burns.  He knows they were evacuated to Japan and hopes they are doing well today.  He also recalls that 25 August 1970 was one of the few days he was wearing all of his flight gear correctly; flight suit zipped up, nomex gloves on, legs velcroed around his boots, visor down on his helmet - everything right. He believes that is why the fire ball rushing up the length of the cabin did not burn him also.

After reaching the top of the hill he recalls the the men fussing at him about the loss of their ice cream.  They also lamented the fact that their outpost defenses were not as good as they believed because the crew and passengers had come up the hill through a mine field.  Bassett didn't know if he should believe them but, there was only one way to go and that was up the hill.

After reaching the top of the hill, Cpl. Bassett and Lt. Chretien were leaning up against a bunker as the aircraft continued to burn and the ordnance continued to explode down the hill.  One of seriously burned passengers was brought to them and they were asked to watch and care for him.  He had very little clothing left, his skin was black and peeling.  Cpl. Bassett was amazed that the man was not in pain and related, "I guess that's what burns do."

Cpl. Bassett had just recently been assigned to Bureau No. 153995 which the squadron had just received as a replacement for another YK-16 that was lost on a night medical evacuation mission eighteen days prior on 7 August 1970.  Bassett had named his YK-16 "The Phoenix III" referencing the mythical bird that rose from ashes to fly again.  Two other CH-46s had borne the same nickname.  Cpl. Bassett retrieved the outboard end of one of the rotor blades and painted it with, "Phoenix The Third - Ghost Bird", and the names of the crew, and presented it to the pilots.  He believes it was hung in the Pilot's Ready Room.

1stLt. Don Chretien
"Hi Charlie,

Great to hear from you directly.  I don't recall much about the aftermath of the crash.  I guess the adrenaline was running quite high thereafter.  I probably felt so bad about the burn victims that I'd blocked that out of my mind.  I do recall someone saying we had navigated through a mine field on the way up that hill. But I wasn't sure if that was true or not.  I don't know what happened to the blade you brought out but you certainly deserve to have it.

Thank you for your efforts that day Charlie, I truly appreciated your taking such a risk to come to my aid.  I have two daughters who when reading about this incident ( I had not shared it with them before), cried over what potentially could have happened to me that faithful day.  I was also told by my mother, many years ago, that on approximately that same day, she was cleaning in my old room and my picture fell off the wall.  It really shook her up and she suspected something had gone terribly wrong. Thanks to you, the worse did not happen and I have lead a very fulfilling life to date.  I am now retired living in Maine and enjoying all that life has given me.

Thanks again, Semper Fi,

Don"

  Crew of YK-16

1stLt. Don Chretien Pilot
1stLt. Gary W. Benson Copilot
Cpl. Charles L. Bassett Crew Chief
Rank? First? Davis Gunner
SSgt. D. S. Stewart Gunner

After Action Report

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