Caribou Rescued from under Nose of Vietcong
Pride in their
ability and a challenging situation turned a "black day" for the
RAAF's Caribou Squadron Vietnam into a success story which echoes
the achievements of RAAF men in other wars.
It started with a Caribou of No. 35 Squadron Vietnam, crashing
while landing at the tiny Special Forces Camp at Ba To, 40 miles
south of Da Nang. Communications are so poor throughout Vietnam
that it was not until early evening, six hours after the crash,
that the Squadron's Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Charles
Melchert, knew anything of the accident. The report stated: "Wallaby
03, nosewheel collapsed while landing Ba To, no casualties" and
no other information was available.
By first light next day, a Caribou was on its way to Ba To. On
board was 35 Squadron's Engineering Officer, Flight Lieutenant
Wally Solomons and ten of his maintenance staff. They took along
spares to repair the nosewheel. Three hours flying time brought
them over Ba To, where the position of the crashed Caribou prevented
them from landing. It had come to rest with the tail section across
the centre of the strip, making it impossible to land another
aircraft. Worst of all, everything except the nosewheel seemed
to be damaged.
The relief Caribou then flew to Quang Nai, a distance of 25 miles
where the US Army provided an Iroquois helicopter to ferry people
and equipment to Ba To. On the ground at Ba To, Flt Lt Solomons
listed the things to be done before the crashed Caribou could
be flown out.
The port wing had to be replaced, a new engine was needed, the
undercarriage on the port side was a write-off as well as the
propellor and both sets of flaps, apart from new tyres, brake
drums and radio antennae that had been torn off by the smash.
All this to be done to get the Caribou airworthy without the luxury
of a hangar or worthwhile maintenance gear which was available
at Vung Tau. If these troubles were not enough, Ba To is situated
right in the centre of the "Ho Chi Minh Trail", running down the
East Coast of South Vietnam. At this point the trail is as much
as five miles wide, running through the hills and valleys around
To protect the Caribou from attempted destruction by VC Guerrillas
were 12 Special Forces men, the eleven man RAAF maintenance team,
three Sea Bees who were building roads in the area, and four Marines
whom Wing Commander Melchert had parachuted in to help in an emergency.
At night, the aircraft had to be left on the strip between the
first barbed wire defence and the second which surrounded the
There are nearly 70 Caribous in operation in Vietnam, but parts
are not readily available. After the list of requirements was
drawn up by Flt Lt Solomons, the big scrounge began. From Qui
Mhon came the flaps and propellor. A Caribou had burned out at
Vung Tau and from that wreckage came the wing. The US Army had
an engine without accessories and the RAAF had the tyres, brakes
and undercarriage. The small items were flown in once the aircraft
had been jacked up, the undercarriage shored with wood and the
aircraft dragged across the strip to the parking area, clearing
the strip for landings. The wing was the biggest problem. It had
to be flown into Ba To by a Chinook chopper from Quang Nai because
the strip would not take the Hercules that flew it from Vung Tau.
Once all the parts had arrived, the men set to with a will, stripping
the damaged wing, replacing the undercarriage and changing the
engine. Working in the sun without a hangar made the job harder.
At times, temperatures of 127 degrees Fahrenheit were recorded
by men working in the wing and engine compartments. The task was
made longer too by the fact that a lot of parts were second hand
and integrating control cables and linkages wasted valuable time.
"Charlie", the Vietcong, was not idle. On the third night, a machine
gun sprayed the area around the Special Forces Camp and the maintenance
men were ordered to the concrete "Last Stand" bunker. There were
no further disturbances that night.
On the following night, an infiltrator tried to breach the barbed
wire perimeter and tripped a signal flare and once more the RAAF
ground crew were ordered to the bunkers by the US Officer in Charge.
Around the spot where the flare had been ignited, the Marines
let loose with their grenade launchers and peppered the area with
Next day a VC Claymore mine was found set-up in one of the bunkers.
It was removed and harmlessly exploded. To stave off any last
day attempt to destroy the aircraft, Flt Lt Solomons dropped hints
among the local Vietnamese that the aircraft would take at least
14 days to repair. Towards the end of the sixth day however, after
having worked non stop every daylight hour, the Caribou was ready
Some parts of the aircraft control surfaces were held by chains.
The securing points for the flaps had been driven up into the
wing by the impact of the crash and a chain had to be passed through
them and lashed to the undercarriage to draw them into alignment.
The Squadron's Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Charles Melchert,
would only allow himself, his Flight Commander Flt Lt John McDonnell
and crewman Corporal M. "Buggsy" Rose on board the Caribou for
the take-off. To the relief of everyone, the take-off went without
a hitch and with the undercarriage in the "locked down" position
they flew all the way back to Vung Tau and safety.
The flaps which were held down by the chains were so close to
alignment that they required only two degrees of correction to
bring the aircraft into perfect trim.
Back at Vung Tau Flt Lt Solomons was asked what he intended to
do now the aircraft was safe. He said; "park it, sleep for two
days, and then I will see what can be done to get it flying again
on the Wallaby Airlines".
was re-typed and edited by Ron Cuskelly on 13 January 2007. It
is based on an undated and barely legible, spirit-duplicated Press
Release headed "Written by Public Relations". The bare minimum
editorial changes have been limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation!
The Caribou featured in this incident was A4-173 which is now
on display at the Queensland Air Museum, Caloundra. The date of
the crash was 16 August 1966.