PROLOGUE: First, I am reminded that after 50 years, memory fades. Mine has to some degree but as I write this, most of what happened during this incident are vivid while others are not. Still, as a participant, I am satisfied this is a reasonably accurate account of what happened this fateful period.

 

BACKGROUND: Later renamed Kincheloe AFB, it was Kinross AFB when Jill and I arrived in March, 1958. Earlier, 42 miles south, we had crossed into Michigan’s upper peninsula via the brand new, spectacular Mackinac Bridge that had replaced the much slower ferry system. Bridging the Mackinac Straits between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, it opened the previous fall, spanned most of five miles, and held up in ferocious winds (the record is 124 mph on May 3rd, 2003).

 

Gaylord Treu, !st Lt, USAF

 

After 50 Years

A Tragedy Remembered

The Gaylord Treu Story

By Jay Strayer, Colonel, USAF, (Ret)

December 17, 2009

 

I had just finished helicopter training, in February, 1958 when I received orders for my next assignment. When Jill and I drove up to the Visiting Officers Quarters late Monday, February 24th, we were very excited for this was our first permanent duty station after some 17 months of my flying training -- we looked forward to staying at one place for a while. Already assigned were four helicopter pilots soon to be reduced to two.

Flying the helicopters were 1st Lt John Patterson; myself as a 1st Lt, and more often than not, A1C Larry Holocker. The H-19 maintenance crew included SSgt Basil Gray, NCOIC; SSgt Travis Lee; A1C Ken Thompson and of course, A1C Holocker when not flying. Available for our use were two Sikorsky H-19 helicopters. One an underpowered “A” model, Tail Number 51-3895, with a 600 HP engine, the other a more powerful “B” model, Tail Number 51-3961, with 700 HP. I recall the “A” model was the pick for smoothness but most times we could not carry a full fuel load and get off the ground. Therefore the “B” model was selected for serious missions. The H-19s could carry 190 gallons of fuel, and cruise at 85-90 MPH to a distance of 400 miles. Each cost the Air Force an average of $177,530. We were authorized 60 flying hours per month for both aircraft which allowed John and I lots of opportunities to hone our skills and accumulate flying hours in our flight logs. We were assigned to the 507th Air Base Squadron (ABRON) in support of the 438th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (FIS) with their F-102 fighters. For oversight, we all belonged to the 507th Fighter Group (FITGRU) under the 30th Air Division (SAGE), “Semi Auto Ground Environment , located at

 

 

Truax AFB, Wisconsin. All were under the Air Defense Command that had oversight of the defense fighter force and a network of radar sites across Canada and throughout the United States.

While at Webb AFB, Texas, Jill and I purchased a 35 X 8 house trailer (that’s another story) and had it towed to Kinross AFB where we set up housekeeping. Two trailer homes up from us were 1st Lt Gaylord Treu with his wife Marge and 2-year old son Denny. We soon became fast friends. Gay was smart and witty and his family outgoing. He was choir director and all-round excellent pilot. Denny was a typical little boy, always into something not all together to his parents liking nor his neighbors at times. Gay was more than up to speed on hi-fi sound and the newer stereo systems that were becoming popular at the time. Gay was my consult on that and a number of other projects. There was good reason to think we would be friends for a long time.

After a mere 15 hours of supervised flying in the local area, I found this sorely inexperienced helicopter pilot and one flight mechanic standing search and rescue alert with our around-the-clock on-alert fighter pilot friends. There were four special hangars, each housing an F-102 at the near end of the runway. Our H-19 stood alert outside but the fighter folks thought enough of us that during bad weather, they would move one of their F-102s outside and place our H-19 inside. I remember we ate awfully well while on alert. T-bone steaks, scrambled eggs at midnight along with other top notch foods throughout the alert period bring back warm memories.

There was good reason for our every-day 24-hour alert status, for there was compelling reason to believe that if the Russians attacked, they would do so flying their bombers over the polar ice cap and Canada for this was their shortest route for such a mission. With this in mind, our Air Force would stage mock attack exercises that had Strategic Air Command (SAC) medium B-47 bombers flying into the northern Canadian regions, turning south and pressing an “attack” on the CONUS. In turn, Air Defense Command would activate its defense capabilities including the launch of the fighter force to intercept and “destroy” the invading B-47s before they reached the USA/Canadian border.

 

THE MISSION: It was on exercise, code named QUICK KICK, December 17, 1959, that my close neighbor was tragically killed when colliding with one of the B-47s, some 245 miles northeast of Kincheloe AFB (you can check the general area of Kapuskasing, Ontario on a road map). Here follows my account, to the best of my memory, of this event with input from the other participants and the attached USAF accident report.

Since John and I were the only two helicopter pilots for most of a year, and at the time of the incident, it was great for young pilots like us to log lots of flying time and accumulate the experience needed for top-of-the-line proficiency. However, it was not practical for both of us to fly together every hour the helicopter was available and December 17 was one of my rare off-days. That far north winter days are very short of daylight and I tried to make the best of my free time hunting or participating in other outdoor activities. Luckily, I was home late that afternoon when John called to inform me that one of our pilots had crashed pretty far north and he thought Gaylord Treu was involved….would I like to join the effort? Of course I did not hesitate, knowing if it was cold in Michigan, it would be dangerously so that far north into Canada. Both John and I were graduates of the Air Defense Command’s winter survival school and knew what we were getting into. As well, we knew that quick rescue was a must for any survivor. I donned my long underwear over which I wore insulated boots and flight suit, along with a survival vest, down-filled flight parka and insulated head gear; I also grabbed my flying helmet.

In the waning hours of daylight, I met John at the H-19B along with A1C Holocker and Dr. Henry Hahn, our Flight Surgeon.

L-R: Jay, Henry, John in 2008

As a side note, non-jet engines do not start easily in cold weather and it was by now near zero degrees. Many times we had to dilute the cold, congealed engine oil with gasoline to thin it or the engine would not turn over. The start is followed by several minutes at low RPM to warm the engine to keep oil pressure within limits. It seemed much longer to get airborne than usual, probably because of the emotions involved (Note: USAF later replaced the H-19s with jet powered Kaman HH-43Bs – without the above procedure, we could launch a “cocked” on-alert HH-43 in a short minute).

Our H-19 was not capable of safe instrument flight in non-visual conditions and our regional weather forecast was a dismal one. Complicating matters was the fast approaching darkness. Soon encountering snow squalls and limited visibility, we pressed north anyway at altitudes just above the forest so we could maintain visual contact with the trees and ground. Fortunately, the snow squalls were scattered and we stayed left of the desired northeast course flying direct north where we could keep Lake Superior’s shoreline in sight. When the shoreline turned west, we left the comfort of knowing exactly where we were as John turned NE over the plain, unbroken forest toward PAGWA Air Station. Referring to my low-level map was little help. No longer could we know exactly where we were but nonetheless best-guessed our way toward the radar site and the vicinity of the crash site.

By now it was totally dark as John pressed ahead and I continuously updated what I thought was the correct route. There were no navigational radio aids we could use with our limited navigation equipment. On the upside, the weather improved on the way as we eventually broke into the clear with a full moon. Still nothing I could recognize from my map, but flying over the reflecting snow was like flying in daylight with great visibility. Evan so, engine failure meant certain disaster for excepting scattered small frozen lakes, there was no clear landing surface, only miles and miles of solid forest. Gratefully, we navigated well enough to a point about 35 miles out, when the PAGWA controller picked us up on his radar and provided heading vectors. We were fully aware that with a full fuel load, fuel starvation would occur about 4 hours into the flight. We estimated the distance to be 300 miles thus at 90 mph, we would log about 3.0 hours no wind. My flight log records 3 + 15 hours of flight over the 300 mile non-direct route, about 50 miles out of the way because of the poor visibility the first part of the trip. We were grateful that our dead reckoning method of navigation turned out so well. It was about 10 PM when we landed. With 30 minutes of fuel remaining (the low-level fuel light was burning) we were relieved to land safely at PAGWA Air Station.

While John and Larry supervised refueling the helicopter, I volunteered to go into the building housing the radar to accelerate permission from 30th Air Division mission control to proceed with a rescue effort. The night flying conditions were by then the best we could have with the full moon and a reflecting blanket of snow resulting in near perfect visual flight conditions. We knew by then there was a mid-air collision between one of our F-102s

Convair F-102

and a B-47 so there were two crash sites to investigate. Moreover, there was one known survivor, ID unknown, perhaps Gaylord, who was being monitored by an orbiting Canadian CF-100 near the crashed, fiercely burning B-47.

Boeing B-47

We also knew, besides Gaylord, there were four on the B-47 to be accounted for. I was at a high anxiety level by this time and thought how great it would be if we could snatch Gay out of the freezing night and rush him to safety.

Frustrated by the delay from some colonel at 30th Air Division, I returned to John and suggested we immediately take off for the known survivor, only 40 miles distant. We would save lots of time getting there for surely the far-away colonel would give us his go-ahead over our radio. We launched and were on our way, comforted that we had a certified flight surgeon aboard and great weather conditions….we would have this fellow back to safety in a heartbeat.

However, this was not to happen. About five minutes into the flight, the Truax colonel relayed orders to us to return to PAGWA immediately. I was furious and could not believe it….I noted that John was not all that happy with the order either. I suggested we turn the radio off and claim it malfunctioned. But John was the aircraft commander, outranked me and had more experience under such conditions. Following the colonel’s order, he returned us to PAGWA. John did the right thing of course. After landing, he took a turn at calling the colonel to try convincing him he should reverse his order but he was unrelenting. He opined he did not want another aircraft crashing in the woods as he had enough to contend with as is.

His decision to keep us on the ground was as wrong as it was dumb. The thought of leaving Gaylord, or any fellow airman for that matter, to unnecessarily endure severe freezing conditions was unconscionable. It was obvious the colonel had no understanding of our capability, nor was he interested in our effort to educate him. The colonel incited further aggravation when he ordered us to NOT depart on a search earlier than 0800 the next morning……. well after sunrise I might add.

After a fitful night, we were up early. We inspected our H-19 and checked the weather to ensure we were ready for the colonel’s authorized 0800 take-off. To add insult to agony, we were eating breakfast when a Canadian H-21 helicopter crew brought in the surviving B-47 co-pilot, a 1st Lt, who had spent the night in a summer flying suit and low quarter dress shoes. He related his story somewhat like this: He was facing rearward, toward the tail, when the collision occurred. At about 28,000 feet, Gay’s fighter severed the bomber’s fuselage between the cockpit and tail surfaces. The B-47 began a flat spin and at 25,000 feet the aircraft commander ejected. The young co-pilot’s ejection system failed for some reason and because of the violent spin and side-to-side gravitational forces, he could not get out. He was stuck in his seat as the bomber descended several thousand feet toward its demise. Thinking of his new bride, he found the strength to unbuckle from his malfunctioning ejection seat and lift himself into the turbulent slipstream. Had the bomber’s tail remained attached, he would have surely been killed from impacting it. As it was, he was at a very low altitude when he popped his chute and with only a couple of swings, he landed at the edge of the burning B-47……the B-47 had barely preceded him. How fortunate for it was the heat from the wreckage fire that sustained him in the freezing conditions. Had the Truax colonel allowed us to proceed the night before, the Lt would have escaped the severe discomfort he endured and the potential for serious consequences. His was a good news-bad news story (and I surmise his bosses were not happy with his decision not to wear proper winter clothing)…..one survivor rescued with four to go.

The B-47 has a 3-member crew: pilot, co-pilot and nav-bombardier. During this flight however, there was a fourth crewman, a nav-bombardier giving a check ride to the regular crew navigator. There was no seat or ejection system for him thus he had to position himself as best he could in the narrow catwalk below and left of the pilot and behind the crew’s navigator (seated in the plane’s nose) where he could evaluate his performance. Though the nav-bombardier had a downward ejecting seat, we would soon discover that neither of these men escaped the spinning bomber.

 

John lifted our H-19 off the ground at 0800 sharp. We were gratified the weather was clear with near unlimited visibility. As we approached the smoldering B-47 crash site, we noted the entire area littered with debris. This was the upwind point of what would turn out to be about five miles of various evidence of the disaster with the parachuting B-47 aircraft commander at the farthest downwind point. With no survivors found at the B-47, we proceeded down track and were soon hovering over Gay’s F-102. It had pancaked straight down into the lodge-pole forest without spin or lateral motion and impacted upside down with two 20 ft bare-of-limbs trees sticking up through the wings. There was no sign of any part of the plane beyond the leading edge of the wings. There was no radome (contained the nose radar antenna), engine intakes, canopy or any part of the cockpit including instrument panel or ejection seat. Disappointingly, there was no sign of Gaylord as we expanded our search. I think by this time we were advised the bomber pilot had been located and we pressed further down track to find him. Enroute, we saw the B-47’s tail section lying intact as its descent was slowed by the deployed drag chute (normally used to slow the bomber on landings to shorten its landing roll-out).

We soon came upon the B-47 pilot, and noted he had followed his survival training guidance and built a nice shelter out of his parachute canopy, gathered evergreen limbs for a windbreak, had a nice cozy-looking fire going and later told us he had eaten breakfast already. A1C Holocker hoisted him aboard, Dr Hahn pronounced him unharmed and we had him back to warmth and safety in short order. We spent the rest of that day and three others searching for Gaylord as by this time ground searchers had discovered the remains of the two deceased B-47 crewmen.                                                                                                        Larry Holocker

 

We logged 5+30 hours this second day. Larry recalls PAGWA did not have aviation grade fuel so we used auto gas the first refueling because the emergency demanded it. A C-47 out of Kincheloe AFB transported the correct 100/130 grade of fuel to us in 50 gallon drums. We logged 14 hours over the next three days searching and carrying investigators to the various scenes but found little to indicate what had happened to Gaylord. Early in the mission sequence, we needed to clear space to land our helicopter. With John hovering the helicopter, I lifted my seat and descended down the short ladder to the crew compartment to hoist down our flight mechanic and flight surgeon to clear enough trees for a safe landing area that would accommodate our H-19. Using a chain saw and fire axes, they managed to do so. Dr. Hahn recalls he started off wearing a heavy parka, but soon stripped down to his bare torso from the exertion. I recall that on the 3rd day the temperature plummeted to 17 degrees below zero.

Our air and the ground search (there was snow but fortunately less than knee deep), turned up some surprising evidence of the event. I had seen Gay don his orange flight suit a time or two and one thing he always did was tie his orange handled jack knife, with its special blade for cutting tangled parachute shroud lines, around his waist using parachute cord under his flight suit. Someone found the knife and cord in one place and a piece of orange flight suit in another. Amazing considering the collision occurred at 28,000 feet. In addition, after all the effort, only the canopy, one engine intake and pieces of the black plastic radome were found…….no instrument panel, ejection seat or flight helmet. Our friend had literally vanished. On the sixth day, the search was called off and John returned us to Kincheloe AFB logging a final 3+20 hours of flight.

 

EPILOGUE: I learned a lot on this, my first such enduring mission, where life is in crisis mode. I also experienced the loss of a very good friend. Others with similar experience know full well how I felt after such an exhausting effort and the wretched disappointment of failure. Finally I gave up trying to answer the “why” questions and slept, though fitfully.

It should be noted the accident was not all Gay’s fault. Granted, USAF expects its pilots to maintain clearance of other aircraft, even if under radar control. Unless the investigative team finds a mechanical cause, the accident is invariably the fault of the pilot. In this case, the B-47s were flying closer than authorized and the radar controller who broke off the intercept unknowingly turned Gaylord and his wingman (our Fighter Group Commander no less) directly into the blinding sun which impaired their ability to see well enough to avoid the collision. Even so, it remains the responsibility of the lead pilot to ensure safe clearance of other aircraft. If the wingman flies “loose” formation, he can devote some of his attention to helping his lead pilot scan for other aircraft. If, on the other hand, he is flying close to his formation lead, he cannot be expected to offer much help for he must ensure he maintains safe distance between the two fighters. Finally, in the spring after the snow melted, Gaylord’s family hired a ground search party to comb the area. Disappointingly, they were no more successful than we were.

Over the long haul, I confess I have not thought about my long lost friend as often; nevertheless, his memory remains forever etched in my mind. We never know for sure why these sad events occur. I have to think Gaylord is at peace and am comforted that his final resting place for the past 50 years is a quiet cathedral of pines in the far north. Surely the winds, wildlife and the God he believed in provide comfort over him……may those influences comfort me when my time comes.