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Black smoke billows from crash site.
Photo Credit: Bill Burch
Black smoke billows from the crash scene, where the tail of the airplane sits. Leaking fuel from a tank in the plane's bomb bay ignited when it met fire from the P2V's JATO rockets. Five men died in the accident, including four U.S. Navy men and a U.S. scientist. 


A rough landing

The plane, piloted by Lt. Elias J. Stetz and Lt. j.g. Ernie Hand, had arrived from Mirny, a Russian coastal base, after being delayed several days by a blizzard. The purpose of the mission was for geophysicist Edward C. Thiel to conduct an airborne magnetometer survey over the continent. The flight was to cover some 3,500 miles from and back to McMurdo Station External U.S. government site, the United States’ main logistics facility for Antarctic operations.

The Americans had also brought about 600 pounds of mail to Wilkes, according to Hand, further endearing the flight crew to their hosts.

Red buildings buried in snow.
Photo Credit: Bill Burch
Wilkes Station in 1961.

“They treated us like royalty. They wined and dined us,” he says.

Before joining the fete, Burch had volunteered to help refuel the P2V. That’s when he met Chastain, whom he described in detail in his “The All American Boy” essay:

“His teeth I remember most about him. An absolutely perfect set kept totally visible through the mobile shutter of a mouth that rarely closed as he chewed gum and talked, simultaneously. A tricky maneuver that demanded great facial mobility. He was in every way the epitome of what movies and early TV had taught me to think of as the “All American Boy.” Six foot something, crew cut hair, big beaming smile, looked to be barely twenty. His mother must have been very proud of him!”

Burch goes on to mention how Chastain remarked on the roughness of the Wilkes landing strip — a stretch of ice that had been flattened down by a D4 tractor before the plane arrived. The men finished loading the P2V with gasoline and joined the party.

And a rougher takeoff

The next morning, with most of the Wilkes crew nursing hangovers, only a few people turned out to see the P2V off, including Burch and Wilson. The plane was fully loaded with fuel, about 3,350 gallons across the wings, and another 1,500 gallons in a tank located near the aft of the plane in the bomb bay.

“The flight to McMurdo from Wilkes was a long way,” Hand explains. “That’s why we had [gasoline in] everything that you could put gasoline in.”

That made the plane extremely heavy.

“It was a rough takeoff,” Hand recalls. “With all of the bottles of JATO burning — and we had [six] — I did not think we were going to get off the ground. But at the last second [the plane] became unstuck and we were flying.”

Plane takes off from snow runway.
Photo Credit: Charles Kaminski/Antarctic Photo Library
A modern-day LC-130 uses JATO rocket to assist in a takeoff.

The jet-assisted takeoff bottles, or JATO rockets, provided the airplane the boost it needed to lift off. But the bruising ride over the uneven snow surface had apparently broken or knocked loose the shackles holding up the fuel tank in the bomb bay. The tank broke loose and high-octane fuel started to spill out, streaming out the tail where the JATO rockets were burning.

The JATO bottles turned into blowtorches, scorching and melting the fiberglass tail. And then the flames raced back to the source of the fuel. The tank exploded, according to Hand.

“It blew the top and the bottom out of the airplane. Why it didn’t separate, only God can tell you,” he says. “It filled the whole airplane with flaming gasoline.”

Hand had taken the controls after Stetz had apparently become overcome by the smoke and passed out. He managed to put the plane down and escape out the hatch, along with AE1 Jack C. Shaffer and AT2 Clarence C. Allen. One of the men had stepped on Stetz's shoulder when crawling out of the cockpit, waking the pilot, who also fled the still-exploding aircraft.

Wilson and the station doctor, the late Dr. Noel Orton, were the first to arrive at the crash scene.

“We saw these four guys standing there, and the first thing you thought was, ‘Gee, how did they get out of that,’” Wilson says, adding that the crew’s cold weather gear had partly protected them from the fire — except for their faces and hands.

The men were severely burned and injured. Wilson was assigned to take care of Hand until an evacuation flight could be arranged.

“I was essentially Ernie’s nurse,” Wilson says. “I sort of had a special bond with Ernie because of that.”

A couple of days later, a C-130 aircraft from McMurdo Station arrived at Wilkes to transport the injured men. Comments made almost 40 years later by one of the men on the crew who flew with the C-130 rescue mission, Buz Dryfoose, attested to the roughness of the landing strip.

Nothing could be salvaged from the wreckage. “All below the snow line was pretty much in tact and all above the snow line looked like a skeleton,” Dryfoose wrote.

The four survivors convalesced at McMurdo for several days before heading to New Zealand, where they spent two weeks, according to Hand. The men eventually ended up at Tripler Army Medical Center External U.S. government site in Honolulu, where they underwent numerous skin grafts.Back   1 2 3   Next