By Shelly A. McGuire
Desert Lightning News Editor
DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence in All We Do are more than mere words on a page, they are Air Force Core values; the foundation in which every Airmen builds character.
For crewmembers of a military strategic airlifter, the C-141 Starlifter, these are words to live by.
Three decades after a near-fatal crash in Richmond, Australia, all living members of the group, one eye witness and family members, reunited for the first time at the 309th Air Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) at Davis-Monthan Oct. 31 for a memorial service honoring three of their comrades in arms; Veterans Capt. Chester J. Trosky, Jr., aircraft commander, Staff Sgt. Robert E. Wright, Jr., loadmaster, Master Sgt. Roosevelt "Rosie" Williams, loadmaster, and, to say good-bye to the old 'friend', that held their lives at bay that day.
Affectionately referred to by its' tail number, the 64-0614 or "40614" arrived at AMARG Jan. 28, 2004 and provided the setting for the memorial service and reunion, where the men reminisced about their life-changing, near-crash.
They took their original positions in the aircraft at AMARG, reflecting on how events unfolded.
The 53rd Military Airlift Squadron Airmen took flight from Norton Air Force Base, San Bernadino, Calif., on a special mission to Alice Springs, Austrailia, they explained. "Our orders were to quietly go in and get out", said the flight's Navigator (1st Lt.) Eli E. Colotta, shaking his head.
The 40614, however, wasn't privy to their mission objective.
Directly after taking off from Richmond, Australia, en route to Alice Springs, the aircraft's number three engine experienced an un-contained engine failure, where a turbine blade split and penetrated the number four engine; instantly causing it to fail.
A cargo fire soon ignited, instrument panels went out and the aircraft filled with thick, dark smoke from the burning household goods.
The augmented crew couldn't see what was going on from inside, but they knew it was serious and solemnly prepared for a crash landing.
(Capt.) Robert T. Brown, co-pilot, previously stationed at D-M and reunion initiator, told of his flight instructor's heroism.
He said (the then 28-year-old) Capt. Trosky, took over the controls and veered toward a nearby riverbed with just two good engines and no standard operating procedure to refer to, as the ablaze 40614 continued to descend on the town of Richmond.
While still prepared for a crash landing, Capt. Trosky lead his men to safety. He pioneered an unrecognized technique referred to as "milking up the flaps," which stabilized air speed and later became an officially recognized procedure for handling a multi-engine failure.
All crewmembers scrambled to do their part and teamwork paid off.
Capt. Trosky was quoted in the Sun-Telegram describing his teams actions, "I kept getting reports from the back (saying) that we were on fire." He said that while he fought for control, crewmembers fought the flames, assessed the damage and radioed for crash-crews to stand by.
They landed trailing engine parts and fuel; all Airmen miraculously survived. "So much for the quiet entrance," they joked.
Debris from the plane fell on homes in the town of Richmond, where the town's newspaper published the story, front-page news. Photos of a once-in-tact engine near a home where one woman was hanging out her laundry hit the media, along with photos of a toddler -- who sat with her toys next to the too-close-for-comfort, peppered-full-of-wholes, engine cowling. Native Australian Bob Maddern was working on the nearby C-130 flightline, when he heard a skin-crawling explosion. He joined the crew's memorial service and reunion and has since moved to the United States, devoting the past 30 years of his life working on aircraft.
"The (near-crash) demonstrated how fickle life can be," he said. "It's an example of people surviving against all odds."
Crewmember, (Staff Sgt.) Karl Freienmuth, one of the crew's flight engineers, sums it up this way: "We are all tested in different ways, but 'passing' a test like what we went through, gives one a certain confidence that sticks. A subset of that is, we all passed together; everyone kept trying. Even when very little was working, no one even considered giving up. We don't have to wonder if we'll pass the big test when it comes. We (already) did that together."1
Although 30 years have gone by, the men agree -- their bond is unshakable; Wingmen for life.
One of the crews navigators (1st Lt.) Israel "Izzy" Yarchun said that after the incident some of the crew used to get together, occasionally, but gradually lost touch.
"I'm really thrilled to be able to get together with the crew," he said. "It's not the aircraft that matters to me -- my sentimentality is toward the people I shared the experience with. It's momentous."
The emotional reunion and reflection was an opportunity for the men to remember their departed comrades and put to rest their short, nine-minute-and-55-second "test" of faith.
During the memorial ceremony, Chap. (1st. Lt.) Douglas Hess, 355th Fighter Wing chaplain, led the worship service, providing guidance to help put things further into perspective, with the reading of the Holy Bible's 91st Psalm. He reminded everyone of God's providence.
"Providence is a word that is not often used in today's language, but it is very appropriate for our ceremony here today," he said.
"When we think about Providence, we think of God's works, which are Holy and wise; that powerfully preserve and govern all His creatures and all their actions."
"Today, we who are gathered, are thinking about that . . . 'How did this plane stay in the air when everything went wrong? Why did some parts of the plane stay together and other parts fail?' The flight crew may be asking, 'how did we do the very things that we did to stay alive, when other flight crews did not?' We're thinking about those who lived through the crash and those who lost their lives un-expectantly. In all of it, we are humbled and thankful at God's Providence," he said.
"This is the work of God's providence. May we not miss His lesson and may we honor Him with our praise."
After closing prayer, the group signed the aircraft, reminisced and said their final goodbye to a faithful 'friend,' -- good 'ole 40614.
Capt. Trosky was honored by his wife, Kate, and two children Ken and Brittany. They signed the plane with unfaltering conviction, and wrote these words in shouting, uppercase letters: "IN LOVING MEMORY OF CHET TROSKY, JR. -- HUSBAND, FATHER &; PILOT EXTROARDINAIRE!
(Staff Sgt.) Freienmuth said, "It's interesting, at least to me, to think about the demographic of
10 guys -- a big, augmented crew for 24-hour-duty days. As you see all the time, the service is a great melting pot, where our country's finest meet. In our case, here we are 30 years later. There were six officers (two of whom were Air Force Academy graduates) and four enlisted guys. We lost Chet to cancer, Rosie (to a tragic death) and Bob Wright died in a rare C-141 crash. The remaining guys are living pretty successful and comfortable lives. You have to wonder if that's about normal for any group of 10 Air Force guys you'd track, after three decades . . . That (single) event connected us for life."
(Capt.) Ronald Pregmon, co-pilot, added, "Getting back together, renewing our friendships and more importantly, remembering the three crew members that are no longer with us was the most important part of our reunion."
The men expressed what a joy it was to meet their former Captain's children and their gratefulness that his family could attend.
"One of the greatest aspects of our reunion was meeting Chet's children. It's amazing to think
that they wouldn't have been born if we had not survived the accident. I was so glad they, and Kate, could be here to see us honor Chet's life and his flying accomplishment in Australia," (Capt.) James Tompkins, co-pilot, said.
The group would like to see the aircraft on the main Pima Air and Space Museum tour route, but because the 40614 has been reclaimed for parts, its' airframe sits hollowly at AMARG in a Type 4,000 storage category and is considered excess to Air Force requirements.
"The aircraft will, more than likely, remain in its current parking position," said Terry Vanden-heuvel, 309th AMARG Public Affairs representative and tour-guide. "Because the airframe is very visible from the public tour bus route, its' historical significance will be included in the official tour script."
The men wanted to thank everyone for all they did to help make their reunion possible.
"I appreciate all the people at Davis-Monthan and the Pima Air and Space Museum, who made it possible for us to honor our brothers and meet Chet's family," said (Senior Master Sgt.) James Copeland, the crews flight engineer. "We were treated with so much kindness and respect. It's heartening to experience that there are still people in our country who value our service and treat us with such enormous regard and dignity."
From the crew's heroic actions in Australia that day, to the lovingkindness and protective concern for their fellow Wingmen and their families, to AMARG's unprecedented accommodation of their request, including Ms. Vanden-heuvels preparation and escort, to Chaplain Hess' well-thought-out memorial service, to the maintenance personnel and tour bus driver, to Mr. Maddern, who came to show support and who, along with Karl Freienmuth, provided research and graphic material, there can be no doubt that Air Force core values: Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence in All We Do has indeed become the foundation in which these Veterans, public servants and Airmen live by.
These core values are not about being perfect or doing everything right in every instance; that's impossible. They are about having a belief system in place as a gauge to correct oneself, when necessary.
"A failure is not someone who fails, but rather someone who stops persevering," said Pastor-teacher and World War II Veteran (Col.) R.B. Thieme, Jr.
Thank you, Veterans, for your courage, sacrifice and valor. Your service has not gone unnoticed.