Squadron continues tradition, honors fallen comrades

  • Published
  • By James D'Angina
  • 353rd Special Operations Group
Members from the 1st Special Operations Squadron took off from Kadena Air Base Feb. 26 on a MC-130H Combat Talon II to honor fallen brethren that were lost 28 years ago when a 1st SOS MC-130E, call sign STRAY59, crashed during an exercise killing eight crew members and 15 passengers.

The crew of GOOSE99 flew more than three hours to reach the exact coordinates of the crash site to release a ceremonial wreath in commemoration of the sacrifice made by the men of STRAY59 Feb. 26, 1981. The memorial flight has been flown every year since the tragic accident.

"Every member of the 1st SOS is well versed in the long lineage that has preceded them," said Lt. Col. Buck Haberichter, the 1st SOS commander. "This annual memorial flight is just one small gesture to ensure that lineage is never forgotten. It is an honor and a privilege to dedicate ourselves to keep the memory of the crew of STRAY59 and their special operations teammates alive."

For the mission commander of GOOSE99, being part of the memorial flight was a privilege filled with sorrow.

"I felt a deep sense of honor stemming from the ability to thank the surviving family members for the sacrifice that was made by those who perished on STRAY59," said Maj. John Rensel. "At the same time, I felt a great sadness because I cannot bring them back."

During February 1981, crews from the 1st SOS participated in Special Warfare Exercise 81, an annual joint exercise in the Philippines hosted by the U.S. Navy SEALS. The airlift responsibilities for the combined exercise fell to the MC-130E crews from the 1st SOS. The squadron established an Air Force Special Operations Base at Naval Air Station Cubi Point, Philippines; and crews flew both day and night missions involving low-level, psychological operations, infiltration and exfiltration of forces.

One crew from the 1st SOS was commanded by Maj. James M. Kirk, who was responsible for a total of 12 missions during the three 16 day exercise. Their twelfth and final mission during the Specwarex 81 was scheduled for Feb. 26. The crew's takeoff time for the mission was slipped from 1:05 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. due to an extended crew day on their mission a day before.

The crew, call sign STRAY59, executed a non-tactical departure from Cubi Point at 4:28 a.m. and executed a tactical landing back at Cubi Point at 5:06 a.m. to quickly load 15 personnel participating in the exercise. STRAY59 executed a tactical departure two minutes later. The crew made their operational normal call six minutes into their low-level flight with a ground radio station. The second, and last, transmission from STRAY59 was received at 5:21 a.m.; and there had been no indication from the crew to indicate a problem with their aircraft.

Minutes later, a local fisherman watched the aircraft impact the water and explode. Eight crewmembers and 15 special operators were killed instantly. One crew member from the 1st SOS, the electronic warfare officer, was thrown from the wreckage and rescued by a local fisherman.

The investigation conducted on STRAY59 could not pinpoint the exact cause of the accident. The lack of physical evidence following the crash hindered the investigation. Minutes after impacting the ocean the wreckage sank to a depth of 240 feet.

The 1st Special Operations Squadron members lost Feb. 26, 1981, during the STRAY59 crash are Maj. James Kirk, aircraft commander, Capt. Norman Martel, pilot, Capt. Thomas Patterson, navigator, Capt. Gregory Peppers, navigator, Tech. Sgt. Stephen Blyler, radio operator, Tech. Sgt. Barry Chumbley, loadmaster, Tech. Sgt. Gary Logan, loadmaster, and Staff Sgt. John Felton, flight engineer.