The flight began as a normal double shuttle to the South Pole station. My position on the crew was as the flight tech/scanner in the rear of the plane. I was a flight AT and in charge of all the avionics on the plane, as well as filling in for the loadmaster anytime there was none on-board. My duties included responsibility of knowing and being proficient in all systems in the fuselage, including fuel systems, hydraulic systems, and being the observer of all aspects including passengers, landing gear, etc. During my first year as flight crew I was required to take a NATOPS check flight, where I was tested by a qualified NATOPS officer on all aspects associated with my position. One of those tests included demonstrating my knowledge of the flight control systems and the complete hydraulic system on the aircraft. The main hydraulic reservoir is located just to the rear of the starboard main landing gear and located several feet up the wall of the aircraft. The lines running from that reservoir then lead to the flight controls systems by crossing the fuselage ceiling directly below the wings of the plane. They follow the underside of the main wing spar, a large I-beam shaped aluminum casting, which ties and supports the two wings to the fuselage of the aircraft. As I was pointing out these lines and describing their individual functions, both the check officer and myself noticed a large crack in that main beam just off center towards the starboard side of the aircraft. The crack started at the bottom of the casting and continued up about 6 inches into the beam. The bottom of the crack was opened about 1/2" and decreased up through the beam. Naturally that was immediate need for concern. I do believe at that point we continued on to the pole station and unloaded and then returned to Willy Field and immediately grounded the aircraft from future flights. The reason this crack had never been noticed before was due to the way the plane was inspected for each flight. There was always a pre-flight check done by the pilots and crew, and then a post-flight check done at the end of the flight. Both of these were done with the aircraft on the ground. When the aircraft was on the ground, the weight of the wings was pressing downward on the beam, thereby closing the crack and making it nearly invisible. While in-flight, the fuselage was hanging from the wings, thus opening the crack and making it very visible during that flight.
So the plane was grounded while a determination was made of how to repair the crack. Several qualified Naval engineers were brought down, as well as engineers from Lockheed in Georgia. Over the course of several weeks, many different solutions and scenario's were discussed. First they thought about stop drilling the top of the crack to stop further spreading and then drilling and placing plates over the crack for reinforcement. That idea was abandoned since they weren't certain it wouldn't continue to weaken the beam. Then they thought about us taking the plane to Chi Chi at low altitude, thus not needing to pressurize the plane and hopefully not put more stress on the beam. That idea was abandoned when they determined the fuel usage at low altitude would require more fuel on board and maybe would still not be enough fuel to reach NZ. Other schemes and alternatives were discussed over the ensuing weeks, and in the end the decision was made to just take the plane on a normal flight to Chi Chi and hope for the best. Not the best choice for the crew, but it was made and we decided to go for it. Since it was late in the season and the plane was going to need extensive repairs, the crew was told to load all their personal belongings on board since we most likely wouldn't be coming back for the remainder of the season.
At the beginning of that year I had purchased a Nikon camera and all the associated lenses. I had spent the entire season taking photo's around the continent and many were once in a lifetime type pictures. I had probably taken close to 500 pics and had them developed on the hill into slides. All of the that was with me on the plane.
Once the decision was made to leave and the plane was loaded, a final problem arose. A storm had moved in at McMurdo and Willy Field was in total whiteout conditions. The weather observers noted that it was a low level storm, and once we got airborne we would quickly be above the storm and it wouldn't pose any further risk. I should also note that we had loaded the aircraft with approximately 48,000 lbs of fuel which was normal for a flight to Chi Chi.
The airfield at Willy consisted of two intersecting runways at about 90 deg. to each other. These were constantly being graded and groomed to maintain a flat surface. At the intersection of the two runways was the control tower building. To get from the aircraft staging area to the runways required taxiing out to the main runway and then proceeding to the end of the runway being used for takeoff. We were going to takeoff on the intersecting runway (wish I could remember the runway designations since I heard them a thousand times during every takeoff and landing). The prevailing wind was approaching from the south and we always took off into the prevailing wind for additional lift.
Since it was a total white out, and you obviously know what that looks like, we were basically taxiing in the blind. We lost track of our position and instead of being on the runway we were actually on the staging area and approaching the control tower on the backside instead of the runway side. We went to the left of the tower instead of the right side where we should have been. As I mentioned the runways were always being groomed which left them lower than the surround terrain, but wide enough that there was no danger of the wings hitting the higher side walls of the un-groomed snow. As we past behind the tower, we were actually on this un-groomed snow and approaching the drop off to the groomed runway. Once we got to the edge of that opposing runway, we were approaching at about a 45 deg angle to that wall which was probable 8 to 10 feet higher than the runway. We taxied right off the wall with the main landing gear on the starboard side of the plane dropping off the wall first. At that point the starboard wing dropped down and struck the hard surface of the runway immediately breaking that wing off the plane. At that point the fuel in the wing exploded and immediately burst into flames. Because of the way we had gone off the edge at an angle, the fuselage had twisted and the main entrance door at the nose of the plane was totally jammed shut and stuck down in the ice. The only way out was either thru the overhead escape hatches or thru the paratroop doors. The starboard door was not an option since everything on that side was in flames. We initially attempted to open the port paratroop door but it was jammed.
A view of the left side of 318 after the crash (also from Don Leger, converted to black-and-white).
We then attempted to open the rear overhead escape hatch, but the flames were blowing across the top of the plane from the burning wing since the wind was coming from the south and we where headed in a northeast position. During this entire time we could see nothing outside the aircraft but flame. Because all of this happened so quickly we had not heard the explosion and were in a panic waiting for the remaining fuel to explode trapping us inside. We finally used one of our loading J-bars to pry on the lower handle of the port paratroop door and forced it open. We then had to jump from the door opening down to the runway which was probably about 8' down since the tail of the plane was still up on the snow bank, but the nose was embedded in the runway surface. We all got out and ran blindly into the whiteout conditions. Obviously the fire crew was immediately dispatched and they ultimately alerted us to their location and we were taken back to our barracks.
The plane did explode shortly after we were able to get out, and it burned with a white hot flame for at least another day.
Once the burning stopped the plane was dragged out to the end of the runway where it remained for many years and provided a great runway marker. It is probably still serving that purpose.
Several days after the plane had cooled, I hiked out to the plane and sifted through the remains and recovered a considerable amount of my belongings. All of our personal gear had been strapped down to the loading ramp in the rear of the plane, and the tail of the plane was all that remained after the fire. Of course everything was burnt nearly beyond recognition but I recovered what I could. I still have all that stuff and will drag it out after I send this letter and follow up with a few pics.
So that is the full story of 318 which I have never seen printed in accuracy anywhere.