A Maintenance Officer Remembers the 552nd

I served as an aircraft maintenance officer (2nd and 1st Lieutenant) with the 552nd Organizational and Field Maintenance Squadrons at McClellan AFB, CA, from May of 1965 to November of 1967. While I was there, I became interested in the history of the “Connies.” I learned a few things about them from my own digging and much more from talking with T.J. Smith, our Lockheed California tech rep (who later went on to rep for the 553rd), and Robert Collins, rep for our IRAN contract at Lockheed Aircraft Services, Kennedy Airport, NY.

A few items at random, as I remember them:

        RC-121C 51-3838 was the first radar Connie delivered to the old 8th Air Division in late 1953. As such, its photograph appeared in several aviation books and magazines to illustrate the type. While attempting to land 838 at Hamilton AFB in the early morning of 7 February 1954, the pilot set the plane down in San Pablo Bay in a couple of feet of water. I have enclosed several pictures of the accident from T.J.’s files.

        RC-121D 54-2308 took off from McClellan on 22 March 1958, lost one engine on takeoff, and attempted to go around and land again. It then lost another engine on the same side and crashed in North Highlands.

        RC-121D (later EC-121Q) 55-0128 lost a complete Quick Engine Change (QEC) over water on 2 December 1958. Copies of the Lockheed reports are attached.

        F.R. Swanson, T.J.’s predecessor as tech rep, was killed in the crash of TC-121C 51-3842 on 22 March 1961.

        The “Big Eye” Task Force (later renamed “College Eye” in a bureaucratic attempt to impose uniformity on code names by assigning the first word on a command basis, thus destroying the whole meaning of the name – the EC-121 was indeed a BIG EYE) started in early 1965 and was still going strong long after I left the wing. I was never a part of the BETF, so I can’t pass on much about it, but I do remember hearing about one plane (53-0537) that was dived like a fighter from 10,000 feet or so to get into Da Nang AB, RVN, during an attack. 537 was later flown to Taiwan, where some repairs were made, and then back to McClellan. The plane was so badly out of alignment that it had continuing control problems, and when I left they were still trying to rebuild it.

        We had another incident, not on “Big Eye,” when the #3 propeller on one of the ECs ran away, came off, and sliced through the fuselage several times, seriously injuring a crew member who had been sitting in one of the “airline” seats forward of the galley. That one was also being rebuilt by splicing on the nose section from a Navy “Willie Victor” from Litchfield Park.

        52-3413 was bailed to Stanford University at one point. When we got it back, we had a small configuration control issue – a TCTO (Time Compliance Tech Order) had been incorporated on every plane but that one, and I had to spend some time rummaging through old aircraft forms and rescinded TCTOs to get that put right.

        BLUE STRAW:

       Honolulu seemed to be a gathering place for “Connies” in December 1965, when I was there on a “Blue Straw” mission (code name “Roundup”). We had three EC-121Ds at Hickam in support of JTF8, supported by one of our TC-121Cs that flew in our supplies and maintenance personnel, returned to McClellan, and then came back for us when the mission was over. There were also two or three WVs there from the Pacific Missile Test Range and the NC-121D (56-6956 “Triple Nipple”) from Aeronautical Systems Division of AFSC.  I also saw a C-121A there, which I don’t think was part of JTF8, and two Connies belonging to the FAA 6th Region on the civilian side of the field (I am told that these were the original Navy PO-1Ws, stripped of their radar.

       We had to fly one of our “Blue Straw” missions with the AN/APS-95 search radar consoles on even though the cooling blower was burned out. We did our job, but the radar was messed up almost beyond belief. The next day, our radar E-8 (I think it was SMSgt Wright) had the radar consoles in pieces, with TOs and wiring diagrams strewn throughout the plane.

       On the way back to California from Hawaii, we launched our ECs at intervals, so they could provide navigational coverage for a flight of WB-57F Canberras that were not carrying navigators.

        One of our ECs, 53-3400, was named the “Camellia City” in April of 1966 (or 1967) in honor of the city of Sacramento. We painted the name on the aircraft in large yellow letters, polished the prop spinners so you could see your face in them, and generally prettied the plane up. (The driving force behind this was Major Richard T. Villanueva, our FMS Commander.)

        Our earlier aircraft carried a trailing wire antenna (I think it was for the Loran); it had to be retracted prior to landing, or it would wreak havoc with utility wires!

        One of my predecessors in the FMS, Lt. James Hall, was a graduate metallurgist. As a result of his efforts and those of a few others, a severe corrosion problem on the ECs was identified and dealt with. At one time we had several aircraft grounded, and a Major General at HQ ADC personally interested in our problem. During the acceptance inspection of 55-0124 after IRAN, one of our mechanics noticed a small chip in the paint of a freshly-painted floor beam. He poked at the chip with a screwdriver and put the screwdriver all the way through the beam!

        We had some impressive fogs in Sacramento in the winter. More than once I couldn’t see the airplanes parked on our flight line from our maintenance office. But our missions had to go on, even if it meant towing the planes out to the runway and pointing them in the right direction! I would leave at night, knowing that we had planes in the air or scheduled for launch that evening, and the next morning when I came in they would have landed at McChord AFB, WA, or Point Mugu, CA, or somewhere in between, and we would have to scramble to send out maintenance crews to recover them – we actually considered for a time putting a detachment at McChord. One night, one of our planes (I think it was 52-3414) landed at Ukiah Airport, a small general aviation field about 100 miles NW of Sacramento – it was quite amusing to see the picture in the Sacramento papers of this huge EC dwarfing the Pipers, Cessnas, and what have you at Ukiah!

        Our Wright R3350-93 engines were notorious for pouring oil out of the breathers after shutdown. It was said that if the 3350 didn’t leak oil, it meant that there was no oil left in the engine! You could tell the 552nd flight line in an aerial view of McClellan – all the rest of the concrete on the field was a light concrete color, while our ramp was almost black from oil stains. I will never forget the sight of our Chief of Maintenance, LTC Ross Davidson, examining an engine that had caused an air abort while the oil poured down the back of his 1505s!

        We had an advantage at McClellan which no other Connie outfit had – SMAMA (later SM-ALC) was our Depot, and could offer us on-the-spot engineering and technical support. The cognizant engineer for the C-121s in those days was Barbara Lee Feiling, one of the first female engineers I had met; she spent more than one day atop a B-4 stand in our nose docks helping us solve problems.

        The picture of 52-3423 sitting in the snow is unidentified as to date or location. There was a reference to a “major runway accident” in a 1965 article about the plane; the article stated that it had occurred “a few years ago.”

        The pictures of the hailstone damage to an RC-121 “95 NM West of Offutt AFB” on 12 July 1955, which apparently caused loss of the AN/APS-45 radome and antenna, have no story that I can determine. The plane is apparently a D-model, as it has tip tanks.

        We had one type of maintenance person on the ECs that was unique to the AEW&C community – the inflight radar technician. They were rated as aircrew, and many had spent their entire careers being transferred between Otis and McClellan.

        The crash of EC-121H 53-0549 in the Atlantic in April 1967 killed, among others, the Commander of the 551st Wing, COL James Lyle, who had formerly been commander of the 552nd. We sent three of our aircraft to Otis to participate in the memorial services; it was very impressive to see three ECs flying over McClellan in a V-formation – they did a “missing man” during the actual ceremony. I believe the problem was traced to fuel leaking from the #6 tank and being ignited by the wing root heater.



Some People I Knew in the 552nd


LTC O’Hagan, Wing Safety Officer

CPT Melnick, Wing Personnel

MAJ Gardner, OIC, Administration, Records and Reports

CPT Earl McFatridge, Wing Information Officer

LTC Lyle Jewell, Maintenance Control Officer; later transferred to Otis

LTC Ross Davidson, Chief of Maintenance

MAJ Bernard Rudden; later transferred to HQ ADC

CPT Earl Tighe, OMS Squadron Section Commander; later transferred to HQ ADC

MAJ Clement Tromblay, OMS Commander

CPT Randall, EMS Officer

CWO-3 Leo Wolz, FMS Officer

LT James A. Hall, FMS Officer

LT Norman Falconer, OMS Officer

LT Richard Philpott, OMS Officer

LT Brumble, OMS Officer

LT William Linton, OMS Officer

LT Sanford Kozlen, 510S Field Training Detachment Commander

MAJ Richard T. Villanueva, FMS Commander, later Maintenance Control Officer

LT Samuel Barrick, Jr., FMS Squadron Section Commander

MAJ Anthony Praxel, Pilot

LTC Bert Lindstrom, Weapons Controller

CPT Richard van Nest, QC Test Pilot

CPT George Halstead, FMS Officer

CMS Myles Fraser, OMS Line Chief; later transferred to 553rd

CMS Vincent Niadna, FMS Propulsion Branch NCOIC

SMS Kenneth Grigsby, FMS Fabrication Branch NCOIC

MSgt Ralph Horrocks, Flight Engineer, 964th Sqdn

SSgt Flippo, Engine Tech

TSgt Everett, Propeller Tech

MSgt Melvin Paine, FMS Sheet Metal Shop NCOIC

CMS Smith, FMS Aerospace Systems Branch NCOIC

SMS Steele, FMS First Sgt

TSgt Oseski, OMS DD-780 NCO

SMS Wright, EMS Supervisor

SMS Henry Cordes, OMS Supervisor

SMS Howe, FMS Mechanical Accessories NCOIC