Squadron marks 30 years of honoring fallen comrades

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Aaron Cram
  • 353rd Special Operations Group
Members of the 1st Special Operations Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan, marked the 30th consecutive year of honoring their fallen brethren of call sign STRAY 59 as two loadmasters from GOOSE 99 released a ceremonial wreath from the ramp of an MC-130H Combat Talon II here Feb. 26.

Eight of the nine crew members, and 15 special operators who were passengers, perished 30 years ago when a 1st SOS MC-130E (STRAY 59) crashed Feb. 26, 1981, during a joint exercise in the Philippines. Each year, a crew from the 1st SOS flies 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 STRAY 59.

"The men and women of the 1st SOS are truly honored to be able to commemorate the lives of the crew of STRAY 59 and their special operations teammates that perished that fateful day over 30 years ago," said Lt. Col. Andrew Lewin, the 1st SOS commander. "We come from a proud heritage and this memorial flight is a small way for us to honor those who helped build it."

The members of the 1st SOS said they share their commander's feelings toward their unit and the crew of STRAY 59, and share a great sense of pride in honoring them -- especially the crewmembers of GOOSE 99.

"It has been 30 years to the day," said Maj. Darin Wheeler, the aircraft commander from GOOSE 99. "I take pride in honoring the memory of our fallen special operators, and it is a privilege to participate in any memorial flight. The significance of this anniversary makes it a special honor."

"For 30 years the GOOSE family has honored these men for the sacrifice they made that morning," said Staff Sgt. Zachary Kelhi, a 1st SOS loadmaster and GOOSE 99 crewmember. "Being a part of this memorial flight shows that we never forget our fallen brothers, and it makes me proud to be a part of this family. Every member of this unit deserves to participate in this flight, and being chosen is a great honor."

In February 1981, crews from the 1st SOS were responsible for the airlift during Special Warfare Exercise 81, an annual joint exercise in the Philippines hosted by the Navy SEALS. The squadron established an Air Force Special Operations Base at Naval Air Station Cubi Point, Philippines, and crews flew day and night missions involving low-level, psychological operations, infiltration and exfiltration of forces.

Maj. James Kirk commanded STRAY 59 and a crew from the 1st SOS that was responsible for a total of 12 missions during the 16-day exercise. STRAY 59 was scheduled to be his crew's final mission during the Specwarex 81.

The morning of Feb. 26, 1981, 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. STRAY 59 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. STRAY 59 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 STRAY 59 was received at 5:21 a.m.; the crew had not indicated there was 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 crewmember from the 1st SOS, an electronic warfare officer, was thrown from the wreckage and rescued by a local fisherman.

The investigation conducted on STRAY 59 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 STRAY 59 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.