Former Vance AFB instructor pilot reflects on 1957 T-33 crash landing
By JAMES NEAL | Enid (Okla.) News & Eagle | Published: April 10, 2019
VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. (Tribune News Service) — Aviation pioneer Chuck Yeager once quipped, “If you can walk away from a landing, it’s a good landing.”
Today, a former Vance Air Force Base instructor pilot is celebrating the 62nd anniversary of a “good landing,” when he crash-landed his T-33 Shooting Star jet in a wheat field south of Enid.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Edward Luckey, 88, of San Antonio, is celebrating the anniversary with family and friends and is reflecting on his 22-year career in the Air Force.
Luckey enlisted in the Air Force in 1951. He said he knew he wanted to fly, but at the time, he didn’t have the two years of college required for pilot training.
That barrier came down for him several years later, when the Air Force came looking for enlisted airmen with an aptitude to move up into the officer ranks and become pilots.
“They weren’t getting enough pilots, so they dropped that two-year college requirement,” Luckey said, “and that was a door of opportunity that opened for me.”
After physicals and a series of written exams “to prove you weren’t a total idiot,” Luckey said he was assigned to pilot training and “took to flying like a duck to water.”
He started out flying the Piper PA-18 at a contract airfield in Moultrie, Ga., then on to the T-6 Texan and the T-28 Trojan at the since-decommissioned Laredo Air Force Base in Texas.
Luckey was selected for the still-new field of jet aviation and went on to fly the T-33 Shooting Star, a two-seat training variant of the P-80 Shooting Star, the Air Force’s first operational jet fighter.
By the time he got to his first operational assignment, flying the F-86 Sabre, the war in Korea was nearing its end.
“We expected to go to Korea because the war was going on then when we entered fighter pilot training in Nellis, Nev.,” Luckey said. “We were anxious to go over there and maybe shoot down a MiG or two.”
But, the war ended before Luckey was deployed, and he was instead transferred to a position as a gunnery instructor at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas.
He came to Vance on March 19, 1957, as a 26-year-old first lieutenant and instructor pilot. His orders were to train pilots who formerly had flown the B-25 Mitchell — a twin-engine, propeller-driven bomber — and were transitioning into jets by training in the T-33.
“We had a bunch of young bucks like myself who started checking out the B-25 people in the jets,” Luckey said. “We started checking them out just a few people at a time.”
Luckey was just three weeks into that assignment when he took off on April 10, 1957, with student pilot 1st Lt. William Reeder, then 26, of Kansas City, Mo.
The pair flew into one of Vance’s operating areas for aerobatic practice with the T-33, then returned to Vance to practice landings. After several practice touch-and-go landings, Luckey told his student to bring the T-33 around for one last approach.
“We were getting down on fuel, so … I said, ‘Let’s just make it a short pattern and full stop on the next landing,’ ” Luckey said. “It was a full-stop landing alright, but it wasn’t how we planned it.”
As the T-33 climbed away from the runway on the last touch-and-go landing, after the landing gear was retracted and just as the flaps were coming up, Luckey said he started feeling a vibration in the jet.
“I immediately sensed we had a problem,” Luckey said. “It was right at that moment the engine decided to give up the ghost.”
He said the engine temperature climbed rapidly out of limits, indicating a possible engine fire. At the time, according to a commendation letter written after the mishap, Luckey’s aircraft was at 200 feet of altitude with an airspeed of 140 knots.
Luckey said he took control of the aircraft from his student and assessed the situation. The altitude was too low for the ejection seats of the day, and the engine temperature was continuing to climb.
“I did the only thing we could do. The safest thing to do was shut the engine down,” Luckey said.
The airspeed and altitude wouldn’t allow Luckey to circle back to the runway at Vance. That left only one option: find the best ground possible and put the plane down.
“I knew about the wheat field off the south end of the runway, but I also knew there was a dry gulch there … I knew I didn’t want to end up in a crash landing in those gullies,” Luckey said. “It would have destroyed the aircraft … and we may have lived through it, we may not have.”
He left the landing gear up to conserve airspeed and to lengthen his glide so he could get past the gullies.
“There was a nice, soft, wheat field down there, and I knew we’d never make the wheat field if we put the gear down,” Luckey said. “As soon as we crossed the barbed-wire fence, I just softly laid it down on that wheat field and we did very little damage to the aircraft.”
An April 11, 1957, article in the Enid Daily Eagle stated the plane came to rest 3 miles south of the base after sliding 200 yards in the wheat field, coming to a stop about 200 yards southeast of the home of Henry Henneke.
“Recent rains left the wheat field soft and spongy, which is believed to have prevented serious damage to the jet,” the article stated. “Mrs. Henneke said she didn’t know the plane had crash landed until fire trucks and emergency vehicles arrived several minutes later.”
Luckey and his student jettisoned the canopy of the T-33 and walked away from the landing. He said the plane was salvaged by the Air Force, had a new engine and tail section installed, and was back in service with the training command one week after the crash landing.
“We came out of it smelling like a rose,” Luckey said with a laugh.
A commendation letter dated May 7, 1957, nominating Luckey for the Vance Air Force Base Commander’s Award, applauded Luckey for his flying skill and described him as “dynamic, aggressive and industrious.”
“His very thorough knowledge of his aircraft, his coolness and judgment under extremely hazardous conditions and his professional skill made a critical situation almost routine,” the letter stated.
For Luckey’s family, surviving the crash landing — and the rest of his career in the cockpit — meant far more than any award.
“My sister and I are grateful he survived the crash landing, or we wouldn’t be here,” said Luckey’s daughter, Denise Cross.
At the time of the crash, Luckey’s wife, Helen, was caring for their eldest child, Cindy, and was pregnant with their second child, Mike. Cross said she and her sister, Jeanne, “were still twinkles in Dad’s eye that day 62 years ago.”
Luckey went on to fly the T-38 Talon and later the F-4 Phantom. Of his 22 years in the Air Force, Luckey spent 18 in flying assignments.
“I didn’t like trying to fly a desk, or anything else like that,” Luckey said. “I enjoyed flying. I was living the dream.”
He concluded his Air Force career with an administrative position in Vietnam, then retired in 1973.
The wheat field landing at Vance was his only crash landing. Luckey said the second-most-dangerous flying incident he faced was a near-collision with another training aircraft — also at Vance.
In all his flying time, Luckey said the most dangerous was in the training environment.
“That’s probably the most dangerous part of flying, is trying to train pilots to fly that thing,” Luckey said. “Every gray hair I have on my head is for a time a student tried to kill me in the aircraft.”
Luckey said if he could give any advice to student pilots today, it would be to practice their landings.
“Landing a plane is what I consider to be the most important and dangerous part of learning to fly,” Luckey said. “Learn how to land your plane and learn it well. Making good landings always served me well, especially that April day 62 years ago.”
Luckey said his advice to student pilots, based on his time in the cockpit, can be summed up in this maxim: “Fly safe.”