Seaboard Incident at Marble Mountain

marble_mt-2a.jpg
Photo courtesy of Jean Snidow.  Incident details courtesy of Capt. Bill Bond.

On April 30, 1969, a Seaboard DC-8-63CF with 219 passengers and 13 crewmembers was headed from Kadena Air Base on Okinawa to Da Nang Air Base in Vietnam. Prior to departure, the crew learned in the classified briefing that there were heavy enemy attacks in the area around Da Nang. They were advised to approach with their lights off and only turn them on when directed to do so by the control tower. When they arrived over Vietnam, near Da Nang, at night, all the electronic aids to navigation in the Da Nang area were out of service due to a recent explosion at an ammunition dump. Bill Bond was flying the aircraft and Jack Webb was handling the communications. The only lights on the ground that they could see were a set of runway lights running in the right direction. They contacted the Da Nang tower and were told to show a light. Jack turned the landing lights on. The tower said, "In sight, cleared to land." Bill landed the airplane and the pilots immediately saw that the runway was very short and narrow. They applied maximum braking and maximum reverse and managed to stop safely just before the end of the runway. They had landed at Marble Mountain Air Facility, a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter base about 3½ miles east‑southeast of Da Nang. The runway was only 3,400 feet long, including a 50‑foot overrun at each end, extremely short for a DC‐8. It was so narrow that the inboard engines hung out over the dirt on each side of the runway.

The passengers and crew climbed down onto a fire truck that had been placed next to the aircraft, and from there down to the ground. Seaboard and Douglas Aircraft, the manufacturer, were contacted. Douglas calculated that the aircraft, empty except for a small amount of fuel and the cockpit crew, could take off in 2,300 feet. A tug and defueling unit were sent from Da Nang to Marble Mountain. While they were at Marble Mountain, Bill Bond noticed that the runway lights were spaced more closely than normal, and that the lights could be seen from all directions. The directional runway lights at Da Nang could only be seen if you were in line with the runway. When the tug arrived, the aircraft was pushed back down the length of the runway until the main-gear tires were at the very beginning of the runway. The overrun was considered unsafe. The defueling unit was very slow and it became apparent that the defueling would not be complete until well after sunrise, when the aircraft would be a target for enemy forces, and when it would be very hot. The two pilots and the flight engineer decided to take off with the remaining fuel, not knowing how much runway would be used. They took off safely and landed a few minutes later at Da Nang.

When the crew got back to New York, there was a hearing into the circumstances of the incident. As of that date, no flight crew had ever been exonerated for landing at the wrong airport. Although neither Seaboard, the NTSB, nor the FAA could find any fault with the conduct of the crew under the circumstances they experienced, the FAA imposed a three‑day suspension on Webb and Bond. The justification for the suspension was that the crew had landed at a weight higher than permitted for the runway length. Seaboard scheduled Webb's three‑day suspension to be coincident with his vacation. He did not think it was worth the effort to appeal, as the suspension would have no effect on his career. As Bill Bond had a long career ahead of him and expected to soon upgrade to captain, he appealed the suspension. He explained that Boeing engineers had discovered that two rows of runway lights against a completely dark background created a "black hole" effect that, coupled with the width of the runway in relation to the length, and the spacing of the runway lights, created the deceptive appearance of a longer runway and the illusion that the aircraft was higher above it than it actually was. Bill was exonerated and not long after upgraded to captain.

Note the Seaboard flight attendant in the yellow uniform jacket taking a photo of the takeoff.

The crewmembers were:

CaptainJack Webb
CopilotBill Bond
Flight Engineer 
Navigator 
Senior Flight AttendantJean Snidow
Flight Attendant 
Flight Attendant 
Flight Attendant 
Flight Attendant 
Flight Attendant 

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