On Friday, Sept.29, 1972, an FB-111A from the 380th BMW at Plattsburgh AFB landed by mistake on a much smaller runway at Clinton County Airport in Plattsburgh, NY. The aircraft was crewed by Pilot Maj. Bennie L.Woytovich and Navigator Capt. Andrew Z.Stepniewski. Many versions of the story have been told and written over the last 30 years. Major Ed MacNeil remembers this event very well:
"I'm very familiar with that short flight of 69-6508. This flight became known as the "Polish cross country" as both members of the crew had Polish names. The mission was a CCTS night sortie at KPBG. This was the end of Summer and as usual a great deal of construction was in progress. Among other things a significant number of the runway lights were inoperative making the runway appear much shorter than it actually was. The weather on the night of the mishap was terrible - raining like a cow peeing on a flat rock! Shortly after takeoff the CADC malfunctioned which resulted in a lot of warning lights and the accompanying audio. The crew elected to abort the mission and return to KPBG. They requested and received a GCA to runway 17. This approach was controlled by a student controller and resulted in the airplane being well right of centerline. At about 2 miles the crew sighted a lighted runway dead ahead and assuming it to be runway 17 at Plattsburgh proceeded to land.
Like most SAC bases, the runway at KPBG is far longer than required by an FB-111A. For this reason the Pilot elected to employ aerodynamic braking only until the aircraft was well slowed down. Unfortunately, he ran off the end of the 5,000-feet runway before slowing very much. The aircraft departed the end of the runway and then down an incline striking several small trees. One drop tank was knocked off and ruptured. When the aircraft came to a stop the Pilot directed the Nav to go up the incline and caution rescue personnel to be very careful not to ignite the spilled fuel.
The Nav was an FAA licensed Commercial Pilot but was a bit rattled at this fairly nonstandard arrival. He departed the airplane still wearing his helmet and carrying his bag of secrets. When he reached the top of the incline he noted the airport beacon going green --- white --- green --- white. He knew that this was the designation for a civil airport and since Clinton County was the only airfield near Plattsburgh he then knew exactly where he was. He proceeded across the airfield to the terminal, which was closed, and found a telephone booth. Directly in front to this booth was a car containing a young couple. He couldn't see them well as the windows were all steamed up. Reaching in his pocket he discovered that he had two quarters. Dropping a quarter in the coin slot he dialed 0. When the operator answered, he identified himself and asked that she dial the Command Post at Plattsburgh. She informed him that he could dial the number himself. He responded that his hands were still shaking too damn bad and would she just dial it!! The phone in the CP was answered by the NCO Controller who announced that he was unable to talk due to an aircraft emergency and broke the connection. The Nav then deposited his last remaining coin and dialed the CP. At this point the young couple left the area) The same controller answered and before he could break the connection again the Nav informed him that if he broke the connection again he would personally walk back to Plattsburgh and shoot him! When the situation was explained a vast contingent departed Plattsburgh AFB for Clinton County".
Soon, security police and base officials arrived and a UH-1N rescue helicopter transported the crew back to PAFB while base personnel tried to figure out what to do with the aircraft. State Police and Sheriff's deputies cordoned the area off to civilians and base personnel set up floodlights to begin their inspection. Fuel was removed from the aircraft at the scene as PAFB fire trucks stood by.and guards from the base were stationed around the FB until it could be moved. The following Wednesday morning, Oct.4, seven Air Force vehicles, five New York State Police cars, a New York State Electric and Gas truck and a New York Telephone truck escorted the crippled FB-111A back to base. With the wings folded back, the FB was 34 feet wide, making its route home a tricky one. The work crew took Route 3 to Military Turnpike, north on the turnpike to Route 374, east on 374 to Exit 38 of the Northway, south on the Northway to Exit 36 and back to base. The entire operations took four and a half hours. The gas and telephone trucks traveled ahead of the caravan, lifting power and phone lines. Several signs and reflectors had to be cut down to allow clearance, but a base welding team followed the convoy and restored each one. State Police closed off the Northway to civilian traffic one intersection at a time while the convoy moved at walking speed until it reached the Northway. It then picked up speed to 5 miles per hour.
Anyone familiar with the Plattsburgh area and who has flown in or out of the County Airport knows how close the two airstrips are. A detailed notice to private pilots in the area was released in August 1971 by the Wing safety office. The notice explained in details that the increased numbers of sorties to be flown by the FB-111A from Plattsburgh AFB would necessitate greater care by private pilots in the area. An estimated 17 sorties was to be flown daily by FB-111s beginning in September. Plattsburgh AFB's control zone extended five miles on each side of the base's flightline, and up to an altitude of 3,000 feet above the ground.
Any aircraft must technically (according to FAA regulations) obtain permission and maintain radio contact with the base's control tower to fly into that zone. The Clinton County Airport, used by both private and commercial aircraft, is within the five-miles radius. Flights, however, can land at the county airport without radio contacts with the base tower by restricting themselves to altitudes below those flown by military aircraft her. Private aircraft can land at Clinton County if they are not equipped with radio. Approaches to the municipal airport must be made from the west, unless permission is obtained to cross over Plattsburgh AFB. Patterns for aircraft landing on the base are made to the west, over the county airport, at altitudes above those flown by non-military aircraft. The FB-111s will make patterns for landing on Runway 35 (350 degrees to the north) or 17 (170 degrees to the south) over and to the west of the municipal airport at altitudes of 1,800 to 2,300 feet above sea level (ASL).. Private aircraft landing at Clinton County Airport make patterns below 1,800 feet. Military aircraft may fly instrument pattern for the base over Lake Champlain when followed by Burlington based radar and Plattsburgh Ground Control Approach (GCA). This, usually, at 3,500 ASL. Visual landings are made to the west, however. FB-111 patterns will parallel the runway three to four miles out and approach the landing to the north or south from seven to eight miles. The aircraft may also begin descending for straight-in landings anywhere from 10 to 15 miles out. The new aircraft and increased number of sorties will require special visual attention by private pilots, since the FB-111A is smaller than either the KC-135 Stratotanker or the B-52 Stratofortress. The base directs flight patterns to the west of the base, and therefore over the municipal airport, to keep the aircraft from flying over the populated areas of town. The areas of town that aircraft do fly over on straight-in approaches were in most cases populated after the flightline was built. Another reason for their westerly patterns is to direct the jet aircraft here away from pattern flown by large aircraft landing at Burlington International Airport in Vermont, just across the lake. FB-111A aircraft will average about 300 knotts for landing preparations despite their capability for much faster speeds.
Major Ed MacNeil (Ret.) was a pilot with the 715th BMS at Pease AFB and flew with Capt. Andrew Z.Stepniewski during a year following this incident.
The black and white photos of 69-6508 are courtesy of The Press-Republican from Plattsburgh