In 1965, B-52 bombers lifted off from Mather Air Force Base on a mission to attack a strategic site in Vietnam.
In one of the bombers was Don Harten, a sports car-driving, bomber jacket-wearing pilot who would go on to serve multiple tours of duty in three types of aircraft – and survive a harrowing B-52 crash.
His nephew, Craig K. Collins, has penned his uncle’s life story, the central tale being a collision of one of Mather’s B-52s and another of the behemoth bombers during a monster typhoon in 1965 over the South China Sea.
In “Midair,” Collins has written a story he has heard his whole life. Collins tells of how he took a plastic model bomber to his kindergarten class, along with a newspaper clipping of his uncle’s brush with death, for show-and-tell.
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“I can’t watch a war movie because I get halfway into it and think, ‘My uncle’s story is a whole lot more interesting,’ ” Collins said recently in an interview.
Collins said the crash is a forgotten tale that happened on a top-secret mission early in the war.
“They told these guys never to talk about it, and they didn’t for the duration of the war,” Collins said. “Then, after the war, people didn’t want to hear about it. They disrespected those who served.”
In addition to Harten’s war exploits in the cockpit of three types of planes, the book includes the long-retired pilot’s view that politicians had too much influence over those fighting the Vietnam War.
As the two travel this month to newspapers and television and radio stations to publicize the book, people want to shake Harten’s hand after they hear how he avoided death several times when the big bombers crashed into each other 51 years ago.
“This is too good a story to be relegated to the dustbin of history,” Collins said. That Harten probably is the only pilot to have parachuted into a category 5 storm – Super Typhoon Dinah – on June 18, 1965, is not the only remarkable thing about his war record.
His nephew also notes that Harten flew in the Vietnam War from the very first bomb dropped in 1965 to the very last in 1972, that he flew 319 combat missions over five tours of duty. He not only piloted the B-52, he also flew the F-105 and F-111 aircraft in combat.
Harten, 77, who lives in Las Vegas and regularly meets with military buddies, seemingly has a photographic memory of the day his B-52 crashed. It starts at Mather Air Force Base, a stationing he remembers with fondness.
Harten recalls how flight personnel were packed into an overflowing briefing room on the base and told that the B-52s would be taken off nuclear alert, reconfigured into conventional bombers, and depart Mather for Andersen Air Force Base on Guam on Feb. 10, 1965.
On June 18, 1965, the mission to bomb a Vietnam target began. Harten that night would survive a head-on collision with another bomb-laden B-52 at 30,000 feet while a typhoon blew.
The head-on occurred because the convoy of 30 bombers had arrived nine minutes ahead of a scheduled rendezvous with KC-135 refueling tankers on the way to the bomb site. To kill time, pilots were told to make a 360-degree turn to burn the extra time.
“Radar,” Harten said. “You do realize that if there’s another cell (of bombers) four minutes behind and on the south track, there’s a good chance we’ll pass by them head on?”
“Rog,” said the navigator, “so keep your eyes open.”
Harten considered the 360-degree turn a terrible maneuver. In an interview in Sacramento recently, he said this about the seconds before the crash:
“This B-52, this big gray shape was coming right at us,” Harten said. “In two or three microseconds I went through the death process of anger, denial and acceptance. I thought I was going to die.”
When the oncoming B-52 dove beneath Harten’s bomber, its tail sliced off part of Harten’s right wing.
Without a tail, the oncoming B-52 went into a spin and crashed. Harten ejected just before his bomber exploded.
Four of 12 people from the two B-52s would survive. Harten’s account of survival in a tiny life raft, the sinking of a rescue sea plane that had taken him in only to crash into the ocean, and his eventual rescue by a Norwegian freighter is told in the biography written by his nephew.
“This was truly an astonishing survival story,” Collins said. “The crash is pretty remarkable, but there is also an important story in the book about the start of the Vietnam War. Thirdly, this is a character study of my uncle. His experiences were so extreme. What makes a person fly five tours of duty?”
To that, Harten has a two word answer: “Survivor’s guilt.”