Back to Mangrove Swamp Adventure

1968 Plane Crash in Panama - 2008 Update

On the Pacific side, there is a 17 foot tide. Right photo: At high tide, water will be up to the clothesline. My partners are in the dugout canoe waiting for the tide to set us afloat.

April 28, 2008, Ray Herring wrote the following letter. He was part of the search team for this plane.

Article from the Chicago Tribune supplied by Ray Herring

I discovered your web site "Motivation Tool Chest" while doing a Google search for information on a plane crash that occurred while I was stationed in Panama in 1966. I was recently watching the " Man in the Wild" TV program with Bear Grylls in a Panama mangrove swamp when he mentioned " a plane crash that occurred near here in the late 1960s". I turned to my grandson and said that sounded like the plane crash that I took part in the search and rescue of while stationed in Panama. I decided to do a Google search and found your web site. I loved reading the article and especially loved the photos since I had not seen the crash site from the ground because I was part of the air crew of a USAF C-46 that flew above the crash site.

Even though its been 40+ years I still remember the experience quite well. The plane had been reported missing on a Thursday or Friday and the search operations were ongoing all weekend and with each passing day there was mounting frustration because the plane had not been found. One of the USAF Pararescue troops was my bunk mate and on the evening before they were found he came in and said that it was not likely anyone would still be alive even it they could find them. I remember the feeling of frustration and could see the disappointment he was feeling. Later on that evening word came up that they wanted spotters to fly the following morning. I volunteered to fly and the next morning reported to the flight line just at daybreak and met up with the rest of the flight crew. After receiving our briefing by the aircraft commander we took off and headed across to the Caribbean side of Panama. We were to start a search pattern along the cost heading south and then move into the interior. I was 19 years old at the time and was a member of the 605th Air Commando Squadron stationed at Howard AFB. I was sitting in the side doorway ( the door having been removed ) and I remember as we flew along the coast seeing giant turtles and sharks swimming below in the clear waters. I don't remember exactly how long we flew along the coast but at some point the pilot turned the plane towards the central highlands of the interior. As we began to climb in altitude to get above the mountains I could see the thick jungle below and it was like a solid ocean of green with no sign of anything below the jungle canopy. Finding a downed plane in this would be next to impossible, I thought, and I strained to find any sign of a break in the green canopy that might signal a crash site. As we continued to fly into the afternoon now deep in the central mountain region, I remember the pilot mentioning the rain forest in that area and how it gets 300 to 400 inches of rain a year. At that point in time I don't think anyone was thinking we will find the plane because we had been told this would be the last day of the search and now It was mid afternoon with the end of daylight coming that would stop all search operations. I remember again feeling totally frustrated and thinking how sad the relatives of the plane passengers must feel. It was about this time when we receive a radio message from search command headquarters directing us to proceed to a certain area to rendezvous with a private plane that is circling over a crash site believed to be the plane we had been looking for. Our orders were to confirm the crash site and relay any information back to the command post as soon as possible. With this, the pilot pushed the throttles forward on the big twin radial engines and the plane turned into a heading that we had been given. It was a relief to hear the monotony of the constant engine drone finally broken and to feel the g-forces as the plane accelerated and moved towards what we hoped would be the plane with survivors.

I don't remember how long we flew or much about the radio conversions on the way but I am thinking we were told that survivors had been spotted. We were all uplifted in spirit and it was like we had awoken from a hypnotic state as the radio traffic came to life and we began looking for the small plane ahead. As we began slowing and descending the pilot came over the radio and told everyone to start looking for the crash site. It was then that the pilot put the plane into a steep left turn and I saw a small plane flying in a tight circle with his wing pointing down at a steep angle. I remember thinking how small the little circling plane looked as the pilot of the big C46 began a circle just above him and as I looked out the door and down at the small plane the pilot of the C46 kept asking if anyone had spotted the wreckage. No, one had and so we continued to strain our eyes to spot the crashed plane that was supposed to be just below the small plane that was circling below us. I don't remember how long it took to actually spot the crashed plane but finally we spotted it and I remember seeing someone moving around on the ground near pieces of white ( what I remember to be white ) wreckage of an airplane. The plane had cut a hole in the jungle canopy and slid mostly up under the trees making it very hard to spot from above. It was our understanding, from the radio, the search pilot had seen a reflection and we discussed how lucky it was that the sun was just in the right angle at the right time to cause a reflection seen by the pilot of the small plane crossing the area at just the right moment in time. If the small plane had crossed a few moments earlier or later the plane and survivors may never have been found for as I remember the area was very remote and hostile looking. We continued to circle as the pilot radioed to Command and confirmed the crash site and the location. We were directed to stay on station and continue to circle above and to direct air traffic and provide radio relay for a rescue helicopter that was on its way to the scene. The pilot told everyone to keep and eye out for the chopper which should be arriving soon. After some period of time I looked out and saw a small USAF Search and Rescue Helicopter below us with the small plane now gone. Pretty soon I saw someone lowered down through the hole in the jungle canopy and realized it was a Pararescue Medic. The helicopter continued to hover above the crash site and we continued to circle for what seem like a long time but I don't know just how long. I seem to remember it was now late afternoon and we were told more helicopters were coming in. Since we were low on fuel, having been flying since daybreak, we had to break off and head back to base. As we touched down at Howard I remember feeling really uplifted knowing that the plane had been found and that there were survivors. We had at some point learned that the pilot of the plane had died by drowning when he jumped out of the plane and into to the swamp. I didn't really understand how that could be since it appeared the plane was on dry ground from what I could see. I had no idea that the tides in that part of Panama average 16 to 17 feet. The story that I remember is that the pilot had internal injuries and at some point went out of his mind and jumped out of the plane. Don't know if it really happened that way but that is what I remember being told afterwards.

I never learned what caused the plane to go down. From your pictures and based on my experience of crash investigation later in my life it would appear that the plane may have run out of fuel since I can see no sign of fire. However, that is just speculation on my part. It also looks like it was a Beech 18 aircraft from your photos. Do you know if all of the survivors made it after they were rescued? I seem to remember one or two had serious injuries. Also, wondering why they marked a trail to the water from the crash site since the survivor were lifted out by chopper. Did they take the dead pilot out by boat or do you know?

Anyway, I didn't mean to get carried away telling a war story but just wanted to drop you a line and thank you for posting the pictures and hope you don't mind if I copy them off for my scrap book. Also, to point out that it was the USAF that performed the rescue. There may have been some Army involved at some point but the first on the scene were USAF aircraft and personnel and the helicopters that pulled them out were Air Force Helicopters from the Southern Command.

Ray Herring
Houston, Texas

P.S.
I love your web site and it looks like you have certainly lived an exciting life. I haven't read all of you other articles but intend to do so soon. Keep up the good work of providing motivation and inspiration. Our youth today need people to look up to and you certainly fit the qualifications with your many experiences and adventures.

Back to Mangrove Swamp Adventure