WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE -- A "huge" flash lit up the cockpit of the lumbering B-52D above North Vietnam, jostling the giant jet and turning a bombing run into survival for pilot commander Capt. Kenneth J. Curry and his crew.
The enemy surface-to-air missile exploded near the left wing on April 9, 1972, spraying the massive bomber with shrapnel and taking out two of eight engines.
"The first thing that happens for me is, am I still here?" he remembered thinking. "Second thing, after I acknowledged I'm still here and I'm the aircraft commander, (is to) fly the airplane."
Curry, 71, of Loveland, Colo., returned to the war-damaged bomber once peppered with dozens of holes on a trip last week to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. The airplane on that life-and-death mission fills the Southeast Asia War Gallery.
'Absolutely a miracle'
"It's chilling," the former bomber pilot said. "It's just very emotional. ... Why we didn't have a fire, why we didn't have all kinds of trouble, it was absolutely a miracle. I have a great love for this airplane."
Curry was at the museum with photojournalist Jim Cornfield of Malibu Canyon, Calif., for a photo shoot in an upcoming book focused on environmental portraiture, placing people in their jobs. "The whole idea of portraiture is you picture somebody who embraces their external reality," said Cornfield, a childhood and lifelong friend of Curry's.
Curry expected danger on the April 1972 mission to bomb a surface-to-air missile target. Fighters flew above a three-bomber formation and electronic countermeasures engaged as the B-52s dropped bombs on Vinh Airfield. With the bomb loads gone, the B-52s immediately began evasive maneuvers, turning left and right, and gaining and losing altitude to evade a missile hit.
"It was really a radical maneuver," he said. "The timing was incredible because had my bank angle been greater when that missile went off with the proximity fuse, it could have blown the wing off and we would have had to bail out or gotten killed."
Fuel 'pouring out'
Curry and his crew would fly the damaged bomber to Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam. Dozens of holes were punched into the fuselage. Forty of the largest were four inches wide or larger.
"When we landed at Da Nang the fuel was just pouring out of this just like a faucet, multiple faucets," he said under the shadow of the bomber.
"This airplane saved my life," he said. "I don't take the complete credit for it at all. It's really partly the airplane's doing. It came through when it was necessary and we survived. And we came very, very close."
He and his crew were back in the air in another bomber within 36 hours.
"We went back to work right away," he said. "My crew was OK. We were all pretty shook up, but we were all only one day off."
Once the damaged jet was repaired months later, Curry and his crew would fly see the jet again.
"We went to the briefing and there it was (plane number) 665," said Curry, a retired aviation executive.
A crewman who survived the missile strike balked at flying in the same bomber, telling Curry he was not going.
"I said, 'What? You're not going? What go you mean?'"
"Pilots are superstitious," Curry said.
He remembers what he said to the crewman: "This airplane saved our lives, yours, mine and the rest of the crew. Let me tell you, we're always going to be safe in that airplane after that. So you're going on this mission and I'm not giving you a choice. Do you understand?"
The airman climbed aboard.
"There was a bit of trepidation, a bit of fear to say the least," Curry said.
Curry said he was diagnosed in recent years with post-traumatic stress because of his combat experience in Vietnam.
"I was affected by my experience over there and I didn't even realize it 'til probably five, six years ago," he said. "... It damages you. But I'm doing fine." ___
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This article was written by Barrie Barber from The Dayton Daily News and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.