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Pilot and plane reunited for 1st time since rescue

In a Tuesday, May 8, 2012 photo, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, retired, Mac Secord, second from left, trades flying stories at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins with Ned Sanders, left, in the cockpit of the C-130 Secord flew on a hostage rescue mission to the Congo in 1964. Tuesday marked the first time Secord had seen the aircraft in over 40 years. (AP Photo/The Telegraph, Grant Blakenship)

In a Tuesday, May 8, 2012 photo, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, retired, Mac Secord, second from left, trades flying stories at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins with Ned Sanders, left, in the cockpit of the C-130 Secord flew on a hostage rescue mission to the Congo in 1964. Tuesday marked the first time Secord had seen the aircraft in over 40 years. (AP Photo/The Telegraph, Grant Blakenship)

WARNER ROBINS, Ga. (AP) — The last time Mac Secord saw the C-130E that sits at the Museum of Aviation, it was in the Congo and riddled with bullet holes.

An Air Force captain at the time, he had flown it out of a small airport in Stanleyville with a load of 125 hostages who had just been freed from brutal Simba rebels. Rebels shot at the plane as it took off, puncturing the fuel tank and causing it to leak profusely during the 800-mile trip to safety. He had to shut down one engine, but that was no big deal on the four-engine plane. The leaking fuel was a big deal.

"We were concerned all the fuel streaming out of the tank was going to catch fire," he said.

He told the story of the 1964 rescue, dubbed Operation Red Dragon, as he stood outside the plane Tuesday. A recent addition to the museum, the plane was opened to the public briefly in honor of Secord's visit.

Because the plane was so heavily damaged during the mission it was sent off for repair and Secord never saw it again until Tuesday. He never knew what became of it until a few months ago when he got a call from the Museum of Aviation that it was coming there.

The plane was brand new in 1964, and Secord said he never dreamed then the plane would have stayed in service until its retirement in 2011.

"That mission just reinforced my belief that the C-130 is the greatest airplane ever built," he said. "It takes a licking and keeps on ticking."

The hostages had been held for three months, and an international effort to free them was organized when word got out that many were being tortured and starved.

Secord was particularly disturbed when he learned of an American doctor who died as a hostage. The doctor had gone to the Congo to help people. Many of the other 2,000 hostages were missionaries.

Congo had been a Belgian colony until gaining its independence in 1960. Because of the Belgian experience there, the U.S. C-130s dropped 300 elite Belgian paratroopers to free the hostages.

"If you are going to fight someone, don't fight a Belgian paracommando," Secord said. "Those are some of the meanest, toughest, best-trained troops I have ever seen."

With no transportation however, the hostages had to walk the two miles to the airport. A scattering of Simba rebels along the way kept firing at them, and some of the hostages were killed.

When they got to the airport, two C-130s were there but Secord's was the only one with its engines going.

"Naturally, they all went to the one with the propellers turning," he said.

After loading the passengers, Secord's plane was the first to fly out with hostages. But a couple of rebels had been waiting in the high grass near the runway and fired on the plane.

Other planes were shot at during the operation, but Secord's plane suffered the most damage. He didn't return for another load because it was determined he had suffered a concussion when he hit his head shortly before the mission began.

The plane at the museum was actually supposed to be a spare for the mission. Secord had started off with another plane, but it had a mechanical problem and he had to return for the spare.

"Thank God we had the spare," he said.

Secord, 80, retired as a lieutenant colonel and lives in Atlanta. He owns a private plane and still flies.

He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the mission, and his crew received the 1964 MacKay Trophy for most meritorious flight of the year.

Secord said he is thrilled the plane has been preserved.

"I'm going to tell all my friends to come see it," he said.