TRIBUTE TO THE MEN WHO FLEW EC-121

HON. ALLEN BOYD
OF FLORIDA
IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

Friday, December 15, 2000

 

Mr. BOYD. Mr. Speaker, today I pay tribute to the brave men who flew the EC -121 Lockheed Super Constellation from Otis Air Force Base (AFB), Massachusetts, in the 1950's and 1960's. The 19 member crews of these aircraft flew countless radar surveillance missions to provide early warning radar coverage for the United States during the height of the Cold War and were a first line of defense against a surprise attack. In particular, I want to pay tribute to the fifty officers and airmen who died when three EC -121 's crashed in the North Atlantic.

Otis AFB, located on Cape Cod, was the only Air Defense Command base with units performing three of the Air Defense Command's prime missions: radar picket plane surveillance, fighter-interception, and ground-to-air missile operations. With the completion of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line in 1958, the northern areas of the United States and Canada were still vulnerable. Consequently, the radar warning networks were extended seaward at Otis AFB on the east by using the 551st Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) Wing. This wing supplemented the radar protection along the East Coast of the United States.

The 551st Wing at Otis was the only Air Force organization flying the EC -121H ``Warning Star'' Super Constellation known as Airborne Long Range Input (ALRI) aircraft. Those aircraft carried more than six tons of complex radar and computer communications equipment on each flight and provided instantaneous automated relay of air defense surveillance and early warning information by data-link direct to ground based communications facilities. This information was then passed to high speed Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) Air Defense Command and Control computers in the East Coast SAGE Direction Centers and to the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) Combat Operations Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for air defense evaluation and action. It is interesting to note, especially for the younger generation, that the 551st Wing flew their continuous missions over the Atlantic Ocean 24 hours a day.

On March 2, 1965, the 551st AEW&C Wing celebrated its 10th anniversary. It was noted that the 551st Wing had progressed through many changes--some involving electronic equipment and other gear. Still the mission continued to be an effective--although more sophisticated--form of radar surveillance against the enemy. During that decade, the aircraft of the 551st Wing had accumulated more than 350,000 hours of early warning radar surveillance missions over the North Atlantic without an accident involving personal injury or a fatality. However, the fatality-free decade celebration didn't last long.

The ten-year celebration hardly had ended when on July 11, 1965, one of the Super Constellations, the Air Force model EC -121H radar aircraft, developed a fire in the number three engine. The decision was made to try ditching the plane approximately 100 miles from Nantucket, Massachusetts, in the North Atlantic. Unfortunately, touchdown in the night-time ditching in zero-zero weather, while on fire, was very difficult. The aircraft crashed and broke apart. Of the 19 people on board, three crew members survived and 16 died. Seven of the crew membersí bodies were never recovered.

On Veterans Day 1966 (November 11th) another EC -121H crashed in approximately the same general area as the first one, by unexplained circumstances. This accident was about 125 miles east of Nantucket. All 19 crew members were killed and their bodies were never recovered.

On April 25, 1967, another EC -121H ditched in the North Atlantic approximately one mile off of Nantucket just after having taken off from Otis AFB. There was one survivor, and 15 crew members lost their lives. Five bodies were not recovered. Colonel James P. Lyle, the Commander of the 551st AEW&C Wing to which all the aircraft and crew members were assigned, was piloting this plane when it crashed.

Colonel Lyle had been assigned to take over that command nine months earlier. It is sobering to note that it was he who presented each of the next of kin of the November 11, 1966, crash victims with the United States Flag during that memorial service. Then five months later Colonel Lyle met the same fate.

 

The EC -121H aircraft was phased out and the 551st Wing was deactivated on December 31, 1969. Later, Otis AFB was renamed Otis Air National Guard Base. Today at that base, Otis Memorial Park is dedicated to the 50 members of the crews of the three aircraft who lost their lives. With the exception of the remaining immediate family members of the flyers and some of the friends of the flyers, few remember these tragic events ever happened.

I admit that I never knew about these events until a constituent of mine from the Second Congressional District of Florida, Senior Master Sergeant A.J. Northrup, USAF (Ret.), brought this to my attention. I would be remiss if I didn't recognize SMSGT. Northrup and his 20 years of service to our nation. He actually spent four years as an Airborne Radio Operator/Electronic Countermeasures Operator aboard the RC-121 at Otis AFB. I thank him for his service to our nation and for working to bring these events to light.

More than half a century ago, President Franklin Roosevelt reminded the American people that, ``Those who have long enjoyed such privileges as we enjoy forget in time that men have died to win them.'' I hope that we as a nation, and each of us as individuals, will take to heart President Roosevelt's reminder that it is the sacred duty and great privilege of the living to honor and remember those who have died to protect the American ideals of freedom, democracy and liberty. The men and women who have died in service to America, and especially the 50 heroes aboard these fateful EC -121H flights, deserve no less.

 

The above tribute can be found at pages E2215 and E2216 of the Congressional Record - Extension of Remarks - December 15, 2000