Emerson E. Heller Lieutenant Colonel, United States Air Force

  • Date of Birth: 7/24/1926
  • Date of Casualty: 4/25/1969
  • Branch of Service: AIR FORCE
  • Rank: LTC
  • Casualty Country: THAILAND
  • Casualty Province: QUANG TRI

EMERSON E HELLER EC-121R Crash (SN67-21493)  25 April 1969

Bill Heller (former CO of 360th Sq.) [email protected] 21 Dec 2001

I wish all my colleagues of the 303rd BGA who served at Molesworth a very Happy Holiday Season, and not to forget Who it is we celebrate this Season. My Christmas of 1944 at Molesworth was a very memorable time for me … for my late brother, Lieutenant Colonel Emerson Heller, joined me there as a copilot on the Richeson crew. I was Ops Officer of the 359th at the time. We flew in many combat formations together, but, of course, in different planes. He stayed in the Service, I did not. He was KIA in Nam in 1969 and now rests in Arlington. I shall join him there … when.

Brother Emerson eventually got his own crew and flew 33 +/- missions with the 303rd. Each Christmas always takes me back to Molesworth. Cheers! Bill Heller (former CO of 360th Sq.)

By  Mike Burroughs
September 28, 2002

Lieutenant Colonel Emerson Heller was the aircraft commander on that mission;
ironically, the man in the right seat at the time of takeoff was the wing flying safety officer, Major Paul Lunsford. Colonel Heller was ready to retire. In fact, a day or so after that flight, he was to have departed for Travis AFB to retire at port, and his wife was already in San Francisco waiting for him.

The results of the accident investigation determined that when the aircraft took off, the severe weather forced it down, and it never gained more than a few hundred feel in altitude. The aircraft, tail number 21493, had made a pretty good belly landing, but as it began to hit trees, it broke up, and with a full load of fuel, it caught fire and exploded. Although I never saw any of the wreckage, I got some descriptions from
investigating officers, and it was horrible. Those guys never had a chance. The crash was attributed to pilot error, as the technical manual specified that when thunderstorms were within five miles of the airfield, takeoffs and landings would not be attempted. Two questions that have plagued me for 30 years are (1) why the aircraft commander requested permission to take off in such severe weather, and (2) why the air traffic controller did not recommend that he delay takeoff until the storm had passed. There was some speculation that since aircraft commanders were under so much pressure to be on station on time, Colonel Heller decided to go ahead and take off and be done with it.

That day, the reality of war confronted me and many others in the 553rd and 554th.  For the most part, the war for us had seemed to be something fairly far away; we were well insulated from it. But now 18 men were dead someone's sons, someone's husbands, someone's brothers, someone's fathers. The youngest was 19; the
oldest, 46. I lost some friends that day, and except for a fluke of nature, I also would have lost a a roommate. On the other hand, had Chuck not become ill and been grounded, Major Brandom probably would have remained on the other flight, and his life would have been spared. In retrospect, I suppose that many times in our lives, we all brush closely by death without realizing it, and one little change in time, space, or sequence could cause us to cross that line that separates life from death.

Now, more than 33 years later as I remember that day, 25 April 1969, I also remember the strange numbness I felt the very next time I took off for a mission.  Could this happen again? I held my breath and prayed. Death had come so close, yet was so far away. Those 18 men perished in a faraway land, and their names have finally been added to the Vietnam Wall together with more than 58,000 others who also perished in a faraway land. Sometimes today I think, “There but by the grace of God . . . .”

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