It was the height of the Cold War in the 1960s. Maj. Nick Firda was flying a secret Strategic Air Command mission in a B-52 bomber loaded with atomic bombs across the Atlantic Ocean to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina when an oil pressure problem caused him to shut his first engine down. It would be the start of a long flight.
“We were flying a mission in the Mediterranean area and were on our way back to base in North Carolina when I noticed the oil pressure in one of our engines was low. That was no big deal, because we still had seven other engines to fly on,” said the 74-year-old former Strategic Air Command pilot, who now lives in Englewood, Fla.
SAC had recently experienced a calamity in January 1966 when one of its B-52s collided with a refueling tanker over eastern Spain. The bomber broke up and three of its four unexploded nuclear bombs landed near the village of Palomares. The fourth bomb was fished from the depths of the Mediterranean Sea. Several of the B-52 crewmen who did not escape the collision alive had flown as part of Firda’s crew before the disaster.
Within an hour, a second engine went out on Firda’s bomber return to the U.S. When they were still 800 miles from base, a third engine had to be shut down because of mechanical problems.
“This was the only time during my years of service in SAC something like this happened to me,” Firda said. “We could still make it with three engines down. “We had code words to let our controllers on the ground know our B-52, that was full of atomic bombs, was having mechanical trouble. I think it was ‘Right Hand Flight,'” Firda said.
“We started yelling ‘Right Hand Flight’ over the radio. When they heard the code words, they cleared all the radio frequencies for us,” he said.
Their bomber was diverted from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina to Plattsburgh Air Force Base in New York state. It was closer. Firda’s B-52 was carrying four internal atomic bombs in its belly. There were two more GAM-77, jet-powered guided missile atomic bombs mounted on the wings of the big bomber. The combined explosive force of these six A-bombs was many times the destructive power of the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of World War II.
Asked about the mounting pressure on him and his crew because of their wayward bomber’s mechanical problems, Firda said, “The training you get at SAC was exceptional. We were trained to cope with a situation like this.
“They cleared the runway for us at Plattsburgh. As we were landing, we also had hydraulic problems, which made it hard for us to steer the airplane on the ground, and we only had limited braking ability,” he said. “We had an emergency hydraulic pump that would momentarily improve our hydraulic problems. We put the emergency pump on at the last moment and that gave us enough hydraulic pressure to steer and stop the plane.”
When Firda and the other five members of his crew scrambled out of their defective strategic bomber, the major was instructed to report to the base commander immediately. After reviewing all of the facts relating to the bomber’s mechanical difficulties, his superiors “thought the crew handled the problem very well,” he said.
A few years later, Firda served a tour in Vietnam from 1969-70, spraying Agent Orange, a controversial defoliant, from a C-123 transport plane at treetop level.
The commendation accompanying his Distinguished Flying Cross reads:
“Maj. Nicholas Firda distinguished himself as an aircraft commander of a UC-123 at Khan Hoa Province, Vietnam, on 23 June 1969. On this day, he flew an extremely important low-level defoliant mission against a hostile base camp. At the beginning of the spray run, Maj. Firda began receiving intense small arms fire.
Maj. Firda continued to maintain his course and altitude throughout the spray run, encountering automatic weapons fire until the termination of the target. The professional competence and devotion to duty displayed by Maj. Firda reflects great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”
What the DFC commendation doesn’t say is that the major’s airplane was so badly shot full of bullet holes he couldn’t make it back to base.
“We developed an oil leak in one of our two engines on the way back to base and had to shut the engine down,” he said. “About the same time we lost our electrical power, which meant we couldn’t move fuel from tank to tank and were going to run out before we got back to base.
“I was flying down Highway 1 toward Da Nang when I realize that if I had to I could make an emergency landing on Highway 1,” Firda recalled. “I spotted a little grass air strip and decided to set it down there. Unfortunately, there was a Huey (helicopter) unloading troops at the end of the runway.
“As we were coming in I was yelling at the Huey pilot over our radio to get the hell out of the way. He wasn’t on our radio frequency, so he couldn’t hear me. “I slipped the plane to the right of the ‘copter and landed it without hurting anyone,” Firda said. “I was 25 feet from the end of the runway when I got it stopped.”
By this time in the war, Firda was beginning to hear and read bad things about Agent Orange and what it was doing to soldiers. In recent years, it’s been blamed by veterans for innumerable cases of cancer and other life-threatening medical problems. “After I came back from Vietnam I got into the Air Force’s health study on Agent Orange,” he said. “It ended a couple of years ago.”
He was sent around the country from one Air Force base to another for testing for 30 years. They would run him through a battery of tests for a week at a time and then send him home. What Firda learned from all these tests is that he doesn’t have cancer, but the dioxin level in his body is off the chart. He attributes his medical problem to his proximity to Agent Orange more than three decades ago in Vietnam.
In 1997, he and his wife, Virginia, a former school teacher, moved to Englewood and live on a canal. He has his boat up on davits in the back yard. A dozen or more rods and reels in a rack on his back porch attests to the fact the former SAC pilot likes to fish, too.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Wednesday, April 12, 2006 and is republished with permission.
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