Answer Man

It was 1971 when an airplane crashed into a home near Scott Air Force Base

A C-9A Nightingale plane similar to this one crashed into and destroyed a home near Scott Air Force Base in 1971.
A C-9A Nightingale plane similar to this one crashed into and destroyed a home near Scott Air Force Base in 1971.

Q: After reading with interest your recent article about the B-25 crash in Lebanon, it sparked my own memory. My Great-Aunt Luella Klotz and her husband, Bill, lived on farmland just off of Wherry Road by Scott Air Force Base. I believe it was the early ’70s when an aircraft crashed into their home. I was young at the time and never learned exactly what happened. All I do know is they were not home at the time when it was destroyed. Any help with this bit of family history would be greatly appreciated.

Sue Paoli, of St. Jacob

A: In the late 1960s, the Military Airlift Command was embracing a new mission: using “air ambulances” that could pick up and deliver ill and wounded service members around the world.

To accomplish this critical task, the Air Force in 1966 asked McDonnell Douglas to fashion an aeromedical transport plane from its civilian DC-9. The result was the C-9A Nightingale, which began flying off the production line two years later. (The Navy and Marines would get the C-9B Skytrain.)

One of the first to arrive at Scott was a C-9A with tail number 22586, according to Master Sgt. Gerald Sonnenberg, who retired from the Air Force just three weeks ago as the 932nd Airlift Wing historian. But ironically in 1971, that air ambulance would require ambulances of a different kind after it slammed into your family’s home and exploded.

It was during a routine training flight on Thursday, Sept. 16, 1971, that three Air Force pilots were practicing “touch-’n’-goes,” during which an aircraft briefly touches down as if to land but immediately takes off again. Capt. James L. Rhame Jr., of Hampton, Va., was in the pilot’s seat while Maj. Aubrey L. Akin, of Houston, sat in the co-pilot’s seat to evaluate Rhame and Lt. Col. Lloyd M. Clore in their bid to become aircraft commanders. Riding in the jump seat, Clore, an employee of Southwestern Bell in Fairview Heights, was a veteran of World War II and Korea and a long-time reservist.

According to Sonnenberg, at about 2:50 p.m. Rhame and Akin had dropped down for another touch-’n’-go when a fan blade in the plane’s No. 2 engine failed. Engine parts began falling off and littering the runway, but the plane still managed to climb to about 400 feet. Then, about a mile northwest of the base, the plane began a rapid descent to a point just east of what is now Illinois 158 and a quarter-mile north of Wherry Road.

As it came down, according to a News-Democrat article the next day, the aircraft cut a wide swath 1,000 feet long from the time it hit trees surrounding the house until it came to a stop in a clump of pines that bordered the farmyard.

“Bricks from the Klotz home were found several hundred feet away,” the article said. “Two new pairs of coveralls and two new workshirts, purchased recently by Klotz, were flung from a closet and landed in a tree. They were not damaged.”

Emergency teams rushed to the scene to find the severed tail section and a massive wall of flames where the house had stood, according to Sonnenberg. By the time the fire was extinguished, the front stoop and chimney were all that remained of the six-room brick house.

All three pilots died in the crash, but someone must have been looking out for your relatives. According to Sonnenberg, Bill and Luella were in Belleville attending the annual convention of the Illinois State Grange. They said they had planned to return home at 2:30 — about 25 minutes before the crash — until friends convinced them to stay for the evening session.

The crash was the first involving a C-9A, ending the plane’s initial four-year spotless record. It was also the first accident at Scott since 1966, when a C-119 Flying Boxcar crashed nearby with no injury. A week later, the 932nd’s chaplain, Capt. John Richter, published a tribute to the pilots in the Command Post, writing, “Their service to man and nation will remain an inspiration to us and challenge our best efforts as we press on.”

The C-9A flew its final mission in September 2005. I will send you the stories from Sonnenberg and the News-Democrat for your scrapbook.

Today’s trivia

On what day were Belleville residents finally able to make a long-distance phone call that did not have to be connected by a human operator?

Answer to Friday’s trivia: People apparently took little note when “Green Grow the Lilacs” opened on Broadway on Jan. 26, 1931. Named for the popular folk song with the same title, Lynn Riggs’ musical that featured a young Tex Ritter lasted just 64 performances, closing on March 21. But it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and started popping up in regional productions around the country. That’s probably why the legendary team of Rodgers and Hammerstein took a second look at it. Writing all new music, they kept the same plot and turned it into one of Broadway’s most enduring musicals — “Oklahoma!,” which opened in 1943 and at that time ran for an unprecedented 2,212 performances. The Tony Awards did not start until 1947, but Rodgers and Hammerstein earned a special Pulitzer in 1943 and the show was awarded a special Tony on its 50th anniversary in 1993.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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