Airman Salute – Operation Under the Flag

Airmen salute during the STRAY 59 memorial flight in Okinawa, Japan, Feb. 26, 2020. The flight pays tribute to the 23 lives lost during the Special Warfare Exercise of 1981, call sign STRAY 59.

Photos By: Air Force Senior Airman Cynthia Belio

A ceremonial wreath sits on the ramp of a 17th Special Operations Squadron MC-130J Commando II (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Cynthia Belío)
Loadmasters from the 17th Special Operations Squadron and the 1st Special Operations Squadron prepare to drop a ceremonial wreath to pay their respects during the annual STRAY 59 memorial flight off the coast of the Philippines, Feb. 26, 2020. This is the 39th consecutive year the 353rd Special Operations Group has paid tribute to the 23 lives lost during the Special Warfare Exercise (SPECWAREX) of 1981, call sign STRAY 59, by dropping a memorial wreath at the suspected overwater crash site near Subic Bay, Philippines. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Cynthia Belío)

Stray 59 was the call sign of an MC-130E from the 1st SOS that crashed Feb. 26, 1981 during an exercise killing eight of the nine crew members and 15 special operators that were passengers. The memorial flight has been flown by the 1st SOS every year since the crash.

According to Air Force Special Operations Command, the morning of Feb. 26, 1981, the crew’s takeoff time for the mission was slipped from 1:05 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. due to an extended crew day on their mission a day before. STRAY 59, executed a non-tactical departure from Cubi Point at 4:28 a.m. and executed a tactical landing back at Cubi Point at 5:06 a.m. to quickly load 15 personnel participating in the exercise. STRAY 59 executed a tactical departure two minutes later. The crew made their operational normal call six minutes into their low-level flight with a ground radio station. The second, and last, transmission from STRAY 59 was received at 5:21 a.m.; there had been no indication from the crew to indicate a problem with their aircraft.

A local fisherman watched the aircraft impact the water and explode. Eight crew members and 15 special operators were killed instantly. One crew member was thrown from the wreckage and rescued by a local fisherman.

The exact cause of the accident could not be determined. Minutes after impacting the ocean the wreckage sank to a depth of 240 feet.

Lost during this operation:

  • Maj. James Kirk, aircraft commander
  • Capt. Norman Martel, pilot
  • Capt. Thomas Patterson, navigator
  • Capt. Gregory Peppers, navigator, Tech
  • Sgt. Stephen Blyler, radio operator,
  • Tech. Sgt. Barry Chumbley, loadmaster,
  • Tech. Sgt. Gary Logan, loadmaster
  • Staff Sgt. John Felton, flight engineer

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