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Caldwell was on approach to the drop zone at An Loc when groundfire smashed into Spare 617’s fuselage, instantly killing the flight engineer.

Last August Spare 617, a C-130E boasting an impressive career, entered the collection of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. The well-worn Hercules, No. 62-1787, had come a long way since April 1972, when the intelligence officer at Tan Son Nhut Air Base briefed its pilot, Captain William Caldwell, and his crew on their mission to the besieged city of An Loc, South Vietnam. Caldwell, who was told, “You’re going to have 37mm anti-aircraft fire coming at you,” remembers asking, “How high does that go?” The reply was succinct: “Above you.”

Caldwell has never forgotten that harrowing airdrop. He was on approach to the drop zone when groundfire smashed into Spare 617’s fuselage and cockpit, instantly killing flight engineer Tech. Sgt. Jon Sanders and wounding several others. The fusillade ruptured an air bleed duct, causing superheated air to spew into the cargo hold, and setting ammo pallets ablaze. Loadmaster Tech. Sgt. Charlie Shaub called for Caldwell or his copilot to electronically jettison the load. When that failed, Shaub braved the scalding air to cut loose the pallets—two of which exploded just after leaving the airplane. Shaub then grabbed a red-hot fire extinguisher and doused a fire in the left wheel well. Caldwell and Shaub later received the Air Force Cross.

Spare 617 was repaired and returned to service, later flying with various Air National Guard squadrons. Colonel Caldwell, who was on hand for the August 18 ceremony honoring No. 62-1787’s installation in the museum, had his own take on the meaning of the festivities: “We had a crew and I included in that crew the airplane, so I saw it more as a retirement ceremony for the plane.” Currently on display on a runway, Spare 617 joins two AC-130 gunships already in the NMUSAF collection. It will eventually be housed in the Global Reach Gallery in a new building, slated for completion in 2014.