By Ed Landwehr
While attending the memorial service for Merle Sheets on August 23, I came to realize that I had known Merle longer than anyone at that service. Surely, I would have liked to participate in the eulogy for Merle, but felt that I was not able to handle it emotionally at that time. Perhaps these words will express my feelings.
During World War II we both graduated as commissioned officers and Naval Aviators at the same time, our Navy serial numbers were one digit apart. Together we both new PBM Mariner seaplanes, flying boats, and patrol bombers. After our Navy duties I was flying for Transocean Air Lines when we renewed our friendship in Honolulu, where Merle was living. My enthusiasm for TAL must have influenced him as he asked if they were hiring pilots. I introduced him to Harvey Rogers, our Chief Pilot, and needless to say, Transocean acquired another excellent pilot.
Merle flew for Transocean, Japan Air Lines, Korean Air Lines, and World Airways. I was with Japan Air Lines and then Trans International Airlines while our flying careers paralleled each other. Our friendship and camaraderie always continued with dinners, boating, and get-togethers at home and during layovers all over the world.
One of the primary requisites of an international airline Captain is that of good judgment. Emergencies, engine failures, diplomatic problems, etc., are all routine experiences. The one incident over which you have little or no control, but lots of apprehension, is that of a mid-air collision. One night during the Vietnam Airlift to Saigon I was approaching the coast of South Vietnam flying at 35,000 feet, with 250 passengers aboard. The Vietnamese air traffic controller cleared our flight to Cam Panh Bay, to descend to 31,000 feet. We started our decent. About 100 feet above our assigned altitude, while in clouds, our windshield immediately became red and flashing white from strobe lights and the rotating beacon of another aircraft! Its tail was in our face, our cockpit was lighted by its strobe lights less than forty feet away. In one split second glance I saw, emblazoned on its rudder, "World Airways". My pull up and flight reaction was spontaneous, my radio voice transmissions the next few minutes were, I'm sure, illegal profanity directed at Air Traffic Control, the Vietnamese controller and his American aviation supervisor. They had directed two big jet airliners to the same location, at the same time, at the same altitude to a most probable crash in mid-air! After safely landing in Saigon, parking next to World Airways, my anger had not abated as I bolted up the ramp into the World cockpit.
"Who's flying this plane?" I demanded.
"Captain Sheets," one of the startled crew replied.
My next thought was, "Oh, my God!" A probable mid-air collision with one of your best friends. "Weren't you on radio frequency, weren't you aware of TIA's descent clearance?" I inquired. No, a different frequency was assigned for World, they had no knowledge of the flight situation at all. So, that was the cause. An American controller instructor had his Vietnamese students use a discreet radio frequency for our aircraft while practicing air control, then other aircraft and pilots were out of the communication loop. What a bad situation that could have needlessly caused the loss of 500 lives. We saw to it that the supervisor controller is no longer directing air traffic. Merle and I used to reminisce and try to analyze procedures that would prevent future situations occurring as the one we were subject to but survived. He is on another trip now, flying West with clear skies and fair weather and on a good frequency, I'm sure. So long, Merle. Have a good trip. We'll get together again someday.