"It's just a part of a drill," one man told another as they noticed their plane dropping sharply toward the sea. Moments later, the plane hit and broke apart - sending two of its 23 crewmen to death, 17 others to still unknown fates, and leaving only four survivors so far.
The story of the crash off Oahu Monday of the Navy Super Constellation whose crewmen are the object of an intesnse Christmas-time search was told last night by two of the four survivors. "I don't think many got out of the plane," said one.
Today's search was expected to be hampered by heavy seas. The Weather Bureau reported easterly surface winds of 25 knots an hour. High cloudiness over the area, however, was expected to thin during the day, improving visibility. At least three Navy destroyers, a Coast Guard cutter and Air Force planes were to criss-cross a 3,500 square-mile search area. The area was enlarged "somewhat" after last night's search failed to turn up a trace of the missing men, a Navy spokesman said.
Last night the two survivors sat, battered and weary, in wheel chairs at Tripler Army Hospital. Lieutenant (jg) Richard L. Rentschler was the man who assured a crewman it was a fire drill. But Franklin A. Henry, an aviation technician third class, shouted from his post near an altimeter: "It's 300 feet. We're going in right now." Rentschler, who was in a forward compartment with Henry, said Henry's frantic warning gave him the split-second he needed to brace himself - time other crewmen were denied.
Lieutenant (jg) Thomas John Kline, another survivor, was reported yesterday to have said he thought the plane's four engines had stopped running seconds before the aircraft hit water and broke in half. Rentschler, however, said all four engines were running "as far as I know." "All four engines were operating at the time we hit the water," he believes. "I felt whoever was at the controls at the time pull up just before the impact," he said. "There was a fire drill," he said. The plane was on a routine training mission off Oahu, and drills were a vital part of the training program, the lieutenant explained.
Just before the crash, a fire drill had been called, and
the giant plane had lowered altitude from 7,000 feet to a pre-arranged
3,000. But the descent continued past the 3,000 foot level, he said. The
officer was busy with records, however, and thought the steep decline was
"just a part of the drill." Not so Henry, who had survived on crash - "same
job, same type plane" - last year 100 miles off Guam.