Jack Brice doesn’t like talking about what happened at Robins Air Force Base on Nov. 7, 1962.
At the Museum of Aviation on Wednesday, however, he quickly and quietly recounted the tragedy that killed five men.
It likely would have been six had it not been for Brice.
Brice, who is originally from Albany and lives there today, had been in the Air Force for a year when a C-140A JetStar crashed while attempting to land at the base. Brice, a 19-year-old control tower operator, had been assigned a routine task that day on the runway but it became about as far from routine as it could get.
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The main runway was closed for maintenance, and Brice was assigned to stand there with a flare gun to warn off any aircraft attempting to land. The planes were supposed to land on the taxiway instead, but a few had tried to land on the main runway, so Brice was given the task of warning planes off.
The JetStar was headed for the correct runway, but it came down about 1,000 feet short and burst into flames. Brice immediately ran there.
He found one man who had climbed out but was lying helpless next to the burning wreckage. Brice, who played on two state championship football teams in high school and also excelled at track, grabbed the man and pulled him away.
The flames were so hot when Brice approached the wreckage it singed the hair on his head.
“I got a cheap haircut,” he said.
He was headed back to the plane to try to rescue others when a sergeant ordered him away because the flames had gotten too intense. Brice said the sergeant was right, and by that time there was no one to be saved.
The man he saved was Capt. Dendy Lewis, who recovered and went on to have a full career in the Air Force, though he is now deceased. Following the crash, Brice visited Lewis in the hospital and Lewis thanked him for saving him. A photo of the encounter was published in the base newspaper, The Robins Rev Up. Lewis was married with two children.
“He and his wife was very appreciative,” Brice said. “That was pretty emotional to me at the time, still is today thinking about it.”
And Brice was awarded the Airman’s Medal, which is for heroism in a non-combat situation and ranks above the Bronze Star.
He recounted the story while standing by the museum’s Jetstar, which served a very different purpose than the one that crashed. The museum’s plane was at times Air Force One during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration and often ferried Johnson when a smaller plane was needed.
The Jetstar was a business-class jet but three were based at Robins and had utilitarian purposes. One of those is the one that crashed. All on board were Robins airmen and were residents of Warner Robins.
Brice said he hasn’t talked about the crash much and was reluctant to do so last week. But Mike Rowland, the museum curator, had persuaded him to tell the story by appealing to his sense of duty as a surviving witness to preserve the memory of the tragedy. It was the last fatal accident to happen on the base.
After he pulled Lewis from the crash, Brice immediately returned to his duty station because he was worried about planes landing on the wrong runway. But he was quickly relieved.
“I love the story of this young airman who risked his life to go save another airman, somebody he doesn’t know, he just knows that he’s got to do something,” Rowland said. “And then once he sees that he’s done what he can and there’s nothing else for him to do, he goes back to his duty station. I think that’s just amazing.”
Brice served only five years in the Air Force but it was eventful. He later was sent to Vietnam and served all over the theater. He witnessed another plane crash there, but there was nothing he could do to help anyone that time. He also served in the Philippines, where coincidentally Lewis was also serving and Brice flew in a plane Lewis piloted.
Rowland said a failed control component caused the Robins crash. Afterward, all JetStars, including LBJs, were grounded until the part could be replaced.
Those who died in the crash were Maj. Lee M. Tappan, 33; Capt. Earl B. Butler, 28; Capt. Joseph Q. Spell, 36; Capt. Thomas L. Edmondson, 28; and Tech. Sgt. Billie E. Garrison, 30.
An Air Force release following the crash featured an account from Lewis, who said he was desperately trying to get out of the burning wreckage when he saw Brice, who was unknown to him at the time. Lewis yelled out then crawled through the small cockpit window and fell to the ground. “Upon hitting the ground I was unable to move and was within just a few feet of the flames enveloping the aircraft,” Lewis said before describing how Brice pulled him away. “Without this man’s help I am sure I would have perished.”
In Vietnam four years later, Lewis landed a C-140 under fire on a steel mat runway to save the life of an airman under mortar attack.
“It would be such poetic justice, that I was able to this and he was able to pay it back,” Brice said. “It’s a great story.”