Air Force News

Base helps search for missing plane

Released: 26 Oct 1998


by Staff Sgt. William J. Seabrook Jr.
16th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. (AFPN) -- The 19th Special Operation Squadron is now using its state-of-the-art simulation technology to help bring closure to families who have loved ones missing as a result of U.S. involvement in foreign wars such as Vietnam.

Squadron officials re-created a realistic-looking 1968-era Laos landscape using the Tactical Operational Preview Scene, or TOPSCENE, program. TOPSCENE makes it possible to take flat map imagery and turn it into a three-dimensional display. This aided officials with finding the possible crash site of a helicopter shot down during the Vietnam War.

The crew of Jolly Green 23, a HH-3E helicopter assigned to the 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron in Vietnam, was attempting to rescue a downed Marine aviator when it was hit by ground fire. It attempted to land in a clearing, but exploded upon touchdown. There was no evidence of any survivors.

The crew was presumed dead, but officially listed as missing in action because no bodies were recovered. The case remained this way for nearly 30 years when the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting office at Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii, tried contacting possible eyewitnesses to the crash in a last-ditch effort to locate the wreckage.

One of the witnesses contacted was retired Chief Master Sgt. Robert Baldwin, a Department of Defense employee here, who was the flight engineer on the backup helicopter during the 1968 mission.

According to Baldwin, he didn't realize how serious these people were about finding the wreckage until he received a package full of maps and charts, requesting he try to remember the location for search teams that were actually going into Laos.

"I knew that I was going to need some help with the map reading," said Baldwin. "So, I called my old friend Col. Donald Wurster, 16th Special Operation Wing commander, and asked him for the wing's help in this project."

Wurster responded that not only could the wing help with the map reading, but he would ask the 19th SOS if they could use their map simulation technology to assist in the process, said Baldwin.

The 19th SOS requested help from the Special Operations Planning, Rehearsal and Execution Preparation Facility, a U.S. Special Operations Command organization directly supporting the 19th SOS.

Preparation facility personnel, whose usual mission is creating realistic simulations for special operations mission rehearsals, began working in conjunction with Lockheed Martin to build a database visually re-creating Laos in 1968.

The two principal architects of the effort were Earl Miller, a National Imagery and Mapping Agency imagery civilian assigned to the facility, and Mike Goldstein, Lockheed Martin.

"We acquired 1968 vintage imagery from the national archives in NIMA and converted them into a digital format to be used in the TOPSCENE production system," said Miller. Goldstein then took these digital images and loaded them into the TOPSCENE production system.

At the same time, the Lockheed Martin database engineers were working with current imagery to create a visual database, said Miller. The current database would aid the searchers on the ground to find the crash site.

Building both databases was a mammoth effort involving a team of specialists from Lockheed Martin and the facility, said Army Maj. Anthony MacDonald, the preparation facility deputy commander.

"It took more than 500 man-hours to create both databases," said MacDonald. "Considering this wasn't their main job, it was an extraordinary effort."

Once the vintage database was provided and loaded on the TOPSCENE device, it was time for the eyewitnesses to attempt to locate the wreckage.

Baldwin was joined by retired Lt. Col. Jerry Griggs, the co-pilot on the backup helicopter in 1968, to "fly" the simulation. Retired Lt. Col. Harvey Stringer, the aircraft commander of the second helicopter also participated by telephone, as he was too sick to attend personally.

The participants were amazed at how uncannily accurate and realistic the simulated landscape was, said Baldwin.

"It was like stepping back through time 30 years," said Baldwin. "If you can imagine closing your eyes and visualizing what a place looked like that you had visited before, then opening your eyes and seeing it -- that's what this program is like. I felt like I was back in Laos."

The three aviators were able to determine three possible sites for the teams to search. These locations were pinpointed using the 1968 Laos database. The current 1998 Laos database was then loaded in the TOPSCENE device, and the three points were then flown and recorded to a videocassette recorder tape and sent to the search team based in Hawaii.

Now, instead of just having the latitude and longitude coordinates, the team has an actual aerial view of the landscape as it looks today with the sites marked on it.

So far the team has searched one site and found pieces of a helicopter, but it does not believe the site is what it's for, said MacDonald. The team hopes one of the other two sites will turn out to be the one with Jolly Green 23.

Discovering this use for the TOPSCENE program is very exciting and promising, according to Goldstein.

"This is just the beginning of what this technology can be used for," said Goldstein. "Now, that we've proved its usefulness for a project like this, who knows what other uses it might have?"

Helping families with loved ones who are missing is what the project is all about, said MacDonald. "Maybe this effort can help bring closure to four families who have been uncertain as to the fates of their loved ones for more than 30 years."

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* Air Force Special Operations Command

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