Still, like the rest of his crew, he was new to this war, and he hadn’t volunteered for an easy task. A three-second burst from Spooky could cover a football field-sized area with a bullet every couple of yards. The plane carried a lot of ammo, about 24,000 rounds. But if things got hairy, the guns could burn through that in less than three minutes.
Beyond the challenge, however, was the danger. Spooky was fearsome in fight, but vulnerable. These early missions, like the Christmas Eve 1965 sortie over Laos, were part of the learning curve.
Shortly after takeoff, Christiano — the runt of the crew at five-foot-six, but stocky and packing as much weight onto his frame as his taller crewmates — got instructions to redirect to different target coordinates. The original destination had been a patch of jungle about 100 miles straight west. The new one was another patch about 23 miles south of that, still about 100 miles from Da Nang.
Records indicate Spooky 21 turned west toward the target. Jeffords’ airborne chatter during the next couple of hours revealed nothing unusual. Everything appeared to be going according to plan.
But then came the “mayday” call.
For years, only rumor surfaced about the plane or its crew. There were stories that the airmen were alive but captive. Some of the wives, not even certain if they were truly widows, quietly hoped their men had simply been captured, and had carved out new lives half a world away. By 1982, the crew had all been declared dead.
Then on Jan. 13, 1995, three decades after the crew disappeared, a Laotian identified only as “Mr. Thongkhoun” in Savannakhet Province, about 70 miles northwest of the previous search, spoke to a different investigating team.
He said that he’d seen a large propeller plane in December 1965 or January 1966 flying low, with heavy smoke pouring out. It hit a large tree and spun into a rice field.
Mr. Thongkhoun didn’t see any parachutes or other aircraft in the area, nor did he hear anyone mention a surviving pilot or crew.
His account put Spooky 21 far off course, outside what was thought to be the likely search area. In expanding the area, records showed that three planes, including Spooky 21, had possibly crashed in that region of Laos; two had been accounted for.
The team began to wonder: Could this finally be Spooky 21?