United States Navy Lieutenant Commander Kent White’s team found the wrecked Hercules C-130 Transport Airplane by using radar. Its tail fin, with the numbers “321,” was barely visible, sticking up through the snow and ice on the Polar Plateau of Antarctica.
It was -40 degrees in early December 1987. Seventeen years earlier, the C-130 Transport had crashed during takeoff from a French Scientific Camp. The U.S. Navy abandoned it, classifying the 321 as a “Strike” aircraft. The French were now asking permission to recover and restore the buried C-130. Not wanting another country to reclaim its downed aircraft, the U.S. State Department, like a dog guarding a food bowl, said no to the French. The Navy then ordered Lt. Cm. White to find, restore, and fly the downed aircraft out of Antarctica.
A daunting task? Yes, but White was used to extraordinary accomplishments. You see, when he was in high school in Mt. Pleasant, he was a member of the famed football team of 1963 that went undefeated, untied, and unscored upon.
White’s Navy team went to work with bulldozers and construction equipment (that they never shut off due to the cold) to dig out the downed aircraft. They had it mostly uncovered when “summer” was over in Antarctica, and they had to leave. They came back the next year to find the aircraft buried once again, but not as packed in as before.
This time they replaced props, engines and whatever it took to get the crippled aircraft ready to fly. The landing gear, which was on skis, would not retract, but they could fly it that way. The cabin would also not pressurize — but White and his crew, using oxygen, could manage. White took note that the rear fuselage seemed to be bent from being buried in the snow and ice. However, the engineers deemed her airworthy or at least enough to fly it to McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
On Jan. 10, 1988, they prayed, lifted off the ice and made it to McMurdo. The real danger was still ahead of them. They were to fly the C-130 to Christchurch, New Zealand, which was an eight-hour flight over water. Still with a landing gear that would not retract, a cabin that would not pressurize, and following a “pathfinder” airplane because they had no navigation equipment (not an easy task), they made it safely to Christchurch. There on the ground, White walked away from the C-130 and said, looking back at her, “There you SOB, I’m done with you.” Almost.
The C-130 was totally rebuilt and White flew her with a five-man crew to Navy Point Mugu in Southern California. That was the end of it for White. From there, the 321 went to Pensacola, Fla. where she was on static display at the Naval Aviation Museum. The 321 is now laid to rest at a boneyard in Arizona.
White retired from the Navy two years later after serving 20 years. If he had stayed, he would have become a desk jockey, something he did not want to do, since he loved flying so much.
As a side note, earlier in his career, White accidentally met the commander of the 321 that crashed in Antarctica. After recovering the 321, White tracked the fellow down and told him, “We got your airplane back for you.”
After the Navy, White became a pilot for Evergreen International Airlines, flying 747s. He is now 71, retired and living in Mt. Pleasant with his wife, Pat. He has been on the Henry County Board of Supervisors and is currently on the Mt. Pleasant City Council. Because of his master’s degree in human relations, he is also a mediator working with truant kids. Like the pilot of the 321, he leads the city and kids through troubled waters and icy conditions. He feels fortunate to have had a career where he was able to do every day what he loved to do — fly.
Contact Curt Swarm at email@example.com