The Patkai mountains are small for the Himalaya: Only 12,552 feet at their highest. But on August 2nd 1943, they proved too mighty for U.S. Air Transport Command’s Flight 12420. The Curtiss C-46 Commando (aircrews nicknamed it “The Flying Coffin”) was flying “The Hump,” a sometimes terrifying route from Assam in East India over the Himalaya to Burma and China. Among the 21 passengers was Eric Savareid, a CBS News correspondent on his way to report on the situation in China.
As the overloaded plane strained to clear the Patkai range, its left engine lost oil pressure and shut down. The pilots turned the plane around and began limping back towards India but the now overloaded right engine burst into flames too. As the plane veered towards the ground the entire crew strapped on parachutes and jumped into the steaming Burmese jungle below.
20 of the 21 survived the jump, but many were severely injured. The battered crew took refuge in a local village where the indigenous Naga tribe provided food and shelter. The radio operator used a hand crank wireless to contact Air Transport Command, which dropped food and supplies. Later in the afternoon, something far more valuable arrived by parachute: Lt. Col Don Flickinger, the wing’s flight surgeon, along with two medics.
Savareid watched with amazement as three men floated down towards a hill outside the village:
I got to the crest of the steep slope as the first jumper floated past, missing the summit by a scant few yards. I could see the insignia of a lieutenant colonel on his Jacket shoulders. He grinned at me and I shouted foolishly: “Here! We’re here in the village.” He held up a finger in a crisp gesture, like a man strolling past on a sidewalk, and said in a conversational tone: Be with you in a minute.” Half-weeping, half laughing over the wonderful absurdity of the meeting, I scrambled down the slope and slid to a halt before him as he was brushing dirt from his clothes and beginning to unwrap protective bandage from his knees. He was a slim, closely knit man of about 35, with cropped hair, and vivid dark eyes in a brown, taut face. He smiled easily as we introduced ourselves. “I’m Don Flickinger,” he said. “I’m the wing surgeon. Saw you needed a little help.”
Flickinger was the only man within a reasonable distance who was capable of treating the downed crews’ injuries, and he’d realized that parachuting in would likely be the only way to reach them. The crew radioed that they’d be bailing out over the uncharted Naga Hills. An area of raw jungle with no roads, trails or landmarks to help with navigation. Quickly, Flickinger picked two volunteer medics to accompany him on a rescue mission. The three men scrambled to put together a gear list for the jungle. He knew they’d have to rely on their own wilderness experience to survive the trip, and struggled with what to bring before deciding on the basics: machetes, blankets, torches, medicine.
Flickinger figured that if he was able to fly over the crash zone, he hoped he could spot the wreckage or a sign of the survivors, then jump in to help. He’d made a few jumps during initial training in Hawaii, but the two medic volunteers with him had little more than an in-flight briefing from Flickinger on their way to the jungle. They trusted Flickinger though. When their plane spotted smoke indicating they’d found the survivors, Flickinger and his volunteers leaped through an opening in the fuselage, hoping for the best.
For two weeks, in the wild jungles of Burma, Flickinger nursed the crash survivors back to health. While there, Flickinger also set up a clinic in the village where he treated the Naga tribesman’s afflictions and built goodwill for any future rescues.
With the party restored to health, Flickinger next led a grueling six-day trek through the jungle back to safety. Flickinger, as exhausted as the rest of the party, ran water up and down the column marching through relentless jungle heat, up shocking elevation gains, with little food. Thanks the guidance of the Naga, all but one of the men survived the trip.
His daring jump into the jungle led to many more parachute rescue operations during the war, and eventually the creation of the Air Force’s Pararescue teams, whose men can rescue and treat downed servicemembers anywhere in the world. Flickinger and his two medics had become history’s first parachute rescue team.
Flickinger’s experiences in Burma sparked his fascination with survival in high-stress, dangerous environments. During the 1950s he developed survival suits and oxygen systems that allowed pilots to survive high altitude bailouts. His tinkering led to a role at NASA, where Flickinger developed testing protocols and ran the selection process for the Mercury Astronauts.
There, the same adventurous and streak that drove the flight surgeon to jump out of airplanes led him to push boundaries on an institutional level. During the summer of 1959, he traveled to the USSR with Randy Lovelace, a fellow flight surgeon and Director of NASA’s Life Sciences division. They learned that the Russians were serious about putting a woman in space, and Flickinger feared sexism might cost the U.S. the space race.
Flickinger approached NASA with the idea of testing female astronaut candidates in the late 50s, but the former generals running the agency grounded his plans. They believed women physically incapable of handling the demands of space. Undeterred, Flickinger and Lovelace began testing female pilots with the same battery of tests used on the Mercury astronauts. They hoped to win NASA over with hard data.
Flickinger and Lovelace assembled the most accomplished female pilots in the country for their program. The thirteen women who ended up completing the Phase 1 tests were called the “The Mercury 13.”
Flickinger’s program and the Mercury 13, however, were casualties of President Kennedy’s single-minded focus on getting a man on the moon. The shutdown led to Senate hearings on gender discrimination during the summer of 1962, which agreed with NASA’s conclusion that the program was an unnecessary distraction. A woman did not make it into space until Sally Ride crewed the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983.
After his retirement from the Air Force in 1961 as a Brigadier General, Flickinger continued his career as a civilian consultant to NASA, refining high altitude survival equipment and procedures. The investigation into the Challenger disaster showed that the crew might have survived if they’d had Flickinger’s gear (It eventually became standard issue for astronauts).
Flickinger, by the way, received a 10-day leave after rescuing the passengers of the downed flight 12420. He spent it in Calcutta, India. After making it relatively unscathed parachuting deep into, then hiking out of the heart of the Burmese jungle, Flickinger became seriously ill after the seemingly harmless offense of eating locally made ice cream in Calcutta. He’d contracted amoebic dysentery from the ice cream. “Fine doctor, me,” he reported.
Words by Jacob Blair