"I came out of the back and ran around to the front. I asked where the flight engineer was. They pushed him out of airplane. He was on fire."
CRESTVIEW — Ellis Akins walked through the terminal at Bob Sikes Airport and peered out at the tarmac.
The last time — in fact the only other time — the 77-year-old Air Force veteran had been there was one of the worst days in his life. The C-123 cargo plane he'd been in had crashed on the runway during training maneuvers and burst into flames.
Akins, then an Air Force staff sergeant and flight engineer, had jumped out before the plane even stopped moving. His student, who was sitting where Akins would normally have been, was not as fortunate.
"I came out of the back and ran around to the front," the Parrish Point resident recalls. "I asked where the flight engineer was. They pushed him out of airplane. He was on fire."
The student, 20-year-old Airman First Class Charles R. Greening, died two days later at a local hospital.
In the 50 years since the Nov. 14, 1967, crash, Akins has struggled to remember Greening's name, a man he'd met only that morning during the last-minute flight assignment. But he hasn't forgotten him.
Tuesday, flanked by his wife and adult children, Akins stepped just outside of the terminal and prayed.
"I just want to let him know he's not forgotten," said Akins, who initially declined to share his story about the crash. "I'm forever grateful and sadly grateful."
It was the height of the Vietnam War and Akins had just returned from a tour there. He and other crew members were preparing students for what they would experience in Vietnam.
Akins said the plane hit the ground so hard the landing gear came up through the bottom and the wings broke into the cargo area. News accounts of the crash described the wreckage as "looking like a giant had simply stomped on the front half of the plane grinding it into the runway."
Greening was a student at Hurlburt Field on temporary duty from McLellan Air Force Base in California.
Three days after the crash, despite a back injury that has plagued him ever since, Akins was back to work. He did request a new assignment and would spend the next four years in Africa.
"It was too dangerous for me," he said of continuing to fly missions out of Hurlburt at the time. "It was time for me to move on."