FORT WOLTERS, Texas — Jim Mason and I parked our duffel bags outside before entering the 1st WOC Company orderly room.
WOC stood for warrant officer candidate. To be designated Army aviators, we would have to be officers. The Army had determined the warrant officer grade was perfect for aviators. Unlike commissioned officers, who were required to build experience in command and staff positions to meet career goals and be promoted, warrant officers could concentrate on flying.
During the Vietnam War, warrant officer candidates could attend flight school if they were 18 years old, had a high school diploma, and passed a difficult battery of examinations. Many of the younger warrant officers went from cruising through the local drive-in restaurant to flying helicopters in combat.
The youngest helicopter pilot killed in combat during the Vietnam War died 3 months after his 19th birthday. By far the largest group of helicopter pilots killed during the war held the rank of warrant officer 1 — or WO1. During the war, 854 Army WO1’s were killed in action; Army chief warrant officer 2’s came in second at 290 killed.
Because of the high intelligence scores the Army required for flight training, the aviation warrant officer corps was filled with smart, young men.
The warrant officer flight-training program also was loaded with young men who had become bored with college and wanted some excitement, as well as some young men who had always wanted to fly.
“Private Swickard, Enter!” came a voice from inside the orderly room. I marched into the room and halted in front of the captain behind the desk. Smartly saluting, I reported: “Present!”
“Dismissed,” the captain told me. After exiting the room, I was grouped with other candidates who had quickly reported for flight school. We then marched to a second-floor meeting room in the barracks next door. There we learned the basics of life as a WOC.
First, we would be promoted to temporary E-5’s and draw enlisted flight pay. That meant my monthly pay would increase to $194.10, with an additional $60 a month flight pay. This sounded good to me. However, we were told, even the lowest privates would outrank us.
When I met a TAC officer — usually a chief warrant officer with combat flying experience — I was told to brace against a wall and shout: “Sir, Candidate Swickard, Sir! Good afternoon, Sir!” During the brace, the back of my head, my butt and my heels had to be touching the wall.
Additionally, we had to move around the WOC company area at a trot. When we ate in the mess hall, we sat at attention. But before we could sit, all 4 tablemates were to stand at attention behind their chair, food tray in hand. The first candidate would shout: “Sit!” Then all 4 could sit at attention and begin the meal. After eating, all 4 would rise in unison, push their chairs under the table, and leave together.
The first month of flight school was dubbed “Preflight” because all the helicopter training was confined to classrooms. Preflight was when many WOC’s were washed out of the program for infractions and not getting along with classmates. The TACs were looking for people who would work well together.
Three months into training, some of my classmates bought a bag of firecrackers and bottle rockets. About 2 a.m., they set them off inside another WOC company’s barracks. The next day word was out the 3 candidates would be booted out of flight school.
|WOC company area at Fort Wolters, Texas.|
Our WOC company was ordered to stand in formation. The company commander told the guilty candidates to take a step forward. The entire formation stepped forward. The formation was dismissed.
The next day, the 3 candidates were called before the company commander, who restricted them to the post for the next 3 weeks. The lesson was clear: Stick together and you’ll probably survive. That’s how it would be in flight school; and how it would be in combat.
I remember one day during Preflight, a classroom instructor asked: “What do you do if the helicopter flying formation in front of you is shot down on a combat assault?” Then he answered his own question: “You follow the aircraft to the ground and pick up the crew.”
A student piped up, “What if your aircraft is shot down while going down to rescue the crew?”
“The helicopter behind you lands next to you and rescues your crew,” came the response.
I always remembered that exchange. Later, in Vietnam, I found the responses comforting. I knew if I ever went down when another Army helicopter was nearby, the aircraft’s crew would come to my rescue. As a result, I was more willing to fly closer to the edge of danger, knowing I had a backup. Most Army helicopter pilots during the Vietnam War subscribed to this ethos. I think it was a critical element in creating pilots who would risk bullets and rockets to rescue another helicopter’s crew, hauling ammunition to troops under enemy fire, and landing in a hot landing zone to pick up wounded GIs.
Another ground school lesson that caught my attention was how to deal with an “illegal order” — an order by a superior to do something illegal. We were told that if such as order were given, our duty was to disobey it and officially report the person who gave it. I had read about the Nuremberg trials of Nazis after World War II and knew you could not use the excuse you were following orders to commit an atrocity.
Candidates who survived Preflight moved on to primary flight training their second month at Fort Wolters. Our WOC company was divided into 2 groups. One would fly in the morning and attend ground school in the afternoon; the other would go to ground school in the morning and fly in the afternoon. Each week these 2 groups would switch schedules.
Additionally, half of our WOC company would train in Hiller OH-23 “Raven” helicopters and half would fly Hughes TH-55 “Osage” helicopters, known as “Mattel Messerschmitts” by their student pilots and instructors.
The OH-23 had a rounded, plastic bubble enclosing the cockpit. The bubble and the rounded, narrow tail boom made the Raven look like a large dragonfly. The TH-55 had a flat, somewhat rounded nose made of plastic. Its rotor system had 3 blades. When flying or hovering, a TH-55 would sound like a model toy. But it was fast and economical, and would become the Army’s longest-serving trainer helicopter. Between 1964, when the Osage became a trainer, until it was replaced by the UH-1 “Huey” in 1988, the TH-55 trained more than 60,000 Army helicopter pilots.
My group drew the OH-23. It was sturdy, but not very responsive. A joke among pilots was you could move a flight control, step outside and smoke a cigarette, and then climb back into the cockpit before the control move translated into movement of the helicopter.
|Flying through the rain in an OH-23 helicopter.|
The OH-23’s sturdiness was tested shortly after my classmates soloed and were allowed to fly without an instructor. One of the student pilots decided to see how high he could fly. About the time he topped out, he decided to fly through a cloud. Unfortunately, the cloud was part of a thunderstorm. As the Raven was buffeted about by the storm, the cockpit canopy was ripped off the helicopter. Later, no one could figure out why the canopy did not take out the rotor system. The pilot landed safely in a convertible helicopter, badly shaken by the experience.
A great temptation of some student pilots was to fly under one of the bridges spanning the Brazos River, which ran near Fort Wolters. It was a dangerous stunt, even by an experienced pilot. If caught flying under a bridge, a student pilot was immediately kicked out of flight school.
For a time I thought I was a prime candidate to be washed out of training. My first flight instructor was civilian and a frustrated officer in the Texas National Guard who wanted to go on active duty as an Army aviator. He knew how to fly helicopters, but someone at the Department of the Army apparently had picked up on his sorry-ass attitude.
As I entered my second week of flight training, whenever I made a flying error, his standard comment was: “Do that again and I’ll pink your ass.” Pink referred to the pink slips of paper an instructor would give to a student pilot for a substandard flight. After 2 pink slips, student pilots had to fly with a standardization pilot who could wash you out of flight training or give you a reprieve. I flew with 3 standardization pilots, each of whom told me, “There’s nothing wrong with your flying.”
It dawned to me I had better ask for a different instructor. From the first day we started flight training at Fort Wolters, student pilots were told they could request a new instructor pilot if they was a personality problem with the one they had been assigned. I finally figured the frustrated National Guard officer and I had a personality problem I would not be able to solve with charm. The guy’s mission was to bust me out of flight school.
My second instructor was very different. He was a 21-year-old, chief warrant officer 2 who had served in Vietnam with an assault helicopter company. He was a great guy and a terrific instructor pilot. He was interested in teaching me how to survive in a helicopter cockpit during combat and I wanted to learn all I could.
My first lesson in helicopter flight training was learning to hover. You couldn’t taxi a helicopter on the ramp, take off or land until you mastered hovering. The first time I tried it, the instructor pilot set the OH-23 down on a grassy field near the heliport.
“You’ve got it,” he told me. I centered the cyclic control with my right hand and began lifting the collective pitch control with my left. The engine started to lose power. “Ah, I forgot to twist the throttle for more power.” The engine noise increased instantly and dramatically. “Not so quickly,” I thought and edged the throttle down.
With the engine RPMs in the green, I lifted the helicopter very slowly off the ground. Then mayhem broke loose. When the OH-23’s skids broke free of the ground, the helicopter started pitching and swinging wildly. I tried to counter with the cyclic, but my adjustments were too late and too extreme.
The OH-23 began swinging wildly from side to side like a pendulum. “I have it,” the instructor pilot said and took over the controls. “Work on making smaller adjustments.” We tried it again. No improvement. This was not going to be easy.
After a several days practicing how to hover, I was able to maintain enough control of the helicopter to move it across the concrete ramp of the Fort Wolters Main Heliport. Now I was ready to begin flight training.
The first big milepost for the student pilots was soloing. You would fly to one of the stagefields scattered around Mineral Wells and practice shooting approaches to the runway. The IP would climb out of the aircraft and tell you, “OK, let’s see how you do by yourself.” It was your turn to solo — fly alone.
You were on center stage and knew all eyes were on you. Using your best flight technique, you hovered to the runway and took off. At 300 feet, you turned the helicopter onto the downwind leg, and then you were flying the crosswind leg, ready to turn onto final approach. When you reached the final approach leg, you began descending toward the near end of the runway.
Careful to hold your approach angle and not fly faster than the apparent speed of man walking, you began your descent. After touchdown, you repeated the flight and the landing 2 more times. You had just soloed.
When I attended flight training at Fort Wolters, the reward for soloing was getting tossed into a rainwater-filled, roadside ditch on the trip back to the WOC barracks. In later classes, soloing pilots were thrown into the swimming pool of the Holiday Inn in Mineral Wells.
That was the first solo we had to make to remain in flight training. The second one was to solo in autorotations. This meant flying the same traffic pattern as we had during our first solo flights, but on the final approach twisting the helicopter’s throttle to flight idle so the engine was no longer powering the rotor blades. An autorotation is how you land a helicopter if it has engine failure.
I remember the day I soloed in autorotations. The IP rode with me while I shot several to the stagefield runway. He then got out of the cockpit, leaned over and told me: “You better improve your autorotations if you want to live. Now try them alone.”
I soloed and I lived, as the instructor knew I would.
The Army later dropped the requirement that students perform solo autorotations. Perhaps my instructor was on to something.
The Army later dropped the requirement that students perform solo autorotations. Perhaps my instructor was on to something.
After 4 months of flight training, we graduated from the Primary Helicopter Training Center at Fort Wolters and were sent to the Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker, Alabama.
The final 4 months of flight school were divided into a month of basic instrument flying, followed by a month of advanced instruments, then a month devoted to transitioning into the UH-1 “Huey,” and one of tactical training.
|WOC barracks at Fort Rucker, Alabama.|
Steve Torpey, one of my roommates, was one of the student pilots who washed out during instrument training at Fort Rucker. As a contact pilot, he had done very well. I had envied his flying ability while trying to survive my first instructor during primary training at Fort Wolters. One afternoon, I returned to my room in the WOC barracks and Steve was not there.
A year later he would show up in Bien Hoa, South Vietnam, and fly aboard my helicopter as crew chief.
The high point for all the student pilots at Fort Rucker was transitioning into the Huey. It was emblematic of the Vietnam War. The Huey had a turbine engine, so power was controlled by a fuel governor, unlike our training helicopters, where the throttle control was at the end of the collective pitch lever.
When Huey transition began, an instructor flew with each student pilot. When it was time to solo, the instructor would put sandbags in the other seat to approximate the weight of another pilot.
The most difficult part of flying the Huey was starting the turbine engine. You followed a rigid startup procedure designed to avoid a hot start that could destroy the engine. Following this procedure could take 10-15 minutes to bring the engine to life and get the main rotor blades turning for flight.
More than 40 years later I can still remember how to fly a Huey. But I cannot remember how to start the engine without a checklist.
After transitioning into the Huey, we spent our final month learning helicopter combat tactics, sprinkled with courses on escape and evasion, and how to live off the land. One afternoon we were taught how to barbecue a snake and other skills I hoped I’d never have to use. Two things worried me about barbecuing snakes: Catching them and killing them. I knew I wouldn’t be good at either.
The student pilots also had to complete escape-and-evasion training. One rainy night, we were bused into the woods around Fort Rucker. Groups of 3 were dropped off at intervals. On the way out the door, I was given a burlap bag of onions and potatoes. The candidate behind me was handed a live chicken. The third member of our trio had been a chef in an upstate New York hotel, so we were able to eat that night. I understand some of the other students turned their chickens loose.
That night we slipped inside the back of a Huey on an airfield ramp and got out of the rain. At dawn, we made it to our destination and completed the course
We also received instruction in contour flying, cruising just a few feet above the ground, and formation flying. To my surprise, I enjoyed formation flying. That was good because in Vietnam we did a lot of it while transporting soldiers to landing zones, taking them to the ground in a combat assault, many times under fire, and then departing in formation.
The flight school washout threat seemed to diminish in our final month. It made sense. By now the Army had a lot invested in us. Flying errors that would have merited a pink slip a few weeks earlier were ignored during our last month. I remember shooting a night approach during a tactical exercise, thinking I was still around 150 feet from the ground and descending while flying about 60 knots. The instructor pilot snatched the controls, pulled up the nose and kept us from crashing into the ground. “Everyone gets vertigo,” he said. Though I was certain I had flunked the flight, I received high marks. I was always careful after that when flying at night. It was a lesson that probably kept me alive on several occasions.
During the final weeks of flight school, we started receiving orders to report to our first aviation assignments. Most of us had orders to go directly to South Vietnam; mine assigned me to the 1st Air Cavalry Division. We were so pumped up about heading off to war we felt sorry for classmates who had orders assigning them elsewhere. They would join the war later, after transitioning into other helicopters such as the Chinook or helping form an aviation unit Stateside for deployment to South Vietnam.
Several months before graduation, custom-uniform tailors descended on our WOC company, making appointments with candidates nearing graduation. Once we were commissioned, we would receive a uniform allowance. The uniform companies wanted their share, so their representatives came down for big-time sales, measuring tape in hand. Most of us ordered a green, class A uniform and a set of dress blues. I ordered 1 of each, which turned out to be a mistake. I wore the greens 3 times and the blues twice — to the graduation party and then to my wedding a year later, after completing my tour in Vietnam. Most of the time I wore fatigues or flight suits.
On graduation day, we reported to one of the theaters at Fort Rucker. There we raised our right hand and swore allegiance to the Constitution of the United States. After officially becoming warrant officers, we were presented diplomas and our aviator wings. With 230 hours of flight time, we were ready to fly helicopters in combat.
My parents were living in Wiesbaden, West Germany, so the next day I was on the road to South Dakota. While at Fort Wolters, I had met a young woman traveling as a shopper for the J.C. Penney Company. Reneé Edwards attended my flight school graduation and party.