Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 26

FORT RUCKER, Alabama — Most warrant officer candidates training to be U.S. Army helicopter pilots during the 1960s knew their first assignment out of flight school: Vietnam.

And many of the brand-new warrant officer aviators assigned elsewhere after graduation were unhappy they were not heading directly to Southeast Asia.

Throughout training — first at the Primary Helicopter Training Center at Fort Wolters, Texas, and then at the Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker, Alabama — the student pilots were bombarded with lessons of Vietnam. There were lessons on flying in combat, looking after your stick buddy, escaping and evading the enemy, and even cooking and eating snakes and insects.

By the time the warrant officer candidates — or WOCs — were within striking distance of graduation, most were eager to push off for war.

With the buildup of U.S. military forces in South Vietnam during the mid-1960s, the helicopter pilot training pipeline could get clogged with aviators in training.

Student pilots at Fort Rucker got time off in December 1966, several months after WOC Ken Dolan arrived at the Army Aviation School at the fort aviators affectionately dubbed “Mother Rucker.”

“I went back home for Christmas, while at Fort Rucker,” Ken recalled. He had started his primary training at Fort Wolters in May, but when he completed primary in October, he received an unexpected break before heading to Fort Rucker. “The Army couldn’t handle the size of the classes coming from Fort Wolters to Fort Rucker. There were 25-30 of us held back.”

Ken bought an aging Chevrolet Corvair while he was held over at Wolters for a month. “It was a piece of junk. It burned more oil than gasoline, leaving a blue cloud from Texas to Alabama. I got there, and a week later it died.”

At Fort Rucker, the student pilots learned to fly with cockpit instruments, transitioned from small training helicopters to the Huey, fired machine guns and rockets mounted on helicopters, learned how to fly in formation, and spent a month in the field flying simulated tactical missions.

Upon graduation from flight school in March 1967, Ken was commissioned a warrant officer 1 and received his aviator wings. He went home on leave before heading for Travis Air Force Base, California, to catch his flight to Vietnam.

WO1 Ken Dolan near Tay Ninh City. Note Nui
Ba Dinh — or Black Woman Mountain.
He recalled going to the Officers Club at Travis. “I had my greens on. I went to the bar and sat down, and two older guys down the bar said to me, ‘Is that an Army uniform?’ I didn’t realize they were jerking my chain. They were two CH-54 Skycrane pilots going back for their third tour, I think. Beyond that, I lost track of the evening. I remember doing a lot of drinking,” Ken said.

“I bumped into those guys again. They were scheduled to go to the 1st Cav, but I think they ended up somewhere in Pleiku, where there was a Skycrane unit,” he said. “I remember bumping into them. Anyway, that was an interlude.”

After arriving in Vietnam in early April, Ken landed in Saigon and was flown by helicopter to the 90th Replacement Battalion at Long Binh.

“I didn’t realize it didn’t mean anything, but I was on orders to the 173rd Airborne Brigade. When I got to Long Binh, they said, ‘You’ll be reassigned.’ I sat there for 2 days, and then they sent me to the Thunderbirds,” He said.

Initially, Ken flew UH-1D Hueys with the 2nd flight platoon, the Scorpions. The 1st and 2nd platoons carried U.S. and South Vietnamese soldiers on combat assaults, then would medically evacuate — or medevac — the wounded from the battlefield, sometimes under fire. If the assault was successful, the platoons would fly ammunition, hot food, beer and other supplies to the soldiers.

Fountain at officers villa on Cong Ly Street.
When not flying combat assaults, the platoons would fly “pigs-and-rice missions,” carrying supplies and passengers. The Hueys would land on concrete runways, perforated steel landing strips, on soccer fields, atop mountains, in jungle clearings, on riverboats, and within a small compound.

During a pilot’s first months in-country, he flew as copilot, learning techniques and terrain from an experienced aircraft commander. Captain Bobby Moore commanded the Scorpion Platoon when Ken joined the 118th Assault Helicopter Company.

 “Whenever I flew with him, he was training me. He was a good pilot. I remember flying for the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. We were taking guys out to the field and then we’d follow up with supplies. A lot of times it was a lot of water. They’d put the water on board and he’d pick the helicopter up to a hover to check it out,” Ken said. “Then Moore would put it back down on the skids and say, ‘Put some more on.’ We’d just start to bleed off RPM and he’d say to me, ‘You've got it.’ They trained you to fly heavy, which was good.”

The combination of aging, high-hour turbine engines, heavy loads, and high temperatures and humidity meant Huey pilots routinely were flying near the edge. It was not unusual for a Huey loaded with troops to drag its skids through the tops of trees while taking off in formation for a combat assault.

By the time a Huey pilot completed his combat tour, he was wise in the ways of coaxing a helicopter off the ground. One technique involved bouncing the aircraft into flight as it slid across the ground. Another was a running takeoff from a hardened runway. Or the pilot could run the Huey’s engine while on the ground and burn off enough fuel to reduce the aircraft’s weight.

WO1 Ken Dolan in front of transport Huey.
The pilots of the 118th Assault Helicopter Company formed a close-knit group. In combat, they covered each other’s tail. After a day of flying, they partied together in the Officers Club attached to the villa on Cong Ly Street. Sometimes parties would last into the early morning, ending just before that day’s missions began.

“I can remember flying with another pilot on a battalion gaggle one time. We were on short final with I don’t remember how many goddamned aircraft in front of us. I think there were 3 lift companies in V’s of 5,” Ken said. “The pilot had gotten drunk the night before. We were on short final and we were the third element, so the air was like a Mix Master. It was not fun trying to fly through that. On short final, he said, ‘You've got it!’ So I grabbed the controls and I looked over at him and he’s got his helmet off and he’s puking in his helmet.”

On the night of May 13, 1967, a little over a month after Ken had arrived at the 118th, he was checking to see if he was assigned a mission the following day. He was scheduled to fly as copilot with Warrant Officer Jack Swickard.

Ken said he was so new in Vietnam, “I was still walking around in a daze.”

He recalled May 14 getting “a very casual start. It wasn’t expected to be a problem, it was supposed to be pretty easy, just flying. It was going to be up in the northern part of III Corps and it was just a beautiful area, up by Song Be Mountain.

“I don't recall if it was our first or our second or our third stop. I know we had the paymaster on board and Tom Baca had the chaplain. I remember during the mission we had to run back to Song Be to refuel,” Ken said.

On the final part of the day’s missions, the helicopter Ken was aboard would meet up with a VIP Huey at Cau Song Be Special Forces Camp. The two helicopters would rescue more than 100 South Vietnamese CIDG soldiers and a U.S. advisor from an enemy ambush. During the rescue, the 2 helicopters would cut their way to the ground 5 times each, using their main rotor blades.

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