Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 33

BIEN HOA, Vietnam — After flying as Peter Pilot — or copilot — for 2 months, I was given a check ride to make certain it was safe to turn me loose as an aircraft commander.

Lieutenant Reed Kimzey would be checking my flying skills and judgment. Reed didn’t tell me it was a check ride, so I assumed we were flying regular missions that day. I’m glad he hadn’t told me in advance I was taking a check ride.

In fact, I didn’t learn it was a check ride until Reed told me I had failed it. As Reed has told the story over the years, most of the day went fine. I flew reasonably well and didn’t put the Huey or our crew in danger — until the final sortie of the day.

An ARVN Jeep passes outpost at Di An.
I shot an approach to a PSP (perforated steel planking) helipad on a soccer field at Di An, a town north of Saigon. My approach went all the way to the ground, which was good. When the Huey’s skids came to rest on the helipad, I lowered the collective pitch handle and began settling the helicopter into a landing. That was not so good.

Reed saw something I had overlooked: The helicopter’s skids were hanging off the back of the raised helipad. Reed snatched the collective, raised the skids off the PSP, and moved the Huey forward so the skids were firmly planted on the pad. That’s when he told me I had failed the check ride.

The problem with my landing was the helicopter could have fallen or tilted backward off the helipad, causing the spinning tail rotor to strike the ground. This could have caused a balance shift and destroyed the Huey.

The next day, Reed and I flew again. This time I passed the check ride and became an aircraft commander.


One of my first combat assaults as an aircraft commander was one of the scariest missions I flew in Vietnam. A senior Peter Pilots was flying with me that day. Warrant Officer Lonnie Schmidt was a flight school classmate and had joined the Thunderbirds the same time as me.

Lonnie Schmidt
Our mission was to spend the morning flying combat assaults into rice paddies southeast of Saigon. The formation of 10 Huey ‘slicks’ then would break up and we would spend the rest of the day flying “Pigs and Rice” support missions. Four UH-1C Huey gunships from our “Bandit” platoon would fly as our escorts during the assaults.

After loading some 100 U.S. soldiers onto the lift ships, we headed toward the landing zone. As we began our final approach, the LZ came alive with gunfire. Tracers were flying at us from the ground and the gunships were firing rockets and machine guns along the edges of the landing zone. The rice paddy where we were to drop off the troops was flooded with water.

During short final, the assault helicopters held their course and glide slope. I was the third aircraft on the right side of a staggered trail formation, so mine was the fifth Huey in the formation.

I was about to stop at a hover just above the water. The GIs were sitting in the open doors on both sides of my helicopter, their feet on the skids, ready to jump into the paddy. They would leap any second, we would pull pitch, and the formation would be airborne, on its way to pick up the next load of soldiers.

I glanced back and saw the soldiers inching forward on their butts. They would jump any second now. I turned forward in time to see the ground drop quickly and expectantly below us. I was on the controls, but I had not done anything to cause the Huey to climb. The sudden upward acceleration caught the GIs by surprise just before they jumped. All of them remained on board. Within seconds we were 50-60 feet above the ground.

I fought to maneuver the helicopter, but the controls were not working. “I must have taken a round in the fuel governor,” I thought. The vertical climb indicator was pegged straight up. Yet, we were carrying a full load of soldiers in field gear. There was no way a UH-1D Huey with 1,100 pounds of shaft horsepower could be climbing at this rate. We passed 100 feet, then 150, 200, now 300. Our climb was not slowing.

“It has to be the fuel governor running wild,” I thought. How else would we have received such a massive and instant surge of power?

I looked at the engine and main rotor tachometer, expecting to see the engine rpm off the chart. But it was registering normal, in perfect synch with the rotor rpm.

Now we were passing 600 feet. With my right hand, I swept the cockpit with the cyclic. Nothing. I had been pushing down on the collective pitch. The Huey continued to shoot up, like a crazy elevator. At 900 feet I told Lonnie, “Check your controls. I think mine have been shot out.” Lonnie made the same, wide sweeping circle as I had with the cyclic.

“I don’t have any control, either,” he told me over the intercom. “Keep trying,” I told him. Nothing. He handed the controls back to me. We now were at 1,100 feet. I knew the Huey could not continue to hold itself upright. At some point it would invert and we would dive, upside down, into the ground. We had no control over the helicopter’s direction, attitude, airspeed, or altitude. It was out of control and continuing its rapid climb.

Around 1,200 feet, I made one more sweep of the cockpit with the cyclic. I felt something in the controls, elusive at first. Then, very slightly, I could feel it bite. I must be getting back some control. Not much, but anything was welcome. Control started to return. In another 30 seconds, I had full control again.

I turned the Huey and dove it back toward the landing zone. The other helicopters were about a mile from the LZ, flying back to the pickup point for another load of soldiers. Two of the gunships remained over the LZ, giving cover to the soldiers just put on the ground. The other gunships were escorting the 9-ship formation.

My Huey came in fast and shallow, stopping at a hover near a small group of soldiers in the flooded rice paddy. After the GIs jumped from my aircraft, I took off to rejoin the other assault helicopters. I caught up with the formation just before it began its approach to the pickup point.

Foolishly, I flew 3 more assaults into the LZ that morning with the Thunderbirds. After the final lift, my aircraft and spent the afternoon flying resupply missions. These were dubbed “Pigs and Rice” missions. When we supported the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) or U.S. Special Forces there usually was a pig or two and a load of rice on board the Huey.

I should have taken the Huey to aircraft maintenance to be inspected, but it was flying so well I continued with our missions.

Late that afternoon we completed our missions and returned to Bien Hoa Airbase. I caught a ride to our villa on Cong Ly Street. The day had been hot, so a cold beer would hit the spot. I sat at the bar in the officers club and ordered a San Miguel beer from Duc, the Vietnamese bartender.

As I finished my first San Miguel, Warrant Officer Tom Kagan walked in. Tom bought a $5 book of chits. We didn’t use cash at the bar, instead paying for drinks with chits. Beer was 10 cents a bottle; mixed drinks were 15 cents each.

Tom tossed the book of chits on the bar, standard practice when you screwed up on a mission. Everyone at the bar got to drink free while the chits lasted.

“What’s that for?” I asked Tom, a former member of my lift platoon who had transferred recently to the gunship platoon.

“You don’t know?” he asked. “I thought I shot you down.” Tom explained that during a gun run, he fired a 2.75-inch rocket at the edge of the landing zone. However, one of the tail fins didn’t open and the rocket veered toward the formation of assault Hueys hovering above the rice paddy. The rocket dropped into the mud under my aircraft and exploded.

The force of the rocket exploding under my Huey powered our wild ride more than 1,200 feet into the air. Fortunately, the mud absorbed the shrapnel and the fire from the explosion of the 10-pound warhead. I figured the rocket hit at exactly the right place to send us straight up. Had it exploded slightly behind us, slightly to the front, or on either side under the helicopter, we would have rolled up like a ball or been blown into the other Hueys delivering troops in the LZ.

Later I would learn that on final approach to the landing zone, Lonnie had seen a machine gun fire from a bunker in front of us. He called the gunships and directed them to fire on the Viet Cong bunker. It was during this attack the rocket exploded under our Huey.


Captain Larry Liss recalled his first mission as an aircraft commander.

“It was a flight into the Iron Triangle around mid-November 1966. We were flying a light load of supplies and 4 FNG’s (new guys) to a 1st Infantry site. I had my copilot flying while I worked the radios and read the map. We had a platoon leader on the radio and I felt that we were close, so I told him to “pop smoke.” I saw yellow smoke off to our right and said, ‘Tally Ho, yellow.’  He replied, ‘Roger, yellow.’

“At that moment, as we started to turn, I felt a strange feeling of uneasiness. As a map-reader and given coordinates, there is no place I could not find. Three years as a scout taught me that. My original coordinates were off by about 500 yards, which was too big a mistake for my comfort,” Larry remembered.

“I said on the intercom to my copilot, “It’s my aircraft.” He turned the controls over to me. As we began our decent from about 500 feet, my first impression was that where the yellow smoke was coming from was ‘too clean’ for an infantry unit that had been at that location for two days. Something was very wrong,” Larry said.

“At that moment I made a sharp left turn, away from the smoke, and all hell broke loose. About 10 rounds hit the aircraft. One came through the windshield at an angle, hitting the nut of my visor and then hitting one of the new guys in the head, killing him instantly. As I broke away from the ambush, I could see more yellow smoke off to my left … the real American platoon.

“I landed and the American unit pulled off the supplies and 3 of the 4 new guys got off. I then flew to the Chu Chi hospital heliport, where I parked the aircraft and had my forehead stitched up,” Larry said. “I felt really bad for the guy who died. He could not have been in country for more than a day or two. I always have been torn between ‘could I have done better or was it fate?’”


Lieutenant Al Croteau said he “can recall as if it were only the other night, my fist night mission with the 118th Assault Helicopter Company.
Al Croteau

“Once again, it was Door Gunner Al. The mission was to supply support to troops on the banks of a large river. The Thunderbirds, along with another assault helicopter company, was to make low-level passes while supplying the ground troops, with suppression fire with the M-60,” Al said.

“It was a great light show as every fifth round was a bright tracer; the whole sky lit up with tracer rounds coming from both directions. The show lasted about 1 hour, with a very sad ending,” he recalled. “I heard over the tactical radio that one of the ships had flown into the river and the crew was lost. It was a crystal-clear night without any ground fire coming from that area.

“The pilot did not mention enemy fire of mechanical problems.  The cause of the crash was assumed to be target fixation. On the return trip the rocking of the bird made me fall asleep as I was emotional exhausted.

“If any good could ever come from the loss of those good, young men it is this: Later, as an instructor pilot I included in my lesson plan the example of how pilots can become fixed on an object and fly right into it,” Al said.


One of my least favorite missions was flying the dead from the battlefield. Aside from the sadness of dealing with a soldier’s death, carrying bodies in the tropics was an unsavory experience.

Frequently the dead soldiers we carried from the battlefield had been our passengers when we carried them into battle. Most were young men, some teen-agers.

Normally, a soldier’s body was wrapped in the poncho liner he carried into the field to use as a blanket at night.

My first exposure to carrying the dead occurred while supporting a U.S. Infantry company that had come into contact with a Viet Cong force. I had flown wounded soldiers from the landing zone during the early afternoon, so I knew the area was hot. My helicopter had been fired at on 2 of the medevac flights.

A sergeant called me by radio and asked if I could pick up a KIA — a soldier killed in action. “Roger,” I replied, “are you taking any fire in the LZ?”

“Negative. Negative. The LZ is cold,” the NCO answered. He then told me where to land so the body could be loaded onto my Huey.

I made an approach to a cloud of yellow smoke in the middle of the landing zone. The soldiers had set off the smoke grenade to mark where they wanted me to land. On final approach I saw the GIs drop to the ground. It looked like they were under attack.

“Should I abort the pickup? Are you taking fire?” I asked the sergeant on the radio.
“Negative. Negative. The LZ is cold,” he told me.

On short final, I could see the body of the dead soldier on top of a rice paddy dike. The other soldiers had not had time to wrap the body. At his head was a field pack and at his feet was an M-16 rifle. I hovered as close as I could to the body and waited for the GIs to load the corpse onto the helicopter. No one got up. I could hear occasional gunfire from the edge of the landing zone.

I sat in the LZ about 5 minutes, watching the dead soldier in front of me. The temperature and humidity were in the high 90s, the sunlight was bright, and the body was putrefying before my eyes. By the time the GIs popped up and loaded the body, it was several shades darker.

Fortunately, the air passing through the open doors and windows of the Huey kept most of the odor out of the cockpit and cargo area. I also learned that when flying above 2,000 feet, the air was much cooler, so bodies were slower to deteriorate in flight.

Later I decided the soldiers were afraid we would not land if the LZ were under fire so the sergeant fudged a little. I couldn’t blame him. It’s difficult to fight and keep track of a body.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 32

BIEN HOA, Vietnam — A Peter Pilot’s first 2 months in Vietnam were devoted to showing him what he didn’t know about flying a helicopter.

Newly minted Army helicopter pilots arrived at their combat units in South Vietnam with some 230 hours of flight time. We had learned the basics — the very basics — in flight school. Now it was time for advanced studies.

You remained a Peter Pilot until you spent time, usually lasting several months, flying with experienced combat pilots. Then you had to pass a checkride. If and when you passed, orders were cut elevating you to aircraft commander.

In the cockpit, the aircraft commander always outranked a Peter Pilot, no matter what each of their official military rank. It was not unusual for a major or a lieutenant colonel to fly second fiddle to a warrant officer or a first lieutenant. Smart junior officers were careful how they handled airborne command over senior officers because once the aircraft was on the ground and the engine shut down, military rank again prevailed.

I had excellent aircraft commanders — or A/Cs — as mentors during my early months with the 118th Assault Helicopter Company. They saved me from killing myself on my early flights and taught me how to survive a 12-month combat tour.


One of the first things I had to learn was the geography of South Vietnam’s III Corps, which was our area of operations. In the III Corps, you could fly over jungle, land on mountains, follow rivers, operate in rice fields, make innumerable landings on village soccer fields, and patrol swamps. The corps included Saigon, War Zone D, the Iron Triangle, the Rung Sat Special Zone and the Plain of Reeds.

Within days of arriving at the Thunderbirds, new pilots were issued 1:50,000 topographic maps of the III Corps and adjacent areas. After gluing the pieces together, we sealed them in plastic. These accompanied each pilot on all flights.

As we flew throughout the corps with our maps, we tried learning the names of villages and cities. I was having trouble remembering these locations until Lt. Reed Kimzey told me his secret: Equate the Vietnamese name with a short, off-color English phrase. Thus, Gau Da Ha became “Go to Hell” and Trang Bang “Gang Bang.”

Reed and Warrant Officer Larry Belhumeur let me fly many hours as a Peter Pilot, allowing me to put myself into frightening situations before taking over the Huey’s controls moments before a crash.

One of my most momentous rescues from disaster was during a resupply mission in support of Operation Junction City in February 1967. Larry allowed me to make an approach to a small landing zone in which U.S. tanks and armored personnel carriers were operating. A short time before, the LZ had been in enemy hands. To prepare the clearing for an assault, an artillery battery had fired white phosphorous rounds into the LZ. These rounds had set fire to the tall grass, which now was fine, white ash.

My approach was flight school perfect at the beginning. The approach quickly deteriorated when I pulled pitch to hover between a tank and a personnel carrier. As our Huey slid into a hover, the rotor wash instantly blew the ash into a cloud, with the helicopter in the midst. Instantly, we were in a whiteout. I couldn’t see anything outside of the cockpit. With armored vehicles somewhere around us, I knew we were in trouble.

Larry took the controls and set the helicopter safely on the ground. He had expected me to try hovering in the LZ. Lesson learned. The next time I would shoot an approach all the way to the ground. No more hovering over loose ground cover.

My next close landing was even more dramatic.

Larry and I had been flying support all morning for the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, which used the call sign “Redcatchers.” We had landed about 7 a.m. inside the Redcatcher compound at Long Binh. Throughout the morning we flew supplies to brigade troops in the field.

About noon, Larry and I flew back to the compound. Larry let me take the controls for the approach to the parade field in the middle of the compound.

Parade field at Redcatcher helipad.
The Redcatcher helipad was a wooden platform beside what once had been a grassy parade field. However, heavy rains and constant churning by trucks had turned the parade field into a muddy quagmire.

That morning when the temperature was in the low 70s, I easily had landed our helicopter on the pad. There were only 4 crewmembers aboard our Huey. We had power to spare.

It was different now. The temperature and the humidity were nearing 100 each, which meant the air molecules had drifted away from one another. Plus, we had 6 more people aboard our helicopter.

I began my approach too fast and too steep. To compensate, I pulled the helicopter’s nose up and dropped pitch in the main rotors. About 40 feet from the ground, I found myself in a high hover, descending much faster than I had planned.

Between our Huey and the helipad was the Redcatchers’ mess tent. My approach was taking our Huey toward the center of the tent. As the helicopter clambered out of control toward the tent, GIs were running out on all sides, many of the soldiers diving to the ground. The rotor wash was causing the tent to shake violently.

“I’ve got it,” Larry told me over the intercom. He pushed the Huey’s nose and collective down, made a right turn and picked up airspeed. We flew away from the camp, came back around and again lined up on the landing pad, this time on a shallow approach.

I wasn’t sure who I had frightened the most, our passengers, the GIs eating lunch, or me.


Another lesson we learned as Peter Pilots in Vietnam was tight formation flying. When we were taught formation flying at Fort Rucker, we were told to maintain a safe distance from the other helicopters. The instructor pilots would tell us, “Nothing ruins your day like a mid-air.”

The Thunderbird assault helicopters, however, flew much closer to one another than we had ever imagined. Flying in my first company formation, I can remember the words of my aircraft commander: “Tuck in tighter … Move closer … Don’t spread out.”

The fact is, it’s easier to maintain your position in a tight formation than in one that is loose. Much of the time our rotor blades came within a few feet of each other. Frequently, they even overlapped. When the other pilot was flying tight formation, I would look back at the GIs we were carrying into combat. Their eyes were filled with terror. I know many were happy to leap off when we landed.

After I got the hang of tight formation flying, I found it relaxing. You didn’t have to navigate or make radio calls; you simply followed the aircraft in front of you to the landing. Then you followed it off the ground in formation.

It also was easier to ignore enemy tracers fired at you when you were approaching an LZ in formation. Your odds of being killed were greater if you flew into another Huey than if an AK-47 round hit your aircraft.

The scariest thing I saw during formation flying was a cargo door that had come loose from a Huey at the front of the formation one afternoon. At 2,000 feet, in tight formation, I watched as the cargo door slowly drifted back and forth like a feather through our 10-ship flight, barely missing several of the helicopters in the formation. We didn’t have enough time to break out of formation without risking a mid-air collision with another chopper.

Finally, the cargo door was behind us.


I received my first taste of precision landing during my first month in Vietnam. February 1967 was an active time for helicopter warfare in III Corps

One day our aircraft picked up a team of 3 Americans wearing tiger fatigues. The team leader leaned over the radio console that separated the aircraft commander and me, and opened a map. He pointed to an area in War Zone D. “We need to go here,” he told the aircraft commander.

We headed off to War Zone D. When we arrived at our destination, we were over a forest of trees about 100 feet tall. “Look for a hole in the canopy,” the ground team leader told us over the intercom. We flew back and forth above the trees until we found the hole, a small clearing in the trees created by a bomb explosion. At the bottom was the crater.

Jack Swickard wearing tiger fatigues in 1967.
As we circled the opening, the ground team leader came back on the intercom. “This is it, go ahead and land,” he told us.

The aircraft commander told our crew chief to lean out the cargo door, look back and keep the tailboom and tail rotor clear of tree limbs. He then came to a stop directly above the clearing. There was about 3 feet from the tips of our main rotor blades to the trees lining the clearing.

As we slowly hovered toward the ground, the crew chief would tell the A/C: “Move the tail 10 feet to the left. OK, now swing it back to the right 5 feet.” As we descended, the aircraft commander threaded the Huey’s tailboom around protruding tree limbs.

About 10 feet from the ground, the team leader told us: “When we land, my team will run into the jungle. When we finish our job, we’ll run back to the helicopter. We’ll need to leave quickly.”

There was no place to set the helicopter on the ground. The bomb crater had created a concave depression in the ground. When we came to a low hover, the ground team leaped from the helicopter and scurried into the jungle. The aircraft commander and I took turns hovering the Huey over the crater, staying perfectly centered in the clearing.

At ground level, it was twilight. Only a fraction of the sunlight penetrated through the canopy of leaves.

About 10 minutes later, the team ran out of the jungle and leaped onto our Huey. The leader shoved his right thumb up and mouthed, “Get the hell out of here!”

We hovered back up the hole as quickly as we could. I was concerned we would not have enough power hover up and would begin to settle with power, but the Huey ascended steadily as we again wove the tailboom around tree limbs.

The light became brighter as we ascended. I expected something violent to happen all the way up. As we hovered above the treetops, the aircraft commander edged the Huey’s nose forward. We picked up speed, shifted through transitional lift and into flight. We flew away from the area as fast as possible.

When we were about a kilometer from the clearing, I heard a loud explosion and saw a large cloud of gray smoke shoot into the air. The team had used a timer to detonate an unexploded bomb before the Viet Cong could break it down into smaller explosive charges to use as mines.


One day Reed Kimzey and I had been supporting a large ground operation, flying wounded GIs from the battlefield and delivering ammunition.

When the battle began to wind down, we flew hot food to the troops. We were flying the only helicopter in the area, so when the food was delivered, the U.S. commander asked us to fly the bodies of dead GIs to Graves Registration at the Army base outside My Tho, capital city of Tien Giange Province in the Mekong Delta.

The U.S. soldiers had gathered some 40 dead GIs into an area near the Command Post. We knew the bodies would be putrefying in the heat and humidity, so we needed to fly them to Graves Registration as quickly as possible.

Reed told our crew chief and door gunner to stay behind in the landing zone so we could get more bodies in our Huey. The ground soldiers stacked 13 bodies sideways in our Huey’s cargo compartment. The bodies were stacked higher than our heads.

A Thunderbird Huey approaches landing zone.
Note smoke from fires set by artillery.
We flew with the cargo doors closed so none of the remains would fall out. The odor from our cargo was so strong Reed and I took turns flying. I remember sticking my head out the cockpit window, taking a deep breath, flying for several minutes, until I couldn’t hold my breath any longer. When not flying, I kept by nose outside the window and a scarf over my face. We flew the Huey slightly sideways, in a crab, so more fresh air would wash into the cockpit.

The flight would have been more bearable if we had climbed to a higher altitude where the air was cooler, but there also was a chance one of the bodies could explode in the thinner air. We flew below 2,000 feet.

It was a long flight to My Tho. When we arrived, Graves Registration had not sent anyone to unload the bodies. We rolled the Huey’s engine down to flight idle, and frictioned down the cyclic and the collective pitch controls.

Reed and I got out of the cockpit started unloading our cargo ourselves. Reed took a body’s arms; I grabbed the legs. We swung each body back and forth 3 times, and then let it fly into a stack. When we left, there was a mound of 13 bodies.

We repeated this 2 more times, once with another 13 bodies and once with 14. The Graves Registration crew appeared after we had finished unloading all the bodies.

Because the bodies were wrapped in ponchos instead of body bags, our crew chief and gunner had a major cleanup to perform inside the Huey after we finished the mission.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 31

BIEN HOA, Vietnam — I spent my first night at the Thunderbird villa in a room for transient officers. This would be my home until I was assigned to a flight platoon.

My roommate was a Vietnam Air Force (VNAF) lieutenant briefly attached to the 118th Assault Helicopter Company to learn some of our tactics in combat assaults. I don’t remember his name, as we roomed together only a few days.

What I do remember was entering the room once while he was asleep and making noise as I plunked down on my bed. The lieutenant sprang to his feet like a startled cat before I could react.

His reaction impressed me. I had never seen anyone go from sleep to readiness so quickly. Americans would come to this beautiful land at war and then most would leave. The Vietnamese had been warring for centuries and would be fighting for years to come.

Within days, I would become a combatant in the war. The difference between my war and the war fought by the Vietnamese was I had a chance to go home after a year.


Several days after I joined the 118th Assault Helicopter Company, the daily mission board showed I would be flying my first combat assault. I was assigned as copilot — or “Peter Pilot” — on Warrant Officer Charlie Bennett’s Huey.

During my first week with the Thunderbirds, I noted the more experienced assault pilots in the company had handlebar mustaches. Charlie Bennett had one of the largest.
I had been awaiting with some trepidation my first combat assault, known as a “CA” among the flight crews. Before joining the Army, I had worked as a reporter for The Indianapolis Times and The Albuquerque Tribune. In the newsroom, I had followed the Vietnam War, knowing there was a chance I would become involved.

One of the United Press news photos that caught my attention showed a Marine Corps H-34 helicopter in a Vietnam landing zone, while troops charged off the chopper. The pilot sat calmly in the thick of battle, waiting to take off. I wondered how he could remain so casual under the circumstances. I also wondered if I would be able to do the same.

After an early breakfast, I joined the other pilots on a deuce and a half truck for the ride to the flight line. Playing off the “Thunderbird” call sign, our helicopters were parked in the “Birdcage,” inside revetments made of steel planking and sandbags.

I accompanied Charlie through the preflight inspection of our helicopter. Though our crew chiefs and mechanics did an excellent job with maintenance, many flight hours took their toll on the helicopters.

Many of the Hueys in the Birdcage had been patched to cover combat damage. If an enemy round hit a helicopter, the crew chief would cover the hole with silver duct tape, nicknamed “100-mile-an-hour tape.” Later, during maintenance, an aluminum patch would be riveted over the hole.

After preflighting the Huey, Charlie and I strapped into the cockpit seats. Ceramic plates protected the back and one side of each cockpit seat. For protection from a round or shrapnel coming from the front, each pilot would strap a ceramic armor “chicken plate” across his chest. I later developed the habit of shifting my .45-caliber pistol into my lap.

The doorgunner untied the main rotor blades. The crew chief stood near the Huey’s turbine engine, holding a fire extinguisher. Charlie yelled: “Clear!” The crew chief responded, “Clear, Sir!” That was the pilot’s cue to start the engine.

The turbine engine began turning. I could hear the igniters popping. Then there was the high-pitched whine of the turbine coming to life. The rotor blades now were turning.

The tachometer had 2 needles, 1 showing the engine revolutions per minute and the other the speed of the main rotor blades. When the needles were “in the green” — an area of the tachometer window marked by green tape — the Huey was ready to be hovered out of the revetment. The nose lifted first, followed by the rest of the helicopter.

When the Huey was about a foot from the ground, Charlie hovered slightly backward and then to the left. He then performed a slow pedal turn and hovered the aircraft into line on the right side of a staggered trail formation with the other assault Hueys.

After all 10 helicopters were lined up, the lead aircraft became light on its skids. Its pilot radioed to the rest of the formation: “Lead is off.” One by one, the aircraft followed. Within minutes, the formation was flying toward the pickup point where we would board the soldiers we would carry into combat. Today’s assault would involve a company of ARVN (Army of Vietnam) Rangers. At the pickup point, the soldiers had queued up, 12 to a line.

A cloud of red dust swirled as the helicopter formation flared before settled to the ground. The ARVNs boarded the Hueys and we again took off in formation.

This time the weight of the armed Rangers made the takeoff run longer. As the Hueys moved from a forward hover to “transitional lift,” the aircrews could feel a slight bump as the helicopters entered flight. The most difficult part of the takeoff was over.

Some 20 minutes later, the staggered formation of Hueys made a sweeping right turn toward a clearing along a tree line that followed a small river. Now 2 miles from the landing zone, the flight began a gradual descent.

Four UH-1C gunships that had flown ahead of our formation began making gun runs along each side of the LZ. The gunships hit the LZ with rockets and machine gun fire. Viet Cong soldiers armed with AK-47 assault rifles held their fire, waiting for the assault helicopters to slow their approach. The Hueys were most vulnerable to enemy fire on short final approach.

Charlie was at the controls of our Huey as we began short final to the LZ. I sat in the right seat, trying to make sense of the confusion. Flying into combat for the first time, I was on the verge of sensory overload. I could hear Charlie talking to our crew chief and gunner in the intercom. I also could hear the popping sound of AK-47s being fired at us by the enemy. And there were explosions from the grenades and rockets being fired by the gunships.

“Take the controls! Take the controls!” Charlie screamed into the intercom. I fumbled until my left hand was on the collective pitch lever and my right hand the cyclic, which controlled our direction of flight. I didn’t know if Charlie had been hit by gunfire. Struggling to keep the helicopter in a descent with the rest of the formation, I wondered what to do if Charlie had been hit.

I grabbed a quick look at Charlie to see if he had been hit. He was furiously slapping himself in the face. “Damn, he must really be hurt,” I thought.

Warrant Officer Charlie Bennett at controls of
a Thunderbird Huey.
“Taking fire! Taking fire!” the pilot in the lead assault Huey shouted over the radio. The pilot of another Huey yelled, “Fire coming from 3 o’clock, behind the trees!” M-60 machine guns mounted on the sides of the lift Hueys laid down suppressive fire. The trees came alive with muzzle flashes.

“I have it!” Charlie shouted over the intercom. I gave him back control of the Huey, but only momentarily.

On our descent to the ground, Charlie told me 2 more times to take the controls. Again he would begin slapping himself in the face. “OK, I have the controls,” he would repeat each time.

Our machine guns fell silent as the Rangers jumped from the helicopters when we landed. The AK-47s came alive with more vigor as the Rangers charged toward the trees. Enemy rounds hit the ground near our Hueys. One of the aircraft would be hit, but there was no way the round could be heard hurling through the thin, aluminum skin.

At Charlie’s command, I again took over the flight controls and stayed in formation while the Hueys became airborne. From the corner of my eye I saw Charlie reach into his mustache and pull something out with his gloved fingers.

“Damn red ant got into my mustache. It was biting like hell,” he told me. He crushed the ant with his fingers and flicked it out his window.

After departing the landing zone, the 10 Hueys flew to the pickup point, where some 100 more soldiers boarded the helicopters. The Hueys made 5 trips into the landing zone. Eventually, the Rangers subdued the battlefield and the Viet Cong melted away, leaving some of their dead behind.

Helicopters detached from the formation and began ferrying wounded Rangers from the battlefield.

Our formation remained on the ground in a secured field 5 kilometers from the landing zone while ARVN commanders and American advisors decided the next move. The Rangers would spend the night in the field, and then move through an area suspected of enemy activity.

The pilots shut down their aircraft’s engine and began inspecting the Hueys for battle damage. On the tailboom of my helicopter was a hole from an AK-47 round.

On my first combat mission, my aircraft had suffered battle damage. Now I was a real combat veteran. I would be expected to toss a $20 book of drink chits on the bar at the Thunderbird Lounge after dinner. The other pilots would drink with my chits until the book was depleted. With beer costing 10 cents a glass, the chits might last 5 minutes.


Warrant Officer Ken Dolan also remembered Charlie’s “red ant trick.”

“He did the same thing to me on my first or second combat assault,” Ken said, adding it wasn’t red ants that come to mind 46 years later. “The thing that has stuck with me over the years was the shear noise of a combat assault, with door guns going and rockets whizzing by on the way in.

“The visuals of empty shells streaming out the doors of the Hueys has also stuck with me,” Ken said.


Five months before I arrived in Vietnam, Warrant Officer Tom Baca wrote home about flying a heavy schedule of combat assaults with the Thunderbirds.

“Sorry I haven’t written, but we have really been busy,” he wrote on July 26, 1966, to his parents and twin brother Jim in Albuquerque. “VC everywhere around Saigon and we are making 8 hours of combat assaults a day.

“So how is everything at home? I see in the Stars & Stripes newspaper that it’s been in the 90s there. It is nice and cool here, believe it or not. About 78 degrees today. We like cool weather because our aircraft perform much better.

“I was shot down Sunday, but we weren’t hurt. One of the Vietnamese on board was killed by one of the rounds, though,” Tom wrote. “We were making an approach into a VC hamlet and we were hit with automatic weapons. We lost our hydraulic control system and transmission.
Capt. John Hopkins (left), WO Tom Baca, and
other members of Huey crew after their rescue

on July 24, 1966. On right is Spec. 4 Bringas. 
“We made a go-around and flew about 4,000 meters, then had to set down in a field, which was the muddiest, of course. We got all radio navigation equipment and other classified papers and weapons off and we were picked up by our wingman.

“I have some pictures of when we got back to the staging area. I also have some of them sling-loading our ship back. I am fine, nary a scratch,” Tom wrote to his family.

An official report shows Tom’s UH-1D Huey took “3 hits from small arms, automatic weapons” during a combat assault on July 24, forcing the helicopter down in the Rung Sat Special Zone, also known as “The Forest of Assassins.”

The report says the helicopter was hit in the engine compartment, the enemy rounds damaging the transmission oil system and the hydraulics system. At the time Tom’s Huey was hit, it was about 50 feet from the ground and flying at 30 knots during final approach.


The month after I flew on my first combat assault, Lt. Al Croteau wrote home about flying on his first assault.

“Well, yesterday I flew my first combat assault mission,” Al wrote in a letter dated March 13, 1967. “On the mission there were 10-15 ships, the C.O. and the X.O. were along; I went as the right door gunner on Red II. This is how it began:

“It was a Saturday night and I was welcoming some of the new pilots into the company. Well, they kept buying drinks for me. After about five drinks, I decided to retire for the night. Heading for my room, I ran into a Major who said, “Want to fly gunner tomorrow on a C/A?” I, of course, replied “yes” and went into the private bar, which is run by the 1st Platoon. Well, that party went on until 2:00.

“I was up at 4:45 with a big head. It was a cup of coffee, my flight helmet and flight vest and .45 into the Jeep, out to the flight line.

“We were all loaded up and into the air by 6:00 a.m. My eyes half opened, we were flying,” Al wrote.

Vietnamese soldiers waited to board Hueys
that will carry them into combat.
“Our first touchdown was to pick up some troops; combat troops that is. Unlike any group of men I have seen, these people looked ready. Most of them carried small packages of cigarettes or gum in their steel helmets. All of their faces looked shaved, but worn. Around their chests were slung straps or belts, which contained 7 clips of ammo, each clip contained 20 rounds.

“Also, there were men with rocket launchers, machine guns and M-79 grenade launchers. Hand grenades were hanging from all over their clothing’ these were fighting men — not National Guards or U.S. Army stateside war games types,” Al’s letter continued.

“My mind, what was left of it, quickly left these men and went into action to pick up what the radio was saying: ‘Approaching LZ full suppression unload and get the hell out of there, Blue 6, over.’ This is what it meant: We were going into the landing zone; have all door gunners firing to cover the entrance into paddies. Gunners, get ready to give that suppression.

“Well, I let loose with my gun and I watched my tracers fly into the treeline. The radios were singing, ‘Gunships to your left. Fire at the hut.’ As soon as we lowered the ships, the troops jumped into the rice paddies, which were about 2-3 feet of muddy water. I was still firing over their heads. Off we went. Once we were airborne, I ceased firing and watched the others make similar drops.

“Rocket tracers were hitting the ground from every direction. We unloaded troops there three times, at different locations every time. Each time was just the same except for the last one, when I heard one of my friends over the radio say, ‘We are taking fire, have taken one round. Going to check it out at the refueling station. No one hurt.’

“It was 0930 and we set down to refuel. I went to see Mac’s ship and, sure enough, he had taken a hit. A little lower and he would be without a head. After refueling, off we went to pick up 50 tons of captured rice.

“We also picked up some VC prisoners. These people were small and scared stiff. You could see it in their eyes that they were scared to death. It has been a known subject that VC have fallen from ships when they refused to talk. The prisoners were brought back to the camp and used to unload the rice,” Al continued in his letter home.

“Later we went back to the LZ and picked up some wounded VC. The first one was an old woman who had been shot through the chest. The bullet had passed through her chest and out her mid-back. We applied first aid to her and covered her with a blanket. She was covered with rice paddy mud; a real mess.

“We went over to pick up an old man and a VC boy. Both the man and the boy were given plasma bottles. Both were covered with blood and looked scared and in shock. You could not help feeling sorry for these war victims,” Al wrote.

“In the action, we took about 25-30 prisoners, wounded 6-10, killed 10-12, killed 3 water buffaloes, 1 pig, 1-12 chickens, burned 8-10 huts, 8 hay stacks, captured 5 weapons and 50 tons of rice. We had 2 troops injured; 1 had found a VC grenade and pulled the pin to destroy it, but it went off in his hand. This man is in poor condition; he will lose his hand but will live. The other man received flesh wounds in contact.

“The mission ended about 6:00 with over 10 hours of flying and 90 tired men. This was my first C/A and I hope my description will give you a small idea of what goes on in Vietnam. The fighting men over here are doing their job. I talked to some of them. Even though we risk our life flying these ships, for the most part, we are happy and truly believe we are doing a good job for ideas we believe in,” Al concluded in his letter home.


Captain Larry Liss recalled flying in combat shortly after he had arrived in Vietnam. It was only his second helicopter flight in country.

“I had been in country for a few days. I was given a bed in wherever aviators bunked at Phu Loi,” Larry said. “I was assigned to the 162nd Assault Helicopter Company a day later and was picked up by a UH-1 from who knows where and was invited to fly copilot, as the person sitting in the seat got out and walked off to who knows where.

“I pulled out my helmet and plugged in while the pilot lifted to a hover and off we went. I heard his voice say that we were going to make a few stops before getting to Phuoc Vinh. I sat back and watched to terrain fly by as we flew to who knows where. We landed at a small heliport and then took off from who knows where, flying to who knows where. The pilot, who had his visor down, took the aircraft down to just above the ground and away we went, twisting and turning to who knows where,” Larry said.

“All of a sudden we started taking hits and number of rounds penetrated the cockpit. One hit the pilot in the side of the head and down his body went. I pulled him back, along with, I think the crew chief, and took the controls. I pulled back on the cyclic, pulled more power than necessary and got up to about 1,500 feet.

“I was totally panicked. Not from the bullets flying, but I had no idea where I was, and was totally spaced out on what radios to use or what to do next. I was really lost,” Larry said. “I heard a voice in my head — the crew chief? — telling me to “fly to Hotel 3,” the main heliport at Tan Son Nhut Airfield in Saigon. “In my head, it was playing out like, ‘What?’ ... ‘Where?’ He then said something like, ‘fly the needle.’ Of course, the ADF.

“To make a long story shorter, I followed the needle to Saigon and then got ‘talked in’ to Hotel 3. I called, I have no idea who, and had an ambulance waiting. I landed at the heliport and set the aircraft down,” Larry said.

“I found out later the pilot was OK, and to this day have no idea who he was or what unit the aircraft belonged to. I wound up being picked up by a 162nd aircraft and taken to Phuoc Vinh a few hours later. I met my ride at the bar at the officers club. I took a week of razzing.

“At that moment, it seemed like the coming year was going to be a very long one. Who would ever have thought that I would actually go on to be a decent pilot and a good combatant? Certainly not me,” Larry said.