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.

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