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.
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.
“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.