15 June 2005

My Viet Nam Orientation Ride

Those that have never been in the military might be surprised to find that the services do many things pretty much like ordinary businesses do.

Replacements coming into a unit are welcomed by the commander and are brought "up to speed" on operating procedures and expectations while being mentored by an experienced member of the company.

I started my tour in Viet Nam with a unit based in the Central Highlands.
We were flying the UH1-C, a specialized gunship version of the Huey........the helicopter icon of Viet Nam.

The field elevation at our base airfield was 4300'. That, coupled with the fact that the temperature regularly reached 90+ degrees, meant the air was mighty thin for flying operations.

A mission ready Charley model gunship would not hover! Loaded down with 18 rockets, 3000 rounds of 30 calibre ammo for the two mini-guns, and more 30 cal. for the crewchief and door gunner, they were always over maximum gross weight on takeoff.

Takeoffs were accomplished by getting the aircraft as light as possible on the skids, then sliding forward until "effective translational lift" was reached. If you could successfully get the aircraft through translational lift before you lost too much rotor RPM, the helicopter would fly.......if you could call it that!

We would then pray that nothing happened to our Lycoming turbine until we had burned off enough fuel to do a successful autorotation if it quit!

I was scheduled to go out with an aircraft commander to a "free fire zone", to familiarize myself with the weapons system on the old Charley. After an uneventful runup, I was introduced to my first real "running takeoff".

After struggling to get airborne, we slowly accelerated and made our way toward the weapons test fire area. We were flying low-level down a valley that had rice planted in it. Ahead of us we saw four Montagnard people tending to the rice.

We were flying REALLY low. I turned to look at the Aircraft Commander, and he had a mischevious smile on his face. The four rice workers turned to look at our approach, then ducked as the Huey passed over their heads.

The AC laughed out loud, then begin a sharp 180 turn to buzz the workers again.

About halfway through the turn, at 60 knots and 40 feet of altitude and in a 60 degree bank, the engine quit producing power!

Then things became a blur. The AC had little time to respond as the ground rushed up to meet the grossly overweight Huey. He leveled the aircraft, brought the nose up to kill off the groundspeed, and pulled the collective to attempt to cushion our touchdown.

I remember thinking, "this is not gonna be good!" The aircraft hit the ground, and my head was forced downward hard enough for my chin to hit my chest protector. My helmet popped off my head, and I thought, "if that rotor comes around again, it'll take my head off!"

But it didn't. Things came to a stop. The engine continued to run at idle speed, and all I could think of was fire.

The crewchief appeared outside my door, pushed my armored seat wing back, and helped me get out of the aircraft. We turned to insure the other two crewmen were also free of the bird, and ran to a rise in the ground about 100 feet from the machine.

When we took count of our condition, the crewchief and gunner both had broken ankles and pain in their backs. The AC also had back pain, and had bitten off the end of his tongue and was bleeding from his mouth.

I felt fine.

The aircraft continued to run. We were still fearful it would explode. We realized that at the very least, there were folks very close to us that might be angry with us for our recent behavior.......and there might be really bad guys in the vicinity that could be headed our way to make things difficult.

The AC had a survival radio, and started a mayday call. Pretty quickly, he got a response. Help was on the way.

Since I seemed to be the only one not injured, I volunteered to return to the aircraft and shut it down. I was amazed at the appearance of the Huey. Normally 15 feet tall, the skids and fuselage were collapsed and the rotor broken and tilted forward. The aircraft was now half its' normal height!

Within an hour we were on another Huey on our way to a medical once-over. In addition to broken ankles, both the crewchief and gunner had compressed vertebrae, as did the AC. The AC's tongue was stitched up.

As for me, a duct to my salivary gland had been compressed by my head contacting my chest protector, and my chin began to fill with saliva, making me appear to have a goiter! The flight surgeon suggested we wait and see if the condition would correct itself, and if it didn't, he would have to do surgery to alleviate the problem. He seemed to look forward to that possiblilty!

I disappointed him. The swelling in my chin went down in three days.

Accident evaluation revealed the governor on the engine had failed and the Lycoming had gone to "flight idle".........not producing enough power to maintain flight.

Murphy's Law!

The Company Commander let me make the decision as to when I was ready to fly again. I waited a week, then went out with another AC and got acquainted with the weapons systems on the Charley model Huey.

I was surprised at how anxious I was about flying. Low level flying terrified me........I would actually try to crawl up in my seat as we got close to the ground. Formation flying was a near impossiblility for a while.

Things returned to near-normal in about two months.
But this incident did something for me I have never forgotten.........I was mortal, and taking risks could have repercussions. I may have been the safest pilot in Viet Nam, because my orientation ride proved to me how vulnerable I was!

1 comment:

Jason said...

I appreciate you sharing that, I hope I never get first hand experience of anything like that...