20 March 2020

Helicopter Air-To-Air Combat!

The MAIN mission for Army Helicopter Gunship pilots is to provide Close Air Support to the guys doing the dirty, actual work in Viet Nam; the "grunts". If they encountered serious resistance, they could shout for us. We'd come out and identify where they were, and where the resistance was coming from, and try to help them move on with their mission by eliminating that resistance.
To help them more efficiently accomplish their mission we'd frequently move a team of gunships to a safe harbor somewhat close to where they were doing their job so we could more quickly react to their needs.

One of the "safe" places we frequently re-positioned to was a little artillery base called "Polei Kleng".
This base was located about halfway between the city of Kontum, Viet Nam, and the border with Cambodia. It was VERY mountainous territory. In the valleys, the "elephant grass" grew so tall that when we inserted infantry troops into it they were simply swallowed whole... and I always wondered how in the world we'd ever be able to come back and recover them if that was necessary.

It was a scary place to fly. Our old "Charley Model" Hueys would not hover when we filled them with fuel and ordnance to do our mission. Our takeoffs were always done like airplanes...
Scooting along the ground until we were going fast enough for the rotor to reach out into the "clean" air necessary to lift all that weight. This was called a "running takeoff".
But we had a job to do, so we did it.

One day we got a call from an Air Traffic Controller-
"Almost nightly we've been watching a "primary" target come across the border from Cambodia and land just West of you. It's GOT to be a helicopter! Would you be interested in trying to shoot it down?"

Imagine the headlines.
Imagine the textbooks:
"First Air-to-Air helicopter combat in history!"
Were we excited? Were we all smiling?
Our faces HURT in anticipation.

So here was the plan-
ATC would call us when the "suspect" target appeared on their screen flying Eastbound. We would launch as quickly as possible on a Westerly heading. They would then guide us to the location of the "enemy" aircraft and as it reappeared on their radar after takeoff we would turn it into a ball of flames.
It would be... EPIC.

So we waited at Polei Kleng until the call came from ATC, right at dusk.
We launched in three minutes and headed West as fast as we could go.
From ATC: "He's just landing, about 10 miles West of you".
We couldn't see him, but knew we were eating up the miles between us as he offloaded whatever it was he was carrying into Viet Nam.

Again, from ATC: "Okay, he's back airborne, about two miles from your flight path."
And we're thinking, "We've got this S.O.B.!"
We still couldn't see him. It's getting dark, and of course he's "lights out" to prevent anyone from seeing him.
From ATC: "He's on your nose, about three miles distant."

ATC: "He's 12 O'Clock, four miles."

ATC "He's 12 O'Clock, six miles."
And we are pulling the GUTS out of our old Hueys trying to make them do things they were never designed to do.

We never did see him.
Our wager later was that he probably was in a French "Gazelle" helicopter, capable of about 30-40 knots faster airspeed than our old Charleys.

So we never did make history.
But it's a good story, and a fun memory.


Ed Bonderenka said...

Your story reminds me of a story told me by our mutual friend, Dave Wolfe.
They were loaded up, his was the first ship and his commander had taken the stick from him.
Now I understand from your post why they had to take the running approach to lift.
The commander was headed toward a stand of trees and Dave could see (and had said) that they would clear the trees.
Just in time, the pilot behind them lit off a couple rockets (under their skids!) and blew the trees out of the way, with the resulting thermal (I imagine) giving them the lift they needed.

Jess said...

I had a friend that was in Cavalry. He generally liked helicopters, but never forgave a door gunner that kicked him out at 15 feet, when they were landing in a hot LZ. Humping with a full pack, and a strained back, left a lasting memory of pain.

Ed Bonderenka said...

In my comment, I meant to say that they would NOT clear the trees.

Greybeard said...

Next time Dave tells that story Ed, listen closely to see if he begins it- "This ain't no B.S.!"

Ed Bonderenka said...


Old NFO said...

Great story! The only helo shootdown 'I' know of is the one that took place at Lima Site 85. Air America Huey vs. AN-2 and the Huey crew chief took him out with an AK-47. Can't imagine a 'running' takeoff in a Huey, I'm betting folks were praying a skid didn't hang on anything!

Greybeard said...

Navy, field elevation at Pleiku was 4300'. When it got hot the DA went through the ROOF.
We'd fill the bird up with fuel and ammo, then literally hop the fence to get out to the PSP runway. We'd start our takeoff run and almost immediately our rotor RPM would start to droop. Loss of tail rotor control came at 5800 RPM, so if we hadn't gone through "translational lift" by the time it drooped that far we'd abort the run, skid our way back to the starting point, and try again.
It's why I believe we VN Vets have the best control touch in the helicopter world! :)

Old NFO said...

4300'? Dayum!!! And yes, loss of NR and tail rotor is NOT good... At least the H-2 and H-34 had wheels!!!