Friday, January 20, 2012

Flight of Two

                This is something a little different than you normally would find me writing about. There aren’t any flowery adjectives, no picturesque language. Not something I've seen out the front window. What you will find is a description of an incident I was involved in while I was stationed in Viet Nam with the 361st Aerial Weapons Company as an aircraft technical inspector. A story I haven’t shared with anyone before, odd that I would do it here. The unit flew AH-1G Cobra gunships in support of many different kinds of operations throughout the area surrounding Camp Holloway near Pleiku.

                As the night TI I was supposed to work from dinner time until breakfast signing off repairs to our aircraft, but most of the time it was from noon to takeoff the next day. Because I was “available” during the day I also spent time in the field trying to get downed birds flyable or rigged for extraction by our sister Chinook company that shared Camp Holloway with us. Occasionally we’d have newly rebuilt aircraft to pickup down south and fly back. They’d need an inspector to check out the aircraft to make sure they were airworthy before the trip back to Holloway. I was usually the chosen one, which I didn’t really mind because it was a chance to get to a bigger city, Vung Tau, south east of Saigon on the coast. Another plus was that I would fly in the front seat on the way “home”.

                The unit had two aircraft waiting for pickup and I got the word that I was to accompany two pilots and a mechanic to inspect them and fly back. After a full night’s work I threw on my flight suit, grabbed my helmet, my side arm – a classic Army issue 45 that I’d traded for - with a half a dozen full clips and headed to the flight line. The four of us climbed into a slick on its way to Vung Tau to be rebuilt. I don’t remember much about the flight because I slept through most of it. Even with the sound of the turbine, transmission and the rotor blades I managed to get some sleep. Flying almost due east we turned south to follow the coast at Qui Nhon. It was a lot safer to fly over the edge of the ocean than triple canopy or rice paddies and tree lines. We landed at Tuy Hoa, refueled the aircraft and took the chance to grab a quick beer before we headed south again.

                It took most of the day to get to Vung Tau – it was 100 miles to Qui Nhon and another 400 to Vung Tau. Landing late in the afternoon we grabbed a cab to downtown where we had dinner together at one of the “authorized” clubs. From there we agreed on a meeting time and place for the next morning and then we all went our separate ways. I’ll save those details for another time, another story. Luckily everybody made it through the night, more or less. We met at the designated time and place and shared another taxi back to the base. As soon as we had access to the helicopters I set to work doing the inspection. The mechanic, I’ll call him Mitch opened up one bird as I did an exterior preflight on the other and then we switched. It’s an involved process; after all I had to make sure that everything was in flyable shape. My signature was going into the book indicating that there was nothing wrong and I was going to be flying in one of them. I certainly didn’t want either of them to fall out of the sky with me in it! It took all day to check out both helicopters especially in the heat out on the psp and dealing with the after effects of the previous night.

                There were a few small things we had to fix after run up and then we were ready to leave. There was a short discussion about having to fly back in the dark – it was already 5 PM. That would put us back in Pleiku around 8 PM. The Captain pulled rank and decided we should leave – done deal. The two pilots flipped a coin to decide which aircraft they’d fly and Mitch and I did the same. I ended up with the Captain and Mitch got the Wobbly. Our aircraft number was 610 and the other was 816. We all climbed in and after a hover check we moved over to fuel up. We took on 1800 pounds but for some reason 816 took on less. Once cleared for takeoff we headed north up the coast, retracing the route we flew on the way down. 816 took the lead as we climbed out over the flooded rice paddies surrounding the city. About 5 miles out the Wobbly got on the radio and reported that he had a vertical vibration at max speed. The Captain asked if he wanted to fly it or head back. They had a few questions for me about the transmission and other parts of the aircrafts drive train. Nothing I’d seen would cause a problem like that and I told them I felt confident the aircraft’s condition wasn’t critical. I’d seen the same thing happen to Cobras after a regular 100 hour maintenance check and it would disappear after a few hours of flying time. The Wobbly finally said no he’d fly it home; it was a smoother ride as long as he kept it between 110 and 120 knots. That would make it a longer ride “home”.

                It was pretty much radio silence from then on except for the Wobbly calling for artillery clearances from the main airfields along the coast like Phan Thiet. The Captain checked in with Cam Ranh Costal Center as we headed north of Phan Rang through the pass. The Captain knew I was stationed at DBT just west of Cam Ranh so he took a detour over my old airfield. There wasn’t much there, just a bunch of empty revetments that used protect our Chinooks. We skirted Nha Trang and continued up the coast. By now the sun was disappearing quickly and the night changed the whole perspective of flying over a war zone. It wasn’t long before the lights at Tuy Hoa airfield came into view. We radioed in for landing clearance so we could refuel. We landed in the dark, hovering over to the fuel dump. I loaded another 1600 pounds on our ship, filled to the rim. No time for a beer this time! Back into the air we continued north toward Quin Nhon but for some reason we couldn’t raise them on the radio. The pilots did a fuel check, the Wobbly was about 200 pounds under us. Flying over the darkened landscape it was easy to find the fire bases that had electric lights and then the villages with their small cooking fires.  The next radio call was to Phu Cat since we couldn’t get Quin Nhon. Luckily we were able to raise their approach control and they gave us clearance to fly west if we maintained an altitude of 5200. High enough to stay above the artillery and any combat aircraft. Turning to a heading of 260 we were finally on the last leg of our journey leaving the relative safety of the coast.

                We passed over Ahn Ke in clear but rough flying weather and 15 mile visibility. Passing over two lighted compounds just west of Ahn Ke the first was silent, but the second sure wasn’t. They were firing automatic weapons to their southwest and northwest as they took incoming fire and probably mortars that I could see explode inside their wire. The streams of colored tracers spraying out at each other was kind of disconcerting. In another few minutes the Wobbly called over saying that he could see the mountains and that we were okay. He called back a few minutes later suggesting we change our UHF settings to 131 – Pleiku Approach Control channel. Just after that we reached a solid wall of clouds. I watched the Wobbly put 816 into a controlled descent toward the bottom edge of the bank. The two pilots exchanged pleasantries about what to do that ended in a few expletives from each. I lost sight of the other aircraft’s lights as the Wobbly entered the clouds. We had started to follow his lead but as the visibility dropped to zero the Captain initiated a constant climbing right turn through the soup for about 5 minutes. With no references I started to get vertigo but it disappeared as we broke into a clear area. The Captain was trying constantly to contact the other helicopter but his radio transmission kept breaking up just like the intercom. He tapped me on the shoulder and as a glanced back at him he pointed to his mike and then at me.

                I picked up his attempts to raise 816 for another few minutes, to no avail. We tried the beeper and still couldn’t get a response. The Captain was finally able to raise Pleiku but we couldn’t link to the radar on their UHF channel. We switched to FM and after an eternity we picked up their signal. By now the Captain had no voice communication and it was left to me to call us in to the airfield. First time for everything, I’m no pilot just a scared young kid in the front seat. Radar asked for our position and I replied with where I thought we were, they had us make a right turn and from that they identified us. During our approach I continued to try to reach 816 on the two or three UHF channels we had used and on FM. No answer, no luck. I told Pleiku were number two in a flight of two AH-1Gs and that we had lost our lead aircraft between Ahn Ke and Pleiku. I asked if they would do a search for them. Pleiku replied there were no other contacts in the area. Sinking into the seat a thousand things raced through my mind as we made our GCA to about 3 miles out and then turned toward Holloway. Were they down? Where and why? Was it something I missed? I began to constantly run the inspection checklist through my mind. When we neared the air strip the Captain flipped on the landing lights and they immediately failed. What next? There we were, approaching an uphill airstrip with no lights on the ground and none on the aircraft, in the dark of the night. The tower spotted us somehow and eventually cleared us to land.

                I acknowledged their transmission and began searching the black space in front of us. Catching the minimal light reflecting off the metal scrapings left behind on the landing strip I was able to call the aircraft down to within 5 feet of the landing strip. Quickly moving to our flight line the Captain finally put it on the psp and began shutdown. Relieved to be on hard ground the comfort didn’t last long, as soon as I could get the canopy open I was in the commo shack yelling to my fellow night shift buddy to try to find 816. I spent the night there, half asleep half listening to the radio traffic. At first light all of the aircraft we had that weren’t assigned for the morning took off to search for the missing helicopter and crew. Nothing came in, no one found anything, no one saw anything. I finally went to bed around noon and was back at work on the flight line that night; hoping beyond hope.

                Three days later in the middle of the afternoon a courtesy call came in from a slick out of Phu Cat saying that they had spotted and reported the possible crash site west of An Tuc. As soon as I heard about it I was on my way to our slick climbing in right after the pilots, the Captain was flying a mission that afternoon. The short flight seemed to take forever and then there weren’t any clearings nearby where we could set down, there were three or four other choppers already on site. We set down a few hundred yards away and made our way through the thick vegetation, uphill to the remains of the helicopter. It was 816. The investigation team was already there; two body bags were lying next to the ship. The Wobbly had flown his aircraft directly into a hill side, the transmission broke loose and what was left of the rotor blades had flexed and cut through the rear canopy. The front seater – Mitch… there was no way he could have made it. The back seater – the Wobbly was killed by one of the blades.

                They wouldn’t let us do anything, touch anything, not even transport our buddies back “home”. It was along ride back to Holloway… Hmmm by the flip of a coin. Since then I always call tails… Since then, I still wonder if I missed something, something that forced them down into that hillside. The official report said not… I still wonder today…

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