Dark as the Inside of a Well Digger's Ass
"It is not the critics who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better.The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marked with sweat and dust and blood who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again. Who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement, and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat." - Theodore Roosevelt
September 3, 1971, 1603 local. It's the second anniversary of the death of Ho Chi Minh. Things are tense all over South Vietnam, waiting for attacks. But not for us. Not now. Not until dark; then probable action. Meanwhile, we "enjoy" the matinee movie in the wardroom of the Windham County, the LST which is our base this month. The last reel of our movie is drowned out by the shrill bo'sun's pipe call of "all hands" over the 1 MC . . . . pause . . .
"Now hear this. SCRAMBLE SEAWOLVES, SCRAMBLE SEAWOLVES, hands to emergency flight quarters on the double!"
I look a question at LTJG Ian Refo. What this? It's broad daylight. We haven't been scrambled in daylight since. . . . No time to sit and think. Time to run for the birds. As the duty Det Nine fire team leader, I hot foot it out the door of the wardroom and up the ladder to CIC to get the skinny. Refo is right behind me out the wardroom door, turning the other way to head straight to the flight deck. He's my trail aircraft commander this day. He is Seawolf 97. I am Seawolf 98. "Hold the movie for us Steve," shouts Refo as he dashes out the door. "This shouldn't take long. It's probably another scramble to the POL at Tra Vinh."
"Let's go, Kim, Mau! Mau! (faster)." The Vietnamese language prompt is unnecessary; Kim speaks better English than I do.
ARVN Captain Kim Long, a helicopter pilot in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, and attached to our det as part of the Vietnamization program, grabs his shoulder holster and runs for his helo. He is Ian's copilot. With him on our det is a Vietnamese gunner. Both are in training to learn the Seawolf method of operating in order to fill the void when we "di di " outta here some day. LT Jack Chmura, my copilot, is right behind Kim.
I meet LT Tom Kane in combat. CDR Charlie Hall, the det O-in-C, is in Binh Thuy for an O-in-C meeting. Tom's our assistant O-in-C. He has just copied down the coordinates of a report of a blockade-running barge which must have eluded the Market Time patrols on the coast. I grab the slip of paper and run for the bird. By the time I get there, both are turning and the ship's crash crew is manned up. I slip into the right seat, pull on my helmet, which is already plugged in, snap my LPA collar flotation to the unauthorized "D" rings sewn to my flight suit chest, hook the waist floatation together through the unauthorized straps sewn on the belly of my flight suit, fit the seat harness together, and scan the gauges. We are ready to lift. So is 97, who flips me a thumbs up.
These mods to our flight suits allow us to have floatation without having to wear the SV-2, which is excess weight, hot and airless, and totally superfluous. If we aren't picked up right away after going down, we won't be needing any survival gear. Nobody can go very far on foot in the Delta. We knew the VC would round us up in no time. They know how to walk in the muck without making too big a trail, we sure didn't. So the whole squadron had modified flight gear. The requests for the mods have been duly submitted in 1967. As far as I know, approval (or disapproval) had not been returned before the squadron decommissioned in 1972.
"Ready aft." comes the unsolicited report from ADJ1 Glenn Zurfluh, the first gunner, Right on time.
"Let's go, Jack." Time 1607. Four minutes elapsed. Not our best time for a scramble. All this sunlight must be throwing off our timing. We do better in the dark.
The UH-1M lifts into the air easily. Man, you gotta love these Mike models! Dash 13 engine instead of dash elevens; 540 rotor system with the large chord blades, instead of the smaller chord 217 rotor system blades. Lots more power, lots more lift. What an improvement over those tired old Bravos. And good winds. An easy takeoff, even in the heat of the day, even with an extra gunner trainee in each bird, like today. What a change from the no-wind or downwind, out of ground effect takeoffs, in an underpowered, over gross, old Bravo model off the flight deck roof of the YRBM-21 anchored in the river and the still air along the Cambodian border.
The LST is anchored with an extra cable reeved through her stern anchor hawse pipe and attached to the bow anchor chain, forming a "Y-shaped" yoke with the arms of the "Y" at bow and stern of the LST, and anchor at the foot of the "Y." This novel arrangement keeps the ship roughly beam to the often-present sea breeze, since a County class LST has a lot of freeboard sail area and a shallow draft. The flight deck is the open space between the superstructure/bridge aft, and the bow door/forecastle/twin-40mm gun tubs forward. The helicopters are spotted side-by-side crossdeck. The yoke rig usually puts the wind off our noses for takeoff, except when the powerful twice-daily tidal current battles with the wind for the natural right to determine the ship's orientation. When that's happening, the anchored LST bucks and buffets like a drunk bronco.
Routine takeoff complete, we approach the coast, which is only a mile away, at a 1000 feet.
"Going hot," reports Jack as he seats the circuit breakers which arm the rockets and flex-mounted mini-gun on his side. The several breakers are easy to find; each has a large silver washer hanging from it by safety wire, so it's a simple matter of locating the desired breakers by finding the washers hanging down. The breakers are also splashed with white paint. All other armament controls and switches are already in the armed position, where they stay permanently, the circuit breakers acting as the master arming switches. It is the only way to make sense of the multiple, randomly sited, Rube Goldberg armament system components of a Huey, desinged to be a transport, and converted to a gunship, to the probable horror of the designer. "98, 97, What's the plan?"
"We're checking out a possible VC barge infiltrating from the sea, reported at Xray Romeo 2245 1228, east of Tra Vinh.
"In broad daylight? They aren't that dumb are they?"
"Maybe not so dumb. We sure wouldn't expect it. As long as they look innocent enough it may be smart. Sure would throw off the Market Time patrol patterns. Reminds me of Bill McCluskey. Walked into the Playboy Club in Honolulu, went behind the bar, and took the painting of the Playmate of the Year right off the wall and walked out with it. Acted like he knew what he was doing and nobody questioned him."
"Yeah, and it might be a trap. Probably bait for a .50-cal trap. Some kind of festivities in celebration of Uncle Ho going to Hell, like VC lake this time last year."
"Hmmmm, Could be. Let's hold that thought, today, 97." VC lake was the scene of a huge firefight involving several Seawolf dets last September where we had lost a bird in a .50-cal trap, and where Bob Baratko did some stuff which got him recommended for a Medal of Honor. What a story that was. Some other time maybe, if you want to hear it.
"98, 97, I'm picking up some vibrations. Feels like a one-per-rev, but not so pronounced."
I immediately thought of Arnie Barden and Larry Cover. They and their crew were all killed when one of their blade spars failed in flight. They had reported vibrations, told their wingman they were slowing down and turning for home. The crew of the trail aircraft watched in horror as one blade came apart and the other chopped off the tail boom, and then itself depart the aircraft. The cabin fell to earth like a safe from 1000 feet. No survivors, needless to say. They had to excavate the rice paddy to get down to the bodies. We all thought it was a freak accident, until the safety officer discovered that the Det 3 bird lost from unknown causes last December, flown by LTJGs Dick Buzzell and Tony Ortiz, had a blade from the same manufacturer's lot number as the one which failed on Arnie's bird. We never even found the blades from that crash. This led to the discovery that several army birds had had catastrophic blade failures too, and all the failures were from the same manufacturer's lot. In every case, all aboard were killed. Scuttlebutt was that immediate inspection of other blades from that lot revealed that all the main spars had been scored somehow in production, weakening the spar, yet the manufacturer passed the lot through Q.A, deciding they were strong enough. Maybe they were, for light birds in peacetime.
Four friends. Flown with them all. Whether anyone would be held accountable for this decision would be decided by some corporate lawyers some day, but not today. . . .
"97, we're only a click (1000 meters) from the province senior advisor's compound, come easy right and set up for a straight-in and keep the g's off the aircraft. You've got the lead, 97."
"Roger, that. You thinking what I'm thinking?"
"Yeah, but all those blades were surveyed, and besides, these are 540 blades, not 217's. Still, no profit in taking any chances."
"You got that right, 98."
Refo made it to the little concrete pad at the province headquarters, and I landed behind him in the mud. I dropped off my first gunner, ADJ1 Glenn Zurfluh to help out AMS2 Buzz Landy try to figure out the problem. While they were working that problem, I took one of Refo's gunners and blasted off to check out the barge. It turned out to be nothing and I returned to Ian. Inbound, I passed over a platoon of ARVN APCs parked at the edge of a vast rice paddy field a few clicks from headquarters. Zurfluh's troubleshooting homed in on the engine short shaft, whose housing was loose and causing some vibration in the frame. The housing bolt holes were already elongated from the vibrations. They tightened everything they could, and a ground turn produced reduced vibrations, but not fully gone.
Decision time. We were racing the Sun which was setting fast. One thing we did NOT want to do was spend the night at this location with our helicopters outside the wire at the tender mercies of the local VC. Not on the anniversary of Uncle Ho's death. Nor any other night for that matter. The American advisor at that headquarters was chatting with us during the maintenance work, and had made it known that they had been rocketed three nights before, and were sure they would be again tonight as part of the local birthday celebration festivities. This was the place with the sign at the helo pad proclaiming:
NO PARKING SUNSET TO SUNRISE
ANYONE LEAVING THEIR VEHICLE OVERNIGHT
WILL RISK HAVING IT POUNDED
We were not far from Tra Vinh, a real runway with real U.S. Army security. With the countryside in tension, staying here was not a good idea. Ian was a qualified maintenance FCF pilot, and so was I. He wants to do a quick flight to check out the vibrations, and then go to Tra Vinh where we could wait for some help from the main Seawolf base at Binh Thuy. given the tactical situation, I concurred. We buttoned up the cowling quickly, leaving the engine intake sand-air separator off to save time, since it was already dark. Ian and Kim took it around the pattern quickly with me in trail covering them. Good enough for a one-time jump over to Tra Vinh, he pronounces, and lands to pick up his crew. When he's ready, we turn into the wind, and I lead out over the paddies adjacent to the French colonial farm house headquarters, and circle to take trail on him, since he's in the sick bird.
It is now a dark and moonless night. Dark as the inside of the proverbial well digger's ass. I close up well within tactical trail to keep an eye on him.
We're a few clicks from HQ, when a vivid red and yellow jet of flame gushes out of Refo's engine exhaust.
"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, Seawolf 97. We've lost the engine and are going in!"
I watch in fascinated horror as Ian's aircraft falls away into stygian blackness, spitting a spurting stream of sparks to mark the trail of his autorotation. I'm holding my breath. What can I do to help?
"Wind is from your two o'clock, 97. "
"Roger THAT! "
DAMN IT. Absolutely helpless. Too high and too late to illuminate anything with my searchlight. All I can do is watch him sink into the black void under my nose. Should have seen this one coming. He flew the test, and it's his bird, but it's my fire team. Charlie Hall is gonna be pissed when he gets back. I am responsible.
Below me, the searchlight comes on providing pathetic pale illumination of flat, treeless, black terrain. Thank God he's not in the trees, but that flat black terrain means water. Paddy or canal? I can only wait. Refo's bird flares and The flare seems to be in slow motion. Not for Ian I'll bet. A burst of fire billows back over the tail boom.
"Nine-seven, you're on fire!"
The aircraft rocks over and descends to the deck and the fire subsides into spitting sparks.
No big splash but lots of spray; but the bird stays in view, and right side up; a perfect instrument autorotation to a perfect landing in completely unknown terrain. Hot DAMN! I breathe again.
"Nice landing 97," I calmly offer. "Everybody O.K?"
"Roger, it was luck. Any one you can walk away from. And I can walk away from this one without even getting wet. I can step onto the paddy dike from the cockpit. One more foot to the right and we would have flipped over on the dike. Better lucky than good. Also, I got a little out of the engine in the flare. Kim noticed it still at idle and running after we were in the auto. We're all O.K. down here except for the five surveyed flight suits. . . . Thanks for the wind call, it helped."
The guy just stuck a perfect night IMC autorotation, and he's telling me about his luck. Yeah luck all right, but some SKILL, some SERIOUS skill.
"Da nada, Kimo Sabe. What happened?"
"Looks like a classic compressor stall. No power left in the engine but it's still running. This bird ain't going anywhere else tonight."
"Copy that. You cooked the engine that's for sure from where I sit. Stand by." I switch to FM and call the province senior advisor to get on the HF and scramble the nearest Seawolves, Det Seven, and to see about getting some security for the bird. He advised me that he had just taken some sniper fire himself, but he would send troops from those ARVN APCs which aren't that far away, maybe four or five clicks.
While I'm doing that and calling the "T" to fill in the det, Refo deploys his crew in defensive positions around the downed helo. Kim goes forward along the dike to the intersection of the next one, AE3 Elliot wades across the paddy to the next dike over to the left, and AD3 Curry goes aft to the next dike behind them. Buzz Landy stays in the bird covering the right side with his .50 cal machine gun, which he can't exactly carry through the rice paddy to the next dike. Refo stays at the controls nursing the blown engine which can still keep the rotor system spinning at idle, turning the generators to keep the AC-powered radios on the line. The province senior advisor reports that the ARVNs can't reach our location with their APCs because of canals and streams between us and them, but they have started a security force on foot, ETA a couple of hours, if all goes well.
In about 20 minutes, who should show up but a single Seawolf from Det 7, piloted by none other than LTJG Mike Reid. Mike was the savior of Steve Hanvey and Tom Cleverdon and their crew when they were shot down a few weeks ago. He had been single ship that day too.
"Seawolf 98, Seawolf 74, checkin' in, single Bravo with four souls, what's goin' on?"
"74, 98, we've got 97 down in the center of my circle. Nobody's hurt, but the bird is done for the night; lost the engine. No sign of hostiles, and an ARVN infantry patrol is on the way to secure the area. I'm talking to their advisor on Fox Mike forty three point five, call sign Plowboy Five. They are somewhere to the east of us about two clicks, position unknown, should be here in an hour or so, if all goes well, they said. Follow me for a low pass over 97, then you got it, I'm running on fumes."
"Roger, show me the way. Hey, 98, we've gotta stop meeting like this."
"Roger that 74, break, . . . 97, flick on your rotator."
"Click, click." The red twirly came on for a few blinks, and we rolled in to a shallow glide over the downed helo. Then I hauled ass for Tra Vinh.
Mike and I traded off refueling, trying to find the ARVNs, and covering 97 for about two hours. The ARVNs didn't have any signal flares or strobes with them and we couldn't precisely locate them while they were on the move. They were always equipment poor because of the black market, and they were probably not accustomed to working with aircraft at night, since they didn't go out at night if they could avoid it, and they were good at avoiding it.
On the ground, Kim Long scuttled back along the dike from his defensive position to the helo.
"Ian, you tell Tom come get us."
"Relax Kim, there's an ARNV patrol on the way to us, and we've got two Seawolves overhead. We're O.K."
"No, No, we have been on the ground too long. You tell Tom, pick us up."
"O.K. O.K. I'll talk to him. Get on back to your position." Kim went back, reluctantly.
From the ground, Refo heard one side of a conversation between me and Plowboy Three, that went something like this: "Plowboy Five, say again, . . . How many casualties? . . . . Negative, negative. You can't turn back, we've got to secure this helo. . . . . Plowboy Three, we'll give you cover now. You can mark your position using tracers, now that the VC are in contact. When you hear us overhead, open up with tracers on the enemy and we will roll in. Say your estimated position. . . . . Roger, copy. . . . . . How big is the ambush? . . . . Negative, we cannot act as Dustoff (MEDEVAC), we've got to cover the downed bird and the crew. . . . Roger, Plowboy, I can relay to your Six (Company commander's call sign in army units is the "Six") . . . . Plowboy Six, this is Seawolf 98, over. . . ."
Refo heard me tell the Six about the ambush, that they had taken 4 casualties, their request for Dustoff, and their request to pull back until morning. . . .
"97, 98, are you copying all this?" On the UHF.
"Only your half 98, but I've got the picture. Not good."
Refo heard me relay back the Six's instructions to Plowboy Three for the patrol to press on, thank goodness.
"Plowboy Five, Seawolf 98, are you still in contact? . . . . Roger, . . . we still haven't located you, are you sure about your coordinates, over? . . . . Roger, copy. Say your Echo Tango Alfa to the downed bird, over . . . . . Can't you move any faster than that? . . . . Roger, Out."
Over to the UHF:
"97, 98, it's going to take a while now that they've been hit. The ARVN are real nervous, according to the advisor, and have slowed down to a crawl. See anything down there?"
Landy then spoke up for the first time (ICS to his HAC):
"Mr. Refo, what are we gonna do?"
For the first time in his career as a helicopter aircraft commander, the cold reality of being an aircraft commander was staring Ian Refo in the face. They were down in hostile territory, at night, and a senior gunner was looking to him, to take care of the situation. He was in charge, as far as the crew was concerned. He was responsible. It was a shock. In the air, with all going well, aircraft commander was a kind of benevolent first among equals. Separated from the others slightly, more because he got to fly it than because he was an officer. He got to make the decisions, most of which were attractive and easy. More a position of power and authority than one of responsibility. Responsibility was kinda there, but dimly hovering in the background. Before he could answer, Kim came back again to the helo.
"You tell Tom, come get us NOW."
"Take it easy Kim."
"No, No, you tell Tom, come get us NOW. You know what happen VC catch you? Very bad. You know what happen VC catch ME? They don't take ARVN helicopter pilots prisoner to keep. They will peel all my skin off before they let me die. You tell Tom, come quick."
"All right, Kim, I'll tell him. Now get back to the dike." Kim left.
"98, 97, I think it's time to di di."
"Yeah roger that. I've been trying to think of a way to get the patrol rendezvoused with you without somebody getting shot by accident. Can't guarantee that the first people you see will be friendlies, either. We've waited long enough. The ambush changes everything. I'm coming down to get you because I'm in the Mike model. 74 will cover since he's in a Bravo. Copy 74?"
"Rahjah." Pure Kentucky.
"Tom, bring it in to a hover on the dike behind the bird. That's a clear approach and departure. There's too many trees on the departure if you land in front."
Refo shut down the helo and sent Landy to get Elliot. He went forward to get Kim. When he got to the intersection of the two dike lines, he couldn't find Kim. In the silence, Refo could hear distant gunfire. Oh Oh.
"Kim," he hissed.
"Kim, where the hell are you?"
Kim rose from a depression in the rice paddy dike like some swamp creature. Ian almost jumped out of his skin. Kim was covered in mud. His face was smeared with it, his hair, his neck, everything except his weapon. His helmet was gone, and all the rest of his equipment, gloves, LPA, everything except his pistol.
"Come on, Tom's coming to get us. Let's go."
Kim Long, Captain, ARVV, hesitated for a few seconds as Ian started back along the dike. He finally decided to stay in the ARVN and followed.
Meanwhile, back in my, as of yet, still mud-less world of mere sweat and funk, we shot an approach to the paddy dike behind the silent Seawolf helicopter. We faced an interesting problem. We could hover with a skid along the dike line, we could hover perpendicular to the dike line with two skids on the dike, or we could hover in the rice paddy. Hovering in the paddy as we took on five men was dicey because of the muck. And the boys would have to pull themselves into the helo from the muck. If we sank down in the mud fully loaded, I wasn't sure we had the power to pull back out. We might end up like a fly on flypaper. Didn't want to risk that.
That left the dike. To hover parallel to the dike meant the boys would have to approach under the rotor arc from the front. Ever the safety conscious naval aviator, I knew that wasn't proper, besides, departing on that heading would be blocked by the downed Seawolf. No way could we climb fast enough to clear the bird with the load we'd be carrying.
That left the landing on the dike perpendicular to it. The heels of the skids were directly under the CG of the bird, so that's where the bird naturally wanted to touch down first, but that's where the rocket pods and mini-gun pylon was located, blocking access to the cabin. To get in to the cabin of a Huey gunship, a man had to be almost up with the pilot doors to clear the obstructions. If the people couldn't get to the door directly from on the dike, they wouldn't be able to climb into the helo. Hovering on the dike, the skids and cabin would be too high to climb in from the paddy. We might just as well hover in the paddy and take our chances with getting stuck.
The only solution was to put both skids down on the dike with the dike right under the pilot's doorposts and muscle it into a steady position there until the boys could get aboard. Jack tried it. It was as unnatural as you can imagine. We see-sawed up and down in the cockpit trying to achieve stability. The cabin see-sawed even more sickeningly.
"Watch your tail!" cried Zurfluh. "We almost dunked it that time." "Shit." breathed Jack between clenched teeth. I could see the tension in him. Not good. 97's crew were lined up along the dike at a respectful distance watching the drunk black-green dragonfly try to sip nectar from some imaginary flower. Whatever we were doing, they respected it, and held their ground while the bird bobbed and weaved. "Let me try it. I've got it," I finally offered in a slightly condescending tone to my copilot. This was no place for training copilots. Time for the FTL to show the newbie how it's done.
I have spent many hours learning to hold the controls of a helicopter ever so lightly, caressing them and coaxing the desired response with light sensual touches, like stroking a cooperative but passive lover. That style works when performing natural acts with your helicopter (and your lover), and the style is to be recommended for most normal situations. When forcing your machine to perform unnatural acts, sometimes it takes a little muscle and anger. And if the "partner" was unwilling to bend to your will? Chains, cuffs, and fine leather? Kinky.
That damned helicopter did NOT want to balance docilely at my chosen pivot point. My confidence and condescension rapidly turned to mild surprise, followed by a whiff of irritation and anger, becoming a flush of fear as the difficulty of the task made itself more perfectly clear.
It didn't help that before me out the window was black water stretching into a horizonless black void. I had to hold the hover by the feel of the skids on the dike with no danged reference. It would have probably been easy if the touch point was behind the CG, say under the tail boom, with me out at the end of the cantilever, pivoting on the other side of the CG. (this is a theoretical supposition, never having tried it) But with the touch point between me and the CG, it was VERY unnatural.
I quickly realized why Jack had been having so much trouble. I began to wonder if I could do it. But if not me, who could I have do it for me. I was the HAC, the court of last resort. I could feel the crew of 97 watching me. If I didn't get this thing under control, the choices were not good, and we were running out of time. Lord only knew where the VC might be at this very moment. Stop thinking about THEM. No time for them, right now.
I tried looking over my shoulder at the dike line for reference. BAD idea. We performed an even greater excursion than we had previously experienced, to put it in polite aeronautical terms.
"Steady, Mr. P," screamed Zurfluh. That would have been reassuring if he hadn't screamed it. I knew what he meant, and I chose to take it as a vote of confidence. Never mind that his ass was in as much hot water or deep mud as mine. As all of ours. He was not a casual observer of this evolution. Jack was speechless.
Damn. Grit my teeth. Clench my jaw. Tighten my grip. Squeeze balck juice out of the cyclic and collective like I haven't done since that summer day at Pensacola Site 8, when I tried to hover for the first time.
Somehow the bird steadied enough on that muddy dike for the crew of 97 to elect to advance. They came running, balancing on the dike, bent over to clear the rotors, Landy looking like a tightrope walker with the long barrel of his .50 cal across his chest. Each one tossed his weapons, and whatever assorted piece of critical equipment salvaged from the bird that Ian had distributed among them; (the bird's radios, the KY-28 crypto box, the machine guns), into the helicopter. Took their damn time about it, I must say. Then they started climbing in.
Whoa Nelly! Weight shifted off the pivot point as each boarding man make room for those behind. Shit! Almost lost it, but the boys would not be denied now that they were so close. The teetering helo didn't deter them. Probably because in so close to the teeter point they couldn't see the big excursions of the tail like they could from farther away, and because they couldn't see me shitting bricks in the dark. The teeter point didn't move all that much, except to slide fore and aft now and then,
"They're all aboard, Sir."
Finally. Now to get airborne. As I pulled collective, we fell back.
Whoops. So I pushed the stick forward a hair. We slid forward to the natural touch point. Yeah! Now the bird felt more right. Now it was merely overloaded and groaning at topping. This is more like it. I can handle this. Zurfluh kept the crew back against the aft bulkhead, close to the CG so we wouldn't lose longitudinal cyclic authority, a lesson we learned from Mike Reid, the day he pulled Hanvey's crew out of the South China Sea. Someone had leaned forward to slap Mike on the shoulder in a gesture of thanks, and the weight shift forward in the overloaded helo had exceeded the center of gravity limits of the stick. Mike's helo had started forward with the nose falling and the stick in Mike's stomach and back against the aft stops, and not enough power to climb out yet. They were saved by a quick reacting gunner who slammed the man back against the cabin aft bulkhead in response to Mike's pleas. (see Scramble Seawolves Part VIII).
"Departing.' I called.
"Rajah, 'bout time." replied 74.
"Up yours, Mike. . . . Gimme some light ahead." He obliged with a sweep past as I gathered speed ever so glacially. Might be a Mike model, but it's still a Huey, it's still a high DA, it's still over max gross, and right this minute it's more seriously over gross than ever. Building speed now, but trees ahead, glimpsed for a moment in the light of Mike's pass, but now in the dark again. Gulp.
"Gimme the searchlight, Jack."
"Are you sure, Tom. We're awfully slow to be showing lights."
"Jack, there's trees ahead. Do you see them? I don't. The light, and NOW."
The trees passed close below us. Look like close but plenty of room.
"Tom, did you feel those branches scrape the bottom back there?"
I did not dignify that with a response. When we got high enough, I gave it back to Jack. I had to work to straighten my fingers. My back hurt. My biceps hurt. My thighs hurt. HT-8 all over again, and it wasn't even tomorrow yet. Tomorrow I'd be sore.
Well, we had successfully avoided spending the night at that dangerous old French colonial farmhouse. We made it to Tra Vinh, no problem, dropped off the extras, and returned overhead the dead bird. The ARVN were there and had secured the helo. I dropped Refo off, and he "negotiated" with the ARVN over staying the night to guard the bird. They want to burn it and clear out before the VC returned in force. They stayed, after some dramatic moments of in-your-face gun-in-hand dialog. But that's another story. The bird was Chinooked out of the paddy for us by the army the following day.
On inspection, it was determined that the engine had experienced a compressor stall when the airflow was partially blocked by a wrench left behind when we hastily buttoned up in the dark to fly the bird to Tra Vinh. The short shaft housing was causing the vibrations. The shaft would have failed shortly if we hadn't temporarily tightened it up in the field. THAT would have been even more interesting than a mere compressor stall on a dark and moonless night. No power whatsoever. Our little night's activity provoked some debate back at the main Seawolf base at Binh Thuy as you might well imagine. The squadron support echelon senior officer REMFs back at the home base, representing a sanity and a safety über alles peacetime mentality, wanted to take me, Refo, AMS2 Landy, and ADJ1 Zurfluh to task for doing the maintenance work in the field, for leaving a tool behind, for doing the night FCF, for trying to fly to Tra Vinh, all of which resulted in a burned up engine. It could have been worse, both as a result of the risks taken, or as a result of failure to take those same risks.
Charlie Hall, our det O-in-C, countered by commended LTJG Refo for outstanding airmanship, for saving the helicopter, and sided with all of us for making good decisions under arduous conditions in the field.
The squadron CO, was caught in the middle. Who to side with? Captain Charlie Borgstrom came down on the side of the man in the arena. We were there. It was our time, and we had to make the decisions, he said. The Skipper would allow no one to punitively second guess tactical decisions made in the field. Mistakes were made in haste. There was no choice but haste. Rules were violated about night maintenance. There was no choice but doing the maintenance. Risks were taken flying a sick bird at night. If no risks were taken betting on our own maintainers and our own flying skill, then the risks taken would have been betting on forces beyond our control to protect our bird in a dnagerous area at a dangerous time. We bet on ourselves. No one suffered any censure from our chain of command for that night. Just because there was no punitive second guessing didn't mean there was no second guessing. We aired our dirty laundry honestly and quickly for all to read. Every Seawolf AHAC and FTL had to face how he would handle a similar situation, because we were all flying single engine helicopters, kept in the air by the grace of hairs breadth tolerances on very tired jet engines which were failing right and left at alarming rates. We had discovered that the quality of the water available for engine washes was causing the engines to wear at an accelerated rate. In a river delta, many dets had to have potable water delivered by the supply system. As a result, engine washed were done with the local river water, heavy in sediment, no matter how much it was "settled" prior to use in the engines. That, combined with the fact that the engines were operated at military power and beyond most of the time, wore out the engines at a much faster rate than predicted by the peacetime establishment. It took us a while to figure out that the sediment suspended in the river water was doing a number on our engines. I thought Refo deserved an Air Medal for the greatest autorotation I ever hope to see. Had his engine been SHOT to pieces, he probably would have gotten one for the same little bit of airmanship. There is a fine line between a medal and a reprimand. Damn fine auto Ian. Damn fine.
Copyright © 1997,1998, Tom Phillips