Scramble Seawolves! Part 14

Larry Bradshaw

by Tom Phillips, Seawolf 98 | Reprinted with permission

The staging down to Solid Anchor to cover for Det One gave me a chance to visit with my HT-8 buddy, John Gana. John was one of six of us jaygees who had come in-country together; me, John, Mike Reid, Det 7, Dave Quick, Det 2, Tony Ortiz, Det 3, now dead, Joe Love, Det 3. John had just recently acquired the sobriequet "Magnet Ass," according to his O-in-C, LCDR Jim Long, who had been our Fearless Leader at Fort Rucker, Alabama, while we had gone through Army Huey transition, tactics, and gunnery school. Good times.

He seemed to attract fire. From his first days on det, even as a lowly trail aircraft copilot, along for the ride in the learning seat, making no decisions which affected the operation, tactics, or maneuvers of the fire team, his helicopter was constantly getting hit, while the other bird in the fire team went untouched. (It was battle damage to John's bird which had us down here in the first place.) In the fire fight which had most recently damaged his bird, he had even gotten his ICS cord shot away.

John wasn't sure exactly what was wrong except that there was sudden silence in his helmet ear cups, but plenty of noise beating through his skull from the 1, 2, or 3-gun fusillade directed at the ground as the guns would bear on the target area. When his side tone went away, he set about troubleshooting. His voice tests on the ICS were not answered because him keying his ICS didn't even create static. No microphone was connected to the ICS system. His voice calls only went as far as the severed end of the shot-away cord. The ICS cord, which connected his helmet ear cups and his boom mike to the aircraft intercom and radio system, looped down from the back of his helmet and then curved back up alongside his head to the overhead of the cockpit.

He checked the plug into the little amplifier mounted on the back of his helmet. It was notorious for disconnecting. Nope, plugged in tight. He added his gun's firepower to the fray, spraying the intersection of two streams of tracers, one from his own door gunner and the other from a gunner in the other bird. Then his bird rolled rolled away and he could no longer bring his guns to bear.

He went back to fiddling with the connections from the amp to his boom mike, another likely disconnect site. Nope, plugged in there too. His bird rolled in again. He doused a muzzle flash on the ground with a stream of mini-gun tracers.

Next chance he got as they rolled off target, he checked the connection where the cord went into the radio/ICS box over head. Nope, plugged in snugly there too. Hmmm, might be the floor switch, so he tried the switch on the cyclic. No luck. He reached over and tugged Jim's sleeve, tapped the side of his helmet, and signalled thumbs down. It was too dark for him or anyone else in the bird to see the severed cord right away, and they were a little busy. Once they turned for home, a check finally revealed the severed cord. It had been cut at the low point of the catenary between the helmet connection and the overhead, about two inches from his head.

We shared a hearty laugh with Magnet Ass John Gana, but the laughter faded away when John produced the severed cord. It was VERY short from plug to snip, not more than six inches. I could see it plugged to MY helmet very clearly. A matter of inches between a good (nervous) laugh and tragedy. A matter of inches.

It made me think of Dave Quick's Army friend. The Army slick (transport helicopter) landed at Nha Be, the home of Det 2, for emergency medical care, but it was too late. Dave's friend was dead in the left seat. The army bird had taken a single hit while transiting along in broad daylight at a thousand feet, just passing through. The bullet came in the copilot's door and passed between the top of the copilot's armored seat bucket side, and the bottom of the seat's sliding armor plate. The copilot's armored seat is made up of a bottom and two low sides comprising the bucket. The back is neck high and hinged at the bottom (designed thusly so it can be laid back and the occupant pulled backwards out of the seat from the cabin and extracted from the helicopter through the cargo door opening, which was bigger than the pilot door, and easier to drag a recumbent body through; a practical, but sobering, design feature). The inner side of the back folded forward at about 45?, becoming a "wing" to provide some protection from the right rear. Attached to the left side of the bucket, is a nose-high sliding panel which can be pulled forward for protection, and pushed back to allow entry and egress from the seat out the copilot's door. The sliding panel groove is mounted outboard of the seat bucket so there is room for the copilot's arm to work the collective. When pulled forward, there is a five- inch gap between the panel and the seat bucket. It leaves no gap when seen from horizontal since the two parts overlap, but from below, the chink in the armor is there, a very small chink, but a chink, nevertheless.

In addition to the built-in seat armor, the "chickenplate", a modern day cuirass made of kevlar, completes the protection provided a pilot. It is a separate portable sleeveless vest front "fitted" under the pilot's shoulder straps, which hold it in place against the body to provide some protection for the front torso. There is no other protection from the front, except the aluminim and wire of the instrument panel, and a whole lot of plexiglass. A good view from the pilot's seats of a Huey, plenty of window, unarmored plastic window. Our helmets were fiberglass "ballistic" shells; we weren't sure what ballistic meant in this case, but that was their nomenclature. Those with gun belts instead of shoulder holsters, rotated their belts to put their pistol between their legs. Like a baseball catcher's cup, but by Smith and Wesson instead of Jockey.

All told, there is some nominal (perhaps more psychological than physical) protection from small arms fire. It covered some of you and statistically reduced the percentage of body exposed. Safer according to the law of averages, but not entirely safe according to fate.

The bullet passed up through the gap between the seat and the sliding panel, entered the pilot's side, just behind where his chicken plate ended, went through his lower left lung and out his back. He would have most likely survived this gunshot wound (through-and-through, as they say), had he been in a regular seat. Instead, the armor back, designed to deflect small arms fire coming in from outside, worked just as effectively to deflect the bullet trying to get out, and caused the bullet to ricochet back through the pilot's body, through his heart and out his chest, above his chicken plate. He died instantly, but he bled for a long time, pouring out most of his 10 pints. An inch either way and the result would have been nervous laughter of relief at the club after they landed instead of . . .

They were transiting in broad daylight in a "pacified area" on a "non-combat" logistics mission at a "safe" altitude.

Should such a capricious act freeze us into paralysis? Try not to dwell on it. . . Do not take counsel of your fears. . . An inch either way.

As the Stoic philosopher says, worry about the thing you can control, don't worry about what you cannot control, and be smart enough to know the difference. Say your prayers, slide the panel forward, put your gun in your lap, wear your chicken plate, and shoot well and fast. After 27 years I still dwell on it. An inch here, an inch there. . . and over there, in inch-high letters, another name on the Wall. A name I don't remember, next to the too many that I do.

 

Copyright © 1997,1998, Tom Phillips