"Be with you a minute," he said without looking up.
He appeared to be in his late twenties. The patch on his right sleeve announced a previous tour with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. The large gold ring on his finger said West Point. I had some minutes to take in the scene while he focused on one particular piece of paper that seemed to demand his attention above all others in the pile. He rubbed his forehead as if the massage helped his comprehension. The red mark above his brow indicated he did this often.
Laying the paper down, he leaned back in the chair and pulled the cigar from his mouth. After pondering it with only slightly less concern than he had shown for the paper, he tossed the soggy butt into a can on the floor. This time when he smiled, there was no doubt to its meaning. His hazel eyes squinted as he extended his right hand. His name was Scott, he said, which I could clearly see on the tag above his right pocket.
"Welcome to F Troop, Austin. I was just reviewing your orders. You've qualified in the Cobra.... Sorry we can't get you into Snakes right away.... But it won't hurt you to spend some time in slicks first. Make you appreciate the Snake more later. You'll start with Nighthawk tonight."
I tried to hide my feelings, but I'm sure my misery showed despite having been forewarned by Gretchan the previous day. This was a huge disappointment. I'd given the Army an extra year of my life to train in the Cobra, graduating near the top of my class. I'd earned the right to be a Cobra pilot, and now the green machine wasn't going to keep its side of the bargain. It was going to put me back in slicks. Instead of commanding one of the most awesome war machines the world had ever seen, I was going to be picking up and delivering troops to landing zones, like a taxi driver working the mean streets in the city.
"What's a Nighthawk, sir?" I asked, hoping there might yet be something redeeming for me.
Captain Scott opened a drawer as stuffed with clutter as the desk top. After some searching, he pulled out a fresh cigar. Following careful unwrapping, he finally answered. "It's a low-level night recon mission," he said, pausing to pull a Zippo from his pants pocket. "You ride around in a Huey with four gunners and a big searchlight to shine on the ground looking for dinks. We cover Quang Nam province for Brigade. You're scheduled on the low bird with Lieutenant Bronsen tonight. He's a good man; one of the best AC's in the troop."
As Scott's face disappeared behind a cloud of blue smoke, a medium-built man walked through the door carrying a flight helmet, survival vest and chest armor. His .38-caliber pistol hung low on the hip, gunfighter style. Dropping the heavy "chicken plate" chest-armor on a metal folding-chair, he walked to the large map hanging on the opposite wall, presenting me a casual nod as he passed. While he studied the map's grids and contours, he pulled a small metal comb from his shirt pocket and began grooming his dark mustache. So this was Bronsen, my new aircraft commander.
The smoke cleared from around Scott's face, and I could see him rolling the ash off his cigar with the edge of the butt-can. When Bronsen looked our way, having finished with his mustache and the map at about the same time, Scott introduced me as "Mister Austin, your new peter pilot."
There was that name again - peter pilot. It was the stigma worn by all new arrivals. But Scott hadn't stated it in a derogatory way. Just matter-of-factly, like saying the sky was blue. Lieutenant Bronsen turned to face me. The lines on his face suggested he hadn't been awake long.
"New huh?" he mused rhetorically, smiling at his reflection in my spit-shined boots. I reminded myself to scuff them as soon as I got alone.
I relaxed and shook hands with the first commissioned officer I'd met who actually had a first name. Tom then turned to the scheduling board, where he soon began using the most shocking language I'd heard in my brief Army career.
"Judas Priest!" he shouted. "Franklin's my chase!" Tom's agitation grew as Scott and I watched in startled silence. "Punt! I don't know if it's 'cause he's gettin' short or what, but that joker flies at four-grand. And that's too flippin' high to do us any good if we go down."
This was not like any cussing I'd heard in the Army before.
Scott allowed the abuse to continue for a while, then raised his hands to offer agreement. "I'll mention it to him," he promised. As he dropped his elbows back to the desk top, cigar ash fell into his coffee cup. "Shit," he muttered, thankfully returning us to regular Army dialog, as he heaved the spoiled coffee out the window.
While the coffee flew out the window, Franklin, the subject of Bronsen's harsh language, walked in the door. The lieutenant was short and chubby, with small deep eyes that reminded me of a pig. His mouth seemed drawn into a permanent sneer, which failed to disappear even as he took a long swig of Coke and belched loudly. The man definitely had an attitude. Bronsen ignored him, taking renewed interest in a thorough study of the wall map. Scott began rummaging through another file, sending up a dense smoke screen to announce my interview was over.
Not eager to initiate contact with Franklin, I joined Bronsen at the map. Nine rectangular areas were outlined in grease pencil. Bronsen explained that the "boxes" represented suspected areas of enemy activity. New coordinates were sent down from Brigade each day. Scott came over and briefed us on results of the day's air cavalry missions. The Cav recon teams consisted of a scout pilot flying low to the ground in a light observation helicopter, called a "loach" for its initials LOH. Usually there were two gunships circling around at altitude to protect the loach and fire on any targets he might encounter. A Huey would tag along for recovery purposes should anyone be shot down. They were called hunter-killer teams.
The captain reported that the loach had taken light fire today from the edge of a hamlet, shown as a red circle in one of the sectors. Since the scout pilot couldn't fix the exact position, the gunships didn't engage. Instead, the rifle platoon of Blues was dropped in by slick to sweep the village. The resulting search yielded only vehement denial from the indignant locals, who insisted no fire had come from their village.
Scott finished by reminding us of the current SOI radio codes, emphasizing selected frequencies and call signs for such things as artillery clearances, friendly units operating in the field and processing tactical air strikes. Franklin stood in the corner drinking his soda, acting bored by the briefing.
Bronsen began marking the areas on a faded, wrinkled map he'd pulled from the zippered leg pocket of his flight suit. I removed mine too, new and neatly folded. Taking the grease pencil from my left shoulder pocket, I began copying the boxes. The black crayon tip crumbled in the sharp creases of the clear plastic overlay. Tom estimated eight hours flying time to recon all the areas. With stops for refueling, rearming and eating, it would mean at least a ten or eleven hour night.
He moved closer to the big map and traced an imaginary circle with his finger around a spot located at the eastern edge of an area labeled Arizona Territory. There, in the An Hoa basin, the Vu Gia and Thu Bon rivers meet to form the Song Ky Lam. Just south of a horseshoe bend in the Ky Lam was box eleven.
"This whole area is a jumping off point for the dinks coming down the trail through the Que Son Mountains. It's chock-full of tunnels to hide in, and we've taken a lot of fire out there from time to time. Last trip out, it came from this area," he said, pointing to the railroad crossing over the river near the village of Xuan Dai in an area called Go Noi island.
As he gathered his gear, Tom told me to go to the arms room and check out an M-16. The anticipation of trouble heightened the excitement I was beginning to feel about my first night in the low bird. As we turned to leave, Scott told Franklin to remain.
"Lieutenant, you will fly chase at no more than fifteen-hundred feet...." Scott's hard voice faded as I walked down the hall toward the arms room.
My helmet banged against the rifle and chicken plate, as I gripped the survival vest and bandoleer of 5.56mm ammunition in the other hand, while trying to catch up with Tom on the flightline. Spongy asphalt radiated the oppressive heat it had been storing all day. The humid air, thickened with tar and jet fuel, seemed hardly possible to breathe. I could hear Franklin behind, huffing his way to the chase ship, so I picked up the pace to stay well ahead of him.
As I entered the chopper's steel and concrete revetment, four men were preparing the UH-1H Huey, stacking boxes of ammunition in strategic locations around the ship's cargo bay. I walked around to the left side and plopped the heavy gear on the seat, freeing my hands to wipe beaded moisture from my face and arms.
The Nighthawk ship was truly impressive. All doors had been removed to provide maximum visibility and reduced weight. A fifty-caliber machine-gun, with its large half-inch bore, was mounted behind my seat. Back in the transmission well, an M-60 machine-gun lay on the nylon jump seat. The sixty was the weapon most often employed by door gunners on the troop-carrying slicks.
Circling the tail, I studied the large xenon searchlight mounted on a frame in the opposite well. The light man, PFC Jansen, was sitting on the jump seat, connecting a wire harness in the junction box that contained the light switch. Another M-60 was propped up in the corner beside him.
Behind Tom's seat was the main weapon: the 7.62 millimeter minigun. Like the fifty, it was mounted on a tripod frame, with a folding chair behind for the gunner. Red push-button triggers were positioned above the black plastic pistol grips. A cable providing its electric motor with power was strung up into the quilted liner overhead. Minigun was a misnomer. Firing four-thousand bullets per minute, this was the ultimate machine-gun. Freshly wiped down with an oiled rag, the six barrels glistened in the low sun.
"Where we goin' tonight, sir?" asked Specialist-5 Wadell, now polishing the fifty.
"Just the usual," Tom said, pulling the map from his leg pocket and spreading it on the floor of the cargo bay between the searchlight and minigun. The crew resembled a football team huddling around the quarterback before the play.
"Hey, Tate, looks like we're going back to the Horseshoe," Wadell shouted to a short, stocky kid of about eighteen who was climbing down from the roof of the chopper.
"Think I'll grab a couple more boxes of sixty." Tate's voice was solid mid-western, the kind of unremarkable accent that a radio announcer would kill for. He trotted from the revetment and turned out of sight.
"Get s' more frags and willy-peters too," Wadell shouted over the revetment wall. Frags meant fragmentation grenades, the type normally carried by the grunts. Willy-peter, or pete, was slang for white-phosphorous, commonly used in bombs, rockets and grenades to create fire with its white-hot explosion. A wooden box, sitting on an armored plate in the middle of the floor, was already brimming with grenades, making me curious where they planned to stow the rest.
For the most part, I was being ignored by the crew. I got the feeling a new peter pilot was a non-entity to them; necessary only by Army Regulation. Tom opened the aircraft's log book to check the maintenance record before the preflight inspection. The "dash 13" showed a long list of red slashes and X's, followed by dated remarks that chronicled complaints from the pilots.
"Vertical one-to-one vibration," stated the first entry. This was caused when the main rotor blades flew in two different tracks, making the ship jump up and down with each revolution. At five times a second, it made the teeth chatter if it was severely out of alignment. Even a slight amount was irritating to fly with. Maintenance had "tracked" the blades by holding a long stick with a piece of chalk fastened to one end, and reaching up until one blade struck it. After identifying the lower blade, they would bend the metal trim-tab on the trailing edge downward to correct the problem by compensating for lift. The complaint was stamped and signed off in the log book.
Specialist-6 Rodriguez draped his shirt over the mini's barrels and began pulling ammo from boxes, feeding a long, homemade plywood tray mounted in front of the transmission bulkhead. His slightly heavy-set frame labored against the stubborn links.
"How many rounds you loadin'?"
"Ten thousand," he grunted. "This your first time?"
"Yeah, just got here yesterday."
"Naw," I lied.
After the preflight inspection, the crew convened in the unit's standby room for some card playing and catnapping to pass time until dark. Two sets of double bunks were placed at one end, providing the Cobra crews with sleeping quarters when it was F Troop's turn to pull night standby for Brigade. James Taylor sang "Fire and Rain" through the large Sansui speakers on either side of a wall locker. A plywood table, where the card game was being conducted, completed the room. I sat on a bunk, reading a story about baseball great Vida Blue in a tattered copy of Sports Illustrated. Nerves churned in my gut.
As the daylight slipped away, I realized it was August 22, my mother's birthday. I hadn't sent her a card or letter. I was sufficiently self-absorbed at the moment to assume she'd understand.
The stars were just beginning to show when Tom squeezed the start-trigger to energize the engine ignitors. The big turbine roared to life and a resonant wind began pulsing through the open cockpit as the blades gained momentum. I sucked the smell of burned jet fuel into my lungs, like an illegal drug that could make me high. After a year's hard work and training, after two months of leave and transit time, I was finally strapped into a pilot's seat in Vietnam. At last I was flying my first combat mission.
The Huey rose grudgingly from the ground, loaded well beyond its maximum authorized weight. With a crew of six, full fuel, weapons and ammunition aboard, the ship could barely hover.
"Tail's comin' back and left," Tom said, looking straight ahead to stay centered between the revetment walls as he slowly backed us out.
"Clear back and left," Wadell replied from his seat behind the fifty-caliber.
Gray concrete structures materialized in the flash of our red anti-collision light, as we taxied past a row of domed-revetments.
"Marble Tower, Blue Ghost Four-Four has a flight of two ready to bounce."
"Roger Four-Four, cleared for south departure with right break. Winds one-five-zero degrees at six. Altimeter two-niner-eight-seven. Good hunting." Two clicks on Tom's mike acknowledged the clearance.
The heavy ship began moving forward slowly, then shuddered and sank, bouncing the skid toes off the runway a couple times before reaching enough airspeed to outrun its own turbulence. This allowed the blades to bite into clean air, providing additional or translational lift to the strained rotor system. This is how takeoffs in Vietnam came to be called "bounces."
Gaining altitude, we flew over the Marble Mountains just south of the airfield, clearing them by a couple hundred feet. These odd outcroppings of black-veined marble rock stood three hundred feet tall, solitary sentinels on an otherwise flat coast. The cool wind felt good as we climbed to two thousand feet on our southwesterly heading.
Gliding over the coastal lowlands, I was surprised by the tranquil beauty of the landscape. On the horizon, ragged mountain peaks were silhouetted in the dim red glow of dusk. Below, placid looking hamlets dotted the crazy-quilt of rice paddies, providing no hint of the death that waited below. The scene was deceivingly innocent from the air, defying the image of war I'd cultivated back in the States. It was hard to imagine the centuries-long warfare Vietnam had endured. Why here? Why did it still go on? How had I come to join this long line of combatants?
"Follow us on the map," Tom said over the intercom. Unfolding it to the general area I guessed we were in, I rotated my map upside down to match the compass heading we were flying, making it easier to identify the terrain features.
"We're five miles northeast of Hill Five-Five," he added. The lights of the fire support base were in view, and I searched with the red map light until I found the corresponding terrain markings near the La Tho river. Tom reached for the center console and tuned the ADF navigation radio to AFVN, the Armed Forces Vietnam Network. He flipped my audio switch on and "Love the One You're With" rocked softly in my headphones as dusk turned into black night.
After starting our check around the perimeter of Firebase Five-Five, named for the 55 meter elevation of the hill it was built on, Tom told Franklin to radio for final artillery clearance into the next box. Two shirtless soldiers sitting behind a 105-millimeter howitzer waved in the spotlight as we made a last sweep across. Jansen swung the light around in rapid circles, capturing other men who briefly froze and stared like deer into headlights. Tom pulled the Huey into a climb as we turned due south on course toward the Horseshoe.
Approaching from a thousand feet, Bronsen verified that the chase ship had us in sight before extinguishing the external lights. "Four-Nine, we're coming up on the area. Got a visual on us?"
"We're going blacked out. Don't get a nose bleed up there."
I grinned at the sarcasm. The lights from Franklin's ship receded above as Tom lowered the collective to reduce power and began a descent into the darkness. The silvery line of the Song Ky Lam passed below as we entered box eleven.
"Turn the panel lights down until you can barely read the gauges."
I twisted the knob until a faint reddish glow defined the switches and dials. As the altimeter neared three hundred feet, he pulled collective and slowed to fifty knots. This was a slow airspeed, even by helicopter standards, and I had asked him about it after leaving the firebase.
"Gives us maximum maneuverability while circling the light at this altitude. It's a good tactic too, since the dinks think Hueys always fly at ninety knots. Most of the fire goes in front of the ship 'cause they lead us too far." Tate then offered the theory that only poorly trained dinks ever hit the chopper with their fire.
"Light on," Tom commanded. The brilliant xenon torch came to life, concentrating its beam on a dry creek bed bordered by tall elephant grass.
"Right. Up. Right some more."
Jansen skillfully guided the beam, following Tom's directions. A set of footprints could be seen following a sandbar. A black spot near the south bank revealed the remains of an old cooking fire.
The Huey leveled and accelerated a few seconds before flaring into another right bank.
Elephant grass waved gently in the four-meter disk of light. Again, nothing seemed out of place. After thirty seconds, Tom gave the light off signal and we turned in a random direction before resuming the search. This kept anyone below from guessing where we would pop up next.
My map showed numerous hamlets in the vicinity, such as Phu Dong, Le Bac and Cu Ban, but so far I had only seen a light scattering of hooches. Thinking I needed a better orientation, I asked Tom to show me where they were located.
"Most of this area was cleared out by the Marines," he said. "In fact, they Rome-plowed this whole stretch south of the river and east of us a couple of years ago." I found the date 1965 on the map's legend. A lot of things had disappeared over the last six years.
Low, slow and illuminated with millions of candle-power, even a first-timer could see that Nighthawk was one of the most inherently dangerous missions in Vietnam. A more obvious, inviting target could not be imagined. Even the side-armor on Tom's seat was pushed uselessly to the rear, so it wouldn't block his view of the light. The gunners sat in the open along both sides of the cargo bay, defying the invisible threat below. I marveled at this marauding group of men who roamed the skies each night in search of the enemy.
If anything bothered me about the mission, it was the night blindness I suffered each time the xenon was turned off. We were essentially blind for a few critical seconds, having to rely on the flight instruments to check altitude, airspeed and the aircraft's attitude in the sky. It was very disorienting; all that tight circling, then poof - utter darkness with bright orbs lingering in my eyes. Tom leveled perfectly each time, however, using seat-of-the-pants flying skills learned after months on the mission. It was the soft control touch of a seasoned pilot.
After my eyes adjusted to the darkness for a few seconds, I spotted a campfire in the open about a mile south of us. I didn't know if it was important or not, but thought it worth mentioning anyway.
"Got a campfire at nine-thirty," I said, referring to the relative clock positions air crews use to identify a direction from the aircraft's nose. Tom banked the Huey sharply left and accelerated to one hundred knots while dropping to two-hundred feet above the ground, purposely flying an erratic course toward the fire.
Passing directly over the site, Tom banked the ship and called for the light. The brilliant shaft pirouetted around the dancing yellow flames as all eyes searched for movement. It would have surprised me to see someone standing down there, since the Huey's relatively slow and noisy approach provided ample warning for anyone below to take cover. We were looking at a perfectly good, abandoned cooking fire.
Two explosions on the ground rocked the ship as a dazzling display of red, green and white streaks lit up the sky around the chopper. The sharp metallic snap of a bullet tearing through the fuselage made me cringe.
"Takin' fire. Takin' hits."
Tom's warning call to chase sounded distant. The world was slowing down and my vision became very narrow. In my nightmare confusion, I felt as though I was merely a spectator with a ring-side seat to the war, and not at all involved in the firefight.
The crew's response was immediate. Jansen switched off the light while Tom leveled the aircraft to give both sides equal firing advantage. Carlos squeezed the dual triggers of the minigun, sending sixty-seven rounds per second back toward the tiny strobed muzzle flashes shooting from the right side. In seconds, three positions were overwhelmed by the potent fire gushing from the whirling barrels. Wadell opened up behind with the fifty, shaking my seat with its powerful concussions. Tate joined the fray with his sixty, firing John Wayne style from the hip. His tracers mingled with Wadell's, showering the area below in withering fire.
I looked with wide-eyed amazement at what was happening all around me, too new in country to have a natural sense of what to do. I simply stared at the gauges. Another volley of tracers flew up from the left. Both gunners kept the fire going as the chopper's increasing airspeed caused the bullets to arc steeply toward the ground, much like a pitched curve breaking low. They compensated by aiming high and slightly behind their targets.
Snapping out of my trance, I grabbed the M-16 and strained against the seat harness to hold the weapon sideways out the door. Rotating the selector to fully-automatic, I fired at a flash visible through the chin bubble at my feet, too far forward for the crew to see. The thirty-round ammunition magazines were specially packed with solid tracers for this mission. A snaking path arced toward the rifle blasts, connecting almost with the first rounds - pure luck. The offending fire stopped immediately.
An AK-47 opened up on the left. Wadell's fifty inundated the lone VC. Tom steepened the right bank while Carlos engaged two more guns directly beneath the ship with the mini, walking the red line over the top of them in quick succession. More fire came from the front, and another bullet slammed into the Huey.
Locking in a new magazine, I spotted the position just as a white tracer streamed past the windshield and through the rotor blades. Immediately, a light vibration tickled the airframe. I opened up again with the sixteen, emptying all thirty rounds in one burst. Tate leaned out and poured more lead on the target with the free-sixty.
"Take it! Take it!"
Tom's shouting over the intercom startled me. The ship began heaving and yawing, then pitched nose-down almost out of control. God he's been hit, I thought. My mind wobbled with the aircraft; only seconds were between us and the ground. I clicked the safety on the M-16 and dropped the weapon behind the console. Instantly, both hands and feet were on the controls.
The crew was still suppressing ground fire as I recovered from the steep diving bank, turning toward base some thirty miles away at full power. Coming up to altitude, I flipped on the position and beacon lights to make us visible while I searched in the green-house window for Franklin circling somewhere above.
"Four-Four's coming up. We've got a problem."
Tom was flailing wildly in his seat, straining at his harness and frantically grabbing at his crotch with both hands. Oh, Christ, anywhere but there I thought. The 95th Evac hospital at Da Nang needed to be notified we were coming in with the injured pilot.
"We need to get to a hospital. I think the alpha-charlie's been hit."
"Roger, follow me. I'll notify Evac we're inbound. How bad is he, anyway?"
I saw no blood on his flight suit or his seat, and, except for the squirming, he looked perfectly healthy to me. He gave me an angry look and suddenly grabbed at the controls. He must be delirious. He was in no shape to fly. I resisted, causing the Huey to jerk in flight. Tom keyed his microphone for the first time since the shooting started, "You dadgummed, stinkin' Joker, watch what the heck you're doing! Now, give me the controls!"
Shocked, I released my grip and stared at him. It was then I noticed the empty shell casings from my M-16 scattered on the floor in front of his seat.
In my zeal to return fire, I had unknowingly ejected a full magazine of hot brass directly into his lap. Our Nomex flight suits were thin, and, like most men in Nam, Tom wasn't wearing underwear because the heat and humidity could cause a bad case of jock itch. By the time he'd noticed, the shell casings were already blistering his balls and thighs, seriously interfering with his ability to fly.
The gauges and lack of warning lights indicated nothing was seriously wrong with the ship. Transmission and engine oil temperatures and pressures were "in the green," indicated by a green arc on their dials. We still had nine-hundred pounds of fuel, so we weren't leaking badly if at all. The horizontal vibration in the main rotor system, caused when a bullet hole had unbalanced the blades, was barely noticeable.
Tom turned abruptly back toward the area we'd received fire from, calling Franklin to say it was O.K., that he wasn't wounded, that he was going back to resume the recon. No explanation was offered.
"A little too exciting for the newby?"
I bristled at the smart-assed reply, grabbing the M-16 from Carlos and slamming a new magazine home. "I'll turn it around next time," I said to Tom.
"You'd better, Mister!"
Great. Now we were being formal again. I could hear the crew chuckling behind me.
The light revealed the flattened areas where the VC had been waiting around the fire. Drag marks through the grass showed the direction that the casualties were pulled to their hideout, probably a nearby bunker or tunnel complex, in the short time it had taken us to return. Tom was leery about descending any closer, considering the welcome we'd received earlier.
"Carlos, put some fire inside that brush," he ordered. It was a tactic known as recon-by-fire. The mini roared for five or six seconds, but nothing moved, save the splintering branches. The enemy had simply dissolved into the night. I had heard they were legendary masters at vanishing after a firefight. Seeing was believing.
After sticking around for an uneventful half-hour making sure the area was cold, it was time to head back to Marble Mountain for refueling and a visual inspection of the ship's damage. Before departing, Tom radioed for some unobserved artillery fire on the position. The "Red Legs," as artillery types were called, seemed to be glad to break the monotony of life on a firebase. The first rounds started impacting moments after we reported clear of the target; their flashes reflecting in the Huey's plexiglass chin-bubble. Seconds later, the sounds reached the ship.
We set course for the southernmost lights on the coast. Wadell leaned out to watch the show. "That'll keep the bastards awake for awhile."
"Damn dinks really had it in for us." The wind in his mike nearly drowned Tate out. "That was even better than last time!"
Better? That was a relative term, I thought.
"Yeah. Good shootin' guys," was Tom's only response. Knowing I was excluded in the remark didn't matter. I was just happy he was alive with his manhood intact. He kept switching hands on the cyclic and rubbing the insides of his legs until finally giving me control.
"Marble Tower, Blue Ghost Four-Four is five west for landing."
The crew reported their weapons were cleared of live ammunition. After receiving clearance to land, I lowered the collective handle to reduce power and semi-circled down toward the center of the runway.
"You're coming in too hot," Tom cautioned.
I pulled more power and raised the nose slightly to check the rate of descent. Approaches at night took some getting used to. I recalled one of my first experiences with night landings in flight school.
It was a dark, cloudy night in Alabama when the students paired up to fly B-model Huey's on a short cross country trip. We had to use the FM direction finder to home in on a radio signal being transmitted from a small clearing in the woods. The landing zone was lit only with jeep headlights.
An instructor stood in the LZ, controlling the incoming aircraft on the hand-held radio, talking them down and ordering them to go around if the approach wasn't safe. The most common error was coming in too low on a dangerous, shallow approach angle.
I concentrated on the lights and established my approach, but the rate of descent was much too fast. The controller made a frantic call to abort the landing, but by then I was already committed. The long-barreled flashlight the controller carried swung wildly as he ran for his life. The trees at the edge of the clearing rushed up with alarming speed. I flared hard and pulled all the pitch the blades could give. An alarm sounded over the intercom as the rotor rpm began to bleed off. The ship began to shake and I thought I was going to crash.
The chopper bounced hard off the ground and back up to a perfect three-foot hover. I had taken it to the limit and survived. Now I was a better, if luckier, pilot because of it.
While returning to the airfield that night I flew over a lone fire in the darkness and later learned it was the crash site of two students who hadn't been so lucky. It had happened enroute to the LZ. With the lack of visual reference, they apparently ignored the altimeter as it wound slowly downward, and simply flew the Huey into the black earth. The accident report stated only "controlled descent into terrain" as the probable cause.
Poor bastards. Didn't even make it through flight school.
"Blue Ghost Four-Four, cleared to taxi to Ghost Town." Tower used the nicknames companies gave their parking areas on the airfield. I pedal-turned the Huey and followed the blue taxi lights toward the flightline. After parking in the revetment, we crawled out to inspect the damage by flashlight. A hole through the tailboom had barely missed the tail rotor drive shaft and control cables.
"Looks like you lost your cherry, Austin," Tom said, sticking his finger through another hole near the tip of one of the main rotor blades. A flight crew member was considered a virgin until his aircraft had been hit by enemy fire.
"Hey, come check this out," Wadell said, standing beside my door, pointing his light at the skid. My eyes widened at the two small holes through the skid toe right next to where I had been sitting.
"Damn, that was close!" I exclaimed.
Wadell grinned, glancing around at the rest of the crew. "Look closer, sir. These entered from the top."
Tom looked at the holes, then back at me with a disgusted expression. Not only had I burned him with hot brass, but had managed to shoot two holes in his aircraft as well. It was not an auspicious beginning.
Still, all things considered, we'd been lucky. Damage was minimal and no one was hurt. No one except Tom, of course. For the next hour, we transferred the light, weapons and ammo to another chopper. After making the change over, we decided to get something to eat before resuming the recon. Commandeering the company's three-quarter ton truck and sleepy driver, we relaxed while riding in the back for the trip to the base mess serving midnight chow. A refreshing breeze blew off the ocean, cooling the burn of my shame.
"Where you from," I asked Carlos.
"Never been there, but I hear it's a nice place. How long you been in-country?"
"Seven months this tour. I spent the last one flying a Nighthawk ship down at Chu Lai."
I was impressed. No wonder he was so good on the minigun. It was pure instinct after nineteen months on a low bird.
"How 'bout you, Wadell?"
"Mississippi. Used to be a crop duster down there before Uncle Sam got hold of me."
"A pilot, huh? Did you apply for flight school when you got drafted?"
"Nothin' personal, sir, but I don't like choppers and I don't wanna' spend another fuckin' day in this man's army than I have to."
Tate allowed he'd grown up near Chicago, but little else, except he liked motorcycles and hoped to buy his own Harley someday. Jansen continued a family tradition of service to the country by enlisting for six years. Tom said nothing, however, and I figured it was up to me to try and smooth things over. His silence was getting to me.
Jansen came from the hills of Tennessee and continued a family tradition of service to the country by enlisting for six years. He said his great-great-grandfather had fought during the Civil War, and his father during World War II. He had lost an uncle in Korea. The rest of the crew razzed him by calling him "76," the year his obligation was up, but he ignored their heckling.
Tom said nothing, however, and I figured it was up to me to try and smooth things over. His silence was getting to me.
"So, where do you call home?" I asked.
"The hell you say. Me too."
I was happy to learn he came from a small farming community not far from my home town. Having grown up working farms myself, I now had some ground for discussion that might take his mind off the still-burning brass issue. Naturally, there were comments about tractor driving, the most boring and dirty job on God's green earth. Drilling wheat, planting milo, cultivating and harvesting were all discussed in turn before the conversation quieted. How strange, I thought. Here we were, two men discussing life on the farm after nearly getting our asses shot off by the Viet Cong just a couple hours ago.
The truck lurched to a stop, and we jumped out, walking stiffly toward a bug-filled door that was making a half-hearted show of screening the mess hall. An unsavory smell assaulted us as we entered the fluorescent lit room, making me wonder why the bugs wanted to come in. The place was nearly empty of people. Was it the hour, or did saner people stay away for the sake of their digestions? The food must have taken offense, too, for most of it seemed to have escaped the serving trays. The cooks were busy clearing the counters, preparing for breakfast that would begin in four hours. The only selections left were mashed potatoes plus a few day-old chicken wings and backs swimming in grease at the bottom of stainless steel trays. Tate loaded his plate, and I followed his lead. Grease drippings served as a poor substitute for gravy on the potatoes.
The mess hall was unbearably hot for me. It was no use pretending to eat, and no one in the crew seemed to notice as I got up and scraped the contents of my tray into the trash can. Outside, I stopped to light a cigarette before moving away from the bright security lights. In the dark along the beach, I slowed my pace and pulled my shirt tail out. The cool night air circulated through my sweat-drenched flight suit. I saw Tom walk like a saddle-sore cowboy toward the truck and turned back to meet him.
"Hey, I'm sorry as hell about the brass." I really tried to appear sincere, although by now, with the fright wearing off, the more I thought about it, the funnier it became. "Sorry about shooting the skid too."
"Don't worry about it."
"What the hell happened out there, anyway? What were the explosions from?"
"RPG's. You really gotta' watch out for them, flying as low as we do."
Designed to destroy tanks, the rocket-propelled grenades were more than powerful enough to blow a chopper out of the sky with a direct hit, and we had been well within its three-hundred yard range tonight. "When they see us working an area, the VC will set up in a circle a couple hundred or so yards across and light a fire in the middle. When we come to check it out, they pop the RPG's first, hoping to finish us off right there. Then they open up with automatic weapons as soon as they hear the ground explosions. We call it a 'Christmas Tree Ambush' because that's exactly what it looks like if you're up in the chase ship when the tracers come up toward our light, the top ornament of the 'tree.'"
The whole episode had lasted less than three minutes. Tom said he'd been through one previously, in the area known as Dodge City just north of where we were ambushed tonight. He'd also heard of the same thing happening to the 101st Airborne's Nighthawk ship up north, as well as a sister Americal ship operating south out of Chu Lai. Tom then climbed into the back of the three-quarter-ton and stretched out on the wooden bench to rest. Still pumped up from the excitement, I walked back toward the beach to relieve some of my nervous energy.
The realization that my first contact with the enemy was now behind me started to sink in, and it was nothing like I had expected. Instead of hiding to escape detection, or fighting only when cornered, the VC had actually lured us into their killing zone and initiated the fight, showing more balls than I was willing to give them credit for. Listening to the nearby ocean, I could hear the explosions again; our angry gunners answering with shouts and fire. The image was more fascinating than frightening. Still, I was only beginning my tour of duty, and the idea of surviving an entire year in Vietnam seemed impossible for a moment. But the youthful conceit of living forever quickly returned, and I suddenly knew what I wanted to do. If I couldn't fly Snakes, this was surely the next best thing. I walked back to the truck.
"Hey, Tom, if it's possible, I'd like to stay on the mission until a slot opens up in the gun platoon."
He lifted the ball cap that shaded his eyes, looking just a little surprised. "Suit yourself, Austin. Lord knows I could use the help. None of the other slick drivers want to make it permanent. I'll talk to Green tomorrow."
Now that the decision was made, a feeling of contentment landed comfortably within me. As I climbed aboard the truck with the rest of the crew for the ride back to the flightline, I knew I had found my niche in Vietnam.