Unconventional Landing

By Tom Hain

I went to Taiwan for R&R in the fall of 1968 with a friend from my unit. We were stationed on the USS Colleton at the time. We had to get back to Dong Tam to catch our plane, and the ships of the MRF were anchored south of Ben Tre the day we were scheduled to leave, which complicated our travel arrangements. We were left to our own inventiveness to get from the ship to Dong Tam, and from there our transportation was all arranged.

The shortest route by water was through an intersection of the150 foot wide canal that we would take, and the equally narrow river Song Ba Lai, a place that I'd been through a few times, and every time we did they'd shoot the hell out of us. The "Crossroads", as it was called, was last choice. The safest route was west up the Song Ham Luong to the Song My Tho, then east to Dong Tam, about a 25 mile trip at 6 MPH on a Tango boat, if one was going there. There was no direct route there by land, and we didn't want to be stuck somewhere along the way waiting for a truck, or the ferry at My Tho. The best option was going by chopper, if we could make the connection. We checked with battalion supply, and found that there was a chopper scheduled to pick up supplies on one of the LST's for a company in the field. They would be heading back to Dong Tam when they were finished, and we could hitch a ride with them. All we had to do was make one stop, push the supplies off, and we were on our way to 4 days and 5 nights of rest, relaxation, and clean sheets, in a place where they weren't shooting at us all the time. So, dressed in starched fatigues and polished boots and carrying our class A uniforms, we begged a boat ride from the Navy over to the supply ship to catch the resupply chopper.

The flight started out like all the other Huey rides that I'd been on before. There were no seats, so we sat on the supplies that were stacked in the middle of the floor. There were no doors, so it was windy and noisy, but it was a hot day and the wind felt good. The flight, with the stop in the field, should take about 45 minutes. When we had been in the air for about 5 minutes, I heard a noise unlike anything else I'd ever heard a Huey make before. It was like a growl and a scream and a whine all mixed together. It was one of those "Oh Shit!" noises. I looked up at the pilots but I couldn't tell much from the back of their heads, and I couldn't tell much from looking at the instrument panel either. I noticed that the door gunners were listening intently to their headsets, so I asked one of them what was happening. He said that they had lost the hydraulics, and that the resupply mission was scrubbed, and we were headed to Dong Tam for repairs. That was fine with me, because to tell the truth, I wasn't too comfortable about landing in the field, unarmed.

What he didn't tell me at first was that without the hydraulics we couldn't land like choppers normally do. We had to land like a fixed wing aircraft, on a runway, at flying speed, without wheels! It was an operation with a pucker factor of 10. As the flight went on I became aware that the ride was a lot bumpier than normal, and that the pilots were working a lot harder that they normally did. I got the idea that there was more wrong than I was originally told when the door gunners tied down their machine guns and grabbed their M16's and ammo from where they were strapped to the bulkhead behind them. I asked him again what was happening, and he said that they weren't going to make it to Dong Tam, and we were going to have to land at an unsecured field in the middle of a rice paddy near the hell hole, "Crossroads." I didn't want to go there by boat or helicopter!

He described what was going to happen, and he told us to sit with our backs to the pilots seats. He said that we had the safest seats for this kind of landing, but I'm sure he was just handing us some bullshit to help ease the tension. Of all the ways to die in Vietnam, I sure as hell didn't want to die in a chopper crash on the way to R&R! Every move the chopper made from then on felt like we were about to fall out of the sky and end up planted in a rice paddy like a tulip bulb!

Every turn we made felt labored, and we were steadily losing altitude. We passed over the airstrip that we were going to land on at about 200 feet in the air. Even from that low altitude it looked like a skid mark on a dirt road. We made a long sweeping turn back upwind towards the runway, all the time losing more altitude. When we straightened out, we were flying just over the top of the trees at about 100 miles an hour. My buddy and I were sitting with our backs to the front of the aircraft, so all we could see was where we had been. As soon as we broke out into the open field, the pilot let the chopper down to about 5 feet off the deck in one quick move that left my stomach up at tree top level. We were still going at 100 MPH, when all of a sudden there was paved runway under us, followed quickly by a shower of sparks from the landing skids. We started to slow down a little, and for a moment I was relieved. Then I felt the chopper start to nose over. What could have happened was the rotor blades could hit the ground, knocking the chopper over and throwing us out to be diced up into little pieces by the shattered, but still spinning rotor blade! That thought passed through my head about 2 seconds before it slowly settled back onto its skids, and gradually ground to a stop about 2/3 of the way down the runway.

Having survived an unconventional landing, we were now faced with being a big stationary target in the middle of an open field, and me without a weapon to defend myself. The pilots went about shutting down the aircraft, and the door gunners jumped out to survey the damage. I looked around and saw that we were only a few hundred meters from and ARVN compound at the edge of a wood line. My buddy and I decided that we would be safer there than in the chopper, so we made a beeline for it while the door gunners tied down the rotor blades in preparation for being sling loaded under a Chinook for the last leg of our trip to Dong Tam. We found that we could buy refreshments at the ARVN compound, so we bought a half dozen cold beers and passed them out to the pilots and crew of the chopper as a gesture of thanks for the fine job of not killing us during the landing. The gesture was well received.

The Chinook didn't land when it came to pick us up. They just hovered over the downed Huey and let out a cable from under the belly of the big twin rotor helicopter. One of the door gunners hooked it up to the straps that they already had in place, and we piled back into the Huey as they tightened up the slack in the cable. It was a different flying experience to be slung under another chopper, but no more exciting than the landing that we had just survived. The ride only lasted about 10 minutes, and we were set down only a short walk from where we were to catch our flight to Long Bin. We were there in plenty of time to sit and contemplate our adventure.

The experience of an unconventional landing didn't scare me away from every flying again. It would have been impossible to avoid flying in one form or another in Vietnam. And it didn't scare me away from Hueys either. After all, we survived it!

Copyright © 1997 By Thomas J. Hain, All Rights Reserved

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