In its heyday, the Americal had fielded eleven infantry battalions, an armored cavalry squadron, two armored reconnaissance troops, six artillery battalions, and F Troop, making it one of the largest military units ever in Vietnam. By month's end, the 198th and 11th Brigades would be gone, leaving the 196th as an independent brigade. We had already begun absorbing pilots like Silverton who had too little time in country to go home with their units. Roy had missed the cutoff time by only two weeks, a tough break.
What appealed to us most about getting Roy was the fact he had flown Nighthawk down south around Chu Lai. He was acquainted with the mission and would require only a short familiarization of the AO before being able to share the work load carried by Tom and me. The increased number of eagle flights the Troop had been pulling in the daytime required all the "slick" AC's (aircraft commanders), and Tom and I found ourselves flying each other's chase on our "night off" leaving little time for rest. Another Nighthawk AC would be a godsend, and Roy had expressed a desire to stay with the mission.
I examined the "dash-thirteen" log book for maintenance discrepancies while Roy checked the aircraft over. The only unresolved items were both attitude indicators, the artificial horizons, being inoperative and the gyro-compass drifting more than thirty degrees per hour. The ship was restricted to visual flight conditions, but was otherwise airworthy. Since the night was clear, and no weather was shown on the briefing board, I had little concern about the malfunctions. Roy strapped into the right seat, and I took the copilot's side.
Tom Bronsen, the other Nighthawk mission commander, had a bad head cold, so we had scrounged another AC to fly chase. I had seen WO1 Bursett in the club on a few occasions, but hadn't had the chance to get to know him. That was another drawback of always flying nights. I rarely saw any of the daytime pilots and still didn't know many of them from my own unit.
I helped Roy locate the first box. Once overhead, he asked me to turn down the panel lights and called chase to say we were going black-out. I then threw the beacon and position light switches. He showed some initial difficulty maintaining a steady altitude while circling the light, but that was understandable since he hadn't flown in awhile. By the second fuel load, he began to smooth out and seemed comfortable and competent. The AO was quiet, and I began to relax and look around while we revolved around the light.
Soft mountains stood against the stars to our west and north. Treelines and paddies quilted the land directly below. Looking up through the green-house window at the moon, I felt relieved we hadn't made contact tonight. Not that I was worried about Roy's ability to handle it. He'd seen action before. And the crew was certainly capable, even without his direction.
I started thinking about what I would do with my free time. Writing letters, reading paperbacks and spending more time at the club came to mind. Yes, it was going to be absolutely wonderful having a third pilot on this mission. While I was dreaming of this newfound leisure, something so unexpected and ominous came into view in the green-house that, at first, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Then the hair raised on my arms when I looked again at the specter before us in the night.
A solid wall of cloud loomed just a hundred meters to the east; its base rolling over the ground, with tops towering out of sight above. And Roy's turn was taking us directly into it, although he wouldn't know it since he was staring at the light. Once inside its murky bowels, we would be caught in one of the worst nightmares any pilot could face: going inadvertently IFR (instrument flight rules) at night in an unusual attitude while flying low-level in mountainous terrain, and with only partial instruments for flying blind. I hadn't logged any instrument time in over six-months, since leaving flight school, and was ill prepared for such a demanding encounter. We had to turn away from it and get ourselves set up first.
"Turn west, turn west," I almost screamed.
Roy's eyes came up from the light just in time to see the leviathan a second before it swallowed us up. Instinctively, he looked at the attitude indicator on the instrument panel and, to his horror, remembered that neither one was functioning. He would have to make the transition to partial panel quickly and ignore the primary gauge that most of us low-time instrument pilots relied on far too much. Panic gripped both of us, as he struggled to bring the ship to what he thought was a straight and level flight attitude. I could feel the nose pitch down, then saw the airspeed begin to build and the altimeter wind down toward two-hundred feet. The terrain in this area was just under one-hundred feet above sea level. My God, I thought, we're going to crash.
"I got it!" I hollered, grabbing the controls and jerking the nose up in a desperate climb away from the earth. The altimeter dropped to almost one-hundred feet before starting its clockwise motion ascending the dial. As we climbed through five-hundred, I was breathing a sigh of relief when I felt the ship begin to shudder and shake. The tailboom began yawing back and forth, requiring full pedal movements to stabilize it. Scanning the panel, I saw the airspeed needle at zero and the rate-of-descent begin to build. By the time I realized I was actually flying backwards, Roy grabbed the controls again to lower the nose.
The combination of vertigo and fear was nauseating, and I felt like we were rolling over upside down. The grey vapor around the ship left no visible clue as to up or down, left or right, leaving our senses to their own terrible imaginings. A cold wind whipped through the open cabin as the airspeed rapidly increased. The next thing I knew, we were plummeting toward the earth again as the altimeter wound down through three-hundred.
"Get your nose up!" Wadell yelled over intercom. Spec-5 Wadell, our fifty caliber gunner, had been a civilian pilot and knew all too well the dangerous situation we were in. Although the remaining instruments still provided enough information to fly the helicopter, the fear of an imminent impact had short-circuited our ability to reason or think clearly, and neither of us were able to correctly interpret them.
I wrestled control away from Roy a second time. Unbelievably, I repeated the same maneuver of climbing nose high until the Huey slid backwards, forcing Roy to take it once again. The crew sat helplessly watching us struggle for control.
I fought back against the terror and regained some of my self-control. Anticipating what Roy was about to do, I watched the airspeed build to ninety knots and the vertical speed indicator, VSI, start to show a descent again. As calmly as I could, I applied enough back-pressure on the cyclic to prevent the head-long dive.
"Pull back just a little. That's it. Now watch your trim. Okay, level right. You're doing great." I pointed to each of the instruments as I talked, trying to get our cross-check started. The turn-and-bank needle would indicate a left or right turn. A rotating compass would also show a turn in progress. Proper airspeed and power setting would help us keep the nose from being too high or low. That's it, keep the scan going. Remember what the instructors drilled into our heads in school: Don't fix attention on one thing and allow everything else to go to hell. It was all coming back now.
Finally, the aircraft was in a controlled climb.
Now that we had stabilized the ship, another problem remained. We were still only a few hundred feet off the ground and the nearby mountains were in the four-thousand foot range. I knew the AO well enough without looking at the map and ordered Roy to make a climbing turn toward Da Nang. "Turn right to zero-six-zero degrees and climb to five-thousand. Keep the turn at half-standard rate." The northeast heading would keep us south of Charlie Ridge, and five-thousand would clear any mountains we might drift over. Slowly, haltingly, Roy banked the ship. I applied pressure on the controls as needed to keep the turn from getting too steep. It was much easier to let him fly while I assisted and thought the situation through. On course at five grand, I called Da Nang Approach Control.
"Roger, Ghost, squawk two-zero-five-zero and ident." I turned the radar transponder to the requested setting and selected the identification feature that would make the ship stand out on the radar screen.
"Blue Ghost Four-One, turn right thirty degrees for positive radar identification."
The signal from the transponder should have been crystal clear this close to the antenna, and I wondered why the controller wanted us to make a turn. Roy eased the Huey to the east. Now I was wondering if the transponder hadn't crapped out as well. Were we even visible this low over the mountains on radar without one? We flew on in silence.
"Blue Ghost Four-One, radar contact twenty-eight miles southwest of Da Nang."
Damn, that sounded good to my ears and I let out a loud whoop. The controller then issued a vector heading and altitude clearance to bring us in for a talk-down approach. Everything was going to work out after all, I thought. It was all going to be o.k.. Now that we had solved our immediate problems, I needed to check in with chase. I hadn't heard from him since we'd punched into the cloud.
"Four-Eight, Four-One, what's your status, over."
"Uh, Four-Eight's on long final into Marble."
Chase's position didn't make sense. How the hell could he already be at the airfield? I didn't have time to analyze it. If they were all right, I needed to get back to tending our own problems. After flying the same direction for a good twenty minutes, the controller cleared us to descend to the initial approach altitude and issued a new heading for the downwind leg. We flew on for another ten minutes.
"Ghost Four-One, position ten southeast of the airfield."
Ten miles southeast? That would put us over the ocean. Why the hell did we have to be ten miles out over the water? He was treating us like an F-4 Phantom cruising at hundreds of knots. I was uncomfortable with the thought of being so far from land on a single engine, even considering how reliable the Lycoming turbine had proven to be. As I grumbled to myself, the warbling sound of our emergency alarm pierced my helmet and the flashing yellow Master Caution light riveted my eyes to the panel. The "20 Minute Fuel" segment was lit, which meant we had as much as thirty-minutes or as little as ten before fuel exhaustion would occur.
Approach called us again, sounding slightly irritated, "Four-One, I've got fast movers in traffic trying to let down. Could you speed it up?" I was incensed by the request.
"Four-One's a U-H-One Huey flying on partial panel and I'm also declaring a low-fuel emergency. And, no, we cannot speed it up. Just get us turned inbound as soon as you can!"
Immediately, the controller issued a left turn request and asked us to complete the prelanding check. Then he issued lost communication instructions in case we didn't hear his voice for more than five seconds on final approach. As we neared the runway heading, he told us to level out and not to acknowledge any more of his radio transmissions. Since he would be talking us down, he could see our responses on the radar scope.
The weather at the airfield was now reported as a two-hundred foot ceiling with one-eighth mile visibility, which presented an entirely new problem. Without our attitude indicators or a gyro-compass to fly with, we would not be allowed to use the precision approach radar, PAR, that would bring us within two-hundred feet of the runway. Instead, the approach controller would use the non-precision area surveillance radar, ASR, guidelines which would keep us much higher and probably still in the clouds at the end of the procedure. Legally, the man couldn't talk us below the prescribed minimums.
"Four-One, slightly right of course, turn left... stop turn. Descend to five-hundred. Position four miles."
The bum gauges, and thinking the engine could starve for fuel at any time, weren't making it any easier, but Roy held steady on the approach. We both knew we had to break out on this attempt, since there was probably only fuel enough for one try at the runway. But breaking out of the clouds seemed unlikely, given the last weather report. Then I remembered a story that my instrument instructor once told me in flight school.
During one of his tours in Nam, he had tried twice to make an approach in the fog, missing both times. Like us, he had to get on the ground soon or face fuel starvation. As he neared the missed approach point for the third time, he slowed to fifty knots and reduced the rate of descent to three-hundred feet per minute, holding the course that should carry him toward the runway's centerline. When the altimeter neared airfield elevation, he slowed a little more and waited. He swore the ship bounced off the runway shoulder before he ever saw it.
It was an act of faith that might have to be repeated tonight.
Da Nang's parallel runways ended about a half-mile from the beach, so there would be no obstructions to worry about until the end of the approach. I briefed Roy on the plan between radio calls from the controller.
"Four-One, position one mile. Report missed-approach or runway in sight."
This was it, the moment of truth. He wouldn't authorize us to descend further or come any closer without having the runway in sight, and I still couldn't see a damn thing out front. I decided the best thing to do was say nothing. At least that way, Approach would continue to call out our position as he inquired again about our intentions, maybe assuming we had lost communications, while we literally felt our way down through the fog.
Roy slowed to fifty-knots and checked the rate of descent while I searched desperately for the runway lights. The altimeter wound slowly down until we were only one-hundred-fifty feet above field elevation. Still nothing. Was the weather report wrong? Would we have to go all the way to the ground? Testily, the controller queried us again, but also stated we were on course. A faint pulsing light illuminated the fog, growing brighter each second. At last, the beautiful strobes appeared below and we terminated the instrument approach less than fifty feet above ground.
"Got it," I announced, as the crew let out a whoop of utter relief.
"Not bad for a couple of rusty pilots on partial panel, huh?" After sitting down in POL, I got out and kissed the ground. It had been the most intense forty minutes of my life. We walked far enough away for a smoke while the Air Force ground crew refuelled the ship.
The glow from Roy's cigarette was shaking as he held it in his hand. "The same damned thing happened to me last month down at Chu Lai, and we nearly crashed then too. And a couple of weeks before that, our sister company lost one to night weather." In a hushed voice, he told their story as related by the only survivor, the critically injured crew-chief from his hospital bed. Like us, the pilots had gotten vertigo and the ship plunged out of control, exiting the low cloud base upside down. "The chief said he was looking up at the ground just before impact."
Roy became quiet and stared at the night sky. Nighthawk was dangerous enough without the weather factoring into it. One of the biggest problems with the northeast monsoons were the weak cold fronts, called surges, that could sweep inland from the sea with only a few hours notice. One had blown in tonight, trapping us against the mountains. Either the Troop had missed the weather briefing, or the Air Force hadn't issued an advisory. Either way, we were nearly killed because of the surge.
The only reason we hadn't crashed was because we were suffering opposite vertigo problems. Roy and I had changed controls four times in a matter of minutes, fighting for our lives only a few feet above the invisible earth. I shivered to think of how close we must have come to slamming into the ground. And then to run low on fuel and end with that risky approach! We also owed our lives to some obscure voice behind the green glow of a radar screen. I would make it a point to thank him on the way out.
Within an hour, the ceiling had lifted enough to permit us to make the short hop to Marble Mountain from Da Nang Main. After parking, I left Silverton to shut the aircraft down and walked into Ops looking for Bursett. I was curious as to how they had made it back to Marble, which had no instrument approach. He and his crew were resting comfortably on the bunks in the ready room.
"How the hell did you guys make it back so soon? We had to shoot a GCA into Da Nang."
Bursett looked up casually from his magazine, "When we saw the lights of Da Nang start to fade, we headed back and skirted south of the thing. Marble socked-in right after we landed."
"Wait a minute. Exactly when did you see this thing coming?"
"Oh, I don't know, things started getting pretty dark about twenty minutes before you called us. That's when we started back, I guess."
"And you didn't call us?"
"Figured you could see it too," he explained weakly, laying the magazine down.
I could have been knocked over with a feather just then. I couldn't believe what I had heard him say. Not only did he admit that there was ample warning of the surge's approach, but he had actually abandoned us in order to get a head start back. Exploding across the room, I jerked the startled pilot to his feet by the shirt and began shouting in his face, "You sonofabitch! How were we supposed to see it coming while we were down on the deck staring at a fucking searchlight! That's the very goddamn reason you're up there, asshole, to look out for us! You almost killed six people tonight!"
I shoved him hard against the wall and clenched my fists, wanting him to take a swing. Right now, I hated that man as much as I ever hated anyone. Bursett glared at me but knew I had every right to be angry. I turned to leave and saw the crew watching from the doorway.
"You shoulda' decked the bastard, sir," Carlos said as we walked out.
"Yeah, I know, but if I got started I'd probably kill him, and he ain't worth going to Leavenworth over."
"I think if the judge knew what happened, he'd fine you two-dollars and buy you a beer with it," Wadell added.
I stopped at the radio room to tell the RTO that the rest of the missions were canceled due to weather, and we were going back to our hooches. "By the way, if Mister Bursett asks where we are, tell him we're out working on the chopper while we wait for the weather to clear." That'll keep him in there all night thinking about what a dumb shit he is, I thought.
The grinning RTO had obviously overheard the harangue and winked as he gave me a thumbs up signal.