You Gotta Have a War Story!

NOTE: As it is Memorial Day this weekend, I thought it appropriate to share the following story from my own life.

I served in the US Army from late 1971 to early 1973 as a helicopter pilot with the 1st Cavalry. This time included 14 months in SE Asia with a combat unit. I was only 19 at the time of my arrival and felt like I was 60 when I left in late 1972. I once saw a pithy statement written on a wall in a latrine; "Life does not count in years. Some see a lifetime in a day, and so grow old between the rising and setting of the sun." Too true!
I was a co-pilot for my first 6 months in country and then I made pilot-in-command and was given responsibility for my own Huey (I signed a form that said I was financially responsible for an $850,000 age 20). A popular skipper had commanded this bird, tail #808, and his co-pilot had been passed over for command because his own pilot-in-command had not recommended him, but the crew was for him, so I came in under a cloud.

I did take some time before we took off to brief the crew on my background and my priorities for my role as the pilot-in-command. In descending order, I stated that they were:

  1. The crew;
  2. The mission; and, finally,
  3. The Army

This pep talk went over pretty well, but talk is cheap and they had all heard a lot of similar chatter from higher-ups that had proven to be worthless over time. As a result, the mood was somewhat chilly, even though the thermometer said that it was over 100 degrees with 92% humidity. The first flight was a combination "fam-recon" flight with the crew and me to get used to each other and me to the chopper (it was a newer model than what I had been flying). It went OK but not much chatter on the intercom and the co-pilot was watching me like a hawk, seemingly just waiting for me to screw up.

After we landed, I handed the chopper over to the crew chief to take care of maintenance issues, etc., and I walked back to the CO's office with the co-pilot. He said very little and we went our separate ways after we debriefed with the S-2 (Intelligence Officer); our mission had been a scenic flight with no activity and no enemy sightings.

Later that day, we got the word that the next morning was going to be a hot lift mission with 4 Huey's with 32 AeroCav troopers, 2 Cobra's, and 1 Light Observation Helicopter - a "Loach" - on a recon mission near the DMZ, scouting intel that had been received. Zero dark thirty we are light on the skids, the AeroCav troopers are loaded, and we are off. The Loach is flying low (100 ft.) recon ahead, the Cobras are on a high overhead (1500 ft.), the Six is in the Command & Control bird at 3,000 ft. and we are at 300 ft. - the objective is surprise - it would be characterized as "shock and awe" these days.

The Loach scoots around the area and reports "no movement, no sign" but we land in the designated LZ anyway and laager down while the platoon runs off into the bush to take a look-see. We are monitoring the radio and start hearing chatter from the C & C bird, the Loach and the Cobra's - ambush! We can hear gunfire in the background from the radio's with the troopers, so we light up the turbines and get ready to pull pitch as soon as they load. We see our people running in towards us from 3 o'clock and the Cobra's start putting down suppressing fire from their 40 mm grenade launchers to cover their retreat while the Loach is zipping around with the gunner/observer hanging out his door and spraying his M-60 on the advancing NVA (yes, these were North Vietnamese Regular Army and not Viet Cong).

Just about then I see a fountain of dirt erupt in front and to the right of me about 200 yards forward - mortar! Another round follows to the left of the first, but it is coming closer and I see what is happening; I am the lead bird in the flight of four, in a tight Landing Zone, and the NVA gunner, concealed in the trees, is looking to narrow down the azimuth to pin the whole flight down by dropping a round right on us. With a fully loaded chopper there is no way to pull pitch vertically and the other three birds will be pinned down as easy targets if my Huey is destroyed.

I am calling the Cobra's back to us for support and asking if they can see the mortar tube puff when he fires; I hear "negative on that" and another round drops in front of us and the canopy is being showered with debris - this is getting too close. I am now fully loaded with 10 troopers and four crew and we are those proverbial sitting ducks.

In an ambush, in a chopper, you don't have the luxury of attacking, and, if you are sitting on the ground, you have lost all the tactical advantage of speed and flight and present nothing but a big target. The only option was to move or unload our human cargo (not an option in this case - they would have been dead if we had left them).

In addition, heavily loaded with high temps/humidity creates what is called a high-density altitude situation for an airborne vehicle, requiring more ground roll or more power to achieve flight. More power was not an option, so more time/distance to achieve airspeed and to break out of ground effect was the only option; the only challenge was the trees just ahead. We pulled full power and wallowed off the ground a few feet, dropped the nose, and moved forward, picking up speed but there was no way we were going to clear the tree-line ahead in time.

We were up to 50 knots as we approached the tree-line and I put the bird in a tight left banked turn (also, to take advantage of the torque of the main rotor) toward the enemy and flew back down along/above the line of choppers on the ground, picking up speed until we came to the other end of the clearing and I pulled a hard left bank again and prepared for the final run toward the tree line and up and out.
As we approached the trees I had us moving at 70 knots by now and I yanked the stick straight back and I swear we took pieces of those trees with us as we popped up and over the tree line, with the stall warning siren screaming at us. I dropped the nose a bit and picked up enough speed to sustain level flight and got us the hell out of there.

During all of this, normal SOP (standard operating procedure) is to have the co-pilot talking to you and on the controls with you so, in case anything happens, he is ready to take over instantly. I was fairly occupied during all of the aforementioned maneuvers and hadn't noticed that he had been very quiet from the time we pulled pitch to when I finally had enough time to look over at him and ask for a status report on his side of the bird. He just looked at me and said through his mike, "I thought we were dead; I thought you had lost it, especially flying straight at Charlie (the terrain left me no choice, but it did surprise them enough to keep their heads down), but that was the finest piece of flying I have ever seen."

What did I learn from this memorable experience? A leadership lesson, for sure. Specifically, lead from the front, do what you say you are going to do, be competent, and actions speak louder than words. And, you gotta have a war story for people to take you seriously.

Please thank a veteran for their service this weekend and, for that matter, anytime you see one.