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Salute to my Instrument Instructors

Posted 11 years 93 days ago ago by Admin

Randolph P. Mains

I vividly remember my very first flight in ‘real’ instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).  It scared me to death.  It occurred in a combat zone and happened quite by accident.  We had no choice.  We were forced to fly into the clouds, inadvertent IMC, which of course has killed more aviators than bullets ever have.  Without exaggeration, that flight was truly a trial by fire.  Afterwards, I became a firm believer in the benefits of knowing how to fly on instruments.  That segment of our flight training saved our lives that day.

The mission came in to operations in November 1968 in the Republic of Vietnam.  The company I was assigned to, Charlie Company, had experienced a week of monotonous waiting and watching and listening to the monsoonal rain falling from the dark Southeast Asian sky. At times it rained so hard, I was unable to see 50 feet across the company area. From what I could see, everything outside my hootch was a quagmire-- deep swimming pools of muddy water. All my clothes and flight suits, after being washed by my hootch maid, came back damp and smelling of a campfire. The only means of drying laundry in the monsoon season was over an open fire in the village.

The company I was assigned to, the Blackwidows, flew little that week. The pilots were getting itchy. On the afternoon of the eighth day the rain subsided into a fine drizzle. Our black ops NCO, Sergeant Peoples, banged on the door of my hootch.

"Come in."

He entered breathing hard. He'd obviously been running. His poncho dripped onto my plywood floor. "Mr. Mains, you'll be flying with Bob Coulshaw in 15 minutes. The weather's clearing in the mountains and Brigade wants you to try to get mail to the guys up at LZ Veghel.”

I looked out the screen of my hootch to check the weather outside. Billowing, black cumulous clouds were rolling in from the mountains. "You sure, Peoples? Looks pretty nasty out there to me."

"I'm just passin' orders, sir. If it looks bad you can always turn ‘round. Brigade requested you just give it a try, that's all."

Mail was a great morale booster, next best thing to R&R or leaving Vietnam for good. I put on my green baseball cap, my holster and .38, and grabbed my flack jacket. I tucked the yellow scarf into the collar of my Nomex flight suit, an article of clothing all the first platoon pilots wore. I suddenly had this overwhelming feeling I was acting a part in a Hollywood movie, similar to those of my daydreams when I used to sneak into the Van Nuys airport near my home in the San Fernando Valley, and climb into the derelict B-25s and imagine flying on missions during World War II when I was ten-years old. "Why not," I said.

"Sounds like a good cause. Beats hell out of sittin' around here."

"That it does, sir. Your AC (aircraft commander) will be Mr. Coulshaw.  He’s on his way to the chopper now. You'll be takin' ship 786.  He said he'd meet you out there."

The weather was miserable. We had to scud run at near treetop level to avoid the low, menacing overcast. Coulshaw guided the craft up valleys, across saddles, up more valleys, around mountains. Because we were so low I could not accurately pinpoint our position on the map. I hoped Coulshaw knew where we were. Luckily, he did.

"There she is up there," he said with a thick southern drawl, pointing. We circled in a jungle valley of drizzling rain. Below, triple-canopy jungle. Above, a solid, black cloud layer that I watched move back and forth over the LZ we were tasked to try to land on. According to the map we were surrounded by mountains several thousand feet higher than where we were at the moment. When I looked outside, I could not see them because they were shrouded in black clouds.

The FM radio came to life. "We have you visual, Blackwidow One-Four. Pad's clear. You can come on in."

"Roger, Kentucky Jumper. We'll give it a try."

Coulshaw began his approach. On short final, the clouds rolled over the pad obscuring it. He had to bank away sharply, descend, and circle again. We circled and waited until the cloud rolled off the pad. Coulshaw tried it again. This time we made it. The grunts, most of them shirtless and muddy, ran up to us and pulled off the two sacks of mail. They were beaming and gave us the thumbs up. One of them came up to my window, stood on the skid, gave me the thumbs up sign and mouthed, "Thanks!"

The clouds were rolling down on us and threatened to cover the pad again. We had to get out quick. Coulshaw picked the craft up to a hover, kicked left pedal, and dove down the mountain the way we had come in. He headed toward the saddle in the mountain. It was just open, the cloud covering on either side making our escape route look like a narrow tunnel. If we hurried, it looked as if we would barely squeeze through. The FM radio came to life again.

"Blackwidow One-Four, we forgot to throw our outgoing mail on board. Could you come back and pick it up?"

Coulshaw didn’t answer. He threw the machine into a steep right bank and headed back to the pad. I thought that if he had been flying with Ned Kelly, another AC in our platoon, He would have been chastised for making a hero turn. But in this case it was called for. We were racing against time.
The pad was obscured by cloud. Coulshaw transmitted, "Kentucky Jumper, we'll circle for a few minutes. If your pad doesn't clear, we'll have to throw it away and return to base. Weather's rat shit, copy?"

"We copy, Blackwidow One-Four. Thanks."

We circled. The clouds tumbled lower. We circled some more. The clouds began to force us lower still. I noticed our escape hole in the mountain saddle was now covered in cloud. We were boxed in. Trapped. Surrounded by clouds that were descending upon us rapidly. The rain began to increase. That's when I saw the muzzle flashes. I shouted on the intercom to Coulshaw, "We're taking fire. Two o'clock low!"

"Shit!" Coulshaw banked hard away from the ridge line. The horizon went vertical.

I heard something hit the ship. Coulshaw pulled in collective and everything outside went white, then dark gray. I got on the gauges. The attitude indicator showed a 50 degree turn to the right. Our angle of bank was increasing.
"Attitude!" I yelled. Coulshaw corrected. Where are those damn mountains, I thought.

The airspeed began to drop from 80 knots to 40. Coulshaw was pulling back on the cyclic stick. "Check airspeed,” I said, trying to hide the fear in my voice. The angle of bank began to increase again. Damn.  Can't see the g#%$*amn mountains. "Check your turn!"

The wings on the attitude indicator fell back slowly to a 30-degree bank. We both knew we had to keep turning in a tight circle to avoid the mountains and climb up out of the valley. I looked outside. It looked like someone had painted all the windows dirty gray. I expected to see the jungle suddenly come rushing at us before the crash. It was raining hard. Somewhere out there were mountains. Coulshaw was fighting just to keep the craft from going inverted--a fatal maneuver in a Huey. I thought about my tactical instrument ticket and the joke in flight school about the hole punched in the right -hand corner. If you thought about flying in the clouds, you were supposed to pull it out of your wallet, hold it skyward and if you didn’t see blue you didn’t take off.  Damn, bayonet training again, learning just enough to get you killed. Some joke. Damn, this is serious! Calm down. Calm down. I repeated to myself.

"Airspeed,” I said over the intercom to Coulshaw. It was down to 20 knots now. The altimeter read 3100 feet and climbing.

"Forward cyclic. Check airspeed!"

"Gotta keep turning right," Coulshaw said. "Check the gauges and keep me straight, OK?”

"Roger. You're doin' OK. You're doin' OK."  I could tell he was fighting for control.

"Take a breath. Power. Pull in 50 pounds of torque." He did.

We climbed in the soup at 1200 feet-per-minute in a right-hand turn. "Airspeed looks good. Relax. Keep it comin' right. Keep it comin' right. That's it. That's it. Lookin' good. Angle of bank looks good. We're winnin', buddy, we're winnin'. 4000 feet. Lookin' good. At 6000 feet we should be clear of the mountains, then you can head zero-four-five degrees to head for the coast. I'll call for a radar approach. Looks good. 60 knots. Should be clear of the peaks now. You can level the wings. That's it, good."

Minutes later we broke out of the clouds at 9000 feet heading zero-four-five degrees. Coulshaw was wet with sweat. So was I. The sun shone brightly now that we were on top, above the goo. "Now we’ve got to get back down through that crap," Coulshaw said.

"You want me to fly the approach?" I asked.

"No, just monitor my flying. You did good.”


I dialed in the approach frequency. "Phu Bai approach, this is Blackwidow One-Four. We're VFR on top at 9000 feet, heading zero-four-five degrees, request radar handling for a GCA. "

"Roger, Blackwidow One-Four, are you transponder equipped?'

We had the control head, but not the guts. The transponder, an electronic aid to identify our blip on the controller's radar screen, had been removed to save on weight. "We have negative transponder,” I told him.

"Roger, for radar identification, turn right to zero-nine-zero degrees." "Roger, right zero-nine-zero' degrees." Coulshaw turned to the new heading.

"I have you ten miles northwest of Phu Bai, Blackwidow One-Four. On present heading you may descend to 3000 feet.”

I repeated the instructions, then said to Coulshaw, "Well, here we go. Here's your last chance to take out your tactical ticket and see blue sky."

He smiled at the joke and seemed to relax. "Nah, we can get down without it.” He lowered the collective and began a descent.

Neither of us brought it up at the time, but we both knew that a week prior a Phu Bai GCA controller had radar-vectored a twin-engine, fixed-wing aircraft into a mountain. Eight people had been killed. We descended into wet goo again, putting all our trust in the air traffic controller, hoping he would not make the same fatal mistake. Coulshaw had settled down and we descended straight ahead to 3000 feet without a hitch.

"Blackwidow One-Four level at 3000.” I radioed.

"Roger, turn left now to three-three-zero degrees and descend to 1500 feet."

"Roger, copy." Coulshaw turned then leveled out on the new heading.

It began to rain heavily now, getting very dark. Even if we did break out of the clouds we probably would not be able to see the runway, I thought.

"Phu Bai, we're level at 1500."

"Roger, turn left to one-five-zero degrees and descend to 1000 feet." I read back the clearance. Soon we were on the new course.

"Blackwidow One-Four, turn left to intercept the inbound course for the runway. No need to acknowledge further transmissions. You are approaching glide path, turn left five degrees to intercept runway center line. That's it you're on course. Begin descent now to intercept glide path . . ."

The controller talked us down the approach path giving us instructions to make small heading and altitude corrections. It was like being talked down blind.
We broke out of the clouds at 200 feet in a torrential rain shower. We flew the approach to the runway like an airplane. When we turned off the runway for the taxi way I radioed, "Thanks, Phu Bai. We owe you one. What's your name?"

"Spec-5 Needham, sir."

"Well Spec-5 Needham, we'd like to buy you a drink."

"Thank you, sir. I'd like that."

We would spend the night in Phu Bai.  We tried to track down Spec-5 Needham, but without success. We went to the officer's club at Delta Company, our sister company, the gun platoon, and bought the men there drinks instead. That night I offered a silent toast to my instrument instructors who had taught me more than I had realized. Their training had saved my life today. This was one time when bayonet training had paid off. I also drank to another event. I was not a ‘cherry’ any more. I had taken my first round. The crew chief had found two bullet holes, one in the fin near the tail rotor and one in the tailboom. We had been lucky today.

I prayed my luck would continue.

Randy Mains is an author of several books, a public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM Consultant who continues to work in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure.  He currently works as Chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Aero.  He may be contacted at [email protected]