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Best Aviation Unit in the World

Posted 7 years 5 days ago ago by Randy Mains

I received a message from a person responding to comments I’d made on my professional Face Book page that deals with crew resource management topics, about the UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter crash that occurred back in March 10, 2015 off the coast of Florida.  The crew, who was extremely experienced, had lost spatial orientation when doing an overwater exercise in sea fog killing the crew of 4 and the 7 soldiers on board.  The aircraft was from the Louisiana National Guard.  The person who wrote to me concluded, “The LA guard is the best aviation unit in the world.”   

I wrote back saying, “You could be right and I certainly don't want to take anything away from your perception of the Louisiana National Guard. Your comment did however get me to thinking, ‘What would constitute a top-notch aviation unit?’

I immediately thought about the unit I served with in Vietnam from October 1968 to October 1969, the Blackwidows, Charlie Company with the 101st Airborne Division based at LZ Sally outside of Hue then we moved to Hue, Phu Bai.  

I’d say one criterion that would certainly be the mark of a world-class aviation unit would be carrying those souls who entrusted the air crew with their lives and delivering them to their destinations safely without causing injury. As you can imagine doing so in a combat zone puts added pressure to accomplish that mission because you've got bad guys (and girls) trying to kill you most of the time. 

Tracing my thoughts back to my time in Vietnam, I amazed myself when I realized what we had to work with back then.  I am mainly referring to how relatively inexperienced we were.  A newly-minted helicopter pilot arriving in Vietnam fresh out of flight school had logged a mind-boggling 210 hours total time in his logbook.  I marveled at how much we accomplished back then considering how young and wet behind the years we all were.

There were twenty pilots in our company, Charlie Company with the 101st Airborne Division. Of the 210 hours of flight time we logged in flight school only 50 hours was in the Bell Huey, 25 hours for the transition and 25 hours in what was called ‘tactics.’   

Of course not everyone in Charlie Company was a brand new pilot.  There were several ‘old’ guys as well.  They were the guys who had been in country for a while whom we'd replace when they left country after serving their one-year tour of duty.  

Thinking about it now, I flew a total of 1042 combat hours in that one year tour and that amount of flight time in a one year hitch was about average for a pilot over there.  That meant that in one year twenty of us would fly, collectively, 20,800 hours taking soldiers in and out of the jungle, resupplying them, what we called ass-and-trash missions, flying men and equipment, ammunition, food, mail, etc. all within hostile territory in all kinds of nasty monsoonal weather even at night without the aid of night vision goggles. In the year I served with Charlie Company we did not have one non-combat related accident where someone was injured. Not one.

As mentioned we didn’t fly with NVG’s back then but there were times we flew on night extractions using only our landing light to focus on the jungle below while a flare ship circled overhead dropping flares so we could see; hairy stuff to be sure but the fact still sticks with me that we didn't harm one person who flew with us due to a non-combat incident; a fact that I find amazing.

Our unit was either lucky or exceptionally talented, probably both because we only lost one crew when I was there in that year. Their ship took a rocket-propelled grenade through the tail rotor while hovering in a hover-hole.  The ensuing crash killed the two pilots, the gunner and crew chief. 

I wasn’t in country when there was a lull in the action either.  I was there during the A Shau Valley assaults, which included the assault on Hamburger Hill, covert ops over the Laotian border extracting Special Forces teams using McGuire rigs; three 150-ropes dangling from our helicopter. 

The news headlines of the Louisiana National Guard crash in Florida reported that the aircraft commander had served 23 years in the Army and the copilot had served 21 years in the military, both combat veterans with a combined total of 44 years of experience.  

It still literally blows my mind thinking back that the average age of our pilots in Charlie Company was between 20-21 years old.  Most of us had been in the Army for a very short time, a little over two years after serving our one year tour in Vietnam.  The combined total of time served in the Army by our twenty pilots would about equal the total time served by those two pilots who died off the Florida coast.

With these mental recollections in mind I think that if the unit that I flew with 49 years ago were around today, the accomplishments that Charlie Company achieved in my one year tour of duty, would give the Louisiana National Guard unit a real run for its money for the title, ‘The Best Aviation Unit in the World’. 

About Randy: Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Aero. He may be contacted at [email protected].