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Listen and Learn

Posted 5 years 322 days ago ago by Randy Mains

In aviation we listen and we hopefully learn.  When I arrived in Vietnam, I listened intently to the old guys to try and gain wisdom that would hopefully keep me alive. One bit of advice did save my life after dropping off four recon team members in an LZ that was a 100-foot hover hole in the jungle.   

After I took off and reached altitude, they became pinned down, lying in the cardinal points of the compass firing at the enemy for all they were worth. I figured I put them in; it was my job to get them out.  So we went back in after them.

After landing in the LZ the first two recon team members sprang up and ran backwards towards us, reloading, continuing to fire at the faceless enemy. I could hear bullets occasionally hitting the ship as I watched the engine instruments with my hands vice-tight on the controls.

First one, then a second man scampered aboard my chopper. The third and fourth man jumped up and ran backward toward us while firing their weapons. At 20 yards the third man stumbled on an exposed tree root and nearly fell.

“For God's sake hurry up!,” I screamed to myself. The scene unfolded around us in slow motion, surreal, confused.  Rockets fired from the supporting gunships hammered the perimeter with bone-jarring tremors shaking the craft with each blast. WHUMP! WHUMP!  The rockets exploded in pairs followed by falling debris.

The last two men threw themselves on board. "Get the hell out of here!" the team leader screamed. I pulled up on the collective pitch lever. The helicopter rose slowly through the smoke, stench, and heat. 

The two F-4 Phantom jets on station streaked by at low level on either side of us at 300 knots.  Like two silver bullets, they dropped their remaining sortie of Napalm. The two simultaneous explosions that followed caused a deafening explosion of heat and light that shook the helicopter as it slowly made its ascent to clear the tall trees to our front. I could tell the aircraft was heavy, maybe too heavy. The helicopter strained for altitude: 20 feet… 30 feet… 50 feet, she rose slowly. We'd refueled in Quang Tri prior to the mission and had topped up. The approach into the LZ takes less power than a vertical takeoff out of the same landing zone. After I’d offloaded the four men the Huey had no power problems taking off, but with the added weight, now she was severely limited.

The four soldiers in back continued to fire their automatic weapons out the chopper's open doors into the flaming LZ. My gunner and crewchief continued firing as well, the barrels of their M-60s now glowing red hot.

Our ascent was slowing: 65 feet… 70 feet; she clawed, shook, and struggled for altitude. The turbine engine strained and whined trying to develop enough shaft horsepower to pull the weight of the heavily laden craft vertically over the hundred-foot trees. All the power instruments were well into their red lines. The aircraft stopped climbing 25 feet below the treetops unable to ascend one more foot.

Is this how I'm going to die? I thought in horror, Hovering here like a tin duck in a shooting gallery?  My copilot began to panic, "Get the hell out of here."

"Not enough power!" I yelled.

Suddenly the green plastic window over my copilot’s head exploded, showering plastic splinters everywhere. He tucked his head down instinctively throwing his hands over his flight helmet to avoid the shower of debris caused by the Vietcong bullet fired at us from the jungle below.

I instinctively pulled up collective.  Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! It was the dreaded low rotor RPM audio warning ringing loudly in my ears. The ship began to sink back down into the LZ; back down into the holocaust below. I fought for control, fought to maintain altitude. One of the machine guns stopped firing.

"My gun's jammed, sir," my gunner said frantically.

An enemy soldier ran from the trees carrying an AK-47 machine gun. Through my chin bubble I watched as he took aim. A recon team member in back threw a fragmentation grenade down on him, the blast flinging the Vietcong soldier in the air and back into the jungle's smoldering perimeter.

My Huey sat hovering 75 feet above the zone at full power, the engine straining to deliver every bit of its 1,250 horsepower: unable to climb, too heavy to power up any higher in the thick tropical moisture and burning heat.

I suddenly remembered what one of the old guys had told me. As a last resort if you added right pedal it takes pitch from the tail rotor giving more engine power for the main rotor, and when power is marginal, it just may give the extra edge to get out of a tight situation.

Desperate and out of ideas, I kicked in right pedal. The aircraft swung violently to the right. Dipping the nose, I guided the machine through the sporadic enemy fire. The skids dragged through the tangled branches of the trees to the rear of the zone. Thunk! Thunk! Thunk! Several more VC rounds punctured the aircraft as we cleared the trees with no room to spare, accelerating down the jungle-covered mountain slope to safety.

The machine-gun fire ceased. All that could be heard was the loud, low guttural roar of hot air rushing through the gaping hole over my copilot’s head. I accelerated to 60 knots and began a climb.

The chopper shimmied, vibrated, and shook violently. The caution warning light segment on the instrument panel was lit up like a Christmas tree with red and yellow lights, but the Huey managed to stay in one piece for the 12-minute flight to LZ Vandergrift where we landed safely on the strip.

So keep your ears open. Listen to someone with experience. Doing so might just bring YOU back home safely one day.

About the Author:
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].