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Best Unit in the World

Posted 4 years 290 days ago ago by Randy Mains

A  gentleman on my professional Facebook page, claimed a certain unit was “the best aviation unit in the world.”  While we pilots often make strong claims, I got to thinking: What criteria would qualify a unit to be considered one of the best in the world? 

Naturally, I immediately thought about the unit I served with in Vietnam from October 1968 to October 1969. We were the Black Widows of Charlie Company assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. I was Black Widow 25. When I arrived we were based at LZ Sally, 7 kilometers northwest of Hue. Several months later we moved to the air base at 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 death or 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. 

Flying back in time, I literally amaze myself when I realize 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. I marvel at how much we accomplished back then considering how young and inexperienced we all were, but we learned fast. To survive we had to.

There were 20 pilots in Charlie Company. 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 before us, whom we'd replace when they left the country after serving their one-year tour of duty. 

I flew a total of 1,042 combat hours in that one-year tour. That amount of flight time in a one-year hitch was about average for a pilot over there. That meant that in one year, 20 of us would fly, collectively, 20,800 hours to include combat assaults, taking soldiers in and out of the jungle and resupplying them (what we called ass-and-trash missions). We flew 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 I mentioned we didn’t fly with NVGs back then, but there were times we flew night extractions using only our landing light and search 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 entrusted us with their lives due to a non-combat incident. It is 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 during a combat assault.  The ensuing crash killed the two pilots, the gunner, and crew chief. 

You might think I flew in-country when there was a lull in the action, which could explain our excellent safety record. But I didn’t. I was there during the A Shau Valley assaults, which included the assault on Hamburger Hill, covert ops over the Laotian border where we extracted Special Forces teams using McGuire rigs that were three 150-foot ropes dangling from our helicopter thrown down through the triple-canopy jungle inside empty ammo boxes by our crew chief.  

Thinking back, it still boggles my mind that the average age of our pilots in Charlie Company were 20-21 years old. When we arrived in country most of us had been in the Army for a little over a year. Doing the math I came up with a startling statistic: the combined total time served in the Army by our 20 pilots after their one-year tour, would about equal the total time served by those two pilots who crashed and were killed off the Florida coast.

Now, most vets take pride in their military service; I’m no exception. Strong bonds are forged under fire. With recollections of Vietnam replaying in mind, I think that if the Black Widows that I flew with 50 years ago were transported to today, the accomplishments that Charlie Company achieved in my one-year tour of duty would give a real run for the title ‘The Best Aviation Unit in the World.’ 

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].