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Wishy Washy

Posted 8 years 25 days ago ago by Randy Mains

Of the ten aircraft commanders in my platoon in Vietnam it was generally agreed upon by the other peter pilots that Bernie Nivens was the most difficult aircraft commander to fly, mainly due to the fact that he’d been in Vietnam five months and shot down twice giving rise to his nickname “Magnate Ass”. 

But Bernie had another nickname, “Wishy-Washy.” He earned that name because of his lousy luck he figured if he flew his helicopter "by the book," as we had been taught in flight school, he would lessen his chances of being shot down. As a consequence, Bernie became a real pain if you flew as his copilot because Wishy-Washy would rabbit on incessantly like an instructor pilot pointing out the proper flight-school techniques to be followed.

          On takeoff, for example, he would insist that you pull no more than 2 percent engine N1 above hover power. The rate of climb had to be exactly five hundred feet-per-minute flown at precisely sixty knots. Upon reaching cruising altitude he would tell you how to level out, “You've got to practice flying by the book.  We were taught those techniques for a reason."

          On approach for landing he would insist on the normal flight-school sight picture of between twelve and fifteen degrees, then he would talk you all the way down as if you were a ten hour pre-solo student. Eight hours in the cockpit with Wishy-Washy seemed like eight days. It didn’t take long to understand why Bernie was a magnet ass. Putting into practice the techniques we had learned in flight school was a sure way, even in my inexperienced viewpoint at the time, of making you appear as a sitting duck in combat where it was necessary to learn new techniques in order to make it through your year alive.

          Bernie Nivens had earned the name wishy-washy because whenever he was shot at, the flight-school techniques he preached so religiously flew right out the window and survival flying took over.  The irony was it was his flight-school flying that put him into the sitting-duck type of situations in the first place.

          I was flying with Wishy-Washy on one particular mission inserting men into Firebase Barbara.  He was letting me fly while doing his usual critiquing.  "Sixty knots on the climb out, Mains," he tapped the glass on the airspeed indicator. "Not fifty-five, not sixty-five. Sixty. Fly the machine with precision."

          We'd been flying for over three hours.  I was hot and sweaty and so particularly fed up with his grandma attitude that I did something a peter pilot should never do; I voiced a strong opinion of my own. "Some of the other ACs might not agree with your techniques, Bernie. I've noticed they fly defensively to lessen their exposure to enemy fire. Flying like we were taught in flight school is just asking for it."

          Bernie's face went scarlet. "And you’re telling me how to fly?"

          "I'm just relaying what I've observed, that's all."

          "The rest of the guys in the platoon are cowboys. They don’t look after their machines. You fly like I tell you to fly and when you get a ship of your own you'll treat her well and she'll always get you home safely. "

          "Or not at all," I said automatically. 

          "And you, a new guy, are going to tell me how to stay alive longer?"

          "I'm just telling you what I've observed flying with the other ACs. Your style, Bernie, I'm afraid will only serve to get us sent home in a box."

          Bernie grabbed the controls away from me saying. "I've got it.”

          “You’ve got it,” I said, wishing I'd never entered into this conversation. Why couldn't I have just kept my mouth shut?

          Bernie flew a textbook sixty-knot approach beginning at fifteen hundred feet into the landing zone. I squirmed in my seat as we continued the slow descent, feeling we were like a huge, green clay pigeon suspended in the air, inviting someone to take a potshot at us. The enemy must have had the same idea.  At two hundred feet on final approach the ridge line on my side of the aircraft lit up with green tracer rounds flying in our direction. The crew chief began firing his M-60. Several grunts in the back began firing their weapons too. At that point Bernie's conservative flight-school technique ceased abruptly and survival flying took over. He threw the aircraft hard left and dove at the jungle but not before I could hear several bullets hit the aircraft. I scrunched down in my seat waiting for one of the bullets to rip into my body, silently cursing Bernie for getting us into this mess.

          "Receiving fire! Receiving fire!" Bernie transmitted over the Fox Mike radio.

          Just then the oil pressure light on the master caution panel illuminated, the gauge falling to zero.

          Bernie leaned forward in his seat pushing the cyclic over, banking the craft, then leveled out on a beeline course for LZ Barbara two klicks away. God, please let us make it, I thought.

          Triple-canopy jungle whizzed under us.  An engine failure now would surely mean our lives. If the crash didn't kill us the enemy certainly would.

          By now Bernie's conservative flight-school techniques had vanished. The machine shook and vibrated nearing VNE, velocity to never exceed.  The needle of the engine oil pressure gauge read zero; the oil temperature rising above the red line. Don't quit, don't quit, I said to myself, as if my thoughts could somehow keep the engine running long enough for us to make it to the pad.

          Bernie executed a power-on autorotation planting the skids on the pad. Once down safely he immediately rolled off the throttle as I breathed a heavy sigh of relief.

          When the blades stopped we got out and inspected the damage. Bernie had done it again, taken five hits, four in the tail boom and one through the engine oil tank.

          When I arrived back at base that day I made a beeline of my own.  Entering ops I requested that I not be scheduled to fly with Wishy-Washy again, a request thankfully granted.


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]