I flew in three of the four principal helicopters to serve the Army in Vietnam. My son, who studied aerospace engineering in college, cringes when I tell him of my adventures in helicopters. He believes that they are inherently unsafe close formations of thousands of precision parts all destined to fly apart without warning. To be honest, I never thought of them that way.
I got to know several helicopter pilots in Vietnam. Most were young enough that their parents probably were fearful of allowing them to drive the family car. I can only imagine their fright if they had seen their sons piloting aluminum eggshells over hostile territory.
I cannot tell you anything about these aircraft that is not covered far better in other websites. I will limit my posting to my experiences with them.
The most ubiquitous of all helicopters, the Huey was a magnificent feat of aeronautical engineering. It greatly simplified flying for the helicopter pilot allowing him to focus more on the mission than the mechanics of flight. It also reduced the time needed to train pilots. Contrary to my son's belief, I can only imagine the safety record of this aircraft. Thousands were flown on thousands of missions with very few mechanical failures.
Weight was the aircraft's enemy. Everything unnecessary was removed, including doors. Passengers sat on canvas seats slung between a simple pipe frame. We sat on our flak vests to keep from being shot in the ass from ground fire. The skin of a helicopter is only slightly thicker than a few sheets of aluminum foil.
We flew at low altitude between base camps to draw fire. Seriously. It was an efficient way of learning if the enemy was operating in the area. On my first mission as a door gunner I was told to watch behind the aircraft. The Viet Cong would duck at the sound of our approach, then stand up and watch us after we passed overhead. You had to snicker when you saw them popping up out of their hiding places after we passed.
My scariest flight during my tour of duty was probably the time I was returning to Bearcat on a Huey with just one other passenger, an elderly Vietnamese gentleman. Our pilot was a warrant officer who looked to be all of nineteen years old; his co-pilot couldn't have been more than eighteen. It was probably the first time either had been allowed out alone (or they might have hot-wired the thing). They were playing grab ass with each other at about 3,000 feet when the aircraft suddenly twisted. I'm not sure if we were hit by a sudden cross wind or if one of the pilots had hit the foot pedal that controls the stinger (the little propeller in the rear that keeps the helicopter from gyrating at slow speeds). I don't think the old man made it home with clean underwear - I didn't.
My second scariest flight was while escorting a briefcase containing $40,000 in MPC from Bearcat to Dong Tam. An F4 Phantom fighter jet dove directly in front of us. Obviously, neither pilot saw each other and ours dove to the right just as the Phantom dropped some large bombs and climbed away. Chunks of mud the size of sofas occupied the airspace we had just vacated. Of course, I was more concerned with the briefcase falling out the door at that time. Yes, I caught it.
This was our heavy lifter. It was banned from landing near buildings for fear that the downdraft from the rotors would blow them over. It is no surprise that it took its name from the winds that blow off the eastern slope of the Rockies. I once saw a garage blown across a road when I lived in Fort Collins, Colorado. It was surprising smooth in flight. The counter-rotating blades made a stinger unnecessary.
I have mentioned previously about one of our most decorated airmen, Captain Dale R. (Jack) Spratt in another posting. The one pictured here is the aircraft that I rode from Dong Tam to Camp Bearcat with Jack Spratt at the controls.
Captain Spratt was famous for flying low - some claimed that he had to ascend to get over the rice paddy dikes. As he explained it to me, the engine was far too powerful for the airframe. He assured me that it would never be certified by the FAA for use in the civilian world. That engine sat right behind you head. It was a piston engine without mufflers and assaulted your eardrums with a dreadful noise that made conversation impossible if you weren't plugged in with a headset.
The Cobra was introduced into the theater of war about the time of the Tet Offensive in January, 1968. I saw my first one shortly thereafter. It landed in front of our division headquarters building near my office. I gave my men a break and we walked over to see it. One of our Assistant Division Commanders, Brigadier General William B. Fulton, went for a ride. We enjoyed watching the crew chief attempting the stuff the general who must have been well above six feet into a cockpit designed for a much smaller man.
The Cobra was an experiment – a successful experiment. It was the promise of better aircraft to follow including the AH-64 Apache. I know that the Marines love their Cobras, but I bet they wish someone would give them the budget to buy the more advanced gunships.