Landing a helicopter in the middle of a jungle

Tomorrow at 4 pm there will be a dedication ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for a Vietnam helicopter aircrew monument (Army Times).

One of my early instructors told me that the U.S. government crashed 7,000 helicopters in Vietnam. Guts ‘N Gunships: What it was Really Like to Fly Combat Helicopters in Vietnam is a reasonably good explanation as to how this could have happened. (The book is included with a Kindle Unlimited subscription.)

Training:

In Advanced Primary Flight School at Fort Wolters, you were taught to land in what was called white, yellow, or red tire areas located in the Texas countryside, usually on the bluffs. These target areas had painted automobile tires in them that could be seen easily from the air. The white tire areas were fairly large and spacious and comparatively easy to fly in and out of. The yellow tire areas were smaller and more difficult to negotiate, and a student had to be with an instructor or be cleared by an instructor to fly into them solo. The red tire areas were small, and it took a lot of precision to get in and out of them. A student had to be accompanied by an instructor to fly into them. Working on more advanced maneuvers and flying in and out of these tire areas was the bulk of the rest of the training, along with continued study in ground school courses. When a student would fly solo into one of these areas, he would land and follow a precise procedure for safety’s sake.

War:

The slick aircraft in our company was the UH1H model that was powered by a Lycoming, turbofan jet engine that generated 1,500 horsepower called a T-13. Its rotor blades had a chord (width) of 21 inches and were rather long.

The payload of the aircraft (how much weight it could carry) was about 4,000 pounds, which translates into ten to twelve troops including the crew, and a full load of JP 4 jet fuel that weighed 1,600 lbs. The aircraft had a loaded cruise speed of eighty knots, but unloaded it would usually cruise at over 100 knots and still maintain its altitude. The gunship pilots however flew a UH1C model, commonly known as a Charlie model that was equipped with a Lycoming turbofan jet engine that produced 1100 horsepower called a T-11. It had what is known as a 540 rotor system with a 27-inch chord of the blades, built more for speed and maneuverability. These aircraft took a lot of precision flying just to safely get them off the ground when they were loaded with rockets, ammunition, and a full 1,600 lbs of JP 4 jet fuel, because they were often underpowered.

Another thing that necessitates intensive in-country training from the senior pilots is the necessity of squeezing a chopper into very tight landing zones (LZ) especially with a bunch of enemy troops shooting at you. Sometimes there was only a few feet clearance for the spinning rotor blades before getting into trees, other helicopters, or God knows what. For instance, dropping a four-man Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP Team) into a deep, dark hole in the triple canopy jungle in Nam, when there was barely enough room for one chopper, and barely two- feet clearance of the blades on all sides, was, by no means, an easy feat. Again it was a hard job made even more treacherous when receiving enemy fire.

In the civilian world, the aircraft commander flies from the right seat in a helicopter and from the left seat in a fixed wing aircraft. In Vietnam combat slick pilots flew command from the left seat, because they were always flying into very tight areas, and they needed all the visibility they could get through the chin bubble and the instrument panel was skewed to the right. This obstructed their view somewhat from the right seat. Gunship pilots, on the other hand, followed the civilian tradition, and flew command from the right seat, because they didn’t generally fly into tight LZs.

Triple canopy jungle has three major growth levels of trees. The first level reaches a height of about 25 to 30 feet, and the tops form a sort of canopy. The second level is taller, and reaches to about 50 to 60 feet before it canopies. The last and tallest growth of trees may reach, in places, over a hundred feet high, before it forms the top and final canopy.

Cowboy and I made the approach to the area, and came to a hover over a hole in the jungle that I swore didn’t have room for half a Huey, let alone a whole one. When we stabilized, Cowboy lowered pitch and started down into the deep, dark hole. It didn’t look to me like we had two feet clearance on the blades, and I was as nervous as a whore in church. The door gunner and crew chief were talking earnestly to Cowboy, saying: “About two feet tail rotor clearance on the left, Sir. Whoa, whoa, you’re out of room, Sir!” Then from the right backside, “No more room back, Sir. Only about a foot on the right.” In the front, it didn’t look to me like we had any room to spare at all. It looked as if the blades would strike the trees at any moment, and we would go down in a fiery ball. I glanced at Cowboy. I had never seen such intense concentration on a man’s face in my life. He was staring straight ahead and glancing down through the chin bubble. We were now half way down at an altitude above the jungle floor of about fifty feet. The light faded, getting dimmer and dimmer as we descended.

Then, just when I thought that things couldn’t possibly get worse, they did. Things got a lot worse. It became a descent into Hell itself. Without warning, the whole LZ lit up with enemy, automatic bursts of AK47 fire, and it seemed all of Hell escaped its gates. Rounds were hitting the aircraft now, with that all too familiar slapping ping sound. One round came through the Fox Mike Radio that set between Cowboy and I, knocking it out, and then exited through the ceiling plexiglass panel in the cockpit. Cowboy screamed in the UHF Radio: “Receiving heavy fire!! Receiving heavy fire!! Nine o’clock! Nine o’clock! Right on LZ perimeter!!!” Both the door gunner and crew chief had already opened up with the tripod-mounted M60s with suppressive fire. Hot brass casings flew all over the aircraft. The LRRPs on board opened up with their M16s and more casings flew, two of them lodging under my shirt collar and descending onto my bare back, burning my flesh, as I flinched forward thinking once again, that this time, I had been shot for sure. We were still at about 30 feet altitude and it was too high for the LRRPs to jump. As I have previously mentioned, the enemy troops had learned to wait silently and hidden until the aircraft was half way down in the LZ. They knew we would not have the power to pull out until we got rid of some weight, in this case, the LRRPs.

Unexpected hazards:

One of the reasons a thorough preflight check was necessary was because of the sappers (enemy insurgents) who often managed to sneak through the perimeter at night, and booby trap aircraft, among other things. One of the things they were most notorious for, was pulling the pin on a hand grenade and putting a rubber band around the handle to keep it from activating. Next they would remove the fuel cap on a Huey, drop the grenade in the fuel tank, and replace the cap. A couple of hours later the fuel would dissolve the rubber band, letting the handle release, and boom goes the Huey. It’s bad enough if it goes off on the ground, let alone when the Huey is airborne. To counter this, when we left the aircraft in the evening after a mission, we would put a small pencil line on the fuel cap, extending onto the surrounding metal, and if this line did not line up exactly the next morning, you got the hell away from the aircraft in a hurry, and called the bomb squad.

The author explains that he actually transitioned to flying gunships, which attracted a huge amount of enemy fire, because landing in tight spots within the jungle terrified him.

The book is also pretty good for helping the reader understand why Vietnam was so challenging compared to our current desert conflicts. Despite the use of Agent Orange, the enemy was almost always hidden by the jungle and the helicopter pilots never knew when they would face concentrated rifle fire or worse.

More: Read Guts ‘N Gunships: What it was Really Like to Fly Combat Helicopters in Vietnam.

8 Comments

  1. dwight looi

    April 17, 2018 @ 1:42 pm

    1

    Vietnam was challenging because we were cared about the loss of human lives — both ours and Vietnamese — whereas guys like Vo Nguyen Giap do not care it one bit. If we had waged WWII style unrestricted warfare North Vietnam would have fallen or have been destroyed in a month. Or, if we had the stomach for sustaining one casualty for every 10 to 20 NVA/Vietcong indefinitely, the situation would ultimately be untenable for them. But we couldn’t or wouldn’t do either so after about 7 years of real fighting (65 to 72) we found a face saving way to bug out after Rolling Thunder.

    This is why I oppose low intensity, nation building, bullshit wars. We should not get into wars likely. I don’t particularly care for instance if Assad murders his people. But, if it is absolutely necessary, I believe that we wage unrestricted warfare, accept nothing less than unconditional surrender and complete annexation. War is nasty business and the nastier it is the faster it is over with.

  2. J. Peterson

    April 17, 2018 @ 4:27 pm

    2

    I may have to buy a copy of the book just to see how your second excerpt turns out…

  3. Federico

    April 18, 2018 @ 3:43 am

    3

    Question: amazon seems to sell a few books on the same subject, why did you choose this one? better writing/more helicoptering/something else?

  4. Rick

    April 18, 2018 @ 9:53 am

    4

    Chickenhawk is a good read on this topic
    https://www.amazon.com/Chickenhawk-Robert-Mason/dp/0143035711

  5. Anonymale

    April 18, 2018 @ 10:17 am

    5

    If you ain’t read CW2, you ain’t read nuttin (Sorry Chickenhawk fans)

    https://www.amazon.com/CW2-Layne-Heath/dp/0688052657

  6. Tony Doe

    April 18, 2018 @ 10:52 am

    6

    Philg: Did you see the WaPo story about the “trailblazing” former female fighter pilot that landed the plane that saw America’s first commercial aviation fatality in 11 years? “Nerves of steel” seems to get more clicks than “Nerves of the checklist”.

  7. philg

    April 18, 2018 @ 2:09 pm

    7

    Tony: I found https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/04/18/nerves-of-steel-she-calmly-landed-the-southwest-flight-and-broke-barriers-as-a-fighter-pilot/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.9a88878a291b

    That is a great article. Apparently, she was such a great pilot that the FAA gave her the world’s first single-pilot type rating for a B737 (“B737S”?) because no co-pilot or first officer is mentioned. She and Captain Sully can form a club of folks who soloed heavy airliners!

  8. philg

    April 18, 2018 @ 3:26 pm

    8

    Anonymale: I’ve already read Chickenhawk and CW2! These are awesome (and I do think CW2 is better, but it is a novel after all). But it was a big war so it doesn’t hurt to have another perspective.

    Federico: Why did I read it? Amazon’s advanced machine learning algorithms told me to! I cheerfully submit to our robot overlords.

Log in