by Rod Carlson
The flight schedule was posted a day in advance, so I’d known for 24 hours that I had drawn my first night medevac mission. During that time, the closest I had come to being able to relax was a long run on the sand up to China Beach. With everyone else flying day missions, the hootch was deserted, but I couldn’t sleep. I tried writing a letter,, but gave up when I felt like William Holden writing his final words to Grace Kelly in “The Bridges at Toko Ri.”
At 1600, I put on a fresh flight suit and headed for an early dinner at the Marble Mountain Officers’ Club before flagging down the HMM-361 driver for a ride around the perimeter road to the squadron area on the other side of the runway. As we passed the north end of the runway, a CH-46A flew twenty feet overhead. At the boundary fence, it banked to the left and headed inland toward Da Nang. Its rotor wash rocked the truck and smelled of JP-4. The 46 made a smooth graceful whooshing sound that I missed.
After finishing flight school in 1967, 1 had been assigned to one of training squadrons at Santa Ana, California, knowing that I would soon join an operational squadron in Vietnam as a 46 copilot. Once in country, I flew three hops with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-265. But then there were additional orders which abruptly changed everything.
With the UH-34Ds being phased out the copilot pipeline had been prematurely reduced to a trickle, and now there was a 34 copilot shortage. Along with 6 other new 46 copilots, I was traded to HMM-361, an experienced 34 squadron that continued to Perform miracles with a dwindling number of ancient “dogs,” as the D models were called by those who had mastered tbem.
Although it was flattering to be in demand, flying the ancient 34 without any advanced training was painful for everyone involved, especially for us shanghaied copilots. Even if we’d had the customary two hundred hours of Stateside snapping-in, the transition to flying the 34 in combat was at best an aeronautical boot camp.
With increased NVA activity in the Da Nang area, MAG-36 was losing pilots daily, but fortunately 361 was leading a charmed life. So far we had been spared the customary memorial services that plagued the other squadrons in the air group.
After a short bumpy ride, the truck clattered across the marston matting and stopped in front of HMM-361’s flight line. The screen door slammed behind as I entered the darkness of the ready room. I took off my sunglasses to read the status board.
Bad news! I was still on the schedule. Captain Ron Sabin would be the Helicopter Aircraft Commander who would be the section leader of the two-bird night medevac mission.
Except for the last acey deucey game of the day, the ready room was abnormally quiet. Pilots scurried in and out to complete their after-action reports in order to catch the next ride back to officers’ country, the 0-club and an evening of air-conditioned revelry that I would miss.
Picking up my helmet and flight bag, I headed for the maintenance shack and checked the aircraft log for YN-17. 1 shuffled through the pages documenting the most recent flights.
“#I boost fluctuating 200 psi.” (Note: With engineering-like precision, the maintenance chief had printed, “#1 boost okay. Gauge replaced “),
“ASE still intermittent.”
“Possible over boost. 53 inches at 2950 rpm, 3 seconds.” (Maintenance had countered. “Engine checked, seals and pressures within limits.”)
More bad news. The aircraft was flyable. I was running out of time.
I walked outside toward the revetments to preflight YN-17 while it was still daylight. Grabbing the hand grips, I climbed up and put my gear through the left cockpit window.
“How does it look?” I asked the crew chief who opened the clamshell doors.
“Okay, Sir” he muttered in a tone that implied, “It’ll get us there and back if some green lieutenant doesn’t kill us first.”
Using my flashlight to scrutinize the recesses of the engine compartment, I examined every hose, fitting, line, safety wire andcoupling. When l couldn’t find a “downing” discrepancy, the crew chief closed the clam shell doors, and I climbed topside to study the rotor head, the dampers, the transmission, the swash plates, boost actuators and the shaft that powers the tail rotor.
He buttoned up the top while I eyeballed the fuselage back to the tail rotor. Instead of being smooth and straight, the skin was as rough as a washboard. The surface looked like the back of a turtle . Everywhere there were 2 inch square patches covering a lifetime of bullet holes. I stood in front of the bulbous nose that gave it the shape of a pregnant guppy. The small pilot windows peered down at me like beady, disapproving eyes. With several hundred gallons of high octane avgas, you might worry about dying, but not about being maimed for life.
“Looks good to me,” I said. The crew chief grunted something unintelligible.
Walking toward YN-17 with the assigned Navy corpsman, our gunner carried two metal boxes of 7.62 mm rounds for the 34’s side-mounted M60 machine guns. The corpsman carried a large first aid pack and a Thompson .45 submachine gun. Over his bullet bouncer. he wore an old-fashioned magazine carrier with six extra clips and a large K-Bar fighting knife.
By now, the sun had slid behind the mountains west of Da Nang and it was getting dark fast. There was nothing left to do but go back to the ready room and wait.
Sharing a Southeast Asia style “sea” hut with the c.o.’s office, the ready room was outfitted with sagging stuffed chairs brought along when the squadron rotated from the States in ’64; benches built by the Navy Seabees who had built everything on the flight line; large topographic map with a compass card and string for determining the radial and distance of a ground position from the Da Nang Vortac; another map covered with red dots indicating where somebody had been shot at; pigeon holes for pilots’ mail; a small desk with a hand-crank field telephone which connected the squadron duty officer up the line to the Group and the Direct Air Support Center, and the status board which had already been updated to include tomorrow’s mission assignments.
I reported to Sabin who was semi-asleep on one of the threadbare easy chairs. Having told him that the aircraft was in good shape, he asked if the crew had all its equipment and was ready to go.
I answered, “Affirmative, Sir.”
When the red lights were turned on to preserve our night vision, everything in the room tumed into the nauseating color of clotted blood. And with both temperature and humidity at one hundred, body heat and the sudden absence of a cooling breeze off the South China Sea the ready room was a sauna. Skin oozed greasy sweat and collected in beads and streaks on foreheads and arms and trapped an occasional mosquito.
At 2000, the DASC called to inform the duty officer that until 0800 tomorrow, the squadron officially had the emergency medevac standby and the responsibility of evacuating wounded Marines who were expected to die before daylight unless they were evacuated. Due to the extreme danger of flying into hot zones in total darkness, all less critical cases were given the status of priority or routine and made to wait until daylight.
I had already thrown on my shoulder holster and bullet bouncer and was standing before I was fully conscious of the fact that the telephone had awaken everyone in the ready room.
“Roger,” the duty officer said, “220 degree radial Da Nang Vortac at 18 nautical miles.” I followed Sabin to the door with the two pilots that would fly our medevac chase.
“Hostage gunships are on station with two hours of fuel. Meet them on button yellow,” the duty officer added.
Sabin was a shadow sprinting ahead of me down the line of revetnents toward YN-17’s running lights that the crew chief had turned on to guide us. By the time I strapped in and put my clear visor down, Sabin had completed the check list. “Clear,” he ordered. The Pratt and Whitney 1820 under our feet cranked reluctantly, belched, and theii roared. A constant blue-white flarne from the exhaust stacks extended past my side window like a huge blow torch.
“Rotor brake,” Sabin said over the static of the radios. I released the lever and the turning rotator blades rocked the helicopter gently as they accelerated to 2000 rpm.
“Ground, this is Tarbush medevac with two for taxi,” Sabin said. “Tarbush medevac, taxi approved, contact tower at your discretion. Have a good flight, sir.” Sabin clicked the mike in acknowledgment, and I switched the selector to the tower frequency.
At the taxi way, he called again, “Tarbush medevac, ready for take off.”
“Roger, Tarbush medevac, approved for take off.” Sabin twisted on more rpm’s, and I checked the magnetos. The instant the selector was back to “both,” he added full power and the helicopter rose 15 feet off the ground, tilted forward, accelerated and then started climbing to 1500 feet.
“Two aboard,” medevac chase announced.
“Welcome aboard, two. We’re blacking out and switching to yellow.” Sabin flipped the light switches overhead and, except for the bright flame from the exhaust stacks, everything vanished in total darkness. I felt as helpless as though I were in a state of free fall. Everything I needed to fly was gone including: airspeed, altimeter, rotor rpm’s, manifold pressure, and an external reference. But the sensory inputs I needed for survival, Sabin didn’t seem to need or miss in the slightest degree.
“If we get hit, I’ll decide if we abort. If ,one of us gets hit, we will abort immediately and go direct to the Navy hospital. You know where G4 is don’t you?” I clicked the mike in the affirmative.
Below us, lights blinked like the small towns and farms we flew on night hops at Pensacola. But tonight, each light was the flash of a bullet being fired at us. “Lotta folks up tonight,” the crewchief chuckled. “It’s a big sky,” Sabin replied with an air of confidence not shared by me.
“Hostage one, Tarbush medevac. We’re five minutes out, what have we got?”
“Zone’s hot and taking fire from southeast to southwest. No fifties so far. We’re hosing the tree line, and we’ve got a flight of F-4’s standing by. Should be a piece of cake. We’re in contact with the grunts on fox mike oscar. “My hand searched for the mix box and flipped the switches to bear simultaneous conversations on the UHF and the FM radios and dialed in the right ground frequency for “oscar.”‘
“You’re on them now, Hostage, nice shooting. Tarbush medevac, this is Rich Widow Six Actual, we’ve got to get our guy out of here fast, you copy?”
“Roger, Rich Widow Six. How will you mark the zone?” There was a long pause.
“How ’bout a strobe light. We’ll put a strobe light in the center of the zone.”
“Hostage, this is Tarbush 45 seconds to commence approach. Give me another 45 seconds and hit the tree line, but be sure to save something to cover our egress.”
“Roger, Tarbush, we’ve saved a few two-seven-five’s for the occasion,” the Huey gun ship section leader acknowledged. We were at fifteen hundred feet directly over the zone where the Marines had circled their wagons for the night. The standard approach procedure was to spiral down directly over the zone in order to present the most devious target for the shortest time.
During the day, this falling approach was dangerous and required a high skill level.
At night, I was sure that it would be impossible. There were no visual references, no horizon. no lights, no instruments. Surprisingly, the impossibility of performing the impending feat had transformed my fear into curiosity.
“Okay. commencing the approach. No shooting. I’m not sure where the grunts are. And let’s get loaded and take off in twenty seconds. No sense hanging around until the mortars find us.” Sabin said.
He pressed the transmitter key on the stick, “Rich Widow. Tarbush coming down, turn on your beacon.” He bottomed the collective, screwed back on the grip throttle, dropped the nose, and banked steeply to the right. I could feel the helicopter spiralling down like a duck with a shot wing. I looked out Sabin’s window at the strobe light which occasionally carne into view as he varied the angle of bank. Without any horizon or instruments, the blinking light was the only clue as to the direction of “down.” After five complete revolutions, he stopped banking. The strobe light was now bright and dead ahead.
Streams of tracers etched the tree line as the Hueys attacked in a tight circle to cover our approach with continuous fire support. I could feel Sabin raising the nose to slow our forward movement and twisting on full power to stop our descent as smoothly as a new elevator. There was no artificial horizon, engine and rotor rpm, or manifold pressure gauges to keep the destructive forces within extremely narrow critical limits. (Excessive manifold pressure and the engine blows, too few rpm’s and the blades cone, too many and they whirl off into space.)
The brightness of the strobe told me that we were low and close to the landing zone. Sabin gentled the aircraft downward hoping to land in a narrow space between the Marines. Then he moved ahead, and then to the right. “You’re following him all over the zone. He’s running to get away. The idiot put the damn strobe on his helmet, ” the crew chief yelled through our ear phones.
Sabin landed with his side of the 34 toward the shooting so that the exhaust stacks on my side would not be a target. “Sorry about the strobe,” Rich Widow Six Actual said over the fox mike.
“No sweat, I’m just glad I didn’t land on hiin.”
The crew chief interrupted, “All aboard, Skipper.”
Sabin twisted on every drop of energy the 1820 had saved up. rose swiftly through a hover and gained translational lift. With a series of brilliant flashes, the night was brighter than high noon. Just above the zone, the Hueys had fired their rockets like huge flashbulbs in rapid succession as we sneaked away quietly and began climbing toward Da Nang.
I realized that I hadn’t taken a breath since we started the approach, exhaled, and sank back in my seat. “How’s he doing, Doc?” Sabin asked. ,’I’ve got my hand inside his chest, but he’ll make it.”
It took only minutes to get to G4, the Navy hospital just off the west side of Marble Mountain’s runway. As we neared, flood fights were tumed on around the landing pad. A welcoming committee of doctors, nurses and stretcher bearers was already at the hatch door before the landing gear struts were fully compressed. Somebody else’s hand was now inside the Marine as the corpsman yelled above the engine noise to share his diagnosis with those who would finish the job.
The IV bottle was held cautiously below the rotor blades while the group trundled their new patient toward the sandbagged entrance of the hospital. As they moved away, the wounded Marine shot Sabin an enthusiastic smile. “That’s what it’s all about,” Sabin said as he waved back at the Marine.
That night we flew another 4.1 hours and made 11 more landings. On our last run, with just a hint of horizon, Sabin turned the controls over to me. Except for a couple gentle nudges on the collective, I flew the whole mission myself and it didn’t stink.
After our last drop off at G4, we landed at Marble Mountain, stopped briefly at the fuel pits, then pulled into the taxi way, and shut down. Although we would be on call for another two hours, somehow we knew that the night was over.
When I swung down from the cockpit with my gear, Sabin was waiting for me. “Not bad,” he smiled. “We got almost five hours of night time.”
Walking ahead of us toward the line shack with the gunner and crew chief, the corpsman turned back and said, “Thanks for the ride, Gentlemen, catch you next time.”
There would be many next times. And anyone who was there will tell you that, all things considered, it was time well spent.