The Admin Run
by Ralph Aye and Rod Carlson
Dawn was breaking as the U.S.S. Okinawa rolled gently to the left and turned into the soft morning breeze. The sun shown momentarily and disappeared behind a dark overcast as the preparations continued to launch a single UH-34D that was growling and snorting at idle with its rotor blades windmilling.
Wearing a dark green helmet and flight suit, along with the usual bullet bouncer, Dave Ogden walked out of the ship’s line shack, turned and waved to the air boss in pri-fly, threw his flight bag to the waiting crew chief and climbed up the left side of the helicopter.
After buckling the shoulder harness and plugging in his wires, Ogden said, “Here we are. Two short-timers going for a joy ride.” Cob, his co-pilot and friend since the first days of pre-flight at Pensacola said, “What wild adventure have you got planned for us.”
“We’ve got the shit detail,” he laughed. The both knew they had the admin-logistics into Phu Bai, then to Dong Ha, Camp Carroll, Vandegrift, Khe Sanh and then back across the Ba Long Valley to Marble Mountain.
With any luck at all we’ll develop a maintenance problem and have to remain over night at Marble. You know, that’s where RON means romp in the nude,” Dave said, referring to what was always possible with so many nurses nearby at China Beach or Delta Med.
Then they finished the last of the pre-takeoff checks, Dave keyed the mike, “Gallant Man, Red Lion one-one, on spot three, ready for launch.”
“Red Lion one-one, hold.”
The deck-hand gave the thumbs-out signal to indicate that the chains had been removed.
The amber light became green. “Red Lion one-one, cleared for immediate take-off – contact Fairmont when airborne. Have a good flight.”
Dave raised the collective as he turned on the power to 2700 rpm. The ’34 rose smartly to a six feet hover, paused, lowered its nose, stuttered out of ground effect, and took off, and climbed out ahead of the carrier.
Fairmont, this is Red Lion one-one, a UH-34 Delta airborne at 35.”
“Red Lion, climb to and maintain 1000 feet. Call feet dry.” “You got it Cob. I’m going to dick with my camera and see if I can’t get a few decent pictures of Hue for my before and after-Tet collection.”
As though the aircraft had an auto pilot, there was no indication that control had passed to another pair of hands. Together they had flown nearly three thousand hours in Vietnam, often as each other’s co-pilots. At last, they had emerged from the experience on the verge of going home alive. The time for life-risking heroics or stupidity was long past. Still, they had to be in the air where they were the masters of their own destiny and, to the Marines they served, valuable beyond measure. On the ship, they were constantly irritated by the presence of senior officers who might make an unreasonable demand or, worse, expect military courtesy.
“G-man, G-man, this is Red Lion one-one, we’re feet dry. And climbing to combat altitude,” Dave slurred into the mike.
“Copy, Red Lion, understand you’re after the elusive round-eye. Anything you could bring back, short of a rash, would be appreciated. Contact, Phu Bai approach. Good hunting.”
Dave clicked the mike twice, and switched the channel selector for the UHF radio. “Phu Bai approach, this is Red Lion one-one three thousand on the zero-niner zero degree radial at 16 nautical, visibility is about a half mile in low broken with overcast about fifty-five hundred, over.”
Roger, Red Lion one-one, continue inbound, maintain three thousand, squawk 4400 ident.”
Phu Bai appeared out of the soup and Cob called approach control, switched to tower frequency and started a gracefully graceful descending turn that ended in a soft landing on the number 9 at the west end of the runway.
“Phu Bai tower, Red Lion one-one. Request taxi to tower for pick up.”
“Roger, Red Lion, use discretion.”
They landed and waited for the liaison to get aboard and brief them.
The liaison, a short stocky America Army officer chugged out of a bunker clutching an attaché case and instructed the crew chief that it was to be taken to the Army’s Division landing zone in Dong Ha.
Cob looked at Dave and shrugged, their expressions displaying a mutual understanding. It was a messenger run. It was probably this evening’s dinner menu for the General or something equally important like his plans for a cocktail party with the nurses.
“Well Cob, we have our high priority ‘eyes only’ courier pouch shall we press on to more important engagements.”
“I believe that would be the natural step in our day of top secret covert activities,” said Cob.
“Red Lion, Phu Bai tower, over.”
“Red Lion one-one can you take additional pax to Dong Ha?”
Normally he would have refused to take passengers in case there was an emergency diversion. He didn’t want the weight or to put innocents at risk.
It was a safe bet. They were short timers, and it was socked in from HUE to the DMZ. “Okay, tower, we’ll take him.”
The crew chief called over the intercom that the passengers were securely strapped in. Phu Bai tower okayed taxi and take off, and within a few minutes they were climbing to fifteen hundred feet.
“Dong Ha, DASC. This is Red Lion one-one out of Phu Bai for Dong Ha. We’re marginal VFR. Request radar following.”
Roger, Red Lion. Squawk 4400 ident. Proceed direct. Maintain VFR.”
The flight from Phu Bai to Dong Ha would take only a short while. The route frequently flown becomes very routine and boring. It was one of those things that could be done automatically, in a coma.
En route, Cob flew. With no chance for scenery, Dave stowed his camera and sat back.
“Well, Captain Ogden,” he thought, “It looks like you’re going to make it home. What a surprise. This could even be your last night at Marble.”
It would be good to get home to see his mom and dad. The pressure would be off. He would be alive and safe. Everyone would be proud of his medals. It would be the welcome home of a lifetime.
Suddenly he felt guilty. The war hero on the admin run to Phu Bai. What an epitaph, Others died so that Dave could have the admin run and spend the night blitzed, banging nurses at China Beach.
But it had been a sometime hell. Friends, wounded and dead. Some had died screaming. There was no going to sleep quietly ever again. Always that memory to be fought into silence by willpower or booze or both. A survivor? Guilty, your honor. But, with extenuating circumstances. I didn’t deserve to survive. Others were better pilots and better men and they died. “Right, Guilty for having enjoyed times of air conditioning, R&R, and drunken revelry. Guilty as charged. And now flying the admin run for the same purpose of an ill-gotten good deal.
“We ought to be getting close to Quang Tri. With a slack morning like this, maybe we ought to shoot some instrument approaches. A TACAN and a GCA apiece would boost our instrument proficiency time, and with this weather we can log it as actual instrument time.
“Sounds like a winner to me. I’ll get clearance into the instrument pattern,” he smiled to Cob.
Quang Tri Approach control, Red Lion one dash one is a single H-34 estimating five miles south of Quang Tri We are on the 160 degree radial 4.5 miles channel 109. We are transponder equipped squawking 0600 and ident.”
“Roger, Red Lion, we have you painted. Stand by for radar vectors to pattern entry. The pattern altitude is 1500′, turn right to heading 090. Beware of small arms fire once in the pattern. Red Lion say your present heading and altitude.”
“Roger Approach, Red Lion is at 1500′ and on a heading of 090.”
“Red Lion one-one, you are entering the downwind leg, turn right to one eight zero and maintain 1500′.”
“Good afternoon one-one, this is your final controller. Perform your landing cockpit check now, and do not acknowledge any further transmissions. Turn right to heading 270. Maintain 1500′. You are approaching the glide path, turn right to 360 and begin a normal rate of descent.
“You are above the glide slope and correcting nicely. Turn left to 355. Your wheels should be down, cockpit check completed. Turn right to 360. You are one mile from touch down, on centerline, on glide slope.
“You are at the runway threshold, approaching field minimums, take over visually. If unable, climb straight ahead for one minute to 1500′ and contact Quang Tri approach control on button gray or frequency 259.9. Good Day.”
“Nice approach, Cob,” he joked, “You might become a decent driver after all.”
“Red Lion One, One this is Quang Tri Approach. You are requested to stay airborne and contact Dong Ha DASC on button red, now!”
“Roger, Quang Tri. Red Lion switching.”
“Dong Ha DASC, Red Lion one-one.”
“Roger Red Lion, Stand by.”
“Cob, every time they call us unexpectedly and then say ‘stand by’ it’s because they’re stewing up a real jewel. Something they can’t get anyone else to take, except Red Lion will. We’ve never turned down a mission, never. A notable credit, I suppose. But it has caused a lot of dirty underwear.”
“Red Lion one-one, this is Dong Ha DASC. We have a mission for you. It is an emergency medevac at Cua Viet, coordinates, Yankee Delta 343695. Contact Fighting Mad one four on 26.6 fox mike. Your gunship cover will be Seaworthy one dash two on frequency 356.8. Your mission number will be 101.”
“Roger, Dong Ha, we copy.”
“Seaworthy one-one, this is Red Lion one-one, over.”
“Roger Red Lion. Good morning. Are you ready for a hot one? I sure hope you have clean underwear today. Because, it looks really bad from out here. The weather is almost zero zero. The zone is bad news, sandy, uneven and they have been taking a lot of incoming. The zone is on the south bank of the river, 100 yards west of the coast. It is the Amtrac compound. They have been taking incoming mortars and rockets all night and half of the morning. Now, they have 2 KIAs, 3 emergencies and 2 priorities.”
“We can take the emergencies, Dave replied, “They’ll have to sit on the rest. What about incoming?’
“Still intermittent, and the visibility stinks,” the gunship said. “Recommend low-level, high-speed approach from the southeast with a pop-up break at the tree line. Try to hide as much as possible using the tree line and burial mounds, You will be a piece of meat in the open zone. Don’t waste any time, get in and get out. And, we mean get out, pronto.”
“Copy, Seaworthy. My is plenty tight and we do have clean underwear, just in case we do have an accident. I remember what my mother taught me. By the way, who is driving Seaworthy today.”
“Be advised, Sully and Monty are your cover and we don’t envy you guys. Our wingman had to divert back to Quang Tri, after getting shot to shit just northwest of the zone. It’s a real sandwich, so be careful. We’ll be right with you all the way, but neither of us wants a DFC today. So, don’t you get into any trouble, you know what we’re saying.”
“Okay Seaworthy, we’ll be cool. Just hang on our six and discourage any back shooters.”
“Cob, looks like we’re into this one. Time to thread the needle. You fly it. I’ll take the radios. Let’s not take chances, I don’t want to go home in a body bag.”
“I’m with you,” Cob said. “Let me show you how the pros do it.”
“I’ve been in the LZ before. The best approach will be very low and fast over the flats, a couple feet and 100 knots,” Dave said. “We’ll be obscured by the tree line until we pop over and button hook into the zone. They won’t have time to get a bead on us on us. Let’s climb up as close to the clouds as we can for a look see to make sure we’ve got the best run in.”
The course of action decided, they notified the gun ship pilots. With a break in the in-coming, the snatch pick up had to go quickly, smoothly, and with no hesitation. Everyone knew that all hell would break loose if the smallest miscalculation was made yielding the advantage of speed and surprise. Everything about the scene was unsettling and both crews were clearly uneasy and on edge which could be heard in their radio communications.
Red Lion turned sharply again and again to avoid the clouds and keep the landing zone in sight. Then it started. The two Seaworthy pilots watched from their gunship as the UH34D began tight spiraling decent and abruptly leveled off at ground level. The dash was on. They were on the run barely inches above the ground with rice stalks and grass hitting the landing gear which Cob raised by banking the aircraft to miss the circular burial mounds scattered along their route.
“Fighting Mad 0ne Four, Red Lion is inbound for your emergencies. Have them staged or they’ll miss the bus. Do you roger?”
“Roger Red Lion, we know the drill. Come on in.”
“Okay, Cob, mixture’s rich, landing checklist complete. Aim for the tree line, pop and button hook. Just pretend you are going to drive right through the trees only pop.
Fighting Mad, Red Lion is zero one out of your zone. Pop your smoke.
“OK Cob, hit it now!”
As planned, the helicopter roared at max power toward the tree line. Just before impact, Cob pulled back on the stick dropped the power and applied full rudder. The pop was clean and the button-hook flawless. They passed the crest of the trees and the nose fell through on the other side of the trees. As the trees rushed past, Cob began adding power again to cushion the landing with the cargo door 15 meters from the injured. Incoming began to explode around them and move closer. 82mm mortar rounds thumped and shook their vision blurry. Seaworthy chase circled above the zone, spitting .30 caliber and rocket rounds back at the muzzle flashes.
Cob had already pulled the collective and added full power. “Abort, abort, we’re out of here,” Dave yelled over the radio. “Seaworthy, we’re out of the zone with hits. Stand by while we check for damage.”
“Okay Cob, I’ve got it.”
Do we really want to do this one, the thought flashed through Dave Ogden’s head. I don’t like it. They are letting us in the zone and trying to nail us while we are on the ground at low power. I smell shit everywhere. With only days to go before I rotate.
“Hey, Cob, let’s call in another aircraft. Okay?”
“None in the area and those emergencies will die if we wait. Come on, we can do it. Everything will look fine and dandy when it’s over,” Cob said.
For chrissakes, now I’ve done it, and I’m way too short. He prayed Cob would agree that the mission had become impossible.
“Are you ready,” said Cob? “The quicker we make the snatch the faster we can think about other things, like a nice night at Marble. Come on let’s put this one behind us.”
“Okay,” he muttered. There was no out, and he’d always known that it might come to this. It had for others who were good friends.
“Fighting Mad. This is Red Lion, Cob called. “We are inbound for another try. Seaworthy, start shooting just before I jump over the trees. It’s going to be warm. Fighting Mad, Red Lion is inbound now!”
This was the final run. One last attempt to salvage a few lives, and they knew that if they ran it again, the mortars would have them pinpointed, a sobering thought. It was like looking down the barrel of an M-16 and wondering when the trigger would be pulled. Dave would not take the chance and telegraph his game plan by doing as they had done before. So, in a snap decision, they shifted the approach route, flew even lower, and increased airspeed. They were now riding the thin red line outside the safety envelope. Any error now would mean they would become part of the landscape. As they accelerated, the trees were racing towards them. The entire landscape seemed to be trees. They were the entire focus and blanketed the scene. Dave pulled back on the stick, popped, rotated and settled on the other side of the trees. The medics were punched into super fast. It seemed as though they had just landed when the crew chief screamed ‘pickup complete’.
Dave opened the throttle, the Pratt R-1820 screamed to full power and the aircraft lumbered out of the zone heading for the tree line. On the other side of the tree line they had it made. “Mother,” Dave roared. “We’re home free. Suddenly, the mortars were back. Dirt, sand, wood, everything was flying in all directions. The landscape was alive with debris hurtling and falling everywhere. Seemingly at a snail’s pace they staggered toward the tree line and with only a few short feet, they had it made.
Rounds, too many and too fast to count, began slamming into the engine cowling. Black oil was spraying over and around the cockpit. The aircraft shuddered and began pounding spastically.
“Cob, we’re going in. I’m sorry”
“Seaworthy, Seaworthy, There’s nothing on the gauges. Back us up. Controls are stiff. I knew it.”
The helicopter hit the ground hard flinging rotor blades and parts like an exploding bomb. Within a few seconds, Seaworthy was starting a low but fast run over the crash site.
“Dong Ha DASC, this is Seaworthy one-one. Red Lion has crashed at the zone. We’re going low for a look see. Request additional gunship and transport support, ASAP. The zone is still hot.
With its door guns still shooting into the nearby trees, Seaworthy sped past Red Lion. By then Dave Ogden had climbed out of the wreck and was pulling the passengers and crew out of the side door. He paused long enough to look up at Seaworthy and to raise a lone finger. The Seaworthy crew smiled and waved, kept shooting, and urged Dong Ha DASC to expedite.