I remember August 20, 1968 like it was just last week; it's been 32 years but time doesn't mean much when you are dealing with a significant emotional event. It all started as a routine mission. 1Lt Ken Sherfey and I (I was a Captain then and the XO of the 147th Assault Support Helicopter Company) were flying resupply missions in an area that was commonly referred to as the Testicals.
We were moving supplies by sling load (ammo and the likes). Ken was the PIC and in the left seat and I was on the controls in the right seat. We were at about 1000 feet when there was obvious TAP TAP TAP in the vicinity of the aft pylon area; any Hillclimber with more than 10 hours in country knew that sound. It was enemy fire (or maybe even RVN) rounds hitting the aircraft. You were almost certain to take some of both during a tour. These were louder than usual.
As was the normal procedure we called for a damage assessment. I recall the assessment seemed rather succinct and clear. SP6 Yacin said something like "Sir, the ?%#$& (I recall at various time different words being used so I'll just leave this to your imagination and I am not even certain Yacin ever cussed but whenever I tell this story he sure does)
is on fire, get it on the ground now!" Some things do not require repeating; he was clear, concise and had enough of an authoritarian ring to his statement to cause a 1LT and Captain to follow his instructions precisely without the need for any questions!
Ken jettisoned the sling and it departed the aircraft... one of those things in flying Chinooks you seldom do and when you do them you always hope and pray the Boeing engineers knew what they were doing in the design phase. Next we pulled the familiar "Tee" handles that actuated the two small fire extinguishers. Seemed almost futile to use such small extinguishers on such a huge fire. We will later learn it was likely more important then either of us would realize at the time. By now it is important to note the flames are moving forward toward the cockpit and the only thing moving forward faster are the crew members who have decided it would be wise to join us in the cockpit. On board we had a flight engineer, two door gunners and an Australian pathfinder. We were later told that the Pathfinder tried to jump at a couple of hundred feet but the rest of the crew held him back.
I must say that the autorotation from 1000 feet was an eternity- it was excruciating slow; the kind of slow motion you realize once or twice in your life or perhaps never. It takes an event of this nature to slow time down to a crawl. . I recall having a number of thoughts going through my mind and none of them were about dying in this Chinook. I liked "989", as it had been a good aircraft but there are limitations when it comes to relationships with machines. I was somehow certain I did not want to die in a machine. First, I decided this was going to be the best autorotation; surviving was simply the order of the day. Another thought, which seems rather strange in retrospect, had to do with the yellow handle right above the door on my side of the aircraft. I had touched that handle countless times during the pre-flight, but now, for the first time, I was going to get to do it for real. Does it work? I knew it damned sure better!
My other thought was about the rotor system. It is strange how things you have heard before come back to you with clarity at times like this. During one of our safety briefing I must have been paying more attention than usual. The briefing was about a Colonel who was flying an LOH, lost power and did an autorotation... he spread the skids and in doing so he reduced the ground to rotor system distance. He got out of the aircraft and did not duck as far as he should and took a rotor to the head, killing him (at least that is how I recall the events at that point in the time as I am autorotating toward a rice paddy- - - what I was remembering was good enough for me). It was clear to me that was not how I was going out and our rotor was not going to be moving when I got out of "989". God was with us because it was a soft, sweet autorotation; Everything was going as planned.
I was an Infantry officer and now I was going to have to do something I never planned to do and I think it was one of the primary reasons I went to flight school. I never wanted to secure a downed helicopter in a hot LZ with just a few guys and two M-60 machine guns, a 40mm grenade launcher, and handguns. I also was aware that the bad guys could well have been someone
who may have just had a sling load dropped on their head. As I shoved the collective to the roof of the Chinook I reached above the right door and pulled that YELLOW handle. To my utter amazement, the door fell off into the rice paddy. I then tried to jump into the rice paddy, but I couldn't get out! I tried again and still couldn't get out; I was obviously pinned in the cockpit and had very little forward movement! It was those damn seat belts again, they were doing their job superbly. I quickly flipped the latch and jumped into the rice paddy; Another soft, sweet landing. My infantry and Ranger training was now taking over. I immediately directed the crew to set up a perimeter and deployed the machine guns. Within seconds we began taking fire from a wood line that was a couple of hundreds meters from our position. I do recall that this angered me; I thought it was a pretty sorry thing for the Viet Cong to do given what we had just been through, apparently they didn't see it my way.
About that time I looked up and saw the sky full of aircraft. They were our airplanes and there was one or more of everything in our arsenal; Cobras, A1-E's, F-4's, you name it. Apparently our MAYDAY had attracted the attention of the air crews in the area. We talked to them on our emergency radios and told them we were taking fire from the wood line. They were more than happy to provide us direct assistance and to accommodate us. I gave them a heading and distance from our downed aircraft and they commenced to fire on the wood line. Like magic the enemy fire stopped!
We had only been a the ground a few minutes when I looked back at "989" and saw the aft pylon crumble and fall into the rice patty, transmission, rotor system and all! There was the fire with huge amounts of white and black smoke and when it fell into the rice patty the noise of it falling, splashing and the hot molten metal sizzling in the rice paddy was hard to comprehend; in fact, the whole series of events was surreal. It was difficult to even believe this was happening to us.
We were later told by the Boeing engineers that the fire bottles being activated may have been what saved our lives. There was very little time between us getting on the ground and the aft pylon falling off the aircraft. The fire extinguishers could have never stopped the fire but they likely retarded it just enough for us to get safely on the ground. Doing what you have been trained to do paid dividends beyond what anyone could have expected.
The best sight however was one of our own Chinooks; it was overhead at about 3,000 feet. The familiar Hillclimber insignia on that Chinook was a sight for sore eyes; about as beautiful as anything I have ever seen or will see. Wecommunicated with them on our emergency radio. It was PIC CW1 Sam Nagel and 1LT Charlie Adam who were flying the same mission. Nagel said "He was talking to Operations and trying to get permission to pick us up". We had a short, frank discussion about rank and similar chain of command issues and he quickly determined that the XO on the ground could grant him that permission and he need not wait for an approval from operations. Sam understood the facts; I think he also recalled that I was also his rater. He immediately decended, landed and we headed back to Vung Tau. I never appreciated getting to fly in a Chinook so much! Now I knew the Yellow handle worked and best of all, it wasn't our day to go. No injuries, my best autorotation ever but no more "989". It has bit the dust but that fine Chinook was good to us until the very last moment.
For our actions that day, Ken and I both received Air Medals with "V" devices. It was my second one this month (received one two days before). I was extremely happy to see August 1968 come to a close.