"A Most Demanding Approach"

Submitted by: Frank (Max) Grose

Early 1968 was an interesting time to be in the Republic of South Vietnam.  The year began rather quietly for the pilots in the 147th Assault Support Helicopter Company (ASHC).  Based at Vung Tau, their mission included direct support of the 1st Australian Task Force and the US 9th Infantry Division, as well as general support for the III and IV Corps areas of South Vietnam.  On any day “Hillclimbers” could be found operating from Song Be in northern III Corps to Cau Mau in the southern Mekong Delta; from Ham Tan on the east coast, to Ha Tien as far west as one can go in Vietnam.  This area was roughly 225 miles east-west or north-south.  The carried everything from people to supplies; artillery to aircraft pulled from muddy rice paddies.

To better support their mission, the Hillclimbers had established a remote operations at Can Tho, in the central Delta.  Four Chinooks and flight crews were kept at Can Tho.  The front portion of the pilots’ hooch served as our flight operations, kitchen, and living room.  Flight engineers, crew chiefs, and gunners had a hooch more conveniently closer to the flight line.  Aircraft and crews rotated between Vung Tau and Can Tho on Sundays, otherwise known as “Seiko Red Day” 

As January was about to come to a close, US troops were eagerly looking forward to the much-touted Tet Cease Fire, so the Vietnamese, both South and North, could celebrate Chinese New Year.  It was my week to be in Can Tho.  My 22nd birthday was still nearly two months away.  I had been in country since late August 1967, and had earned the responsibility of the position of Aircraft Commander (AC) a month earlier.  That meant, I was in charge of the aircraft and responsible for it, the crew, and my daily mission. 

In the months since arriving in Vietnam as a new Warrant Officer One, I had flown with unit instructor pilots, and senior ACs, most of whom were on their second or third tours.  Some were former H-21 pilots, and a couple had been Caribou pilots… before the Caribous were turned over to the Air Force.  These guys were good, and were a great source for this young pilot to learn from the best.  Techniques varied, and I tried to immolate the best qualities and flying styles from them.  I tried very hard to fly as well as they did.  One of the instructor pilots that greatly influenced my flying was a senior Chief Warrant Officer 3 from Texas, by the name of Jerry Bishop.  Jerry was a fun guy to be around, with a unique personality that fell somewhere between cocky and self-confident.  But, when he was at the controls of a Chinook, he was an artist.  Jerry was always playing the role of instructor pilot.  Whenever we had more than a few minutes to do nothing but drill a hole in the sky, Jerry would have me flying with the SAS (Stability Augmentation System) turned off, which made the aircraft to have negative longitudinal stability, forcing the pilot to constantly work to keep the aft end of the aircraft following the nose.  Or, he would have me put on a hood, to fly by instruments, some of which he would cover or disable by pulling circuit breakers.  Then, he would hit me with a barrage of questions about emergency procedures or operating limitations.  I took it as a challenge.  I enjoyed it.  Jerry enjoyed it too.  It became a sort of game, where he was trying to find my weak spots.  I tried to ensure there were none.  He knew he was making me a better pilot.  Sometimes, Jerry shared tactics for minimizing risks or techniques that weren’t ‘in the book.’  My hours sharing the cockpit with Jerry influenced the rest of my flying career, especially my time as a flight instructor.  The techniques I learn served me well when extraordinary circumstances called for them.  The purpose of this story is to relate one such situation.

That eagerly-awaited Tet Cease Fire didn’t last long, as we came under ground attack there at Can Tho.  It wasn’t long until we got word that Soc Trang was also under attack, and needed our support.  But the events of that day are a whole other story.  What we were experiencing was happening throughout the country, and was the beginnings of what became known as the Tet Offensive of 1968, and the heaviest fighting of the war.

The purpose of this story is to illustrate how I employed a couple of the not-in-the-book techniques to accomplish a very challenging mission, while minimizing the risk to my aircraft and crew.  We were about two weeks or so into the Tet Offensive.  Where the areas away from the towns and military compounds were usually relatively safe from small arms fire, now it was those very areas where risk of hostile fire was the greatest.  Someone in the company had come up with a humorous way of recognizing pilots whose aircraft had taken hits.  We were given paper models of horse shoe magnets, with the words “MAGNET ASS” written on them.  No one wanted one of these awards, but was at least appreciative of the recognition.  We Hillclimbers were racking up on the Magnet Ass awards since Tet began. 

On this particular day, my crew and I were to accompany another Chinook to Binh Thuy Air Force Base, about five miles up the Bassac River from our airfield at Can Tho.  CW3 “Bart” Bartholomay was the aircraft commander of the other Chinook.  Our mission was to go to the ammo dump at Binh Thuy, each pick up an external load of Class Five (ammunition), and take it to an outpost along a canal about 15 miles east of Can Tho. 

The sky was clear that morning, with good visibility.  It was a great day to be flying.  Prior to our departure from Can Tho, I was approached by an Australian soldier, who informed me that he would be going home in six days, and that he would like to see some more of Vietnam before he left.  We frequently got such requests, and, if our mission was thought to be rather ordinary (meaning we weren’t planning to be doing any combat assaults, artillery insertions, or aircraft recoveries, where hostile fire could be expected), we usually allowed someone come along for the ride.  I anticipated that his would be one of those routine missions.  That would prove not to be the case. 

Bart and I flew in loose formation up to Binh Thuy.  We shot our approaches directly onto a road within the swampy confines of the ammo dump.  Personnel were waiting to hook up our loads.  Bart hovered over his load, while the hookup man snapped the nylon donut on his cargo hook, and then he took off.  The hookup man ran to my load, and grabbed the sling.  I hovered forward, and was welcomed by the flight engineer’s voice over the intercom, “The load is hooked.  The man is clear.  Bring it up.”  As I raised the thrust lever, the slings came tight, and the load lifted easily off the ground.  Our normal load for those CH-47A models was 8,000 pounds.  Depending on the amount of fuel on board, we sometimes carried more.  This felt like a normal load; not too heavy, but one that required giving this aircraft the respect demanded by a loaded Chinook.  “The load is at ten feet.  You are cleared for flight.” came the flight engineer’s words.  I eased the cyclic forward, lowering the nose just a little, causing the aircraft to drift forward with increasing speed.  I felt the welcomed shudder as the rotors found clean air and we gained translational lift.  With that power setting, at 70 knots, the aircraft would climb at nearly 1,000 feet per minute.  That was always comforting, as the pucker factor was higher at altitudes below 3,500 feet… our normal cruising altitude.    As I rolled out of my shallow climbing turn, I could see that Bart was already a couple of miles ahead of me.  That was actually good, since he would have time to make his approach, drop his load, and make his takeoff, and clear the pad before my arrival.

We frequently did not know the identity of the units we supported.  All we usually had was a location, their call sign, and frequency.  This was the case today.  It may have been an outpost belonging to the 9th Infantry Division, but I am of the impression that it belonged to the 5th Special Forces.  It was a motley collection of rusty tin buildings and sandbagged bunkers, situated on the east bank of a canal that ran generally north and south.  The PSP helipad was on the south end of the little camp.  From the west bank of the canal to the west for several miles was heavy tropical forest.  To the east, the terrain was more open, not rice paddy, but generally open grassland with scattering tall trees and palms.

Experienced pilots knew that you should avoid flying parallel to canals, and that heavy jungle canopy provided concealment from the bad guys looking for an opportunity to ruin your day.  Bart advised that he was going to make a straight-in approach from the west, over the trees and perpendicular to the canal.  I planned to follow him in.  I saw him start his approach.

With just a few hundred feet to go, Bart called, “I am taking fire!“  Seconds later, he announced, “I’ve lost an engine and a flight boost hydraulic system.  I am heading back to Can Tho.”  I had already begun my descent when Bart aborted the approach.  He found that he could fly single engine with the load of ammo, so he didn’t jettison it.  I began a shallow turn to fall in behind Bart to escort him back to Can Tho.  As he crossed the river, I made a one eighty to go back to the site.  On the way to Can Tho, I had requested gunship support for when I returned.  I was given the call sign and frequency of the light fire team of UH-1 gunships.

As I flew back to the area, I climbed another thousand feet.  Forty five hundred feet just seemed to feel a little safer than 3,500 feet this morning.  The gunships arrived before I did, and they began to recon the area.  I called my contact on the ground on my FM radio to tell them that I was inbound.  He advised, “We really need the ammo.”  He was worried that I wouldn’t attempt the delivery.  After the mission, I found out that the camp had not had resupply in 12 days, and that every aircraft that had tried to get in there had been shot up.  Now that little bit of information would have been nice to know before we set out on our “routine” resupply mission.  At least we could have gotten gunships to assist, and I would not have allowed the Aussie passenger to come along.

I dialed in the frequency for the gunship team on my VHF radio, and gave them a call to check in.  Arriving over the area, I set up a large circular orbit around while the gunship completed their recon.  The gun team lead called to advise me and recommended that I not come in.  Much to my surprise, the 4th Corps Aviation Officer came on my UHF radio. I am not sure how he knew the situation unless he was monitoring the gunship frequency, but he surely seemed to know the score.  He said, “Hillclimber, I am leaving the decision whether to go in there or not up to you.  But, if you decide to go in, and you start getting shot at, get the hell out of there.  We don’t need another Chinook getting shot up today.”  First of all, being contacted directly by the Corp Aviation Officer was highly unusual.  Second, being given the option of refusing to attempt the mission was even more so.  That is the only time during my tour that either of those happened.  As the aircraft commander, it was my inherent responsibility to make decisions of what I would or wouldn’t do regarding attempting a mission, and how to execute a task.  Chinooks were a more scarce and expensive asset than the Hueys, therefore, we were typically not employed where the most hostile action was expected.  The four operational Chinooks in the Delta had just been reduced to three.  He couldn’t afford to have another one down.  I acknowledged his instruction, but didn’t tell him what I would do.

The gunships were still working the area well below me.  I was still circling.  I had time to think.  Many thoughts were running through my head as I pondered my decision to go it.  Yes, it truly was my decision.  I was the aircraft commander.  I didn’t ask the other pilot, and I didn’t consult the crew.  I alone had to make the decision, and it was weighing heavily on me as I circled up there in the relative safety of 4,500 feet.  It was like all was and all that I had trained to do was focused on that moment.  I looked at the ground below. 

My thought process went something like this.  “In a few minutes, I could be lying in a burning pile of metal down there.  I don’t want to die.  But, I have underneath my aircraft what the people on the ground need to try to stay alive another day.  It is my job to get it to him.  But, I may die in the attempt.”  I was really being torn by my options.  All my life, I loved my country.  I tried to be the very best Boy Scout I could, and exemplify those high ideals of patriotism and love of country.  I had joined the Army to fly, knowing full well that there would be risks to take.  This was the job I asked for.  Now I am here, and it is my duty to try.  “I have a wife and young son back home waiting for me.  What would they do without me?  I don’t want to die.”  This is going to sound strange, but from somewhere inside me, a voice seemed to ask, “Are you special?  Are you more special than those who were with George Washington at Valley Forge?”  The harsh fact was that I was not special.  Others down through the history of our nation’s military have been called upon to perform their duty in the face great personal risk.  If this was my time to make the supreme sacrifice, I knew I had to do it.

The gunships were still doing their recon, and I was still circling and thinking.  “I have the option of not attempting this delivery.  But, if the camp is overrun, and the guy I just talked to on the radio, and others, are killed because they don’t have the ammo with which to fight back, their blood would be on my hands and their deaths on my conscience forever.  I can’t sentence them to that kind of death.  I must try to get this ammo to them.”  Then I thought about my unfortunate Aussie passenger, sitting there in the jumpseat.  “If we get killed attempting this approach, well, that is our job, and it is in our line of duty.  But, what a crying shame for this poor Aussie guy to get killed on a sight-seeing ride just days from his return home.”  I shared my thoughts with no one.

With that last nagging thought, I began to plan how I would execute the approach. A Chinook is a big target.   As alluded to earlier, our vulnerability and risk of being hit by ground fire from small arms weapons increased as we got closer to the ground.  One of the responsibilities of the aircraft commander is to always minimize exposure of the aircraft and crew.  I weighed the factors of this situation.  Charlie is down there, and he wants to shoot us down.  The gunships are a discouraging influence, but not controlling.  I had to get down there, drop off the load, and get back to altitude as quickly and safely as I could.  The one factor over which I had control was the way I executed this series of maneuvers.  It seemed to all boil down to the success or failure, and perhaps the life or death of six souls aboard, and even the friendlies in the camp, depended on my judgment, skills, and ability to fly the aircraft. 

Such extreme situations as this often requires flying ‘on the edge’ of the pilot’s skill level, what he thinks he can do, and the performance limitations of the aircraft.  Needless to say, lives have been lost when any one of these is exceeded.  But margin in any of these increases the likelihood that the enemy will score.  Sometime the path between the pilot killing himself, and the enemy killing him is quite narrow.  My job, as I saw it that day, was to fly into the ‘Valley of Death,’ deliver the load, and get us out again.  I had no idea what the odds of successfully pulling that off were, but I was determined to do my very best to make it happen.  My primary obligation and sense of duty was to that man on the ground and those with him.  If I shirked that duty, flew back to the relative safety of Can Tho, and enjoyed a hot meal and a hot shower that evening, I knew I would never be able to forgive myself for my selfish and cowardly refusal to stand tall when the chips were down.  I would likely never know the result of my inaction with those in the camp, but I knew that in my mind I would feel the guilt of their death.  Now, with the decision finalized in my mind, how would I pull it off?

I planned to fly my downwind leg toward the north, keeping to the east of the camp.  I would make a descending left turn, and fly south along the canal.  I would keep my aircraft over the canal as I passed the buildings, and make a quick left turn to put me over the pad.  Yes, that violated the conventional tactic of not flying along a canal or a tree line.  But, I knew Bart had taken fire from the jungle area to the west of the canal.  I was banking on the troops at the camp and the gunships to cause any VC near the canal to keep their heads down.  I also counted on an aggressive execution of the approach to further minimize our exposure.

The gunship lead informed me that he was ready for me to come in.  I advised him that I would be coming in along the canal to the south, and would depart along the same route to the north.  I briefed my plan to the crew.  The procedure we normally followed in the 147th was for the pilot flying the aircraft to open the cargo hook to release the sling load after the flight engineer gave the okay to do so.  But, today would be an exception.  “Chief, I want you to release the load.  I am not going to stop over the pad, so when the load is almost on the ground, you punch it.”  The flight engineer has a “pickle handle” on the end of a long cord.  With it, he can control the cargo hook and the winch.  Whether the release button on the pickle handle or the release buttons under our little fingers on the cyclic sticks is used to open the hook, there is a delay of a couple of seconds as the hook opens enough for the sling to fall off.  My instruction to him to anticipate the delay was clear.  “Let me know as soon as the sling is off.” 

“Show time” I thought to myself.  “Guns, we are coming in” I announced as our aircraft came around on a northerly heading abeam the camp.  I am at 4,500 feet and 80 knots.  It was time to use one of the techniques that Jerry had showed me to lose altitude quickly.  I had practiced it a few times, so I knew it worked.  Still at altitude, I began to slow the aircraft down.  When the airspeed reached 40 knots, I lowered the pitch to the three-degree detent, the position of the thrust lever when doing an autorotation.  Simultaneously, I lowered the nose to regain some of the speed that I had just bled off.  As the aircraft began to descend rapidly, I carefully applied right pedal, kicking the aircraft out of trim.  I remember as the aircraft yawed, it felt like it could go unstable if I put in too much pedal, so I was very attentive to the amount of pedal I had in.  In a fixed wing aircraft, this is called a slip.  It allows the aircraft to lose altitude at a greater rate without increasing the speed.  It works in a Chinook as well.  I don’t recall looking at the vertical speed indicator, but we were coming out of the sky at very rapid rate.  I began a left 180-degree turn to my final approach heading.  As I came along the canal on final I kept the airspeed up higher than normal.  Ideally, the approach should terminate at zero groundspeed with the load about ten feet off the ground, and the aircraft should be kept reasonably level as the forward motion of the aircraft is dissipated.  If you come in too hot, it requires a large decelerating flare to get it stopped.  In a flare, the aft rotor gets into the turbulent air from the forward rotor.  When that happens, the aircraft begins to shudder and lose lift.  If the aircraft is heavily loaded, there won’t be enough power to come to a hover.  At best, the pilot will be embarrassed with his poor performance.  During my first few weeks in Vietnam, I learned first-hand, not to let that happen.  Today, I felt like I could make it work for me.

I told my crew that I was going to do an aggregated flare as I came over the pad, so the load would swing forward just as the aircraft was ‘falling through’ as the aft rotor encounter the rotor wash from the forward rotor.  Letting the load hit the ground a little hard wouldn’t hurt anything today.  Even if the chief was a little early opening the hook, it would still be okay.

I purposely under-arced so as to make the last hundred yards or so relatively level and out over the canal where there would be no danger of the aircraft or the load hitting any antennas or other structure.  With not being slow as I passed the buildings, the wind from the rotors in forward flight, rather than at a near hover, would be less likely to cause damage.

As we passed the buildings, the aircraft still was moving quite rapidly, considering the fact that the pad was now less than a hundred yards away.  I quickly repeated my instructions to the flight engineer, and reminded him, “I am not going to stop.”   I banked into a quick left turn that would bring us over the pad.  A quick application of aft cyclic brought the nose up more characteristic of the way a Huey terminates.  The sling load reacted to the deceleration by swinging forward.  As expected, the aircraft begin to shudder and descend.  Although I couldn’t see it, I was trying to ‘fly the load’ to the center of the pad.  I pulled in only a slight amount of pitch, just to keep the load swung forward, but not enough to arrest the sink rate.  Although we were falling through, I knew that once the load hit the ground, the aircraft would be 8,000 pounds lighter, and would be fine.

When I felt the load hit the ground, I applied forward cyclic, expecting and hoping the sling would be off the hook.  As the now-empty aircraft responded to the amount of pitch in the blades, the flight engineer announced, “Sling away.  Clear for flight.”  That was good, because I had the nose down, and was already in the takeoff mode.  The plan had worked out perfectly.  The aircraft never actually came to a hover, but as soon as the load hit the ground, I began the takeoff.  If the sling had not fallen off the hook, it would have been dragging along the ground.  I doubt that it would have caused us to crash, but it would have been interesting trying to prevent it.  Fortunately, we never had to find out.

I announced to the gunships that I was coming out.  Once I had the aircraft accelerating and could clear the buildings, I pulled it around into another left turn to climb out back along the canal to the north.  My load had been delivered.  Now, the only thing that stood between us and successful mission accomplishment was thirty five hundred feet of clear air above me.  I was in a hurry to get it below the aircraft.  I continued to lower the nose, opting for gaining speed over gaining altitude.  Once the airspeed indicator hit 100 knots, I brought the cyclic back and applied more pitch.  The ground began to fall away quickly as I watched the vertical speed indicator wind clockwise on the dial.  When it reached 3,000 feet per minute, I reduced pitch to maintain that rate of climb.  The gunship lead came on the radio.  “Slow down your climb.  We can’t stay with you.”  Now, I wanted altitude more than I wanted gunships, especially if I had to slow down to keep them.  I thanked them for the great support, and told them we wouldn’t be needing them anymore.  When we reached 3,500 feet, my airspeed still read 100 knots, and my vertical speed was still reading 3,000 feet per minute.  An empty Chinook surely can climb!  I reduced the pitch to level out at 3,500 feet, and turned toward Can Tho.

As the altimeter wound around the dial during our climb out, the man on the ground came on the radio with words I shall never forget.  “Thanks, Hillclimber.  We really needed that ammo.”  The relief and gratitude he felt was evident in his voice.  It was as though we had given him the means to live another day.  Maybe we literally had.  For me, those words were most rewarding.  They not only expressed his gratitude, but they validated that I had made the right decision to take the risk, and to do my duty.  Aircraft commanders are seldom given options regarding a mission, or the latitude to refuse it as I was that day. 

As we flew back to Can Tho, all were silent, but I reflected on what we had just done.  Not only had we delivered some much-needed ammo, but we had done it without drawing any fire from the VC.  As a man, and as a soldier, I was proud of myself for having the courage to do my job, even when given the opportunity to legitimately avoid the risk.  As a pilot, I was also proud of the exquisite flying I had just done.  I was thankful for Jerry Bishop teaching me the slip technique to expedite our descent.  The tactics and techniques I used that day were not normal for the area or the aircraft.  The situation demanded deviations.  I’ll never know if anything less would have resulted in mission accomplishment with this most demanding approach.

Oh yes.  The Aussie on board?  He made no comments about his ride.  Upon getting back to Can Tho, he thanked me for the ride, and walked away across the ramp.  I don’t know what he thought of what he had experienced on that ride, but I suspect when war stories are being shared Down Under, he has a really good one about this crazy Chinook pilot he rode with that day.  Me?  I am just glad that he lived to tell about it.  

Copyright, Franklin L. Grose, 1 September 2013