Hillclimber Down

Submitted by: CW4 (R) George Miller

January 15, 1967 began as a typical flying day for my crew and myself in the Republic of Vietnam, and turned into a day that none of us will ever forget. I am relating this event in as true a fashion as fading memories of 33 years permit. Hillclimber was the call sign of the 147th Assault Support Helicopter Company equipped with the CH-47A medium helicopter popularly know as the Chinook, Hook, and by some, Shit Hook. Those who piloted or crewed it are not unkindly referred to as "Hookers". If you are unfamiliar with the Chinook, it is a rather large, tandem rotor helicopter (main rotor at both ends) and two external engines, one on either side of the aft pylon.

Typical flying days in 1966 and 67 usually included a variety of missions for several units in the III and IV Corps Area of Operations (AO). The days started early (usually well before daylight) and continued with little break until after dark (and on occasion into the early hours of the next day). Missions might include re-supply of fire bases, medevacs, CS gas drops, aircraft recovery and maybe even a combat assault. Chinooks were in short supply in those days so the ones in country were kept very busy. Every day our unit maintained two Chinooks committed to "Recovery Stand By", one for each AO. Recovery standby would wait for a call that an aircraft was down and would go to the area and sling the downed aircraft to a secure maintenance area. Recoveries were considered dangerous, not only because of the skill required but the fact that at the high hovers that were required, the Chinook became a large target visible to the bad guys from great distances. One of the tactics that the VC used was to wait until the pilot was committed to a take off then shoot at the vulnerable rear of the aircraft. The VC knew exactly how far back the side guns on the Chinook would traverse and would step out into the open for a better shot. Early on, commanders recognized this vulnerability and placed an extra gunner on the ramp with an M-60 machine gun. These gunners compiled several kills before the enemy got wise to what the new tactic was. When the unit was heavily committed, the recovery aircraft would also fly re-supply missions until a recovery mission was called.

On this fateful day one of our aircraft, commanded by CW2 Bob Stange, piloted by CW2 AJ Bottom and crewed by three enlisted men and an extra gunner, were assigned recovery standby for the IV Corps AO. As an add on mission, they were working for a Special Forces unit, delivering construction materials to a field site south of Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. Early in the mission, their aircraft experienced a maintenance difficulty which required a replacement aircraft.

Two years ago at a reunion of our sister unit, then CW2 Josh Logan, a Hillclimber aircraft commander, related this bit of information. He and a maintenance pilot delivered the replacement aircraft 66-00072 with its enlisted crew, Flight Engineer SP6 Herman Gurr, Crew Chief SP5 Ken Teeter (listed as assigned to the 171st Maintenance Detachment, the 147th's Direct Support Detachment), Gunners SP4 Tom Harty and PFC Ray Jackson to Bob and AJ. Each day the flight platoons supplied an aircraft commander to the maintenance platoon for the purpose of flying replacement aircraft out to the AO's. This was done as the maintenance pilots were generally unfamiliar with AO outside the local area. Josh and the maintenance pilot returned to Vung Tau with the original aircraft. I have been unable to determine why SP5 Teeter was flying as Crew Chief on this day. The assigned crew chief may have had the day off or Ken may have needed the flight time.

At the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association's reunion in Nashville in July of 99, then CW2 Terry McCurry, a flight classmate of mine, told me that he was originally scheduled to fly with Bob Strange that day. Terry recalls that he played poker with Bob and others the night before. AJ Bottom was there but not in the game. The flight schedule was usually posted about nine or ten o'clock the night before the next days missions. Terry and Bob saw that they would be flying together the next day and each headed for their rooms. In the morning, Terry awoke about five AM and thought he had overslept, then noticed he had been replaced on the flight by AJ. He does not know why he was replaced but surmised that Bob and AJ had affected the change, as they were flight school classmates (WORWAC 64-1), roommates and good friends. I believe Terry still thinks of that day often.

072 hours before the crash.
Within 24 hours of the accident, crewmembers relax beside #072

My aircraft was committed to missions for the 1st Infantry Division in an area of III Corps known as War Zone C and was a considerable distance from the IV Corps AO. Each aircraft maintained a listening watch on the company FM frequency, with flight operations which was known as Hillclimber Control. We heard a call that a Hillclimber was down somewhere near Can Tho. As much as we would have liked to have made a beeline for the area, we were working for the infantry and wouldn't finish for several more hours. We had little information as radio security forbade transmitting any details of the fate of our friends. Normally air crews maintain a constant chatter over the intercom largely to relieve the tension and fatigue of the day. The remainder of the day's missions was flown in relative silence with the only conversations of a business nature. Each of us was lost in our own thoughts and wondering which aircraft and what crew members were involved and what condition the crew and aircraft was in.

When we returned to Vung Tau, our flight section leader Captain Bob Smith met our aircraft with the devastating news that Hillclimber 072 had crashed and all aboard had perished. As if on cue, we all bowed our heads in silent prayer each in our own way I remember that two of my crew were Catholic as they made signs of the cross. We went our separate ways; the crew to complete the aircraft inspection and my pilot and I to fill out the after action reports. It was extremely quiet in the normally bustling flight operations office. We asked a few questions as to what had happened but at that point, all anyone had were rumors and conjecture. There were supposedly eye witness reports ranging from an explosion to a mid air collision to the aircraft being shot down by heavy hostile fire. As it turns out, none of these were completely true. We left the flight line about an hour later and were driven to our quarters at Tiger Towers, a leased hotel that we shared with another unit. On top of Tiger Towers was the Tiger's Den, the Officers Club constructed by previous units. Again, quiet prevailed until one of the officers (I believe one of the Majors) proposed a toast that went something like, "gentlemen, please raise your glasses in memory of [and he named each of the crew] may they rest in peace". We stood at attention, drank our drinks and many of us departed for our rooms.

In the days that followed, more and more was learned and several days were to pass before I was assigned a mission that took me to the area where 072 went down. I stopped for fuel at Can Tho where the recovered wreckage was laid out for the accident board to view. I admit that the sight was unnerving and gave us pause to reflect. My most vivid memory of that scene is that of the floor of the aircraft being in one piece but folded in two. Also visible was a portion of the aft pylon that carried the white X, symbol of the 222nd Aviation Battalion to which the 147th belonged. Below are extracts of the accident report recently received from the US Army Safety Center at Fort Rucker Alabama. I will attempt to compare where possible the official report and the memories of the soldiers that were there when our comrades were lost. Excerpts from the accident are typed in italics:

The narrative begins with the statement that the aircraft departed Vung Tau on an authorized mission and flew to Vi Thanh to act as Fourth Corps recovery aircraft. This statement leaves out the fact that 072 was the replacement aircraft for the one that began the days mission. This is corroborated by what Josh Logan told me two years ago and confirmed by an email message from then Captain Sy Berdux, the operations officer. The mention of 'recovery aircraft' accounts for the second gunner.The aircraft refueled at Vi Thanh and was subsequently assigned a mission at Can Tho located in the Mekong Delta's, Phong Dinh province, involving internal cargo. Arriving at Can Tho, at approximately 1330, the aircraft was loaded with an estimated 7000 pounds of sand, gravel and lumber. This was not an unusual load, as normally this was for engineers doing a construction project. There isn't any gravel or sand in the Mekong Delta so those materials were routinely transported by Chinook. Three passengers, a Major from the Sub Command and two Enlisted soldiers from the 2nd Maintenance Battalion the Major from Vung Tau and the two EM from Can Tho, boarded with the load. It is believed that this was an engineer project for the Special Forces unit stationed at Can Tho but the accident report doesn't mention this. At approximately 1415, Hillclimber 072 departed Can Tho heading approximately southwest. At this time they contacted Paddy Control for flight following and artillery advisories between Can Tho and Kien Thanh. Paddy Control was one of the US Air Force radar control sites located throughout South Vietnam that provide these services as well as planned air-strike advisories. At 1422, Paddy attempted to contact 072 to confirm radar contact and altitude. At approximately the same time the tower operator, at Can Tho, observed what appeared to be an aircraft descending vertically, trailing "considerable smoke". This was probably atomized fuel or other fluids from the aircraft as there was no fire mentioned in the final report. The tower operator contacted an O-1 Bird Dog aircraft in the traffic pattern to confirm the sighting. The pilot confirmed the sighting stating that he was "drawn by a small flash". Again, the report mentions no fire and this may have been an electrical surge as the aircraft broke up. The Bird Dog proceeded to the site of the wreckage and reported that no survivors were observed. From memory, there were three other reports not listed in the report. I cannot lend much validity to these as over thirty years have passed and the accident report does not confirm any of these. One report stated that the aircraft was under heavy ground fire (the report does not mention any battle damage). Another reported that there was an explosion (the report speaks of a small flash but not a catastrophic explosion). Last was that a mid-air collision had taken place. This may be a close approximation, as a tandem rotor helicopter breaking up could resemble two single rotor helicopters colliding.

Brent Paulson, a Flight Engineer with the 330th Recovery Platoon also stationed at Vung Tau, contacted me via email and recalled, "My CH-47 was on the scene soon after the crash. There was another Hillclimber Chinook already there and several UH-1 Hueys. There was a pair of OV-1 Mohawks strafing around the site due to enemy activity in the area." I contacted the webmaster of the 73rd Aviation Company's website whose Mohawks were in our battalion. One of their pilots confirmed the strafing mission (see his account below). Brent further recalls, "all I could recognize at the crash site that could be called a Chinook was the aft transmission". He estimates that the wreckage was spread over approximately ten acres of rice paddies. The 330th aircraft was released from the scene and told that the recovery would be strictly a Hillclimber operation. Brent was later assigned to the 147th as a Flight Engineer.

Captain Frank Griswold was the Flight leader of the pair of OV-1A Mohawk Gunships that witnessed the crash and provided suppressive fire around the crash scene. His flight was returning from a mission in the U-Minh Forest and was low on fuel when the incident occurred. He recalls that he was flying as Hawk 2 and that Captain Gary Watson was probably the pilot of his wing aircraft. They stayed on station for about 15 or 20 minutes expending their remaining 2.75mm rockets and .50 caliber machinegun ammunition. Frank recalls that that they worked a tree line just south and running to the west of the downed bird. Vietnamese Airforce A-1Es from Soc Trang relieved them on station. Small arms fire and enemy activity was not uncommon in this area.

The accident investigation board was convened the same day under the authority of a special order from HQ 222nd Aviation Battalion, to which the 147th belonged. The accident report identifies the members who I am omitting here to protect their privacy. Interestingly, the president of the board would later become Hillclimber 6, the radio call sign for the Company Commander. Another member later transferred to the Hillclimbers as an operational pilot. He was affectionately known as "Magnet Ass" due to his proclivity for receiving ground fire on many of his missions. Still another was from the 73 Aviation Company (Mohawk). There was also a Flight Surgeon, a Doctor and several technical advisors assigned to the board. Two members of the board arrived at the scene on the 15th at about 5:15 PM and all members were present at Can Tho Airfield by 0900 on 16 January to commence the investigation.

In a portion of the accident report, the recovery of the wreckage is explained in some detail. Again, I will attempt to separate the report from the memories of those of us that were in country at the time. On the night of the 15th, two members of the board went to the site and performed a cursory inspection. They found the wreckage in a large rice paddy, inundated by 2 to 3 feet of water. It was also determined that Air Force search and rescue had already removed seven of the nine bodies. This varies a little from what is remembered by Sy Burdux and Terry McCurry. Sy remembers that the pilots' remains weren't discovered immediately as the cockpit section was buried under the forward transmission and several feet down into the mud. Terry remembers that the end of an electrical (cannon) plug that was sticking up from the rice paddy, lead to the section where the pilots were. The accident report says that the Major (passenger) was found in the walkway between the two pilot stations. I surmise that only six bodies were recovered the night of the 15th. A CIDG rifle company had moved into the area and set up a perimeter about 300 meters is diameter. This fact resulted in the inadvertent disturbance of several of the crashed aircraft's smaller components and pieces of wreckage. Considerable enthusiasm appears to have been generated in this initially arriving force in collecting scattered items and bringing them to a central location. The last three sentences appear to be a politically correct way of saying that the Vietnamese Popular Forces were attempting to steal anything not nailed down. A Captain in our maintenance platoon told me that he was walking toward the wreck and observed one of the soldiers pick up a can of hydraulic fluid and look around. The Captain told the soldier that it was "numba one", a term that meant good. The soldier stabbed a hole in the can with his bayonet and got a good mouthful before he realized that it was actually "numba ten", just the opposite. The report goes on to say that the area was secured for the night and states that a USAF C-47 (Call Sign "Spooky") fired some 28,000 rounds of automatic weapons fire and rockets in support of the security force. The main recovery was accomplished the next day hampered by enemy activity and by the two to three feet of water in the paddy. By 1830, the major components were extracted. The CIDG troops were extracted by Chinook at 1900 that night. When it was determined by the board that they would have to go back into the area, crash site security was requested through the IV Corps G-3. During the night of the 17th the area was prepared for re-entry by artillery fires and air strikes. At 0700 on the 18th, an artillery barrage further prepared the area and a company of CIDG Infantry was inserted with support from a light fire team. At 0900, the area was judged secure and the recovery team arrived. The aft transmission, accessory gearbox and components, number two engine and parts of rotor blades were recovered. A final sweep of the area was done but nothing further was recovered. Upon examination of the parts recovered in this operation it was discovered that indigenous personnel, either friendly or unfriendly had attempted to remove all or part of the remaining components but were only able to remove minor parts do to the weight and location of the remaining components. See above for my previous comment on this subject. Upon the recovery of these last items, security was extracted and the recovery phase concluded. It should be noted here that fellow Hillclimber personnel were the ones doing the recovery, a grim task for them indeed.

Several years were to pass before I learned the probable cause of the crash. I don't recall who I ran into that told me that a blade had failed causing the breakup and subsequent crash of 072. After visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC and seeing the names of the warriors who died that day, I decided to learn as much as I could about the incident. Sy Berdux supplied the cause. In an email to me he states, "The cause of the accident was the materiel failure of the aft green blade 12 feet 6 inches from the center of the vertical hinge pin. It was later determined that there was an occlusion (minute gap) in the spar materiel created during the manufacture of the spar". Though the accident report does not list the root cause of the crash, (this is the current policy of the USA Safety Center) there is a letter with an office symbol "BAAR-X" to the commander of the 222nd Aviation Battalion. The letter mentions the testing of a section of the green blade in fact failed in fatigue. Also stated is the fact that an inspection using an eddy current test was currently being performed on all CH-47 blades.

Nearly 33 years have passed since we lost the crew of Hillclimber 072, but all of us who were there have never forgotten. As long as their names remain on "The Wall", and as long as we live, we will remember.

I would like to acknowledge and thank those who helped me compile this information paper:

Sy Berdux, former Platoon Leader and Operations Officer in the 147th and pilot that I flew with on many occasions, for his excellent memory of the events that surrounded that day. In an interesting side note and to illustrate how small and close the CH-47 community was in those days, Sy was Bob and AJ's Instructor Pilot in the UH-19 phase of their initial flight training.

Terry McCurry, former pilot and aircraft commander in the 147th, also a flight school classmate and long time friend for his memories of Bob and AJ and the events of 15 January.

Joe "Wayne" Milles, former pilot and aircraft commander in the 147th, also a flight school classmate and long time friend for his memories of that day and for supplying pictures of Bob, AJ, the one Gunner, Ray Jackson and the aircraft 66-00072. These pictures were taken within a few days of the crash.

Josh Logan, former pilot and aircraft commander in the 147th and with whom I hung my ass out with on more than one occasion.

Brent Paulson, a former flight engineer, from the 330th Recovery Platoon and later the 147th for his memory and description of the crash scene. I met Brent via the Internet from a list of former members of the Hillclimbers.

Frank Griswold, a former pilot and flight leader of the pair of Mohawks that protected the crash scene. His account of the events of that day helped close the loose ends of this report.

The clerical staff at the United States Army Safety Center, for taking the time to copy and send me the report referenced here.

And finally to all that served the United States of America in the Vietnam War, simply the best people I've ever known.

George C. Miller
Copyright: October 1999, All rights reserved

George Miller photo