It turned out that the current commanding officer was Wing Commander Larrard, Royal Australian Air Force. He quickly approved my flight on the condition that I would come over and party with them the night before.
The next night I finished dinner and bummed a ride over to the ALO. Larrard met me with a firm hand shake and a cold can of Aussie lager. He introduced me around to other members of his crew. We soon pulled up chairs, popped more cold ones, and talked. I asked him all the usual questions regarding the operation and his tour all the while he kept handing me fresh cans of beer. Finally conversation moved on to the Bronco itself.
He loved the plane, "She's a pilot's aircraft. Quick, agile, plenty of power. You love to be up in her." A frustrated killer turned spotter, he realized the unused capacity of the aircraft. "All they give me is Willy Peter (white phosphorus) rockets for spotting. She's a great gun table, steady, lots of T.O.T (time on target) and as I said, she's plenty powerful. They could load me down and I could still do my mission. I'd love to have a mini on her and get in there and mix it up with Charley. It's a pure shame they won't let me. Waste of a great aircraft if you ask me."
With that I heard the sound of another can top being pierced and another Swan being handed to me. Good beer, ehh mate? Not like that Budweiser piss water you chaps have to drink.
I'd held my own in college drinking bouts but the Aussies were professionals. My dad had run into them in Casablanca toward the end of WWII and had been mightily impressed. "All you had to do was run the bar rag under a Frog's nose and they'd get high, but the Aussies, well they were another story. We're all sitting around in a bar one night in the French area and one of the guys had a fifth of bourbon we were passing around. An Aussie sergeant wandered by and we offered him a taste. The bottle must have been two thirds full. 'Don't mind if I do mates.' he said, then he tipped the bottle back and damn near drank it all in one swallow, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, smacked his lips and said, 'Thanks, mates. Not bad at all.' He walked away leaving all of us looking at the bottle in amazement. You don't want to drink with those Aussies." His wisdom was rattling around in my cranium but I was finding it more and more difficult to locate. I began trying to nurse my drinks but Commander Larrard would have none of it. "You can't bugger off now, mate, we've still got a fair amount of beer to kill."
I hung on as best I could. Somewhere along the line we all began to sing Waltzing Matilda rocking back and forth with arms draped around each others shoulders. I struggled to keep dinner inside my churning stomach and reason inside my head. Both insisted on being free. The night ended with a toast or two to Yank - Aussie friendship and my forced pledge that I had never tasted better beer than Australian beer: not in Canada, not in Germany and certainly not in Britain. In truth, by the end of the night, all beer was starting to taste alike and I was coming to the sad conclusion that I might never want to taste another one regardless of its nationality.
I have no idea how much sleep I got that night. The tent kept spinning in opposition to the world's rotation. My stomach growled and pitched like an angry sea. My head throbbed, my feet and hands felt swollen and stiff. But the sun came up and I felt compelled to rise to the challenge.
I cleared enough cobwebs from my mind to locate my dopf kit and towel, step into my Ho Chi Minh flip flops and aim my suffering body in the direction of the shower point. For once the breath stealing chill of the water felt good. I let it fall straight onto my noggin, the water massaging my temples, cooling my fever. I finished the shower and then, razor in hand, I acknowledged the grim face in the mirror. Thoughts of suicide were balanced against the idea of living out the work day feeling the way I did. Suicide was ahead on points going into the final round but I finally convinced myself that all of this would pass. Plus, I really did not want to miss that ride in the OV-10. I finished my shave and padded back to my hooch to dress stepping, lightly for fear I would further bruise my aching brain.
The smell of breakfast pulled me into the mess hall. I passed on the oatmeal and the S.O.S. and sought the warm comfort of greasy bacon and eggs to pour oil onto my troubled stomach waters. But though I was hungry I could not force the food down. I sat and stared at my plate wondering what had happened to my appetite between entering the mess and sitting down. I chewed on the edges of my toast, the crunch of each bite echoing painfully in my ears. I knew I had to eat something or my torture would continue unabated, but knowledge was easier to obtain than cure.
I carefully selected my route to the office tent, deliberately avoiding anyone I would either have to salute or whose salute I would have to return. I was sure the sudden lifting of my arm would jerk my stomach out of balance and bring about a sudden and violent up chuck of epic proportions. I made it to the tent unimpeded by military courtesy and sought the sanctuary of the coffee pot. Thank God Colonel Vicienza was either in a staff meeting or sleeping off his own "night before." The office could not have contained two such hangovers simultaneously.
Willy and Wayne wandered in and we worked for a while on selecting our sound bites for the show. I was in no mood to write script and so I procrastinated, telling them I would get back to the script before we left for Long Binh the next day. Then I sent them off for more interviews while I wandered down to the PX just so I could walk around and try and clear my head. By now I had reached the point where aspirin and a cold Coke could be brought into play and speed my recovery. I got both at the PX and then headed back toward the mess hall for lunch. I was able to get the soup and sandwich down and my tummy thanked me for not putting in more poison.
I returned to the tent so that Specialist Huckaby could give me a lift to the ALO office. There I was met by Larrard and his Aussie band. They were unbelievably chipper. I tried to pretend that I had not been seriously wounded by the activities of the previous night but I'm sure I detected a few winks and smirks on their part. They knew I was hanging on, praying for the bell to save me from the knockout punch. They fitted me up with a parachute, a shoulder holster with a Smith and Wesson .38 and a flight helmet. The parachute was a flat, lumpy sort of back pack. The bottom fourth of it rested on my rump ending about three inches south of the gluteus maximus crease. I tromped around feeling like a toddler with a load in a baggy diaper, all the while Larrard and the sergeants briefed me on emergency measures. They spent time explaining how you had to grip the ejection seat ring and tug it free. I tired to imagine my willingly ejecting from a plane and always came to the same conclusion that I would end up inside a pilot-less aircraft trying to fly and land her rather than bailing out. Larrard ended my internal debate by saying, "Don't worry mate, if we do get in a bit of a fix I'll launch you before I go myself." If those words were supposed to bring me comfort they failed.
We piled into their jeep and began the ride toward the aircraft. I was easily able to suppress whatever fears I harbored as I contemplated the OV-10. She looked like a P-38 from my father's war. I felt the little boy in me imagining the exhilaration of a combat flight. I eagerly climbed into the back seat noting that the second seat sat about a foot higher than the pilots. Then I waited as the sergeant strapped me in. I listened intently to each instruction, noted the maze of controls, located the black and yellow stripped ejection seat ring and then squirmed a bit to settle the parachute into a comfortable position. I remembered there was a red arrow on the fuselage marking the plane's center of gravity and realized the arrow pointed directly to where my hips were located. The cockpit was closed and Commander Larrard's confident voice came through the earphones inside my flight helmet. "She'll be a bit hot Lieutenant until we get airborne. There's a vent you can move about but there's not much escape from this sun."
I hadn't thought about such things prior to asking for a flight. The huge greenhouse on the OV-10 was designed with mission, not comfort, in mind. The inside of the plane had baked all morning as she sat on the flight line. The sun streamed through the plexiglass making a solar oven out of the cockpit. The sweat poured out of me, trailing down the sides of my face, running down my arms and legs, finding all the baggy places in my uniform to gather. Meanwhile, Larrard was going through his check list, revving the engines and talking with the tower. We taxied into position. He locked the brakes and pushed the throttle forward for one last test, then released the brakes and we began to roll. By now the heat was making things uncomfortable. I fidgeted to make the parachute comfortable and found that it wasn't to be. I might as well have been sitting on the bare metal seat itself for all the cushioning affect the chute offered. Still, my excitement reached a crescendo as we rolled toward the end of the strip, I watched as our shadow raced along the ground after us, saw the nose tip up and felt the power and speed of the plane. The angle of climb increased and I was pushed back against the rear of the seat but I could now feel the cooler air flowing into the area. We leveled off and I began to admire the design of the aircraft. The wings were above and behind us and the greenhouse bulged out over the fuselage. From the air the view was spectacular, clear and unobstructed in all directions.
WE flew on straight and level and then Larrard's voice came on again. "We'll be flying out to our run here for a minute and then I'll start my first orbit."
I gave an "OK" back as if I understood what was really going to happen. I imagined that we would fly in straight lines following the boundaries of the division's AO, or that we would fly in some huge, lazy circle. I had no idea of orbits.
"Here we go Lieutenant."
With that I saw the left wing tip drop and the plane turn until I was looking almost straight down. My respect for the aircraft's design increased as I took in the incredible size of the vista. We seemed to hang as straight as a sword, as if a giant wire were attached to the top wing dangling us parallel to earth. Once, twice, three times we orbited and then Larrard would snap her back and we would fly straight for a few minutes until the wing would drop again and we would begin another tight orbit. I soon became used to the idea that I would not fall out and that I could move my head in all directions and see even more. Larrard pointed out things he was looking for: trails, bunkers, changes in the landscape from previous missions, anything that might develop into intelligence of enemy activity or, even better, a fire mission for artillery or a ground target for a fighter bomber.
At first it was fascinating and time moved quickly. But then the continual orbits began to wear on me. The parachute had not grown any softer and the importance of that "center of gravity" marker was finally coming into play. During each orbit the G-forces went right through the center of gravity. That meant they went right through me. At the beginning of each orbit I felt myself being squeezed tighter against the bottom of my seat. I grasped the sides of the seat with my hands and pushed up, lifting my legs and my butt off of the metal but then I would have to sit down again. Circulation was cut off and I began to feel the tingle of my legs and butt "going to sleep." I looked at my watch and swore the hands had not moved for the past half hour.
I tried to think of how to broach the subject of mission length with Larrard. "Sir, how long do these missions run?" We overlap on each end so that at least one ALO is always in the air but the basic mission is three hours unless things get hot; then you go till the mission's over or your out of fuel and ammo."
Any enthusiasm I might have had to get involved in a real combat mission ended with that thought. I looked at my watch again and swore the hands had moved backwards. The day was stretching toward eternity. My butt was turning into pancake and the natural force of gravity was trying to locate my stomach and bladder.
We reached the final orbit on our line and began to work our way back toward Lai Khe following the same path and the same pattern we had used on the way out. The heat, the movement and the G-force were beginning to win the uneven contest. "Sir, what do I do if I have to blow lunch?"
"We keep a bag for that, Lieutenant. Here you go."
I saw his hand reach back and dangle a barf bag in front of me. I had no more grabbed it and brought it to my area when the headphones began to crackle. "Sidewinder 4, this is Dauntless 6. I got fire from my front. Can you take a look? Over."
"Dauntless 6, this is Sidewinder 4, Roger that. On my way. Give me your position."
I could hear faint sounds of small arms fire in the background. I looked down but saw nothing on the ground. The two voices, Larrard and the ground commander, calmly exchanged information. I was amazed at the lack of emotion, just direct, business like, straight forward exchanges of facts.
Before I had time to think about it Larrard spotted his target on the ground. I sensed the right wing come all the way over. All blue disappeared from my field of vision. The nose of the craft sought a point on the ground and the plane bored straight toward it. I felt the craft twist, a long smooth spiral. Sky reentered my sight but the ground was racing up to meet us. My stomach and other vital organs hung suspended inside my body cavity, that crazy feeling you can get as you crest a small rise on a country road except that this continued the length of our dive. I looked past Larrard's head and could see the ground clearly. I spotted a few isolated figures, men in jungle fatigues either lying on the ground or moving about hunched over, all looking in the direction we were headed. A short distance behind them was a slowly rising spiral of yellow smoke, marking their position for Larrard. I heard a whoosh emerge from outside the Bronco and suddenly saw two rockets trailing smoke and flame and heading for a clump of trees. Just before they hit, the nose of the OV-10 suddenly lifted and the earth disappeared from view. I was slammed back into the seat and then felt the craft spin hard to my right. I could look back and see the white smoke rising from the green trees as the Willy Peter burned in place.
Larrard and the ground commander were talking again. We went into a tight orbit, the plane seeming to snap into various angles and flight lines. The two rockets made it easy to spot the ground troops now. I could see the bursts of red tracer from the American M-60 drawing a line a bit to the west and south of the burning rockets. I heard "Roger, out." Through the head phones, and looked up just in time to see the right wing once more flip over my head. Again the sky disappeared, again my stomach floated, again the earth raced toward me.
Larrard adjusted his point to just where I had seen the tracer going. Then whoosh, no earth, slammed against seat, tight spin, and snap, into another orbit.
The ground commander's voice was back in my headset. Confirming the accuracy of Larrard's rockets. A third voice came on announcing the cooperation of an artillery unit. We moved away from the target and went into another orbit, Larrard's eyes focused on the area we had marked. We hung around long enough to watch the first rounds slam into the enemy area, and heard the adjustments being made. Not much was needed. Seconds later the target was smothered with red orange bursts and the dark gray smoke of artillery explosions. We flew on to our next orbit.
Things had happened so fast, I hadn't had time to be sick. I had been upside down, rolling over, diving, climbing, spinning. My stomach had no idea where it was and even less an idea of in which direction to push things in order to throw up. I felt awful but I no longer felt nauseous. I guessed that was progress.
We continued our string of orbits and then I heard the welcome voice of Lai Khe tower coordinating Larrard's landing approach. The heat, nowhere near as bad as when we took off, began to return to the cockpit. At last we rolled to a stop and the canopy was rolled back. I was stuck to my seat almost unable to move. My legs tingled from the lack of circulation and my uniform was damp and shapeless. The same sergeant that had strapped me in was there to help me out. I stood up, felt my legs wobble a bit, and then feeling began to return.
I walked away glad to have the whole thing behind me. I climbed into the back seat of the jeep and did not turn and look longingly back at the Bronco. My Aussie friends helped me out of the parachute and shoulder harness. I was whipped. They offered another beer and I knew that this was the final test. I accepted the challenge. If the flight had not turned my insides out one more beer was not going to matter. I finished it up, thanked Larrard and the sergeants, and began to walk back toward the office.
I was glad I had gone, but one ride on the Bronco was enough for this cowboy.