I was flying for the 108th Arty Group based out of Dong Ha, the northernmost aviation unit in Vietnam. When I first got there we had a mixture of OH-23G's and OH-6A's. We were the last unit in combat to fly the OH-23's and flew them until we converted over to the OH-58A's in November or December of 1969.
Now as a fresh Warrant in-country flying a helicopter without the aid of a more seasoned aircraft commander to "guide one" through his first operational unit flying, I like many was prone to the many pitfalls possibly. For me , getting to know the AO was a snap, as I had spent a previous tour in the Northern I Corps as a crew chief . I had in fact more time in the area, than the rest of the aviation section. I knew where Con Tien, Cam Lo, Camp J. J. Carroll, and all the other little active/inactive LZ/FSB were in the area. My AO checkout proved more of a history lesson to my Instructor, than a checkout for me.
Along with the AO familiarity, I had been around aviation for years, so I was relaxed with the radio traffic and terminology. But the days I was assigned to fly the OH-23G's proved to b e a challenge to say the least. Though the 23 is designed for a pilot and two passengers, in Vietnam summers with high Density Altitudes, you are happy to carry on e passenger especially if both of you have on heavy chicken plates and flack jackets.
During my 23 checkout, the autorotation got to me. Having been in hundred's of autorotation, both as a crew chief (several were the real deal.) As an Army flight student, none had fallen out of he sky like a 23. Forget looking through the chin bubble for a Landing Zone. No was in a 23! When things got quiet, look out the doors, as this is as far forward as you are going.
Well after several months flying, even the OH-23, I entered the danger period of all new pilots. I thought I knew more than I did. I was well past the white knuckled grips of the controls, and I was very comfortable being this dashing aviator. I only needed the colorful scarf, the Rolex, and a cigar, I had the sunglasses. You all surely get the picture - Smile. I flew every day begged for as much time as I could get, as for once I controlled my future- even in the OH-23G.
So bright and early one morning, in late July or early August I lifted off Dong Ha and headed on my appointed rounds. Sitting next to me was a Chaplain, and on the other side was his trusted aide, a very young Spec 4. Though we were overloaded, my "new found" pilot technique allowed me to get off the ground. My passengers were totally unaware of what I had done, and the possible danger they were in. The straining recep engine lifted us airborne, everything was on the red line. Fear not, I was a real Army Aviator, and they were in good hands.
We departed to the southwest, looking for the small tract of land that I had not carefully marked on my map. I was to drop them off, then pick them up an hour or so later. Without their knowledge I kept everything redlined
in order to gain some altitude. Skimming across those lush green rolling hills, my passengers did not know of the horrific fighting that had taken place just sixteen months earlier right under us. Poor prior planning on my part, not knowing the exact location of the LZ. So while gaining what altitude I could , looking down at the map (casually as not to infer to my passengers that I might be lost) and scanning the land before me for some telltale sigh of a Landing Zone, I sort of forgot about the engine and its gauges.
As I finely make it though 600 feet AGL, or so , it got very quiet. The engine had just up and quit! It was abrupt to say the least. I quickly looked down at the engine gauges, probably the first time since I had lifted off Dong Ha, and saw that they agreed with the silence. The engine had died. I quickly looked to my right and saw the Chaplain doing the sign of the cross, before I realized I should enter autorotation. I slammed the pedal, the collective and then prayed that we could make it out alive. I never got off a "Mayday," I am sure it was that fear had entered my soul and I had not overcome it.
There were no Flight Instructor sitting next to me to correct my errors. This one was totally on me . I didn't have that altitude to do a 180 or even a 90 to get into the wind, or for that matter find a Landing Zone. I was overloaded, though I am sure that it did not go thorough my mind at this time. As we quickly far too quickly approached the lush green rolling hills I realized that they were a lot more rolling than I had remembered. Now I was the pilot doing the landing, not in the back while my Aircraft Commander did the landing, and I checked to see if things were clear.
Pop collective, flatten skids, and slowly pulling the rest of the collective all the while trying to keep the bird straight. Down hard, with a bit of runoff. Any flight instructor would have chewed my butt, but we didn't roll over and there was no fire (my biggest fear in Vietnam). Before we stopped moving the Chaplains aide had bolted from the aircraft, and thankfully wasn't hit by the main rotor blades. He ran, well sprinted, is more like it, at least a hundred yards from the bird. The chaplain patted me on the right knee and said, "Good job son." He then unbuckled himself and waited for the rotors to stop turning, then stepped out and leaned against the bubble, as if nothing had happened. For me, I killed all the switches and tried calling Mayday. Problem was the Master Switch was off. I would like to think I found my error right away, but it took several minutes before I realized my error.
It took about a half hour for anyone to come out and rescue us. I had tied down the main rotor and then kept point about 25 feet in front of the bird looking for the NVA that surely were around, lurking in the green brush ready to capture three hapless Americans, When A Huey arrived, the Chaplain quickly climbed in and buckled up, ready to return to Dong Ha and get another aircraft to finish his daily rounds. The Spec 4 was something a bit different. It turns out this was his first helicopter ride, and according to him it would be his last. As he told me he would wait for the truck that came to pick up the 23, and ride in with them. I went to tell the Chaplain this and it took some powerful words from the Chaplain to finely get the Spec 4 into the Hey. As it lifted off, I noticed that the Spec 4 was Death White and his eyes where the largest I've ever seen on a man. That five minute flight was tough on him to say the least.
The lessons, at least for me, learned on this flight were multifold. For one the Density Altitude and the weight carried now became an issue for me whenever I flew in the 23. Next, no matter how beautiful it was skimming along the hills, in a 23 it was dangerous, so I flew with great altitude from then on. I always asked if the passengers had flown before. The most important one was to look at the gauges stupid! The aircraft was recovered, with a bent rear cross member and a cracked lower left chin bubble. I added several years to my life in less than a fifteen minute flight.
Note: by James White, 108th Arty Group, Dong Ha