Copyright 2002.  Paul Gregoire.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be copied, faxed, electronically transmitted, or in any other manner duplicated without express written permission of the author.   paulg@gypsumenterprises       

 

 

I always hated the Que Son Valley. Bad things often happened there. This is the story of a very bad thing.

 

 

The Flashbulb

 

 

In the fall of 1967 I was flying with HMM-263 operating out of Ky Ha, a small peninsula just north of the large airfield at Chu Lai, Vietnam. One of our primary missions was supporting the Marine infantry units operating in the dreaded Que Son Valley. One fine and fair day in late September I was assigned to lead a two helicopter section on a routine resupply mission to several units located at various places throughout the valley. It was threatening to be a beautiful day, the sun peeking over the eastern horizon as we took off.

I was flying a UH-34D, the workhorse helicopter of the Marine Corps since the mid ‘50s, which was being phased out by the new CH-46 Sea Knight. The one I was flying that morning was fresh out of overhaul and smelled brand new. The H-34 had been a good helicopter and was much loved by the crews that flew it because of its reliability and its ability to absorb punishment. It did have one shortcoming that was the cause of some concern. A large part of the fuselage was built out of magnesium. Magnesium was quite a bit lighter than aluminum and was used as a weight saving measure. The main drawback was that, unlike aluminum, magnesium could burn and burn fast. The last thing any H-34 pilot wanted was to have an in-flight fire. My two greatest fears in Vietnam were burning up in a helicopter and being captured, not necessarily in that order. Although I never heard or read it in any official source, it was a commonly held belief that there had never been an H-34 with a fuselage fire above 2000 feet that made it to the ground with any survivors. It was a $600,000 flashbulb.

My copilot on this day was a young 2nd Lt. who had been in Vietnam less than two months and had already succeeded in being awarded two Purple Hearts. The first was for some minor wounds caused by bullet fragments. The second was for taking an AK-47 round in the chest while sitting on the ground waiting for some medevacs to be loaded. Fortunately, at the time, he was wearing his ceramic chest protector, more commonly called a “bullet bouncer”. The round hit him directly over the heart causing the bullet bouncer to shatter, as it was designed to do, and small pieces of the ceramic plate were driven into his neck and face. The impact also pushed him up and out of the seat causing his shoulder straps to break and bruising his shoulders badly. In addition to that, the energy of the round impacting the plate was converted to heat which caused a pretty nasty burn to his chest. The combination of those factors put him out of action for a few days. As a result of these two incidents he had acquired the sobriquet “Magnet Ass Marv”. It was a fitting tribute.

            Our first stop was the LSA (Logistical Support Activity), a mid-sized supply base located in the flatlands at the mouth of the valley. We would spend the next few hours shuttling supplies of every stripe from here to the units in the field. After we landed, one of the supply troops climbed up the side of my helicopter and handed me a scrap of paper. On the note was scribbled a set of map coordinates and the frequency and call sign of our first customers of the day. While I was locating the spot on my map the LSA troops loaded my bird with boxes of C rations, a few five gallon cans of water and several boxes containing new socks, skivvies, and utility uniforms, commonly called “fatigues” by civilians and Army folks. My wingman was also loaded with some supplies and a passenger, the battalion pay officer, who was going out into the field to pay the troops.

            After our cargo was loaded we took off and climbed to our cruise altitude of 2200 feet. It was standard policy that we spent as little time as possible between 20 and 2000 feet. At those altitudes we were very susceptible to ground fire. It was healthier to stay above 2000 feet whenever you could. We climbed out while orbiting over the LSA then turned westward into the valley, headed for our first destination.  It was rather cool at altitude that morning so, contrary to my normal procedure, I had the sleeves on my Nomex flight suit rolled down. I was also wearing both of my new Nomex flight gloves contrary to my usual habit of wearing a glove only on my left hand — my throttle hand. We had been issued Nomex flight gear only recently and were required by regulation to wear it even though it was very hot and itched like hell. Although it was worse than wearing wool, the material was very fire retardant and, in fact, would melt rather than burn.

About 10 minutes west of the LSA, I felt the impact of the first round then a few more in quick succession. Big stuff, 12.7mm. Then silence for a few seconds followed by the crew chief coming up on the intercom and announcing in a calm voice, “Sir, we’re on fire.”  My immediate response was an unbelieving, “What?” He then repeated those words that I didn’t want to hear.

            “We’re on fire. There’s two fires in the forward fuel cells.”

            “Oh, Jesus!” I replied. “Use your fire bottle!”

            “I already have sir! It’s empty and we’re still burning. The fuel is on fire!”

            That settled it. We were going down — now! I dropped the collective control stick to the bottom of its range, reducing the pitch on the rotor blades, pushed the nose over with the cyclic stick, simultaneously backed off the throttle to idle and entered an autorotation. At the same time I keyed the radio and told my wingman we were on fire and going down. His reply was, “Say again, you’re garbled.” I repeated myself, a little more forcefully this time. “Gawdammit, I’m on fire and going down!” He rogered my transmission.

            An autorotation is normally an emergency procedure during which the engine is disconnected from the rotor system. Helicopter pilots frequently practice “shooting autos” to sharpen their skills in case of engine failure. Because we didn’t wear parachutes it was time well spent. A side benefit of an autorotation is that the rate of descent can be much faster than when the engine and rotor are engaged. During an autorotation the helicopter takes on all the aerodynamic properties of a brick. Descent rates of 6000 feet per minute can be achieved and that’s a good thing when you’re on fire.

With the collective bottomed out and with nose pushed over, our airspeed increased dangerously. There is a phenomenon in helicopter aerodynamics that bears the name “retreating blade tip stall” but is much more commonly referred to by pilots as “blade stall”. The explanation of this phenomenon is lengthy and convoluted but the effect is that, if you exceed a certain airspeed, the nose of the aircraft will pitch up and to the left. The action is immediate, violent, takes a couple of thousand feet of altitude to recover from and is frequently fatal. I could tell by the buffeting of the cyclic stick that we were approaching blade stall and eased the nose back to decrease my airspeed a bit.

            A separate and almost equally bad thing was happening because of the collective control being bottomed out. When the pitch on the rotor blades is reduced the rotor speed increases. In a normal autorotation rotor speed is controlled by the collective stick. When the collective is raised the pitch on the blades increas and the rotor speed drops and vice-versa. The collective is used to keep the rotor speed within a specific and safe range. With the collective bottomed out, the rotor speed was rapidly approaching the red line. To prevent the rotor from overspeeding I’d have to raise the collective a bit but in doing so I’d decrease our rate of descent and that might prove to be fatal because of the fire. As the rotor speed climbed above the red line Marv leaned over and tapped the RPM gauge to bring my attention to that fact. I simply looked at him and shrugged my shoulders. I’d made my decision. I’d rather take a chance on having the rotor blades fly off than burn to death in the air. The collective stayed on the bottom and the RPM continued to climb. The last time I looked it was well above red line and climbing.

            Seconds later I didn’t have to watch the RPM gauge any more because I couldn’t see it. The fire had grown to the point that the smoke grenades that the crew chief carried were “cooking off”, detonated by the intense heat and flames in the belly. The cockpit was soon filled with the colorful hues of the red, yellow and green smoke grenades and I couldn’t see anything. I could also hear the ammunition for the crew chief’s machine gun “cooking off” as we blindly headed for the ground at 5000 feet per minute.

            Now that I couldn’t see anything I was relying on my internal clock and experience to let me know what my altitude was. When I estimated I was about 250 feet above the ground I kicked in full left rudder to put the helicopter into “side flare” which was basically pushing the nose to the left and allowing the slip stream to clear the smoke from the cockpit while simultaneously setting up for a landing. Much to my surprise and chagrin I found myself at about 50 feet above the ground rather than the 250 feet I was anticipating. Because we were in a side flare I was looking out the cockpit door rather than through the windshield. As the smoke cleared and I was looking at the ground below us I saw the crew chief standing on landing gear A-frame outside of the helicopter! The fire inside had gotten so bad that he was forced to climb out onto the landing gear and he was hanging on to the main strut for dear life. There was no time to do anything except pull the nose up with the cyclic stick and pull the collective up as far as it would go to slow our rate of descent.

            We hit hard, tail wheel first and bounced. Then the left main landing gear hit and broke off, the wheel and tire bouncing up through the rotor system. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the crew chief being catapulted away from us as we hit the ground. To this day I swear that I saw him go through the rotor disk between the blades! Because the left main gear was gone, the rotor blades were smashing into the ground as they came around on their last rotation, throwing up large clouds of dirt and debris. Soon everything stopped moving and all I could hear was the roar of the fire and ammo exploding in the belly. I reached up to set the rotor brake for no good reason except for habit and training. The rotor system was now nonexistent. When I reached for the brake I saw that it was already set and that the copilot’s seat was empty. Then I looked down and saw flames around my legs and all around the cyclic stick. Looking to my right, I saw Marv standing on the ground on my side of the helicopter frantically waving at me to get out. I unfastened my shoulder harness, shrugged out of the straps and dove headfirst out of the cockpit to get away from the fire. It was a long way down and I hit hard, stunning myself momentarily. When I came to my senses I opened my eyes and discovered that I couldn’t see! I came close to panic then realized that my helmet visor was down and covered with mud. When I pushed the visor up my vision was miraculously restored!

            As I stood up I saw the crew chief running toward us. He had been thrown clear of the crash on the second bounce and ended up in a small hedgerow a few yards away. He was scratched and bruised but otherwise unhurt from his remarkable experience. While Marv was attempting to remove the crew chief’s M-60 from its mount I started looking for the gunner. He quickly came running from the rear of the bird carrying his M-60. He was also bruised and banged up but otherwise okay and ready for a fight. He told me later that when the fire got really bad he moved into the electronics compartment behind the passenger compartment and pulled some of the boxes of cargo behind him to shield him from the flames. On the second bounce the tail broke off right behind him and in two steps he was free of the burning aircraft!

            Marv had finally retrieved the M-60 from the flames, burning his arms in the process, but giving us a second operable machine gun. It was about then that we heard voices shouting in Vietnamese. We couldn’t see very far because of the hedgerows and tree lines around us but they sounded close. We were easy to spot because a greasy black column of smoke was rising about a thousand feet into the blue sky clearly marking our position. The choice was simple, we were going to go in the opposite direction. I reached into the pocket of my chest protector and pulled out my survival radio. I pushed the switch to the “voice” position and called my wingman who was orbiting overhead at about 1000 feet. Using my standard call sign I let him know that we were all alive, capable of moving and were about to engage with an unknown number of enemy coming at us from the west. After a quick conference we decided that he would land in a small field about 200 yards due east of us to pick us up. That would put at least three tree lines between his aircraft and our blazing pyre. He would come in low from the east and try to keep the bad guys from seeing exactly where he was landing.

            We headed out with the gunner in the lead with his M-60, followed by the crew chief, then me with my .45 and Marv bringing up the rear with the other M-60. The crew chief was a little miffed because Marv wouldn’t give him back his machine gun but Marv was playing finders-keepers. As we made our way from tree line to tree line I had to keep yelling at Marv to move it. He insisted on walking backwards, occasionally sending a burst into the brush behind us whenever he heard a voice. I contemplated taking the M-60 away from him but decided against it. This wasn’t the time for it. Finally we saw my wingman making his low approach and landing into the field directly ahead of us. Man, what an unbelievable racket! No wonder the grunts didn’t like having us around.

As we broke through the hedgerow I saw his crew dumping their boxes of cargo onto the ground to make room for us. We scrambled aboard while Marv continued to fire into the brush. I grabbed him by the collar and pulled him into the bird just as we lifted off. I looked up and saw the paymaster standing in the corner with eyes as big as silver dollars holding his .45 in his hand. He looked as scared as I felt. As we climbed to a safe altitude we could see people in black pajamas below us running around with no apparent direction. I could see that they were armed and told the guys with machine guns to open up on them. I stood in the doorway and emptied my .45 in their general direction. When it was empty I took away the M-60 away from Marv and finished off a belt of ammo before handing it back to him. Then I collapsed.

            I was suddenly in a lot of pain. My back felt like it was on fire. The “landing” had been hard enough to cause compression fractures in two lumbar vertebrae but it would be a few weeks before I would find out what was wrong. My wingman flew back to the LSA and landed, disembarking our paymaster passenger who now had a pretty decent war story to tell his grandchildren. Someone rounded up a corpsman from somewhere to help us out. I was in a lot of pain and so was Marv. He had also sustained a back injury in the crash and had some pretty bad burns on his arms. Our Nomex flight suits had prevented any more serious burns and I was thankful that they had been issued to us. The corpsman gave me a shot of morphine for the pain and it helped.

            Standard operating procedure was that we always flew in pairs and never as a single aircraft. Because our injuries weren’t life threatening we decided to wait until we could join up with another flight back to Ky Ha. While we waited, my wingman and I talked over the incident. He told me that he was surprised to see us running around the aircraft after we hit the ground. He thought there would be no survivors because from 1000 feet on down to the ground all he saw was a ball of flames. He thought I had lost my rotor blades because he saw large pieces of the aircraft coming off as we plummeted to the ground. We decided that what he probably saw was large pieces of the skin coming off of the fuselage. After a few hours of waiting and calling on the radio, trying to contact anyone to join up with, we gave up. The corpsman gave me another morphine shot for the flight home and we left. The trip was uneventful and we landed well before dark. It was nice to be back alive.

            I spent the next few days in my hooch, flat on my back, gobbling pain pills prescribed by our flight surgeon. Soon I was able to hobble around and do a few things. A bed was moved into the operations duty officer’s office and I assumed that position on a semi-fulltime basis. About a week after the incident, while I was at my post in my bed, I received a visit from Major General Norm Anderson, the commanding general of the 1st Marine Air Wing. The general shook my hand, congratulated me on getting everybody down alive and asked me not to burn up any more of his helicopters. I assured him I’d do my best not to.

            Marv was gone within a few days of our shootdown. That was his third Purple Heart in less than two months and he was sent to Okinawa for treatment for his back and to finish out his tour. After a couple of weeks I felt good enough to try to get back on the flight schedule and the flight surgeon cleared me to fly. It didn’t last long. Extended flights could become excruciating and even short hops were no fun. Finally, in November, I flew my last mission in Vietnam. It was a long, scary SOG mission into Laos that turned real bad and a story for another time. I was sent to Okinawa where I finally got my back X-rayed and the two compression fractures were found.

            I spent the next few months on Okinawa in an outpatient status undergoing physical therapy for my back injury. It was one of the best tours I ever had in the Corps. I discovered stewardesses, those beautiful creatures that had become a prominent feature for guys going to and from Vietnam. The Military Airlift Command had contracted with civilian airlines to fly the troops into and out of Vietnam and the flights were manned by these lovelies. Many of these girls spent time in Okinawa, making shuttle runs to Vietnam, and they needed entertaining on their time off between flights. I made it my mission to entertain them. In time I married the prettiest one I ever saw. She still rubs my back — when I deserve it.