Tomorrow is Another Day Ch. 01byDinsmore©
This is a Vietnam War helicopter pilot story, based in significant detail on an actual event. I had intended to expand it into something more but was concerned that it might lose its impact if I did so. In case I decide to continue on with it, it is labeled as Part One but I'm not promising subsequent episodes.
At the very end is a short piece labeled "author unknown" called "The Man in the Doorway". It's been around for a few years; I received it from a man with whom I served in the RVN. I've researched it at length but after a year have come to the conclusion that it is truly anonymous. If the original author is still with us---hats off to him for this poignant little piece of prose.
June of 1970
"Fire in the hole!"
He'd repeated this process at least a thousand times. He listened carefully to the whine of the starter and the rapid click of the igniters…the rotor began to turn in a lazy arc. This part always gave him a sense of trepidation, a perceptible tightening in his sphincter. RPM coming up…exhaust gas temperature---EGT---starting to rise…everything normal…coming up on forty seconds. Come on you piece of shit; don't fuck with me this morning. We're already running late; give us a fucking break. The last thing we need is a fucking cold start or worse a hot start…YES!
That beautiful sound…kerosene coursing through the injectors…igniting…burning furiously at the rate of a pound every six seconds…the whine of the compressor blades gasping for air as the engine's revolutions climbed to 6,600 RPM…starter release…rotor coming up to speed. Everything was cool…no warning lights…all instruments in the green. Radio checks complete. Time to back this fifty foot turd out onto the taxiway from its tight confines.
Hung over…hate backing up…no wind this morning, that's a relief…fuck you've done it almost every day for the last eleven months and haven't bent one yet. Time for some training, he thought turning to the young pilot to his right. Young…yeah. The right seat, the pilot often derisively called the "peter pilot" was nineteen, flying with the most senior aircraft commander in the unit---who had just turned twenty-one the day before.
"You want to take us out of here?"
"I haven't backed out of one of these revetments before; this one is a hell of a lot tighter than the ones back in flight school." The revetment consisted of double stacked fifty-five gallon drums filled with sand and concrete.
"Don't over think it. Keep your eyes forward and watch the crew chief. Get it light, adjust the pedals, keep it low and straight."
Not bad, not bad at all for a first timer; good control touch…smooth. "You fly the aircraft, I'll handle the radios. Keep it slow; turn left at the last revetment. Good job…easy on the pedals…hold for a minute…keep it at a hover…we're number two. Okay, hover out onto the active…hold…engine and rotor in the green…no warning lights…EGT is a little high but well within limits…no cowboy shit…give me a nice flight school takeoff…you're cleared. Watch the tail…through translational…climb straight ahead now…left turn before we get to the mountain. Good! Take a break…I have the aircraft."
"You have the aircraft."
"I have the aircraft."
"Clear us left and below, Jake."
"Clear left and below, sir."
He loved flying South along the edge of the water; no bad guys out in the South China sea, below the tree line on the right and out of range of shoulder launched Strella missles and 51 caliber heavy machine guns...a difficult target for small arms fire. If the engine quit he was comfortable that he'd put it down on the sand without a scratch. Six feet off the beach? Maybe not quite…smooth…remember to complement the crew chief…no vibrations or at least no more than was typical at VNE or velocity not to exceed of 120 knots. Noise and vibration was a way of life in the complicated piece of trash manufactured by the lowest bidder.
"Jake, lock and load. You're cleared to test fire on my command---keep it under a hundred rounds---aim at something."
Good, the M60, 7.62 mm machine gun on his side of the aircraft purred like a contented kitten. A 180 degree turn now out over the clear blue water…test the right side.
"Okay, Walter, same rules, keep it under a hundred rounds…you're clear to test fire."
Good crew, good gunner…well maintained machine guns. Everything a-okay…so far.
"Cease fire and clear both weapons. Weapons cold on approach." He intoned, completing his 180 and continuing to follow the coastline.
What a beautiful fucking ocean! This place would make one hell of a vacation spot if it wasn't so completely fucked up. Right turn at the mouth of the river…slow it down to eighty knots but keep it low. The familiar reference points were ahead…hard climbing right turn…pop 'er up…there it was…the village to the left, the small steel planked runway to the right. No CIA Air America, Helio Courier or Porter on the runway…it was his runway. Hard right turn back into the wind…fuckin' perfect…lined up…watch the rotor RPM…bottom the collective…a little back in now…cyclic back…don't want to drag the tail stinger…that would be bad form…perfect! Take it to the ground…kiss it on…sight picture now…the crudely painted cross…yes! Rear skid contact simultaneously…no bobbling…full contact…flight idle on the throttle. The crew chief was at his side, opening his door as was expected procedure.
His peter pilot in the right seat was grinning from ear to ear. Fuckin' A! It was a picture perfect landing even by his often overly critical standards. With over a thousand hours in country, the UH-1H wasn't an aircraft he flew…it was a suit of clothing he put on day in and day out. Everything shitty about the last eleven months in this God forsaken country vanished as did his hangover with an approach and landing like the one he had just accomplished. It was at moments like this that he even considered extending for six months for the thirty day paid vacation anywhere in the world, in country instructor pilot training---and an eighteen month early out from the friggin' Army when he completed it…assuming he survived it.
Why not? He didn't have a wife or girl friend back in the states. There was no gaggle of friends from high school or college for him to miss. His dad was dead and his mother was wrapped up in her own life issues. He'd still have his full GI Bill benefits and could go back and complete his degree. He didn't hate the Army but he didn't see himself becoming a lifer. The right seat was looking over the mission sheet. Not much to read there…two words…food service. It sounded too damn civilized.
"What's this mission like, sir?"
"Rob, you don't have to call me sir; Ryan will do just fine. The only one you have to call sir in this platoon is the Captain. This is the best damn mission there is. We'll log ten hours today; we'll be lucky if we shut down more than once and that'll be for a maintenance check. No waiting around for some tight-ass colonel. We're going to deliver fresh food to the guys in the boonies. This afternoon we'll re-supply the Marine CAP teams because their 46s can't fit in most of the LZs---landing zones---and because they're a bunch of pussies. You'll get to see the mountains close up and they are quite spectacular.
"We'll log more landings and takeoffs than you can count, most of the hours are combat support but a few will probably be combat---we'll get shot at. By the end of the day you'll know this province like the back of your hand. At the end of the day there's also always some fresh chow left over---sometimes even a case of steaks. It's the most coveted mission on the books."
They refueled twice before noon, shutting down once to clean out the particle separator, check fluid levels and do a quick mini-daily inspection. By 1130 they had already logged four and a half hours. It had been uneventful; Ryan had given the new pilot as much stick times as was prudent. The kid was going to be a good pilot. Just before noon they heard the call.
"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, Eagle One-Nine, we've been hit…going down!"
As always happened in these cases Ryan thought ruefully, every friggin' USMC and Army commissioned officer in a helicopter within twenty miles, anxious for a Distinguished Flying Cross or whatever, tried to transmit at once, squelching the poor bastard going down as he was attempting to report his location. It didn't really matter to Ryan; he always kept track of the other aircraft in the vicinity, particularly the Division birds since they were relatively new to this part of the Republic of Vietnam and often made dumb ass mistakes.
"I have the aircraft." Ryan said and Rob responded appropriately as he relinquished control. Executing a hard right turn he flew parallel to, not toward the downed aircraft, much to his young pilot's chagrin.
"Aren't we going to offer assistance?"
"Listen to the radio, Rob. There are at least a dozen choppers offering assistance---many of whom aren't remotely in a position to do so. The rules are simple; the FAC on station is in command, in this case that grey, Air Force Oscar Deuce we've seen buzzing around all morning. He's got fast movers on call or in the air. If available and if they'll take the mission, Dustoff gets the job; if the bird on the ground is under fire---don't hold your breath on the Medivac boys. Let that Air Force LT in the Cessna sort it out. We're going to set down at Close Shave and stay the hell out of the way."
Ryan came to a hover in the forward refueling point less than three minutes away from the downed aircraft, set down and reduced the throttle to idle.
"Are we going to refuel, sir?" the crew chief inquired.
"Negative; we've got a thousand pounds and I'd like to keep it that way. Rob, switch FM2---the backup FM radio---to the Junkyard. Don't touch FM1---it's on the closest friendlies on the ground."
Ryan sat in silence for almost a minute, listening to three radios at once, silencing Rob's next question with a stern look and an open hand.
"Junkyard ops, Dog double deuce; confirm the status of your alert fire team."
"Junkyard one-five and a heavy team are off as of…four minutes ago."
"Tasked or free lance?"
"No call from Corps…just thought they ought to be up if needed. Are you in need of fire support?"
"Don't know yet; the zoomie LT is sorting things out. I'm at Close Shave in case 1-5 wants to join me."
"Roger that; I'll relay. He should be up on…button eight."
"This guy's good---the FAC---the Forward Air Controller. He's taking control---ordering all the wannabes well clear. He's got his fast movers up---they'll be on station in under a minute. Seven souls, no KIAs…three wounded in action, two not ambulatory. Oh fuck! Code on board, that means at least a full bull colonel! Wish that dumb prick hadn't made that call in the clear; now the whole world knows. Division Dustoff took a pass…claims they're low on fuel…right. Here comes One-Five."
Three nearly obsolete C model Huey helicopter gunships were on short final in a loose tactical formation. He knew one-five; one-five was almost as short as he was…first rate gunship aircraft commander and flight lead…big balls. They acknowledged each other with a simple double click of the mic switch. His own crew was gratefully silent as Ryan listened intently, now to four different radios. The call he expected came in on VHF.
"Dog double deuce, Anteater 33, what's your status?"
"On the ground at Close Shave along with a heavy fire team; we are available."
"I'll send the jarhead Cobras home. Standby."
"Jake, get that food service shit out of here. Tell the kid with it we'll come back and get him later. Seven round-eyes is a big load as it is---don't need any nonessentials." He turned to his pilot. "Marine Cobras are notoriously worthless; they break off their runs at 1,500 feet. Our guys start lower than that. "
"Didn't we make a drop off right near where they went down an hour ago?"
"Uh, huh. Low and hot. I'm betting they tried a high overhead and that fuckin' 51 that's been moving around that ridge line for the last month nailed them. Standby."
"Double Duece, Anteater. I estimate your ETA (Estimated time of Arrival) would be under five once cleared?"
"I'm going to work some arty on that ridge line and try to knock that 51 down; I'll hold the Phantoms for your extraction. The folks on the ground are reporting heavy small arms fire from the South and mortars from the East. I have friendlies moving in from the North but they're twenty to thirty minutes away. Standby." Five minutes elapsed.
"Double deuce, Anteater; you and your fire team are cleared in; wind is out of the NNW at about five knots. Come in from the East, break hard right at the road and come in low like you always do. Kung Fu is the IP."
Ryan spoke to his crew. "Kung Fu is an old Chinese temple---that's the Initial Point. Lock and load back there. Keep an eye on the gunships, keep your fire close in and remember there are friendlies to the North; Don't fire wildly---only if you have a target. Let's do it."
Ryan coordinated quickly with his gunship escort and the FAC. The guns would be on his left; thanks to the third aircraft provided by the heavy team, they could switch sides almost instantly. In seconds they were skimming along the tops of the trees, occasionally even touching the foliage with their skids. In front of them they could see the flash of explosions on the ridge line as the artillery did its work. To their right front the first F4 Phantom came screaming out of the sky to deliver its deadly cargo of high explosives and jellied gasoline. The distinctive spire of the ancient temple loomed ahead of them…towered above them.
"Deuce is IP," Ryan said into his boom mic, slowing his forward progress in anticipation of a delay.
"Deuce, you are cleared in. Mortars have been stopped, no 51, sporadic small arms coming from three hundred meters at your two o'clock. I'm marking now."
The twin engine push-pull, off-the-shelf prop plane went vertical, dispatching its final pair of 2.75 inch marking rockets. The C model guns with their twenty knot speed advantage quickly moved ahead of Ryan to suppress the enemy fire.
"I bracketed the small arms, Junkyard." the young, all-alone Air Force Pilot intoned.
"Taking fire, sir!" said the young enlisted machine gunner on the right side of the aircraft.
"Hold your fire! It's not aimed---it's over us. They're shooting at what they hear---not what they see. Stay cool."
In under ninety seconds the Huey skidded to a halt in the small clearing less than a thousand meters from the forward base which had been the downed helicopter's original destination.
"Jake! Walter! Get 'em on!" He need not have spoken those words into his helmet microphone; his kids knew their job. Two being carried, one holding his arm, another limping, the other three appeared okay. One huge son of a bitch carrying the biggest WIA over his shoulder while the other two uninjured carried the other non-ambulatory. Not a lot of room back there…let's go…get 'em strapped in…we've been here too fucking long.
"Clear right, sir!"
"Watch the gages, Rob; tell me at fifty pounds of torque---don't let me get past sixty-two."
The UH-1H was "redlined" at fifty pounds per square inch of torque but the manual clearly said you could go to sixty-two thanks to the newer L13 turbine and all that was required afterwards was a visual inspection. Much beyond that and you essentially had to tear the whole thing down and rebuild it---assuming the rotor hadn't come off or the transmission exploded or some such nefarious shit like that. Eight hundred pounds of fuel…plenty to get where they needed to go. A couple of those guys were big fuckers. Ryan did a quick weight estimate in his head, wished he could magically lose a few hundred pounds but that wasn't an option. Time to go.
"Anteater, double Deuce is ready to go."
"Hold one, Deuce."
Hold one? What the fuck was that all about? He heard the pop of the small arms fire; he felt the impact of the single round to his right rear. "You okay back there, Walter?"
"Let me take a look, sir."
"Keep your monkey strap on!"
"It hit the edge of the door."
"Anteater, we're taking fire, we're hit…need to go!"
"Roger, Deuce, my second fast mover is just breaking off his run. Your guns are coming back around…do it! Get the hell out of there!"
"Clear, sir!" came the reply from three voices in his headset.
"Instruments, Rob---instruments!" Ryan brought the Huey to a three foot hover; Rob called off the critical instrument parameters. Lowering back to a couple of inches off the ground Ryan eased the cyclic forward and began his takeoff run. Easing the bird through translational lift he accelerated forward, hurtling toward the tree line a few hundred meters in front of him. Clearing the trees by inches, he pushed the cyclic forward, pulled the collective pitch damn near into his arm pit and quickly achieved VNE. Breaking in the direction of the approaching friendly troops as previously planned, he listened intently for the distinctive popping of small arms fire; he heard it seemingly all around him. What he didn't hear or feel was the even more distinctive sound of rounds impacting his aircraft.
"Sixty-two pounds, Ryan."
"Roger that; Tell me when I'm back below fifty."
"Roger…you're…you're at fifty."
"Sir? One of the guys back here is a medic; he says this one guy is stable but in deep shit and a battalion aid station isn't going to do him a hell of a lot of good. He wants us to take him to the evac hospital."
"Tell him that's twenty minutes versus five; is he okay with that?"
Jake came back on the line in a matter of seconds. "Yeah, he says that would be the best."
"Seven hundred…give or take."
"That puts us at under four hundred---possible twenty-minute fuel warning light at the hospital pad; I don't like it, but there's fuel a minute from there. Keep a sharp eye on it, Rob."
"Anteater, Deuce. We need to take this one guy back to town. Vector me back to Route One and I'll take the highway."
"Got you covered."
They were at least five minutes into the twenty-minute fuel light when they landed at the hospital.
"Sir, the big guy who seems to be in charge back here wants you to shut down so he can…thank you."
"Tell him no thanks required, we're flying on fumes and we need to do an immediate inspection based on the over-torque. What's his rank, anyway?"
"I can't tell; I think he removed it when they went down."
"Rob, call company ops and---shit! We left that kid down at Close Shave!"
"You were kind of busy; I called them and brought them up to speed. The old man---the Major---is going to go pick him up in his ship and finish the food run."
"Good thinking, Rob. Hell, he loves that mission as much as the rest of us do. He's a damn third tour aviator and we're lucky to have him in command. Let's jump over and get some gas and head back to the barn for that over-torque check."
In under twenty minutes, they were refueled and hovering back into the company area.
"You have the aircraft, Rob, take her in. It's a hell of a lot easier going in than backing out."
The maintenance officer came out to supervise the over-torque inspection which indicated no damage.
"Ryan! Take a look at this!"
There was a second bullet hole. It had missed the engine's compressor housing by an inch. Had it hit the compressor they would never have gotten off the ground after picking up the downed crew and their passengers.