"Super Subsonic Fighter"
Submitted by -1LT Robert Brewster, Headhunter 37, 3rd PLT Qui Nhon Sep '70-Oct '71
It is around April 1971. I am based in Qui Nhon with the 219th 3rd platoon. The Birddog is an unusual airplane. Specifically built to Army specifications as an observation airplane and radio relay airplane, it also is an excellent aircraft for forward air controller (FAC) duties. While assigned to the 3rd platoon, we got to know many of the units that we worked with in the air by call signs and voices. Rarely did we ever meet the people we supported who flew side by side with us. This was particularly true of any assault gunships or tactical air from the Air Force. However, there was one time where I had a chance to meet several pilots from an assault helicopter company (AHC) based between Qui Nhon and the Mang Yang Pass on the way to Pleiku. I cannot recall the units name or even its call sign but we worked with them a lot in the areas around Phu Cat.
The pilots from this AHC offered several of us the chance to obtain some High Explosive (HE) and Fleshette (Nails) rockets. I remember along with CWO Larry White and I think also CWO Jim McDevit taking a Deuce and a half truck from Qui Nhon to the AHC base some twenty miles away to pick up these rockets. When we returned to Qui Nhon, I was all hyped up to do some “damage” with them. Our Bird Dogs were outfitted with four rocket tubes - two on each wing. We normally carried four 2.75 inch White Phosphorous (WP) rockets. When fired to spot a target the WP rocket would send up a plume of pure white smoke hundreds of feet in the air from the ground. This smoke could be seen for miles and it was our main tool for bringing in air strikes or gunships on the enemy.
Anxious to fire these HE and Nails rockets, I got up at “0-Dark thirty” one morning. There was a valley where I always saw heavily used trails but never any bad guys. The bad guys worked and traveled at night but this day with my new load of rockets (2-HE and 2-Nails) I was going to get there just at the break of light and catch them out in the open. With the help of my crew chief we first loaded two HE rockets. To my surprise they stuck out almost two feet in the rocket tube’s front. The WP rocket’s nose stuck out maybe eight inches so this was a big difference to me. Then we loaded the Nails rockets and they were the opposite barely sticking out of the rocket tube at all.
All loaded, I felt like a “super subsonic fighter” - dangerous, stealthy and ready to show the enemy what I had. While still dark, I departed Qui Nhon for a valley west of Phu Cat in Binh Dinh Province called the Crow’s Foot. There were many valleys running up and down this mountainous region and they resembled a crow’s foot from the air. My tactic was to low level on the treetops perpendicular on one valley side and pop over the ridgeline down into the next valley. This morning my timing was perfect! As I popped over the first ridgeline, I could not believe my eyes. There were hundreds of black clad people running every direction. I quickly pulled up and armed the HE rockets. I did a semi-split S maneuver and pointed my Bird Dog’s nose at the running bad guys. I pulled the trigger to fire one HE rocket and off it went with more power than any WP rocket. I watched the rocket head for a large group of people and….nothing happened. I swung around from a different direction and armed the second HE rocket. I fired! And, still nothing happened. Neither rocket exploded on the ground. Now, people are disappearing into the jungle. I am desperate to do something. I swing around on another pass. This time I will fire a Fleshette rocket. I pull the trigger and the rocket heads toward a large group. Nothing happens! I fire the second Nails rocket on my last pass and unbelievably still nothing happens again. I have fired all four rockets – two HE and two Fleshette without any of them exploding! What is going on? The WP rockets would all have exploded. I cannot figure it out.
All told only a few minutes had passed since I made my initial surprise attack over the valley ridgeline. In spite of small arms ground fire I am not hit anywhere. It is daylight and everyone has disappeared. I search around the area and see nothing. Later that day I would go back out with a second aircraft, an Air Force O-2 and we would put tactical air strikes in along the valley. But, we see nothing. That night I would learn that both the HE and Fleshette rockets need minimum distances to arm themselves before impacting or exploding. Of course, I am at tree top level, maybe 300-500 feet above ground level at the highest when I fired and too low for the rockets to arm themselves. What a threat I am! Better stick with what I know. But, I do know this much - I scared the crap out those bad guys! At least they would think longer and harder about shooting at any Bird Dog flying overhead after that day.
"The Day We Lost Dave Cinkosky"
Submitted by - CWO Dale Bennet, Pilot, 4th PLT, Bam Me Thout, Mar '71-Oct '71
CCS - David Edward Cinkosky, KIA 5 August 1971
Below is my memory of this day.
Dave was just back eight days from his home leave, after his first tour. The night before his final flight, Dave said lets go to the O-club for a beer. I said ok but it was a little strange because Dave rarely drank and other than pilots, who had their own bars, there were only two other officers at BMT. The club was empty and we sat at the bar and had a couple of beers. During our talk I asked Dave why he had extended for another year. He said, “I think what we were doing is significant and we were saving lives in Viet Nam.” I hadn’t thought about it much but agreed with him and said they at least let us fight in Cambodia.
The next afternoon Dave and I flew out to the launch site at Duc Lap. Cpt. Tangney briefed us and gave us the grid quadrants of the area he wanted us to recon. He then introduced us to a Yard who he said was his best team leader. He said he would be taking a team in soon near our area today and would we take him along. If we had time would we fly over his area and also check some LZ’s. I don’t know why it was a request rather than an order other then we hadn’t done it before. We said sure and that he would be in Dave’s back seat as he was low bird today. Our rocket tubes were loaded with all HE today. We flew out to the area and Dave dropped to the deck to do the recon. Low level for us was less than 50 feet above whatever was solid. The high bird navigates and vectors the low bird around the area. No electronic navigational systems were available so we did everything with maps and a compass but our maps were very good. The maps were topographical with photo overlays and stamped Top Secret. The low bird would say something like “off my right wing…..now, I have two bunkers and their estimated size is….” The high bird would right down the grid coordinates and take notes; we could always get a six digit grid coordinate which put it within ten meters with an eight digit about 40% of the time which put us within one meter. In fact that day we did spot two bunkers and less than 50 meters north of them was a very dense area that looked like camouflage but we couldn’t see in. We were out in the middle of nowhere; the bunkers must have a reason to be there. I than vectored Dave to the area the one zero wanted to look at which was less than two clicks away. We didn’t want to spend too much time in the area because we didn’t want to alert them to our interest in the area. A quick look showed some active trails but nothing else. The area had two good LZ’s and we couldn’t see any booby traps or firing positions around them.
Done, we headed back with Dave staying low as we would look for a target to fire our rockets at. (We normally fired our rockets on low level passes) No one liked to unload live rockets at Duc Lap and we weren’t allowed to have them in Darlac province. Mondolkiri city was on our way back and always had bad guys and buildings to shoot at. We decided to have a look to see if anything new was going on. I dropped back and vectored Dave in up wind near the air strip then he was on his own. We tried to sneak up on them and once in a while it worked. I was above and just behind him now. Dave was at about 20 feet and made a turn down a slight slope and between a hill and a three story building. I then heard heavy ground fire and the nose of his aircraft pitched up sharply which is not normal. I called him “Snoopy 2, Snoopy 3…..Snoopy 2, Snoopy 3 what’s happening” (Now I started to see everything in slow motion.) The nose dropped and it looked like he had pulled power and was in a slow glide to the right toward the hill. Then the right wing tip touched the ground, it cartwheeled next hitting the prop and it looked like it exploded sending chards of Plexiglas and metal into a cloud. The wings had separated and the fuselage form the back window to the prop was missing! I was flying around starring at the crash site trying not to believe what I had just seen when I heard “Snoopy this is Mike _ _ on guard, is that one of your birds down? “ (USAF FAC’s call sign Mike flying 0-2 aircraft) They were always in the AO at 4 to 5,000 feet ready for something to happen. If nothing else was going on they would keep track of us. He said it looked like no one could have survived. I said he was strapped to his seat and could have been thrown free and be alive. I was thinking two things: no way was I going to say he was dead without seeing his body and I wouldn’t let him become MIA. Mike asked me what I wanted and I asked what I could have, he said I could have anything I wanted. I said I wanted the guns to hit them hard then a recovery team and when they were clear, TACAIR to blow the shit out of anything still alive. I showed Mike the primary and secondary targets and turned the operation over to him.
I climbed to about 3,000 feet and went into a slow orbit, out of the way but where I could see everything. I was low on fuel but planned to stay until I could see the recovery team go in. I leaned out my fuel mixture as much as I could and pulled back the throttle to just maintain altitude and waited. Four Green Hornet guns show up and the FAC gave them instructions including my location and cleared them hot on the target. They went in on the target in their normal pairs, firing their mini-guns and rockets. (Each gun ship carries 14 rockets.) As the first pair rolls off target the second pair rolls in hot. They fly in an oval keeping this pattern of continues firing on the target. After a couple of passes trees and camouflage was blown away and I could see a large building about 40’ X 80’ some out structures and some bunkers. I was surprised when the recover team showed up in the spare gun ship. I expected to see an H 34 Kingbee not an American crewed chopper. The guns continued to fire as the recovery team landed and Cpt. Tangney jumped out with some Yards to recover the bodies. I told the FAC that I was going back by the southern route which had some areas that you could land on. I told the FAC that I was extremely low on fuel and may have to make an emergency landing. On the way back one tank went dry and the engine sputtered, I quickly changed tanks and the engine came back to life. I babied it back and made a straight in, down wind landing. I taxied to the refueling area and shut down. When I refueled I could see the bottom of the left tank, it was completely dry and the right tank had about ¼ inch in it. I walked down to where the recovery ship had landed and told them I wanted to see the body. They pointed to a body bay and asked if I wanted it opened. The body bag had a large amount of blood all over it. They explained that he had taken a round to the head just under the jaw and it had blown the top of his head off. I declined on opening the bag. The Yard one zero was most likely killed in the crash. I walked to the briefing tent and stopped just outside as I saw Cpt. Tangney with his back to me talking on the radio. He was reporting that “I” had just been killed! After he finished he turned around and froze staring at me and me at him, no words spoken. He had turned a bit pale then quickly turned and was back on the radio changing the KIA. He debriefed me then I flew back to BMT. I think the bullet had misshaped Dave’s face and we didn’t always have name tags, he assumed it was me because Dave had a lot more experience. When I shut down on our ramp the entire platoon including crew chiefs were waiting for me. When I got out it was very awkward as no one knew what to say. Our sergeant had a cold six pack of beer and he held one out and asked ‘Would you like a beer Mr. Bennett” I drank the beer straight down I was so thirsty and then realized my flight suit was soaking wet. The sergeant handed me another beer and everyone started talking at the same time. We went back to our bar which had A/C and I told everyone the above story.
The next day Cpt. Estill wanted me to fly the afternoon CCS mission and I said I go on R&R tomorrow and didn’t want to fly. He said I needed to get back in the saddle right away. (he is from Texas) I said the saddle will be there when I get back I just really need a break. The next morning I hoped on a Hughie going to Plieku. We landed on a strip about a third of the way to Plieku The pilot said that the weather was too bad to fly any farther north. I started a conversation with a first lieutenant and sergeant sitting in a jeep. They said they were going to Plieku and I asked for a ride. They said ok and I jumped in the back. They handed me a steel pot, flack jacket and M-16 saying we can use another rifle. I asked if we were going to join a convoy and he said no it’s just us, any problem with that? I said no, let’s go. That night I was playing poker in our company bar when our CO walked through and saw me and said “Bennett what the hell are you doing here?” “I said “I’m going on R&R” He said “We have been socked in for three days how did you get here....never mind I don’t want to know.” and walked out. My first day back from R&R I flew the CCS mission and on the way back flew over the crash site. All the vegetation and structures were completely gone and the entire hill looked like it had been lowered about 2 meters. I found out later that the Mike FAC had expended three sets of TACAIR on the hill. I continued to fly the CCS mission until about two weeks before my DROS 27 October 1971.
"Eyeball to Eyeball with the Enemy"
Submitted by -1LT Robert Brewster, Headhunter 37, 3rd PLT LZ English Sep '70-Oct '71
AUGUST 1971 In 1970-71, we all knew the bad guys were down there watching us. Had we been any higher per the "rules" they would have had a better chance of hitting us. And because the friendly ground forces were getting scarce throughout the AO as the good guys pulled back, flying low was not breaking any rules, it was to me self preservation,. Plus how close can you fly a Bird Dog to the ground without hitting anything? I was flying low level down Happy Valley near the Mang Yang Pass. My wheels felt like they were on the water when I made a slight turn to the right as the river curved. Right under my left wing tip only a few feet away was a fully outfitted NVA Regular in mid stride. New pith hat, canteen with cover, new uniform, AK, etc. We surprised the hell out of each other and I will never forget looking into his eyes just the length of the wing away. Of course I was gone in a split second and he disappeared back into the jungle. Turned out a few weeks later that he was part of a large NVA Regiment moving south filling in the areas we were leaving. What an airplane! Just slow enough to see things and just fast enough to get away. As O-1 pilots in RVN, I think we were the last of an era stretching back to the early beginnings of airplane flying.
"Crew Chief on the Ground & in the Air"
Submitted by -SGT Ed Grisham. 11 Bravo, 3rd PLT LZ English
1970-71. I would like to add my two cents worth in regards to low level flight and other experiences that serving with the 219th Headhunters gave me. During my tour in 1970-1971 at LZ English working from the back as I did afforded me some opportunities that I might not have had with other platoons (good or bad). Of course, many Crew chiefs and Observers experienced the same types of situations on a different days and possibly a different AO but regardless, I think that we all would agree and stand united when I say that anytime we left the ground we as a crew were very vulnerable to having our asses shot down to say it mildly! During my tour at LZ English I believe because of its isolated distant location away from the Company area the enlisted and officers alike mingled probably a little closer than some of the other platoons. Of course, I fully understand why the separation between the ranks but, at English sometimes survival of the basic commodities was hard to come by therefore Enlisted as well as Officers were forced to survive and scrounge together. I firmly believe that this environment forged a very strong bond between us all that I consider a privilege to have encountered and has lasted until this day. Oh, Lance Holmes will agree with me that if Major Arlie Deaton would have known how many times Lance and myself volunteered and left our compound on foot patrols with a 173rd Airborne unit we would still be locked up! I know you remember those early days Lance! The Jeep trip from LZ English to Phu Cat Airbase and back and the M-79 taking out the Water Buffalo is another story that I will save for another day.
Bob, when you mention that look in the eyes of that particular VC I can absolutely recall the same experiences numerous times that you describe. I may not remember what I had for breakfast yesterday but, I will tell you that there are many visions that flash through my mind on a frequent basis that create this scenario over and over again. I vividly remember targets of opportunity exposing themselves for me from the backseat on many occasions only because we were "cranking" tightly on our wingtip over a hole in the jungle canopy at "tree top level" that miraculously seemed to appear at the most opportune time. I'm certain that the Fishhook, An Loa, Sui Ca Valley, Tiger Mountains etc will bring back many memories to many of you out there. For-sure, getting back in one piece would not have happened if it were not for the excellent piloting skills of our pilots! Talk about flying by the "seat of your pants"!! It is absolutely true that it was an everyday occurrence to be shot down on as well as up at when flying in and out of these valleys! I know first hand that we made a big difference to the successful outcome of many missions during our time and saved many lives allowing a few more of our comrades to come home and for this, I am proud of all of our service.
Something that I have wanted to say to everyone (pilots & crew) for a long time is what an honor it was for me personally to serve with such a brave group of men! It has also been an honor to have attended all of the reunions besides the first one I believe that involved just a few folks. I know that we all are moving upward in ours years and one thing that is so humbling to me while attending our reunions is fact that when I look around the room and see aging warriors as our group is there is a constant reminder to me that these are the most brave men that ever went off to war because I saw many of you when you and I were young fighting men. You see, I know first hand how thoroughly competent our group was because I was there like all of us were regardless of rank and saw the constant bravery and sacrifices that the 219th was willing to make even at the risk of there own lives. I can honestly tell you that each and every time that I loaded up my weapons into the backseat that I would have sacrificed my life to bring my pilot back alive if I had the capacity to do so and I believe firmly that all of us back seaters, Crew chiefs etc felt that responsibility to our pilots,,, our hero's! Sure, we are a tuff bunch but, as tuff as we all are I have the seen the tears well-up in the eyes of our aging warriors during the most intimate personal moments of tribute when our reunion group reflects on lost comrades during the war and since.
For me personally, I can recall flying on many missions with no less than 8 different pilots during my 219th time. Of course, by nature each and every pilot had his own differentiating personality and flying habits, aggressiveness etc but, there was always one common denominator and that was to be the best that he could be each and every mission, even at "First Light" and after a hard night drinking!
With that, I will close and wish all of you well and look forward to seeing all of you at the next reunion.
"Timing is Everything"
Submitted by -1LT Robert Brewster, Headhunter 37, 3rd PLT Qui Nhon, Sep '70-Oct '71
While assigned to the 3rd Platoon in Qui Nhon mid-1971, I loved to fly the Bird Dog low level over the beaches to the north near the Phu Cat Mountains. The beaches in Vietnam were beautiful and north of Qui Nhon they were also very wide. The mountains dropped right down into the sand which ran out into the South China Sea. We rarely saw any people on these beaches. The Phu Cat Mountains harbored a lot of the enemy both VC and North Vietnamese Regulars making the wide beach exposure very dangerous.
I found the beaches to be very relaxing. Often times, heading north or south on missions I would drop down within five to ten feet of the water and lazily bank my aircraft back and forth, first over water then over sand. On this particular day, it was bright sunshine with no clouds. I could see my Bird Dog’s shadow below me on the beach as though I was formation flying with another airplane. I could have been anywhere else in the world enjoying a peaceful flight in beautiful surroundings but this was still a war zone.
As I zig zagged back and forth across the waves and then over the sand suddenly there was an explosion directly in front of my aircraft. Everything turned black in front of me as smoke and sand flew up into the aircraft and through the propeller. I had all my side windows open and sand and dirt flew inside the cockpit. Fortunately I had my helmet visor down preventing the sand from hitting my eyes, face and mouth.
Without thinking, I instinctively banked to the left to fly out over the water away from the beach. My thoughts were that my complacency led me to fly into a mortar or rocket attack from the nearby mountainside. I pushed the throttle full forward and I remember leaning forward in the pilot’s seat hoping it would help me get away from the beach faster as I banked one way then another trying to get away. I looked at all my engine gauges. The oil pressure and engine RPM were still normal. My fear was an engine failure and ditching in the water. I waited for more rounds to hit but nothing else happened. I looked back toward the beach and saw a large cloud of smoke and dust climbing up from the sand. Nothing else was visible. Was this just one round?
I immediately flew back to Qui Nhon where after landing I inspected the O-1 and found nothing. No hit marks, shrapnel or any damage. I turned in a report that I had taken ground fire from somewhere in the mountains without sustaining any damage. That night I went to the Navy Officers Club in Qui Nhon City. There I met a Navy Seal. Upon telling him my story from that day, he volunteered to check out the beach area where the explosion occurred. I questioned him as to how he could do that and he told me he had a Boston Whaler that they used for patrols. I was surprised (nothing should surprise anybody about a Navy Seal) and I told him “Yes, please let me know if you find anything”. Truthfully, I thought he was joking with me and that I would hear nothing from him.
A week later I see my Navy Seal friend again. I ask if he had a chance to visit the beach as we discussed. He told me “Oh, yes! And, you will never believe what I found out there.” I asked him about what he found and he went on to tell me that there was a very large crater in the beach at the location I told him about. He said I was very lucky. When I questioned out loud what could have happened he told me that there were pieces of sea turtle scattered all over the crater and sand. Apparently, at the exact time that I was low leveling from the ocean surf back over the beach sand, a large green sea turtle was digging a hole in the sand and hit a land mine. He told me that the whole beach area north of Qui Nhon was full of landmines from the French, the U.S. and others. This made the beach very unsafe and the reason why no one was ever seen walking out there.
Incredibly, of all the close calls I experienced in Vietnam during my year of flying Bird Dogs where I could have crashed or died, this was probably the closest. The irony is that if I was a few seconds faster and had actually crashed and died, I would have been killed by one of the slowest and most gentle creatures on Earth – a sea turtle! Timing is truly everything!
"Letting Go of the Controls"
Submitted by -1LT Robert Brewster, Headhunter 37, 3rd PLT Qui Nhon, Sep '70-Oct '71
It was April 23, 1971, in Happy Valley--a very dangerous mountainous area near the Mang Yang Pass. I was flying my O-1 on a regular recon mission without any specific target. This was an area I had flown over dozens of time in the past but on this day I saw a heavily used trail running along the valley floor near the tree line. The valley floor to the mountaintops in this area was probably 1,500 to 2,000 feet. As I followed this trail I banked first to the left then to the right while concentrating my full attention on the trail below. As the trail went up the mountainside so did I. Continuing to bank side to side I was also subconsciously applying more engine power to keep up my climb. I was so absorbed in watching the trail below that I failed to hear the aircraft engine slowing. This was a fixed pitch propeller without any governor. The RPM was dropping and the noise level of air passing the windows was growing less and less. Suddenly, I realized that I was no longer climbing but actually slowly descending toward the jungle below. Stunned I saw my airspeed was almost at the red line for a stall. (I cannot remember but I think this was somewhere around 49 MPH indicated airspeed). Incredibly I was already at full power and was still settling downward. I was now hanging on the propeller!
There was no stretching my climb to get over the mountain top. I still had hundreds of feet remaining to the top. Within seconds of settling into the treetops, I heard a voice--the voice of my instructor from flight school telling me to “let go of the controls if you get in trouble flying because the airplane inherently wants to fly due to the pull of gravity.” That is exactly what I did! I let go of the stick and a miracle occurred. The Bird Dog started banking to the left from what I would later realize was the propeller forces called “P Factor” or the torque affect at very slow speeds for the propeller to turn the airplane in the opposite direction of the propeller’s rotation.
In fractions of seconds my descent into the trees stopped. My slight banking turn to the left due to propeller torque combined with the down slope of the mountainside and the growing lift from my increasing airspeed as I descended all together worked to keep me from crashing. My landing gear dragged through some the tops of the tallest trees but I continued to accelerate to the point where I regained complete control and flew out of the valley. My heart was pounding so much so that even through my flak jacket and survival vest I could see my chest heaving in and out. Truthfully, I never feared dying but I truly feared getting captured. That scared me more than anything. For the next hour I tried to calm down and think about what had just happened. I climbed up to 8,000 feet and droned around in recovery thought. How could I have been so absorbed that I let myself get into such a critical situation? Yet, in spite of the danger or requirement for split-second thinking, I was able to respond and do the right thing. “Letting go of the controls” worked! What an airplane!What great training in flight school!!
Submitted by -1LT Robert Brewster, Headhunter 37, 3rd PLT Qui Nhon, Sep '70-Oct '71
Including Pleiku, LZ English and Phu Cat, I was also stationed with the 219th Aviation Company at Qui Nhon. This incident was probably late spring 1971 where we received a emergency mission request that there was a company of US types surrounded and in trouble. They needed immediate fire support. This call came into our platoon around midnight or just before. I was the only one able to fly. I took off from Qui Nhon in pitch black darkness, no moon and no horizon. Could not see a thing until my eyes adjusted to the dark and I headed for the "Crows Foot" or "Wed Foot" area in the mountains west of Phu Cat.
I had all my lights turned off in the aircraft including all the navigation lights on the outside. I could not even see the instrument panel so I flew by feel. I was petrified of being shot down for I knew that everyone could see and hear me. Both my legs were shaking so much that I could not hold them on the rudder pedals and the pedals were vibrating and rattling when I did put my feet on them. I made contact with the ground unit CO and attempted to locate their position on the ground. But, they were pinned down so low to the ground that they could not even give me a good fix. He said that they were as low as they could get but could hear me overhead. I saw ground fire and some flashes but could not make out who was who or from what direction. My ground CO told me that they were surrounded by a large enemy force and needed to have arty brought in.
I was in contact with the TOC and two fire bases. I had each fire base fire off a spotting round so that I could get a fix on the ground guys. As I remember this was not working well for it was so dark that all I could see was a big flash and not able to specifically pinpoint where our guys were located. It took probably 5-6 spotting rounds from each artillery position before I had any confidence that I knew where they were and could safely walk the arty to their position. As I gave each arty fire base a command to fire I would ask the ground commander where the round landed compared to their position. In only this way could I figure out direction and distance. Finally, I gave the order to fire for effect and that is when all hell broke loose. Artillery rounds were landing everywhere including on top of what I thought was the location of our guys. Usually fire for effect got five rounds per battery. I think there were twenty rounds that hit the ground. To my chagrin, I had three not two fire bases firing for effect. It was momentary terror and chaos. I kept calling my ground contact. No response. I called again. No response. Holy crap what did I just do? Then I received a call that they were OK. The bad guys had stopped shooting but our guys were not going to move anywhere until daylight. I stayed overhead until my fuel remaining was only enough to get back to Qui Nhon. I had been out there for three hours. I flew back to Qui Nhon, refueled and flew back to the AO where I stayed over head until daylight.
I can't recall if it was then or later in the morning that I spoke with the ground commander. He told me that the artillery rounds hit everywhere that they were supposed to hit. He also shared that when daylight came and they started to move out, they saw hundreds of enemy bodies laying everywhere around their positions.
What a night! Even though I flew 299 combat missions during my year, other than night watch over Pleiku, this would be my first and last night mission into total blackness.
"Engine Chip Light Panic"
Submitted by -1LT Robert Brewster, Headhunter 37, 3rd PLT Qui Nhon, Sep '70-Oct '71
As Headhunter 37, 9/70-10/71 , FLYING RECON MISSIONS over hostile areas in a single engine O-1 Birddog was never a problem until something happened.
The US had already starting removing combat units and areas on the ground were becoming less, and less secure. Being out there alone with only radio contact and no other aircraft in the area did not bother me until one day, I experienced an "Engine Chip Light". The engine chip light on the O-1 Birddog was yellow in color and it was located in the top middle of the instrument panel. It was basically a yellow bulb the size of a dime. The only time you ever thought about it was during the prefilght check when you could “push” on its glass face with your finger to make the yellow light come on. This was the test to make sure it was working. We all knew that an engine chip light was an indication that something was happening in the engine. We were taught that this light had a magnetic plug installed in the engine oil SUMP area and if the engine started "making metal", this magnetic plug would attract the metal filings and complete an electric circuit , which in turn would make the chip light come on. We were also told that "fuzz" could do the same thing. Metal filings or fuzz alone did not bother me. One day in the maintenance shop I saw the “fuzz” when a magnetic plug was pulled from an engine. It did not look serious to me. Also, I felt the same way when I saw tiny metal filings. Yet, as unconcerned as I was, fuzz and filings did represent something happening inside the engine. It could indicate a failing engine but my real concern was with pieces & chunks of metal. That would be very serious and indicate eminent engine failure. None of this was good while flying but especially not good when flying in a hostile area, over bad guys who want to kill you. The challenge with a chip light was you never really knew what was happening. Things could be serious or nothing to worry about. With an engine chip light warning you could panic and expect the engine to fail anytime, or you could ignore it and assume it was "fuzz" meaning nothing was going to happen. In either case you it was a guess.
On the date of this specific flight, I was about 50 minute’s flight time from any friendly place to land. The closet was Phu Cat Air Force Base. Also I was not alone. There were two other aircraft with me - another Birddog, Headhunter 35 piloted by Jim McDevitt and an Air Force O-2 piloted by Herbie 12 Steve Davidson. We were all searching the same area. A remote site covered by triple canopy jungle with no place to land and known to be occupied by both Viet Cong and regular North Vietnamese Army troops. This was my situation when the engine chip light came on. I did not hesitate. I immediately told everyone I had an engine chip light and was headed back to our base at Phu Cat. I would stay in radio contact with them and they could monitor my progress if something happened. The flight time back to Phu Cat was about 40 minutes. The chip light did not go out, it stayed on. Sometimes fuzz was known to clear itself and the light would go out. But, not this time. As I flew, I swear that this dime sized light grew in size and was now as big as a nickel. Then the the light looked quarter size and brighter, too. The more I flew the more I was sure the engine was going to quit any second. Still at least 10 minutes flight time from Phu Cat, I saw an unimproved tactical landing strip below me. It was in a place called “Happy Valley” and on the hill above it was a friendly South Korean base camp. I had flown over this camp dozens of times. There was always someone there. I made the decision to land. Upon landing I would hike up the hill to the base camp and from there I would wait for help. I decided to land straight in. No flyover. No tactical recon of the landing area. I was going to get on the ground before the engine seized and before I would have a worse situation like crashing into the jungle.
On final approach, my heart is racing. The chip light now looks like a 100 watt bulb. The engine sounds funny, too. I am on short final. I pull the power off to land but I keep gliding down the runway. I am too fast to land. I failed to put down any flaps! The ground is rushing by underneath me and then I see the end of the tactical strip coming quickly. It is nothing but trees and jungle. Oh, no I cannot land and now must go around. I apply full power to the engine and start to climb. I think surely the engine will quit now. I climb and turn back for another landing try; I can see the South Korean soldiers standing there in the base camp. All eyes are on me. I continue flying a pattern and then turn back around to try another landing. This time I use my flaps. I am going much slower and I safely land. I taxi my O-1 to the end of the airstrip and there is a road leading up to the base. I taxi off the air strip onto this road. It is wide and it is sandy. I get about 100 feet onto the road and my landing gear sinks into sand. I apply full power and I am not moving. I am stuck! I look up the hill. The South Koreans are all still watching me through their perimeter wire. Surely I am a dead person with my go around alerting the bad guys. Now stuck in sand, I am vulnerable. The jungle is nearby. I will be captured or worse. My adrenalin is running full force. I shut down the aircraft engine and get out onto the ground. I do not want to be here. Now on the ground, the hill to the Korean base camp looks a lot steeper and further away than it did from the air.
Jim McDevitt, Headhunter 35, who had been monitoring my calls decides he better catch up with me. I tell I am on the ground at the Happy Valley tactical strip and stuck in sand. Now, convinced that the Koreans are not going to help me and the “bad guys” are coming to get me, I grab the Birddog tail and pick it so the tail wheel is off the ground. I start pulling & pushing and the aircraft starts moving out of the sand. I strain for all I am worth to pull the Birddog back to the runway. Back on the runway I jump in and restart the engine. I then taxi down the strip to take off when I discover I have no fuel in the two wing gas tanks. (The avgas level in the O-1 was measured by a metal rod with a floatable cork on the end. The cork was not floating and the little arrow in the fuel level window was on “Empty” for both tanks. Now, I am really screwed. Headhunter 35 flies overhead. I tell him I have no fuel to takeoff. He lands and taxis up next to me. We take the water bags from our survival vests and drain fuel from his aircraft to dump into my fuel tanks. I restart my engine and the fuel corks bounce a little. I then taxi to the runway end and takeoff still expecting the engine to quit on takeoff. Nothing happens! I fly the additional 10 minutes to Phu Cat; ask for a straight in approach and land. The engine never quite or even hiccupped. It is still running smoothly! I taxi to our company ramp and shutdown. I am exhausted! What a lesson I learned that day. I panicked for no reason.
This lesson would stay with me the rest of my flying career and probably saved my life many times over when I was in other emergency situations and I did not panic.
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