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St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1971
Their sister company in the battalion lined up next to them, got the signal to crank. Crews scurried to their aircraft. Their blades were turning within a few minutes and the sound of the turbines clogged out conversation. As their aircraft came to a low hover, kicking up more of the red dust that had been settled, their flight of ten got the same order to crank.
They strapped in quickly. Kevin indicated he had the controls and would pull the trigger. Randolph noticed he had put their selector switches on private, allowing them to talk without pushing any switches. Dalton, holding his small portable fire extinguisher was in position to observe the start. Crosby was in his well checking the ammo belt of his machine gun.
“I’ll fly first.” The increasing whining noise of the turbine cut into the open static of the private receiver switch setting Kevin had set. When the static suddenly ceased, Randolph glanced at the radio receiver console. Kevin had reset his switch to two for the UHF radio and Randolph’s to intercom. He had not seen either of his hands come off the controls. “I know you know what to do,” he added. “If anything happens, just do it.”
“Hey, I’m not a Newguy.” Randolph said testily.
“We’re all Newguys when it comes to this.” Kevin smiled, and then turned his attention to the instruments. “I do give a shit how long you been over here. I’m really glad to have you in that seat.”
The ten aircraft cranked. Lead announced he was pulling pitch and also ordered them to keep the staggered right formation after lift off. Quickly, they left the rising red dust behind, climbing and turning to the right. They made more turns in each direction. The turning caused aircraft to drift slightly from the tight two rotor disc length. Individual aircraft scrambled to return to their proper positions. When they started a slow descent into a large open area Randolph was unsure if they had crossed into Cambodia or were still in Vietnam. As they reached short final, the other battalion company of ten ships took off from the same PZ. There was plenty of room to land in staggered formation. Ground handlers indicated with colored smoke and arm signals they should land in the same area the other company had just departed. Unlike their assembly point there was no open red clay areas. There was some bushy vegetation that kept dust clouds from forming. Vietnamese troops began to trot from the tree line toward the waiting aircraft. Their group arrived and immediately began boarding. There were eight troops for their load. They carried no excessive cooking utensils. Most had several hand grenades visible carried on their chest or web belts. Each seemed to have excess rifle magazines. Some had looped an OD cloth bandolier over a shoulder loaded with more magazines. Dalton announced over his intercom that the Vietnamese were all in. A moment later when lead called for the take off, Kevin pulled pitch when chalk five in front of them started his take off.
More partial conversations came over the Guard frequency. Much of it was broken and moderately garbled from Air Force fast movers as their pilots talked through the oxygen supply, which further altered their voices. Some sounded like Mickey Mouse under water. These aircraft could be in their vicinity or miles away. They seemed to be setting up an axis of a bomb run based on some they had already performed. They mentioned a downed helicopter which they had to avoid. Randolph felt sweat gather on his palms within his flight gloves. Glancing at Kevin, he was concentrating on flying and maintaining his chalk position. More parts of transmissions, some now plainly from Army pilots came over their radios. Randolph could not discern which frequencies these transmissions originated. Kevin’s face began to pale as repeated transmissions centered on the downed Cobra.
Randolph looked at his radio receiver switches. All three were in the on position. Since they were also monitoring the Guard channel, there was no way to determine which radio was broadcasting the information about the downed Cobra. The gunship had gone down near an LZ, which was not identified further. The conversation was still jilted and broken.
“Where is the downed ship?”
“In the LZ. Confirmed, it did crash there.”
“Both pilots got out.”
“Negative, one pilot was observed. The other is still missing.”
“One pilot definitely shot from firing from the tree line.”
“Do the Vietnamese have the second pilot?”
“Not known at this time.”
“Check with the Vietnamese.”
“Roger.” The conversation stopped, abruptly.
Randolph saw the lead company formation in front of them. Kevin’s attention was glued to Chalk Six. The battalion C&C was giving their sister company instructions on how to land. Randolph’s first glimpse of the LZ was of a typical banana shaped opening with tree line jungle on both sides. It was not a large LZ. Several Cobras were rolling in, firing. The distance was so great; he could not determine what they fired.
The C&C ordered their flight to make a huge holding circle. Randolph could see the other formation. It had broken into two five-ship nose to tail formations. One made turns away from the intended LZ. The first flight began its descent. Gunships stayed on both sides of the small formation as it started its approach.
“Taking fire! Taking fire!”
“It’s coming from the left!”
“I’m taking hits!”
“Gary, you’re leaking hydraulic fluid! Get out of here!”
“Where is the fire coming from?” This interjected transmission seemed to come from the C&C aircraft.
“It’s coming from both sides. The bastards are all over the place!”
The five ships went into the LZ and landed.
“Get the fucking troops off! Throw them off if they won’t get off. Hurry up! Push that son-of-a-bitch out!” One pilot did not realize he was broadcasting as he spoke to his crew chief. The sound of machine guns was plainly audible in the background in some of the transmissions. The crews were firing even while the aircraft were on the ground.
“Mortars! The fuckers are shooting mortars!”
“Get out! Break to the right. Don’t go left!”
The flight broke into individual take-offs out of the LZ. Most of the aircraft broke to the right. One went straight ahead. Three of the aircraft were attempting to re-form their formation. They were still widely separated. Randolph flipping from side to side in his seat was trying to keep them in sight. They disappeared from his view as their aircraft turned with their struggling formation.
“Second flight. Bring your troops in the same way!” The C&C pilot’s voice had also altered from the first steady transmissions. The order was firm but the resolution was gone. Plainly, the uncertainty had turned into partial hesitation. The second five aircraft of the lead formation turned and began a descent. Randolph by moving in his seat sought visual contact with the second flight. Their formation had completed one huge circle and was behind the second flight of five. The Cobras were more visible. They were diving in pairs on each side of the five-ship flight and firing their ordnance into the tree lines. Now Randolph could see the smoke vapor trails their rockets made.
“This is swamp lead,” their lead aircraft requested instructions. “What do you want us to do?”
There was an obvious faltering hesitation before the answer. “Start another turn.”
“Swamp lead, affirmative. Another holding turn.”
“Taking fire!” The second flight was nearly touching down.
“I’m evacuating wounded.”
“I can see the son-of-a-bitches in the tree line. Some are in the open standing up firing AKs .”
“Jesus Tom! You broke right in front of me! What are you doing?”
“Chalk two, where are you going?”
“Chalk four is breaking 90 degrees to the right!”
The second flight in no discernable order left the LZ, each aircraft widely separated from the others. There was no hint of a formation. Randolph could see the wild, unorganized departure as their flight completed their first holding pattern turn and was nearly on the descent path.
“This is swamp lead. Do you want us to make another circle?”
There was another pause while their long staggered formation continued into another holding turn. “Negative! Bring your troops in.”
“Same approach path?”
“Affirmative. Put the troops in next to the ones there. Middle of the LZ!”
“Roger! Middle of the LZ!”
Their radios momentarily were quiet.
“Jesus! He hit the trees! Aircraft down in the trees!”
“Chalk Three is down. Do you hear me?”
“Smoke is out!”
“Can anyone see them?”
Their staggered formation turned slightly to the left to align with the same path the two previous five-ship flights had brought troops into the LZ. Their flight started to descent, slowly. They were still in a tight staggered formation of two lines of five aircraft.
“Do you see aircraft down in the trees?” The C&C’s voice was clearly agitated.
“Affirmative! We have a visual.”
“I’ll pick them up!” Someone broadcasted.
“Negative! Stay with your flight!” The C&C ordered.
Randolph with his feet stiffly on the deck began to shake, uncontrollably. Quickly, he glanced down at the radio control panel. Kevin’s receiver switches were all still on. His selector switch was pointed to two for the UHF radio. Randolph’s selector switch was on intercom. Their descent accelerated and Randolph felt Kevin’s struggle to maintain his position in the flight as they passed through rough air from aircraft in front of them. Cobra gunships continued to roll in on both sides of their formation firing rockets and mini guns into the tree lines despite the fact of friendlies in the LZ.
Quickly, Randolph reached for the selector switches and put his and Kevin’s on private. The static started immediately. He glanced over at Kevin. What little of his face, visible due to the helmet, was chalky white. He waited a short, tense moment then turned his attention to the front to watch the aircraft in front of them. The formation remained although distance between aircraft now varied. Each seemed to be fighting increasing rough air and was making rapid and abrupt location changes as aircraft drifted out of their proper formation spots. Tails of the loaded ships swung from left to right as the ACs fought to keep them descending and close to their formation positions. They seemed to be drifting down much slower than indicated air speed. No fire was coming from the crew chief and door gunners with friendly troops on the ground. They were still outside the LZ but staying on their approach descent.
“Kevin, we can’t go in there. Say there’s something wrong with the aircraft. If we go in there, you’ll never see Jana again. You’ll never see your baby!” Randolph had not used his floor switch, but relied on the private selector switch which allowed conversation without touching transmitting switches. There was no sound of open static on his helmet receiver. Staring straight ahead through the wind screen his attention remained on the approaching LZ as the aircraft continued their descent. When he noticed the static was absent, quickly he looked at Kevin. What he could see of Kevin’s face was the color of pale white. Kevin still did not answer him. All his attention was on the wobbling chalk in front of them. They got lower and cut down some of the forward airspeed as they neared the threshold of the LZ. Randolph purposely turned his head to look at Kevin, and then glanced down at the selector switches. Kevin’s was back on number two for the UHF radio. His was back on intercom. Again, he had not seen Kevin touch the radio panel. Had he even heard Randolph’s plea not to go into the LZ?
Randolph’s attention focused on their approach. His legs and arms were still shaking wildly. Had he been on the controls, he wondered how he would have done with the flying. Kevin appeared to be struggling to maintain their position behind the wildly wobbling chalk five. Their aircraft bucked and Kevin had to make more rapid adjustments. His attention seemed completely on maintaining basic control of the aircraft.
The flight descended lower on its approach path and more forward airspeed disappeared. They came in over the threshold of the bordering trees, the beginning of the LZ, which was possibly a quarter mile of open terrain. Colored tracers began to come toward them from the tree lines.
“Sir, can I fire? Can I fire?” It was Dalton. Randolph turned in his seat and glanced back at him. Since the gunner Crosby was behind him on the right side of the aircraft, he could not see him. Dalton’s side of the aircraft was on the outer part of the formation. If he could identify a target, he could shoot without permission from Kevin. Dalton asked again in a much louder tone, but Kevin did not answer him. Dalton started firing his M60 with long bursts, and then just kept his trigger on full suppression. They were still fifty feet in the air. Other crew chiefs and gunners began firing their machine guns, oblivious to the diving gunships on both sides of the flight. Randolph felt Crosby’s gun begin to fire. Firing of the M60s sent vibrations through the aircraft. Their tracers, every fourth round, were visible.
The aircraft slowly descended now in a loose formation. The Vietnamese soldiers began to make noise talking rapidly in their dialect to each other as they held onto any part of the bucking ship they could to avoid being tossed out. Aircraft began to pick their landing spots. There were many dead water buffaloes probably killed in the preliminary fire suppression. Most were on their backs, with their hoofs straight up in the air. Beside many of these carcasses were Vietnamese troops from the other company’s two flights. None of them were moving. They were all sheltering behind the dead animals. Few were firing their rifles.
Suddenly, a huge bellow of smoke erupted fifty feet from their aircraft. It was a mortar. Nothing appeared to hit their ship.
“Fire from the left!”
“Shoot at the tree line!”
“Stay off the controls! I have the aircraft!”
Aircraft began to take off. Others cut in front of other aircraft causing the cut-off aircraft to make an abrupt stop. Some of these aircraft went straight up into a twenty foot hover to avoid mid airs.
“You fucking asshole!”
“Wait! Stay in formation.”
“Pull pitch now!” It was their lead aircraft broadcasting the command to depart. Several aircraft in directions differing from departure had started take offs without the flight. Their formation was breaking up. Some of the high hover aircraft simply dumped their noses to begin forward speed, which caused other aircraft to have to make abrupt stops to avoid colliding. In the tree lines, Randolph saw explosions and realized the Cobras were still rolling in and firing rockets and mini guns despite the wildly departing aircraft. Some flew through the suppressive firing to escape. The ten aircraft lost any semblance of a formation. Aircraft turned left and right when the aircraft in front of them did not move quickly. That further broke up the disintegrating formation. It was a ragged departure almost as individual aircraft.
“Ten aircraft off,” trail announced, almost calmly.
The flight began to reassemble half a mile from the LZ. Stragglers raced to get back into position.
Randolph looked over at Kevin and down at the radio control panel. The selector switches were as he had last seen them. Kevin’s was on two, his on intercom. Kevin’s face was still very pale. Randolph’s heart began to beat normally.
An excerpt from the first sequel to THE SWEET WAR MAN, a novel published in Feb, 2009. Lieutenant Randy Thayer has arrived in Vietnam.
After a quick chow with the other sleepy-looking pilots, Randolph went with the group to the ops hootch. There, as the peter pilot, he collected the signals encoding wheel, which he secured by a neck chain, and observing others, tucked it into his left breast pocket. His Aircraft Commander was CW2 Chuck Crawford, the unit IP who had given Randolph his checkride the previous day. His nickname was Fossel, which was painted on his helmet. Handed the mission sheet Fossel studied it as they started out to the flight line. Groups including the crew chiefs and gunners carried flight gear and the M60 machine guns for each side of the aircraft. Although subdued, there was some horsing around and joking. Randolph absorbed all the details as first light engulfed the flight line, allowing shadows to become forms and moving figures. The mountain, Nui Ba Den, was visible in the distance, but was obscured briefly by billowy, shadow-laced white clouds drifting past its peak.
At the revetment both the crew chief and gunner had arrived moments before. The machine guns had been placed on their pole mounts and 1500-round ammo boxes were emplaced waiting only for the belts to be loaded into the breaches. The crew chief was opening all the cowlings and panels in anticipation of the usual thorough inspection. Both the enlisted men were silent and expectant as Fossel started the preflight by reading the logbook. He asked several short questions in a sharp staccato tone to the crew chief who was responsible for daily maintenance. His answers were clear and precise and more importantly, satisfied Mr. Crawford. Again Randolph was surprised at the depth of the preflight possibly more thorough than for his stay-within the berm checkride. At Fossel's side, he listened and watched as every major component of the aircraft was inspected. When they reached the tail rotor he was shown the steel cables connected to the foot pedals that controlled the pitch of the tail rotor. Pinching them, he estimated how much tension they had, made Randolph feel them and explained how loose cables adversely could affect the aircraft with a load of troops on board. Any doubt, he insisted, was a call for a technical inspector to have them tested and if necessary, retorted before flight. Randolph assumed, like the IPs at Rucker, this was Fossel's pet peeve. Still, gladly he absorbed everything. The preflight lasted forty-five minutes. All other aircraft parked in the revetments for the flight were undergoing similar preflight ceremonies.
The company's main mission was a flight of five with a command and control aircraft and two Cobra gunships. As the ACs completed their long pre flights, each cranked, taking the aircraft out of the revetment, and then hovering several hundred yards to the refueling area. As Randolph had done once before on the last flight school cross country flight, when they picked up Ranger candidates, refueling was hot, the only method used in Vietnam. The aircraft remained running as the crew chief added the few pounds of fuel used during starting. Each of the lift aircraft then hovered to a pre determined spot between the revetments taking their chalk position in the flight. After taking their slot in the formation each Huey shut down to wait for the command to restart. Most of the pilots remained strapped in their seats and waited. Randolph watched the whole procedure, enthralled while Fossel drank a cup of coffee from a thermos he had put in his flight bag.
"Listen up," Fossel called finally to the two enlisted men, both of whom were Spec 4s. Randolph also returned his attention to Fossel. "We crank in thirty minutes. Do you both understand the rules of engagement?"
"Yes sir," the crew chief and gunner answered nearly in unison.
"Well, I'm going to tell you anyways." His expression remained serious as he stared at both of the young soldiers. "You do not fire unless I give the command. If we take fire, you must be able to identify the target before you can return fire. Basically, that still means if I give you the order. Any question on that?"
"No sir," both answered. They strolled away from the revetment and lit cigarettes. Randolph wanted one but decided to remain with Fossel who was sitting on the cargo deck with his feet dangling calmly finishing his coffee.
"That briefing is something you do before each mission flight. I've noticed some ACs are neglecting it. If they kill a friendly while flying in their aircraft, it's going to be their ass in the sling, especially if they neglected the rules of engagement briefing. The rules can change, but they haven't in a long time. There used to be free fire zones where you could shoot at anything that moved, but they've eliminated them. Most of these kids will wait until you give them permission to fire, but we got a couple that are trigger happy. You'll get to know them. With this turning everything over to the Vietnamese, things are going toward watch your own ass. You've got to be cautious and careful." It was a long speech from Fossel. Randolph realized he must have thought it was important for him to know.
The flight began to crank, each lift aircraft's blades began turning. The sound soon overtook everything. The C & C aircraft took off away from the flight, followed by the two gunships. Then the flight lifted taking off in the line-astern formation. As they began to climb, the five aircraft shifted into staggered trail. There were three aircraft on one side, two on the other. They disappeared in the distance before their sound did.
An almost unnatural quiet descended on the flight line after the departure of the formation of five. Calmly, Fossel finished his cup of coffee, and then stowed his thermos in his flight bag which he secured with part of his harness belt. Randolph climbed into the right seat, putting his chicken plate on his chest before strapping in. The gunner who flew on the right side of the aircraft waited to slide the side armor plate forward and then closed the pilot door. This was the first time Randolph had worn chest armor. It felt bulky and he wondered if it would hinder his movement. Like any good IP, Fossel sensed his apprehension and reassured him that there were different sizes of the armor plate, which were readily exchangeable.
Fossel climbed into his side of the cockpit, hesitated over his seat, then stretched over the middle console to the right hand corner of the wind screen in front of Randolph. Quickly using a grease pencil, he wrote four-digit FM and VHF radio frequencies followed by five-digit UHF where Randolph could not fail to see them.
"If I get shot and you have to take over, you get on one of those pushes I just wrote on your window and get help! Tay Ninh West is where we are now. It's south, south-west of Nui Ba Den. The doc is usually here. You call ahead and tell them to be ready for me."
"Right," Randolph said in a positive tone. Fossel lowered himself into his armored plated seat and strapped in, as if Randolph had said nothing to him. The crew chief waited outside to push his side armor forward, and then darted back to his position in the recessed well. Fossel started the aircraft and backed out of the revetment. He hovered past the area that the flight had lined up, then set it down and told Randolph to take the controls.
"We have to pick up people at Tay Ninh East, then go to the top of the mountain, then north of it to maybe a couple of places. Your geography lesson starts now." Fossel handled the tower with his floor switch and directed Randolph essentially to stay within the pattern to get to Tay Ninh East, which had its own runway. When Randolph started to make a flight school approach in a slow arc out of habit, Fossel nudged the cyclic to get the nose down.
"We got an empty ship. You got all the power you need. Get us on the ground." The rest of his approach would have earned him an unsatisfactory at Fort Rucker. He had to pull up the nose when he arrived at a hover to stop their forward movement. Fossel grunted an approval. They hovered toward a small hootch that had a sign announcing Tay Ninh East and boasting connecting flights available to any place in the world.
Five passengers emerged and walked toward the aircraft. There were definitely two separate groups, since they eyed each other suspiciously as they headed for the same destination. Two American enlisted, one Army the other from the Air Force wore worn fatigues. In the other group were three Vietnamese, a captain, a first lieutenant and a master sergeant. The Vietnamese were resplendent in tailored uniforms that had been starched and pressed professionally. Arriving first, the Americans immediately got into the cargo area and took half of the seats the crew chief had installed lining the transmission bulkhead. The two Vietnamese officers took the others seats and the senior Vietnamese sergeant had to sit on the deck. He did not seem to mind the lack of a seat. Hooking his hand onto the back of the left pilot seat, he seemed more concerned with wrinkling his fine uniform than possibly falling out of the ship.
Again Fossel handled the tower and they departed. Randolph could feel the added weight of the passengers. Upon Fossel's direction, they headed north north-east and began a climb to three thousand feet, the height of the mountain. Fossel dialed in a frequency on the VHF radio and transmitted using their monthly tactical call sign and the aircraft's numbers. An obvious American voice answered him calmly. Fossel told the friendly voice where they were going. There was a slight pause, and then the amicable tone said there was no firing along their intended flight path.
"When you're single ship sometimes you forget to get an artillery clearance. In the flight, the C & C does it, so a lot of guys don't remember until they're watching rounds impact underneath them. It gets real important if the Air Force fast movers are working near you. Artillery knows about them. That's part of their clearance."
At three thousand feet when Randolph leveled off, it was cool and they were heading directly for the mountain. As they got closer, there was a Pagoda structure visible in the mid section. On other parts there was granite colored boulders and ledge visible among areas of dense vegetation.
"The bad guys own the mountain," Fossel said over the intercom to Randolph before he took the controls. "There are friendlies at the bottom and we operate a radio relay station at the top. We got to drop two of these guys there. Every time the Vietnamese conduct a sweep on the mountain, they get their asses kicked. They refuse to fire on the Pagoda for religious reasons, so the bad guys being atheists use it as a fort. Rumor is the mountain has an NVA hospital and an R & R Center. Supposedly, there are tunnels big enough to drive two trucks abreast of each other. I don't believe that, though."
Suddenly, the Vietnamese captain was leaning over the consol between the two pilot seats. He was holding a map and tapped his watch several times. When he realized Randolph was not on the controls, his attention shifted to him. He tried to show Randolph a location on the map. Through the rushing, cool air in English the captain said 'don't go to mountain' and indicated his map again.
"Tell him to sit down. It's our mission to drop the two Americans off at the top of the mountain. It's on my mission sheet, if he wants to see it. There's a guy I want to see up there, anyways. We won't be long." Randolph attempted to make the captain understand. Reluctantly, he returned to his seat against the bulkhead. Randolph did not think he had succeeded since the three Vietnamese began an animated conversation in their native tongue.
"I think the bastards are afraid of the mountain." The crew chief told them over the intercom.
"They should be," Fossel retorted. "Be real careful around the Black Virgin Mountain. She ain't a virgin, she can kill you. Now you can see what opts does to us. Our mission is to work for that Vietnamese captain. They have us drop off passengers and don't tell the Vietnamese anything about it. They get pissed at us thinking their mission is secondary. Opts is sitting back in their hootch and we get the brunt of it. It's no wonder they don't trust us either."
At their altitude there were more scudding cumulous clouds. Fossel dodged a few avoiding going through them. Above the mountain Randolph could see the small outpost at the peak. There were circles of concertina wire, a few hootches and an open PSP pad for landing helicopters. Fossel started a very fast approach to the metal pad. When they were about a football field away and descending almost at cruise speed, a huge white cloud rolled over the top of the peak obscuring everything. Fossel pulled a tight turn reversing their course and climbing. The maneuver was so abrupt the sound of the Vietnamese passengers could be heard above the aircraft noise. The two Americans had huge grins but their faces were rather pale attesting to the fact they were not trilled by Fossel's abrupt maneuvers. They flew a tight circle as Fossel kept his eye of where the top of the mountain had disappeared. As suddenly as it had disappeared, it reappeared when the cloud rolled away from the mountain. More clouds threatened to do the same thing. Fossel judged how far away from the peak they were, and then began an even faster approach to beat them to the visible landing pad. To stop their forward speed, he decelerated so sharply the nose coming up blocked the view of the landing pad, which was right where he had anticipated it to be. As the aircraft settled onto its skids on the metal pad, Fossel rolled off the throttle to flight idle and barked to Randolph, "you've got it," then unstrapped himself. The crew chief barely got to his door to slide back the armor plating before he was climbing out.
Just as Randolph grabbed the controls in response to Fossel's command another cloud rolled over the small post obscuring everything. It felt like someone had pulled a white blanket over the wind screens. To keep from getting vertigo in the temporary instrument conditions, Randolph concentrated on one point of his wind screen near where Fossel had scribbled the radio frequencies. The cloud quickly blew away as had the others. Randolph caught sight of Fossel and all five passengers scurrying along a path in between rolls of concertina wire. As they disappeared into another rolling cloud, this one pushed by a stronger gust of wind, the aircraft moved about a foot sideways. Randolph quickly looked to the rear of the aircraft at the cargo area. The gunner sitting on his right side was motionless in his well. The crew chief was somewhere out of the aircraft and away from Randolph's vision. Briefly, he wondered if he had been hit by the aircraft moving. His attention quickly returned to the controls. At flight idle, if another gust of wind moved them, it might push him off the slippery PSP pad and into the rolls of barbed wire. Making an instant decision he rolled the throttle back to full engine RPM. Now, if he had to, he could hover or even take off, if the wind started to slide them on the pad.
The crew chief reappeared with the increase in RPM. He appeared not to have suffered any misfortune or injury and even strapped himself back into his well on the left side of the aircraft. Finally, the clouds seemed to shift, leaving them with visibility. He saw Fossel emerge from one of the hootches and sprint toward the ship, followed closely by the three Vietnamese. Fossel climbed into his seat and as he was strapping in, the crew chief slide his armor plate forward. He said nothing to Randolph about increasing the RPM, but once ready took the controls announcing it over the intercom. With clear visibility he picked up to about a twenty foot hover directly over the PSP pad and then dumped the nose and dove to ten feet above the surface off the mountain. They passed more large naked boulders and some jungle vegetation, but saw no one. At the bottom of the mountain where Fossel leveled off, they were going red line speed. Randolph had to swallow quickly to clear his ear drums.
"When you're by yourself out here, there's two ways you can get from point A to B. You stay on the deck and low level, or you go up above fifteen hundred feet. The idea is to keep yourself out of the bad guys' sites." Fossel stayed at tree top level, occasionally varying his flight path to avoid taller trees. They passed one paved road, which had no traffic, and stayed just over the trees. In some areas there were naked gray tree trunks protruding through the vegetation. Like a good IP, Fossel read Randolph's thoughts.
"They dropped chemicals on this jungle trying to kill it, so they could have better visibility. Then they realized it was dangerous to us, so they stopped using it. The jungle is growing back. That's why all those dead tree trunks." They were flying on a course of about 290 degrees. In a few areas there was sparsely vegetated terrain and huge bomb craters, most the size of swimming pools. They were filled with water of various colors from brown to pea green. In areas of little vegetation, Fossel kept the aircraft about ten feet from the ground. At 80 knots, everything went by quickly. Finally, they reached a paved road. Fossel turned onto it. There was some civilian and military traffic on this more traveled road. He kept the road to his left side and climbed another ten feet.
"This is Highway 22. Eventually, the pavement ends. If you keep following it, you're in Cambodia." They came upon a star shaped compound with a small paved runway. Surrounding the star contour were row upon row of barbed wire. Near the short runway was a VIP pad. Fossel executed a well coordinated deceleration that zeroed their forward speed as they arrived at the pad. The Vietnamese captain shouted in perfect conversational English they would be on the ground for twenty minutes. The three scampered out of the aircraft, bent over forward until they were away from the turning blades. Quickly, as they straightened up, they walked rapidly into the compound, past a sentry box, that had a Vietnamese soldier inside it. Fossel shut down the aircraft.
The humid air seemed to roll over them. Fossel unstrapped and got out, as the blades slowed to a stop, so Randolph followed. Both the crew chief and gunner also got out of their wells. The eerie silence mixed with the heavy moist air descended on them. It created a peculiar feeling in Randolph. Fossel pulled his thermos out of his helmet bag and poured a cup of coffee. As he drank, he lit a cigarette. In the compound there were bunker type buildings. There were chickens and a few pigs visible as well as apparent civilians, some women and a few children. "Some type of Vietnamese troops live here with their families. Their government must believe they'll fight to protect them." Fossel commented dryly.
"Why a big star configuration?" Randolph asked.
"They can get inter-locking fields of fire if they are attacked and somebody can get through all that wire."
Again the silence and heat descended on them. The enlisted crew did not wander far from the aircraft. They spoke to each other in lowered tones, which neither Fossel or Randolph could hear. Basically, Fossel ignored them, concentrating on his coffee.
"I think our passengers are taking over the fire support bases around here. The 25th's been pulling out regularly the past few weeks. What I used to do when there were all Americans around here was conduct my own personal reconnaissance. Our Opts doesn't tell us much about what's going on out here. So, every place I went to, I'd ask the grunts questions, like when was the last time you had incoming? Or, did you get any sniper fire or probing at the perimeter. Things like that. Eventually, you get a picture of the bad guy activity. Where they've been active. You can use that when you plan your routes, if you're single ship. Use areas that have been quiet."
Twenty minutes right on schedule after shutting down, their three Vietnamese appeared accompanied by another Vietnamese captain and an American Army captain. They all climbed into the cargo area as Fossel cranked. Again the senior Vietnamese NCO got the cargo floor for a seat as the officer passengers occupied all those available. In the air, they climbed circling the small compound. The American officer, who had brought his own headset, gave Fossel directions where to fly. Fossel climbed to two thousand feet before setting off in the indicated direction. The distance was short. The fire support base, with three 105mm gun emplacements came into view. Fossel commented to Randolph to note the kind of approach he made. It was steep and fast, with a rapid deceleration at the bottom. An opening in the rolls of concertina wire was for helicopters to land. Fossel set them down gingerly. The rotor wash kicked up clouds of dust, so quickly he bottomed the collective to get the blades flat. Almost as the skids touched the ground, the five passengers deplaned and scurried away on paths through the barbed wire. For the next hour and a half, the aircraft sat in the bright sun. Fossel became mildly agitated as the time dragged on. Obviously, he felt they were becoming a target, the longer they had to wait.
"Not much been going on around here," he finally intimated to Randolph. Glancing at his watch for perhaps the fiftieth time, he added. "I would have gone back to Tay Ninh, refueled and waited there, if I knew they were going to be this long."
Finally, their passengers reappeared and climbed into the cargo area. They were chattering away in Vietnamese, including their American advisor as Fossel told Randolph to crank, and ordered a steep climb up to two thousand feet. He watched Randolph closely until they were at altitude. Although he felt the load on board, the aircraft had plenty of power and he used all of it to get them up quickly. Fossel seemed to approve of the unorthodox take off, which apparently was conventional in Vietnam.
"If we got hit taking off—that's when you're most vulnerable, you could auto rotate back to that pad we took off from. You'd be among friendlies and could get help quicker. You go down in the jungle, even just over the tree line, these jokers might take two days to get to you. They're gooks. They may be our gooks, but still gooks. Plan your routes in and out of places and think about what happens if you go down." Fossel turned in his seat and got the attention of the American captain, who was still adamantly involved in conversation with his Vietnamese counterparts. The American was slightly annoyed when Fossel asked how long they would be at the next location. He indicated their time on the ground would not be as long as the first place they had waited. Fossel indicated he did not want to be shut down that long, and said he would drop them off and go and refuel, then pick them up. Further annoyed, the captain related this information to the Vietnamese.
Fossel allowed Randolph to make the next approach. The fire support base was identical to the one they had left. Again there were three tubes set up and lots of barbed wire around the perimeter. Randolph did not have the finesse Fossel possessed. He ended up twenty feet over the landing pad, but quickly lowered them. After their passengers got off the ship, Fossel took the controls, dropped the nose almost into the ground as he pulled full pitch with the collective. The unloaded aircraft shot toward the tree line, some fifty yards distant. He remained right over the trees, dodging some as they speed along, until they found Highway 22. Then they began a rapid climb to two thousand feet and pointed the aircraft south south-east with the mountain clearly in view on their left. When straight and level, he gave the controls back to Randolph.
"That son-of-a-bitch didn't like being left there without us," Fossel said of the American advisor. "Take that as another indicator of the security there."
Randolph handled calling the tower for permission to land in the refueling area after mentally planning his approach. It felt good to be flying again. After their hot refueling, they departed heading back to the area of the fire support base, north of the mountain. Fossel allowed Randolph to do most of the flying. Briefly he remembered he was supposed to be absorbing the geography, but still had to be directed. Randolph had no idea where that fire support base was and wondered how Fossel could remember. Taking the controls once they were near their destination, again Fossel's approach was fast and hot terminating in a two foot hover over the landing area in the barbed wire area. He was agitated instantly when he got a signal, from an American soldier to shut down. When the blades had fully stopped, Fossel got out and went off to explore. There were still Americans at this base who were intermingling with Vietnamese troops. Their shoulder patches indicated they were with units of the 25th Division. Fossel was gone only fifteen minutes. Upon his return, he quickly lit a cigarette and said to Randolph, "They had in-coming two nights ago. I don't like this being shut down sitting here on this pad."
When their party finished their conferences and climbed back on the aircraft, Fossel cranked and did the same spiral climb over the small friendly area. They were directed to two other fire support bases. Both were entirely manned by Vietnamese, so Fossel stayed with the aircraft. He was restless at each stop, which averaged about thirty minutes of shut down time. Even forgetting his coffee thermos, he smoked heavily as they waited. His anxiety spread to the enlisted crew, who stayed near the aircraft and kept their flax jackets on. Looking at their faces and expressions Randolph realized their enlisted crew understood Fossel's mood about being a sitting duck. When the last meeting was finished, they flew the American Advisor and his Vietnamese captain back to the star shaped fort, then brought the three original Vietnamese back to Tay Ninh East, where their mission was completed. Each time off Fossel called for clearance from the artillery advisory. There was still no friendly shooting in their flight path.
At Tay Ninh West, Fossel took the aircraft into the revetment. Even before the blades had stopped, the crew chief began preparations to pull his daily maintenance inspection. Fossel remained in his seat as he pulled the green-coated logbook from its holder. After asking the crew chief if there was anything he wanted written up and getting a negative response, he signed off the flight. When he was finished, he looked over at Randolph, who had unstrapped and was about to climb out.
"You showed very good judgment rolling the throttle up to operating RPM when you were on the mountain. I saw the ship move on that moist PSP pad. I probably shouldn't have rolled it down at all."
Fossel said nothing further as he unstrapped himself and climbed out of the aircraft.