I was about in the middle of my second year at Vinh Long in the Delta of South Viet Nam. It was Sunday morning and my aircraft wasnít scheduled to be flying with my unit, D Troop 3rd of the 5th Cavalry. I figured I was going to have the day off. Maybe go into town and have a little fun.
I had some work to do on my helicopter. I wanted to get rid of a couple of circle red Xís. I crawled under the ship and got busy. I had began the repairs when a jeep pulled up in front of my revetment. A pair of flight suited legs walk to where Iím laying and a voice asks, "Is this aircraft number 405"? I answered, "Yeah", and he goes on to tell me that we flying out to Phu Quoc Island for the day. As I crawled out from under 405 I notice that this guy has stars on his shoulders. I snapped to attention hoping that I donít fuck up and get this General pissed off. He tells me to be at ease and asked me if sheís ready to fly; I tell him yes.
He told me to take his jeep and pick up my gunner. Then I was to go to Squadron Headquarters and pick a Peter Pilot who was supposed to be there waiting. I picked up the young 1Lt. We all drove wordlessly back to the helicopter. The Pete helped the General finish up the preflight. I secured the cowlings, we all climbed in with the General in the Aircraft Commander Ďs seat. I should have suspected a rough day of flying just by the way the guy barely got us out of the revetment.
We took off toward the Southwest, in the direction of
Phuc Quoc Island. On the inter-com I hear the General ask the Lt. if we
can make it to the Island without re-fueling. The Pete was a new guy, he
must have just been checked out for flying in-country. He admitted he didnít
even know where Phuc Quoc Island was and that he sure didnít have any maps
to find their way there. So the Pete gets a royal ass chewing for not being
prepared for the flight. I get salvage whatís left of the Lt.ís career
because I have a whole shit load of maps on board. I let the General know
about the maps then I tell him that we canít make it to the Island on one
fuel load. Iíd made the trip to that part of the Delta many times and I
suggested we refuel at the airstrip at Chi Lang near the Special Forces
camp B-43 or at a less secure place called the Cement Plant.
I had maps on which compass headings, times and distances had been recorded. My first Aircraft Commander, Lt. Thomas Egelston had taught me to navigate and I had written the route information from Vinh Long to nearly all the places we routinely worked.
I passed the maps to the Peter Pilot, I figured he was going to have to navigate since the General was flying and giving us "thrilling" ride.
He couldnít fly worth a shit. He couldnít even keep it straight or level. I could feel the altitude changes in the seat of my pants. I looked up at the altimeter and sure enough it confirmed our "YO-YO like" ride. As I handed the maps to the Pete I told him the heading to Cement Plant even though I didnít think it was going to do ahy good because our Pilot was trying to maintain the heading with the tail rotor pedals. He was out of trim continuously. First Iíd get wind blown for a while then weíd be out of trim in the other direction and the gunner would get the blast. The guy really The guy really couldnít keep a heading. We kinda zig zagged across the Delta. Since I knew these guys had no idea of where we were going I really started to pay close attention and keep watch of our position.
I knew the way to the Cement Plant with my eyes closed. I saw familiar points of reference that I checked to make sure we got there. We made it to the refueling point, gassed up and continued to the Island.
We spent about 5 hours on Phuc Quoc Island. Waiting for the General to do those things that Generals do. The weather was starting to look crappy by the time we got ready to leave. Just before we get ready to ltake off I took the Lt. off to the side and told him the heading and how far it is back to the Cement Plant. Then he jotted down heading home.
As the General is getting the information from the tower for his departure I hear the wind speed and direction. I know that a direct flight from the Cement Plant to Vinh Long with no wind will leave the Huey with only about fifteen minutes of fuel. I hear weíre going to have a 15 knot head wind and I know weíre going to have to go to Chi Lang for fuel after we leave the Cement Plant. Chi Lang was situated in a valley among the Seven Sisters Mountains and the poor weather was now producing ceilings with clouds at around 900 feet. With the head winds, the low clouds and the way this guy was flying I was starting to get a little worried. The General was flying with his now familiar "out of trim, yo-yo style" and he missed the Cement Plant. I told him where the Plant was but he wouldnít listen. It took us another 10 minutes to find the refueling point after he listened to me the second time I told him I knew where I was.
We refueled and as we lifted off I recommended the next fuel stop at Chi Lang and warned him about the mountains. While we were enroute I suggested he make a right turn to the heading I gave him after passing the first big mountain. Well it started to rain like cats and dogs. Us guys in the back were getting wet and now I was getting my ass chewed because my ship had not one door on it. Even the pilotís doors had been removed and the General was getting soaked. I really wanted to tell the dumb fucker if he would learn to fly the thing in trim he wouldnít get wet.
Then we were down under 700 foot clouds in the pouring rain with shitty visibility and fucking General starts talking about being lost! He asked the Pete if he had any idea where they were but the Lt just sat there looking dumb as shit. I knew where we were and we had plenty of fuel and I wasnít about to tell the prick where we were. Heís busy chewing the Peteís ass when he sees the mountain, I broke into their intimate conversation and said to stay about 4 miles East of the rocks before he starts his turn. He actually follows my instructions and we almost fly right over the airstrip. We whipped into Chi lang and hot refueled. As I was finishing up the Peter Pilot gets out of the cockpit, walks back to where I was and gives me that "help me!" look. I gave him the compass heading to Vinh Long and told him to look back at me every now and then because Iíd made this trip hundreds of times. I let him know he count on me to navigate us home. The way the General flew there was no telling where we might end up. Were on our way in just a few minutes. The Pete gave the pilot the heading to Vinh Long and we were off and running.
We were flying just under 600 foot high clouds and from the looks of it we were going to have to go even lower. That bothered because of the Generalís yo-yo control technique. We didnít have a lot of room. Either "you up" in to the clouds or "yo down" into the ground. It started to rain again and it was getting dark. I was working on finding my reference points before it got too dark to see them. I spent a good 10 minutes and didnít see anything that I recognized. I knew we were way off course. I suggested to the General to come to the left a little but he just kept his wrong general heading. I explained that we were too far South and we need to go North a bit. No change in direction for another 5 minutes, suddenly he says, "I think were lost again". The Pete had been looking to me for some kind of clue. I said in a very calm voice, "Weíre not lost. I know right where we are and if we donít turn North we are going to Can Tho". I now could see the river and it was on my side of the ship instead of the other side where it should have been. The General sees the river too and says, "We got it made now, weíll just follow this river to Vinh Long". I said, "Sir, this is the river that goes to Can Tho".
We were up to about 900 feet by then but were still going in the wrong direction. I suggested to the Lt that he tune in the non-directional radio beacon (NDB) station at Vinh Long. He looked at me with a big smile on his face because heíd already tuned it in and the needle was pointing to the north, right at home base. The Pete asks The General if he can take the controls for awhile and the General tells him to have at it. The Lieutenant was a hell of a lot better pilot than the General. He flew that sucker straight and level. He even kept it in trim all the way to Vinh Long. He didnít ask any questions and parked the aircraft in our revetment like a pro. I think he knew what to do all along but he was afraid of the General. Then when things seemed to really be falling apart I just donít think he gave a damn anymore.
I canít remember the Lt.ís name. He was assigned to the
7th of the 1st Air Cavalry. At the end of the day had a beer together but
I never saw him again.