A Brief Encounter
In the early part of 1967, the United States Air Force transferred a number of UH-1F Helicopters from Thailand to Nha Trang Air Base, Republic of Viet Nam, and assigned them to E Flight of the 20th Helicopter Squadron. Due to the various shades of green camouflage colors used on the aircraft, the generic call sign of Green Hornet was used by the unit. Most of the pilots who flew the transferred helicopters had been in Thailand on Temporary Duty, and soon returned to their stateside units, leaving behind a permanent party cadre of half a dozen pilots. Additional pilots were needed to bring the flight up to operational strength, so the Air Force began to transfer helicopter pilots from Strategic Air Command missile bases to Viet Nam. Most of these pilots were in their early 30s, and all had extensive experience piloting helicopters.
While waiting for the new pilots, the Unit Commander began looking for a mission that would utilize the capabilities of the UH-1 helicopter. They found a home with the U.S. Army's Special Forces Studies and Observation Group. In March of 1967, the organization began operations out of a Special Forces Base near Kontum, Viet Nam. In late April, they were joined by the first of the newly assigned pilots. I was one of those pilots.
Late in 1967, the 20th Helicopter Squadron, now the 20th Special Operations Squadron, moved its aircraft and crews to the Special Forces Base located east of Ban Me Thuot, Viet Nam.
Just after New Years Day, 1968, a group of five helicopters was conducting a live fire training exercise southeast of Ban Me Thuot to familiarize several recently assigned crew members with the tactics used by the unit. The group was composed of Daisy Flight and Lily Flight. The overall mission was under the command of Lily Lead.
Several kilometers to the northwest, a flight of F-100 Super Sabre fighter aircraft was attacking a reported enemy position.
Daisy Flight was a set of three transport, or slick, helicopters, each with a crew consisting of the Aircraft Commander, a pilot, and two door gunners armed with M-60 Machine guns. Lily Flight was a set of two helicopter gun ships, with the same crew makeup, but armed with 14 Air-to-Ground rockets and the door gunners each operated swivel mounted Gatling guns capable of firing 4,000 rounds per minute.
Lily Flight had just completed a security sweep of the target landing area ahead of Daisy Lead who was starting a practice approach to the LZ, or Landing Zone, when: "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday" blared from the UHF radio. "This is Jackpot 23; my wingman is on fire and has just ejected, 19 miles southeast of Ban Me Thuot!"
"All Daisy and Lily aircraft, this is Lily Lead. We are close to that approximate area, so keep your eyes peeled for a parachute."
During this period of military operations, we did not carry or even know what a GPS (Global Positioning System) was. All contact depended on seeing what you were searching for. To rescue someone, you had to see him. All contact between helicopters, other aircraft or the ground was accomplished by voice using VHF (Very High Frequency), UHF (Ultrs High Frequency) or FM (Frequency Modulated) radios. Guard Channel was an emergency channel and was always on and monitored by every aircraft that flew. Both Daisy and Lily Flights carried all three types of radios.
"Jackpot Lead, this Lily Lead on Guard. We are close to your location with five helicopters, ETA three to five minutes. Lily Lead, Out."
Switching to his FM radio Lily Lead contacted his base at Ban Me Thuot: "Home Plate this is Lily Lead. We have a report of a pilot ejecting close to our vicinity. We are breaking off training and heading for his location."
"This is Daisy Three, I have a 'chute in sight at two o'clock."
"Roger, Daisy Three, this is Lily Lead. O.K., I have a visual on the chute and we are heading for it. Break, break: Lily Two, arm your weapoms system."
"Lily Two, Roger Lead, we copy and are going hot."
"Daisy Lead, Lily Lead has the survivor in sight. will sweep and secure the area."
Switching from radio to intercom, Lily Lead continues: "Right Gun, this is the A/C. The downed pilot will be just off the right side. Check him out as we go past."
"Right Gun, Roger Sir."; "Sir, Right Gun, Pilot appears O.K., he is on his back and I think he waved at us."
"Roger, Right Gun." Changing back to radio: "Two, Lead is over the target. The pilot is moving his arms and he looks O.K., Lead breaking left."
"Roger Lead, Two is in, will come off right."
"Daisy Lead, Lily Lead. The target is at your one o'clock, about a half a kilometer out. Area to your left and ahead appears secure, no hostiles sighted."
"Daisy Lead this is Lily Two, the area to your right appears secure, no hostles sighted."
"Roger, Lily Flight, Daisy Lead is on final."
While the gunships circled low over the LZ, the slick flared to break his descent and bleed off airspeed, then leveled the helicopter and dropped to the ground next to the downed pilot. One of Daisy Lead's door gunners reached out, grabbed the pilot by his parachute harness, and dragged him into the helicopter. "Daisy Lead coming out" the Aircraft Commander radioed as his helicopter lifted off after less than 20 seconds on the ground.
"Roger, Daisy Lead, Lily Flight crossing behind you." Switching again to FM radio, Lily Lead contacted the base at Ban Me Thuot: "Home Plate, this is Lily Lead. Daisy Lead has the pilot on board. ETA Home PLate in one five minutes. Lily Lead, out."
The flight to Home PLate took less than the estimated 15 minutes. The helicopter carrying the fighter pilot was met by camp medics as he landed. In the mean time, Home PLate had contacted Air Force Officials, and a C-130 cargo plane was diverted to the air strip at Ban Me Thuot East.
The pilot was given a quick check by SpecialForces Medics, and after receiving some first aide for scratches, he climbed on board the C-130 and was taken home. From the time he ejected from his burning fighter until he stepped off of the transport at his home base, less than two hours had elapsed. It was but a brief encounter.
Several weeks later, an interview with the fighter pilot was published in the Stars and Stripes newspaper. He remembered ejecting, and landing in a clearing. He also said it seems he had barely landed and laid flat on the ground, when a helicopter flashed by overhead. He watched it pass and turn away from him, when he heard another helicopter pass by. He looked up and still another one was landing darn near on top of him. As he stood up, the crewmember standing in the door reached out, grabbed him by his parachute harness, and dragged him into the helicopter. He had only been on the ground a few minutes. Her was very grateful, and appreciative that those army Helicopters had been in the area.
(Note: Those "Army" helicopters were U.S. Air Force Green Hornets. "This is Lily Lead, Out.")
Most of history is recorded only in the memories of those that lived it. The big battles become chapters in books, but it is the small events that make up the conflicts.