187th AHC, Tay Ninh, RVN 68-69
3 Vietnam Short Stories, Sep 2016
At times requests were made of the 187th Assault Helicopter Company to support nighttime operations with a flare ship. No big deal, just orbit the area at a few thousand feet and kick flares out of the cargo bay as needed. Our magnesium canister flares were about 5 inches in diameter and 36 inches long, and were stacked in the cargo bay like cordwood. The crew set the fuse on each to ignite the flare at a predetermined altitude. The final step before launching is to attach a steel lanyard, which deploys the parachute when the end of the lanyard is reached. The flare, now suspended from a parachute, ignites when reaching the preset altitude. All of this was routine enough, providing the fuse ignited as planned. Halfway through our mission pandemonium broke out when a flare ignited prematurely. The blinding light challenged our flying skills as we frantically yelled the obvious to the crew: “Kick it out! Kick it out!” A magnesium flare burns white hot and would soon set off the other flares and then burn through the cargo floor, and below that the flight controls. Thankfully the crew came through as our lives flashed before us.
A few weeks later, pulling my turn at guard duty, I checked in at our operations center just as they were having a very sad radio conversation with another one of our ships on a flare mission. Like us, a flare had ignited in the cargo bay, but this time other flares had also ignited. Before long the pilot lost all control of the aircraft, which now must have resembled a giant Roman candle, as it plunged to the ground with all souls lost. Among them was my good friend Allen, who that morning came back from a mission with his helmet radio cord shot off and then volunteered for the flare mission. Years later I located Allen’s name on the Vietnam Wall in Washington DC. We all have memories like this we will never forget.
Huey Flap Restraints
Preflight of our aircraft looked good except for some looseness of a little part in the rotor head. It’s called a dynamic flap restraint and is unique to the UH-1C Huey gunship. Its purpose is to swing up into position to limit the rotor blade up/down movement during shut down, preventing a blade from striking the tail boom if hit by a gust of wind. Ours had some looseness on its pivot shaft, but the crew chief thought it was not a problem. Returning from a mission later that morning, the collective pitch lever began to bounce rapidly for a few seconds. At the same time I noticed something small flying out from the rotor head. A part flying out of the rotor head during flight is something no crew ever wants to see. We made a precautionary landing at a nearby U.S. fire support base and shut down. Sure enough, that silly little flap thingy had up and left us. Thinking that having only one blade restraint deploy on shut down would increase the chances for a tail boom strike, we broke off the remaining one, promising ourselves to be especially cautious the next shutdown. Returning to base, I radioed Operations that we needed repairs on our flap restraints, anticipating that we would be serviced like a NASCAR pit stop. All Operations heard was the need for repairs on our flaps, which had everybody puzzled. We soon had a good laugh.
Split Main Rotor Blade
Returning from a mission, I heard what sounded like machine gun fire, which I soon realized was coming over my headset and that it could only be my wingman having some fun. Not wanting to disappoint him, we broke to the right in our Charlie model gunship, putting it in a tight turn, and then again as our wingman passed us. Now we were on his tail, but halfway through that second turn the collective pitch lever suddenly began bouncing violently. Things greatly improved as we rolled out of the turn, and vibrations were entirely gone when power was reduced, but we could no longer maintain our altitude. An approach was made to a hover on a nearby road at which point no vibration was felt. We now had a choice: park it on the road and wait for rescue, at some risk, or fast hover down the road to our TayNinh base, a several miles away. I chose the latter, and when reaching the TayNinh perimeter I increased power enough to hop over the perimeter fence to a quick landing and shut down. To our horror (or amusement, depending on your point of view), a main rotor blade had split from the trailing edge to the leading edge structural spar, a distance of about 24 inches. We reflect and wonder, and then can be very thankful when contemplating the possible outcome had we been fully loaded. We dodged another bullet, this time very likely due to fatigued rotor blades.
Interestingly, attending my very first 187th Reunion in Portland, 2007, one of the first people I became reacquainted with was Paul Nelson, our maintenance officer. He soon brought up the Huey returning with a split main rotor blade, not remembering it was me. I quickly produced the picture below of me standing under that split blade, looking like death warmed over!