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THE MISSION RIDE
It was the mortar round that exploded just behind us that shattered my concentration. If I had drunk any more coffee before we left LAH, I would have pissed my pants. My stomach tied itself into a knot and I think my asshole did too. I checked my chicken plate, that protective slab of whatever it was that covered my torso. I had never worn one before. I wanted to know that the heavy hunk of armor was still resting in my lap protecting my chest. It was held in place with two Velcro straps that wrapped around my body. I had already sweated out what beer I had downed the night before and now I was working on the coffee. My Nomex flight suit, as thin as the fireproof material was, still felt like the inside of an oven. The chicken plate just added more insulation and turned up the heat. Somehow, I didn’t mind just then.
For nearly a week I had been assigned to Suds, the units IP (instructor pilot.) He showed me the layout of the AO (area of operations) and drilled me in safety procedures. We would go to an abandoned airstrip in secure territory and practice autorotations, much like I did in flight school. He would roll back the throttle, simulating an engine failure, and in the few seconds before we hit the ground, I would have to bottom the collective, reduce airspeed, find a safe landing area, and aim for it. At about fifty feet from the ground, I’d flare the aircraft nose high to bleed off forward airspeed. Then of course, it would begin settling and just before the ship hit the ground, I’d shove the cyclic forward and pull more pitch to cushion the landing. I got pretty good at it after the fifth time.
This is one of the most important safety procedures a helicopter pilot must know. Without power, as my instructor in flight school used to say, “The Huey has the glide path of a streamlined crowbar.” You can fly only a short distance, and you have one shot at setting the bird down. If you’re lucky, you’ll walk away from it.
We also practiced tail-rotor failures. Suds would keep his feet locked on the foot pedals and I would have to make a safe landing. Since I had no pedals to counteract the yaw of the bird when I reduced collective, the idea was to reduce throttle and keep forward motion during landing so the tail of the aircraft would maintain alignment with the direction of motion. So about three feet above the runway, I had to control the direction of the bird with the throttle while flying it onto the runway and letting it slide to a stop, just like landing an airplane. You just hoped the skids didn’t catch on an obstruction on the runway. Then you’d be trying to figure out how the aircraft turned over. I got pretty good at tail rotor failures, too.
The hydraulic failure, though, was a bitch. Without the assistance of hydraulics on the flight controls, flying a Huey is like wrestling a grizzly bear. I’ve never actually done that, but I’m pretty sure I know what it would be like after flying a Huey without hydraulics. I should have done some weight lifting before shipping over.
While all of this was going on in between the rains, I got my orientation about RPGs (rocket propelled grenades), which would make mincemeat out of a Huey, and the radar controlled .51 caliber guns that Charlie kept hidden around the area. You could monitor their frequency on the radio and listen for the squeal. The first one detected you. The second one tracked your path. The third one was followed by a stream of bullets. The whole process took just a few seconds. Then there were the 122 mm rockets. You didn’t ever want to be in the path of one of those babies.
A week of that shit wore me out and bored me to death. I imagine Suds got his fill of entertainment from all of my screw-ups. I was no longer in flight school trying to satisfy the instructor. I was in Nam and this was getting ready for the real deal, whatever that was going to be. Not once did Suds yell at me or chew my ass. I don’t know if that’s because I was good enough that he didn’t see the need, or he was just a nice guy. I did find out later that Suds was, in fact, a nice guy. That didn’t make me feel real good about my performance. Or my confidence, for that matter.
After he’d had his fun with me, I got word the next morning that I was to report to operations with flight gear. I walked in and looked at the assignment board, a large Plexiglas sheet behind the operations desk that listed aircraft numbers, pilots, crews, times, and missions. I wasn’t on it. I looked at Captain Latham, the Operations Officer, his fatigue shirt already soaked with sweat around his armpits and back this early in the morning.
“They told me I was supposed to be here,” I said.
He glanced at me. “Hang tight. Maybe something will happen.”
Lieutenant McNally stuck his head in. “Latham, put Cullison with Suds.”
Then he looked at me. “Oh, Cullison. Hey, first mission ride today. You ready?”
I looked at him, his buck teeth hanging over his lower lip and those wild eyes like some cartoon character trying to pull an answer out of me.
“Hell yes,” I said. I thought I saw a glimmer of doubt in those big eyes, not that I could really tell. Most of the time his eyes looked the same, big and wild. I’ll bet if the little bastard cried you wouldn’t know it, except for the tears, if he had enough compassion in that egocentric little body of his to produce them.
After a week of hanging around and flying circles in the sky and practicing not crashing a UH-1H, I was ready for something. Everybody looked at me, the FNG (fucking new guy), wondering if I could cut it. That made me wonder if I actually could. It was time to test my mettle. I just hoped I didn’t screw everything up.
That’s what it was all about, right then. Screwing up, or worrying about when you would. I faced a lot of challenges in flight school, but this was no longer a practice session. Actual combat. Real, live bullets. I had always wondered what it would be like. To get set for battle, I mean. It wasn’t like I was going to go charging into enemy lines or anything like that. I was going to be flying a helicopter in an enemy fire zone, or at least I would be the peter pilot. I would still be up front behind all of that Plexiglas and thin sheet metal. Not much protection, except for the armor plates around the seat. The knot in my stomach got tighter and the thought of real bullets just got more real. You think about this stuff, but not really. Not in the sense that you actually think about it. It’s just there in the back of our mind giving you doubts about your worth as a pilot while you wonder what it’s like to be dead. And if you really are worth a shit as a pilot.