CONFESSIONS OF A CH-54 PILOT
478th Heavy Lift, Red Beach, Đà Nẵng AB
1970

by: Robert J. Archer
© 2009

 
 


CONFESSIONS OF A VIETNAM CH-54 PILOT - I am telling this story to let you know that more often than not, when I was in trouble, I was scared to death. The reason I did not originally post my 158th Assault Helicopter experience (Lancer 24, 1970) on war-stories is because I believed that was only for people who had done something courageous who posted their experience.

I was just a combat assault pilot, like every other Lancer pilot or crew member. I am filled with humility, sadness, and appreciation for those young warrant-officers, officers, and crew members who gave their lives.

I am not a hero. I was often scared once I experienced my enemy fire. Ironically, I never took a hit as a Lancer. I was “shot down” as a CH-54 pilot. I was forced to land after taking a hit from small arms fire while taking off from a Vietnamese village where we dropped off some supplies - just a log mission. Our Cobra escort had left us early so we had no support at the time.

A CH-54 Skycrane has no guns, and are easy targets due to their size. We had a 72-foot rotor span and one of the bullets fired at us struck the spar or main support for our rotor blade. If we had not landed we would not have made it very far before catastrophe struck. We were on the ground in an open field for several hours while we waited for assistance from our maintenance crew.

Our crew set up a defensive perimeter and waited for assistance from the 478th Maintenance crew. They flew out a new blade and we were back in business without further incident. Again, I was very fortunate. This forced landing was apparently the act one VC. I think that we were the only CH-54 ever "shot down" (forced to land under power) in Vietnam.

I also flew secret missions in Laos to support the Mong and Mien military who were busy fighting their Pathet Laos and the North Vietnamese (with our help). After we left that area, they lost the war in Laos and many of them fled to Thailand refugee camps. We left some very good friends behind. Some of them made it to the U.S. eventually, and there is a group in Richmond, CA that gets together every year to celebrate. Those people say that they lost the war, but gained something more precious, their freedom with their families in the United States.

Some of those missions in Laos scared me more than anything I did as a Lancer. I guess the more time and experience one has to anticipate what could happen, the greater the fear factor, at least for me. Although, I never let the crew know when I was afraid. That would have destroyed their confidence, and increased their fear. We supported Air America which I later found (via TV about 20 years later) was working for the CIA. We were the only aircraft powerful enough to put a 105 Howitzer on an 11,000 foot mountain top. We referred to this act as a "controlled crash." The winds were fierce with strong updrafts and down drafts and our approach angle had to be perfect. The aircraft would shudder severely from the strong buffeting winds. Constant and reflex use of the collective and trim were critical to maintain a proper glide path.

I was fortunate to have learned on a previous mission from one of the best Army CH-54 pilots I ever met. He was WO3 Joe Winters from Texas. A big guy, and very tall, and had to get his height waived by the Army to get into flight school. Thank God for that! He taught me a lot on my first mission to Laos, and trusted me to make several of those mountain top landings.

Like Vietnam, the weather was not always good for flying in Laos. I remember flying at tree top level trying to keep up with our Air America friends. The top speed (VNE) on a CH-54 is about 115 knots, and they were flying at about 115-120 knots. The clouds were very low, almost on the deck (tree tops). In fact, I found myself flying through enough low clouds on the way back to base camp that I would momentarily lose track of the tree tops. This happened over and over again. I was terrified that I would go IFR, and have to rise up off the deck. That was white knuckle flying all the way back. Near the end, I was totally exhausted (after about an hour of this type of flying).

Acting perfectly normal, I calmly said to the co-pilot, and excellent Warrant Officer, “Okay, why don’t you take the controls for awhile.” I don’t ever remember being more scared. I really did not know if we would make it back on the deck. Those Air America pilots were absolutely fearless, and a little crazy, but very good guys.

Warm Regards,
formerly CPT Robert J. Archer
478th Heavy Lift, Red Beach, Đà Nẵng

 

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