Five daring helicopter crews on five very bad days.
- By Preston Lerner
- Air & Space magazine, April 2013
USCG / Jacquelyn Zettles
(Page 3 of 6)
Clipson found a branch to support one foot, and he flopped into the boat like a hooked fish. Eventually, the helicopter short-hauled both firefighters through the tree branches to safety, bringing the crew’s rescue tally for the day to nearly a dozen. “It was crazy,” Clipson says. “That was truly a case where reality was better than a made-up story.”
Shortly after midnight, on a warm summer night in 1968, a nimble Kaman UH-2A/B Seasprite launched off the destroyer Preble in the Gulf of Tonkin and flew along the coast of North Vietnam.
A few hours earlier, naval aviators John Holtzclaw and John Burns had ejected after their F-4J Phantom was hit by a missile. Still, LeRoy Cook, flying in the left seat as copilot of the helicopter, didn’t expect to be dispatched on a search-and-rescue operation.
“They’d never sent a helicopter in at night before,” Cook says, “so we were just waiting to hear, ‘Okay, turn around and come home.’ Instead, we were told, ‘You’re cleared to go feet dry,’ meaning we could turn inland. We had maps with little red dots where the known gun placements were, and we were right at Vinh [Son], which was one of the most protected cities in North Vietnam. So we thought, Oh, crap.”
Holtzclaw and Burns, who had broken several bones in his leg when he landed, had taken cover in jungle so thick that they could traverse it only on their hands and knees. As the UH-2A/B headed toward them, Cook saw something—possibly a missile—whoosh past, trailing sparks in the night sky. Pilot Clyde Lassen swooped down from 6,000 feet and landed on the edge of the jungle. Light from parachute flares deployed by other airplanes showed rice paddies and small huts nearby. Holtzclaw and Burns were on a ridge overlooking the clearing. “Come get us!” they radioed. “We can’t get out of here.”
Lassen decided to make a hoist pickup with a jungle penetrator at the end of a 200-foot cable. But the trees shrouding the downed aviators were taller than 200 feet, and because his engine was overstressed, Lassen had trouble holding a hover. So he peeled off to allow Cook to dump some fuel and lighten the load. Then Lassen returned and—using illumination from another set of parachute flares—snuggled down in between some trees to make sure the cable would reach the ground. That’s when the flares went out, blinding the helicopter crew and leaving Lassen without a visual reference point.
“You’re drifting right! You’re drifting right!” hoist operator Bruce Dallas shouted. In the process of correcting, one horizontal stabilizer clobbered a tree. The helicopter pitched down sharply before Lassen regained control. Shuddering as it flew, the Seasprite returned to the clearing where it had landed originally and the men waited for Holtzclaw and Burns. By now, the helicopter was dangerously low on fuel. “We’ll stay here until we have enough fuel to get feet wet,” Lassen said. “Then, if we have to, we’ll set it in the water.”