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Over Vietnam in 1966, a Douglas A-1 flies cover on a rescue mission. (USAF)

Airman Down

Rescue aircraft are different today, but "surrender" is still a dirty word.

Unlike Skyraiders, A-10s can’t fly slow enough to shepherd the helicopter, usually a Sikorsky HH-60. In Vietnam, a single chopper, the Sikorsky HH-3 “Jolly Green Giant,” was escorted to the pickup point at 140 mph by a trio of A-1s. The remaining Skyraider, Sandy Four, protected the backup helicopter. Enemy forces often held fire until the helicopter arrived; the rescue ship was a bigger prize than one downed flier. Once an HH-3 was hovering and the A-1s circling, “I can’t even tell you how many AK-47s opened up,” says John Dyer.

Dyer’s son, Major John Dyer Jr. of the 104th Fighter Squadron, who recently returned from Afghanistan, is a second-generation Sandy. In his experience, although the unfriendlies try to reach crash sites as soon as possible, when the A-10s arrive, they disperse. “What we’ve seen from those guys is, they prefer to disappear,” says Dyer Jr. “One of the lessons they’ve learned is that the weapons we bring are pretty precise.”

Dyer Jr.  and his fellow A-10 pilots fly a racetrack pattern much higher than his father did in the A-1. Small arms, therefore, are less menacing to his A-10 than they were to the Vietnam-era Sandys. Says Dyer Jr.: “We’ll generally stay above it all—unless the guy on the ground really gets himself into a jam.”

Ground fire of any caliber directed at A-10s during a rescue is answered in what Doug Baker terms “a graduated, aggressive manner.” Level one, firing the nose-mounted 30-mm cannon, is “knock it off.” The next level is the deployment of high explosives.

Dyer Jr. usually knows a number of things about threats awaiting him. “Before we even stick our nose into where the survivor is,” he says, “ideally, we like to have a JSTAR give us a detailed picture first.” The long-range aerial radar platform detects vehicles, weapons, and troop movements on the ground.

A survivor awaiting rescue has input into his own defense. Under imminent threat, he may request fire from the A-10s. Rules of engagement govern response. A search party of armed soldiers is an obvious target. But what about an anonymous pickup truck speeding in the general direction of the downed airman? “We train for that,” says Baker. “He’s threatening us just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” When in doubt, Sandys opt for warning shots from the Warthog’s revolving cannon. A hundred rounds on the road in front of the driver of the pickup, Baker suggests, may persuade him to take a different route.

Brandt: I heard Don say, “All clear. Jolly in.” Don and his wingman were flying directly over me. I could hear the rotors of the CH-53 but I couldn’t see it. Don said, “Pop your smoke grenade.” When the Jolly got overhead, his rotor wash literally leveled the jungle. They let the penetrator down on the cable and I put my arms into the straps. I’m going up the hoist, and the two 7.62 mini-guns up in the chopper are spraying the jungle all around me. The engineer and a para-rescue jumper in the Jolly grabbed me and unceremoniously threw me inside. As we’re egressing the area in the chopper, I heard Don say on the radio, “Good job, everybody. Happy Easter.”

The art of plucking a survivor off the ground changes with the terrain of war. Due to thick jungle canopy, Jolly Green Giants in southeast Asia lowered a heavy, pointed forest penetrator on a cable and winched the survivor into the chopper. Today’s helicopter pilots prefer, whenever possible, to land to retrieve airmen. It’s faster and minimizes hovering, a risky phase of flight that renders the helicopter and the flier on a cable vulnerable to ground fire.

Once the survivor is on board, “it’s get out of Dodge,” says Baker. Flying an exit heading plotted in advance, the chopper leaves the scene preceded by an A-10, with two more circling overhead. John Dyer says the egress was even more defensive in Vietnam: One A-1 directly underneath the helicopter and one on each side. “We used the heavier armor of the A-1 to shield the chopper from ground fire,” he says.

Dunaway: We’re down there in the treetops in the A-1s. After they reeled Randy in, I asked the Jolly to search for the backseater. We maintained a close daisy chain around the helicopter in case I’d made a bad call and there was resistance. It didn’t take long to find him. We had a route picked for the helicopter to egress the area safely and gain altitude. We turned them west toward [the air base at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand], then handed them back over to their escort. We all headed home together.

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