Dog of War
Think of Yankee Lima Four Two as a time machine: Jump in and you're back in Vietnam.
- By Stephan Wilkinson
- Air & Space magazine, July 2001
(Page 2 of 6)
With the ascendancy of turbine engines, the Sea Horse was already obsolete by the time of its first flight in 1954, but a war spared it. Vietnam first began to heat up in the early 1960s, becoming a combat zone for lifers and professional warriors, many of them Marines. The Marines’ two dozen UH-34Ds were all that squadron HMM-362 had to work with when, on April 15, 1962, they landed at Soc Trang, a former World War II Japanese fighter strip on the Mekong River delta. The Ugly Angels, as they soon came to be known for their medevac missions, were eventually followed by nine more UH-34 squadrons.
By the time the media had swarmed into the war in the late 1960s, the chuttering rumble of the 34’s radial engine had largely been replaced by the raspy whine of the Bell UH-1B Huey. The nightly news resonated with the pounding beat of the Huey’s wide twin rotor blades, and most of us came to assume that Vietnam was the Huey’s war.
But in the seven mostly un-televised years that Marine UH-34Ds were “in country,” they served as everything but gunships. They carried troops, cargo, crates of ammunition that their crew chiefs kicked out the door during low passes over beleaguered landing zones, packages and paperwork on admin runs, chaplains (“holy helo” trips), bodies, and, perhaps most memorably, the wounded. Without the UH-34D’s endless medevac shuttles, many more wounded U.S. and South Vietnamese troops would have died.
The Sea Horse had been designed to be a carrier-borne Navy anti-submarine helicopter, fighting a relatively neat search-and-detect sonar war at sea. Unfortunately, the aircraft’s skin and such major items as the transmission case were made of superlight magnesium, which in the presence of saltwater did its best to become powder.
That magnesium was also to become a liability in battle. “On my second day of flying in Vietnam,” recalls former pilot Seppo Hurme, “one of our 34s was shot down, and you could see it from miles away, the magnesium burned so bright. But you never had to worry about ending up a cripple. Between the av-gas and the magnesium, you either walked away from a crash or you died.” Former HMM-363 pilot Joseph Scholle recalls, “We used to call it the world’s largest flashbulb. Get a fire anywhere and drop it in the water is about all you can do.”
Nonetheless, Hurme loved the old Dog. “That big engine up front was the equivalent of a lot of armor plate and gave you more protection than there was in other helicopters. I heard of one guy who took a hit from a 57-millimeter recoilless rifle that knocked one of the cylinders completely off. The engine kept running—rough, but they still got away. When I transitioned to Hueys, I felt naked.”
The Dog’s replacement was the turbine-engine, twin-rotor Boeing-Vertol CH-46, but the 46s soon experienced inflight failures, shedding their entire tails and tail-rotor pylons. Joseph Scholle recounts: “The H-46s would break apart right in front of the stub wings and become a section of two H-23s.” The accidents led to the CH-46’s grounding, so the Marines turned back to the faithful UH-34D. Says Scholle, “The part I grew to like was its reliability. We’d get more time out of our engines than the Hueys were getting. All that red-clay sand used to get sucked into their intakes and eat the turbine blades alive. We had an air cleaner, basically, like you have on a Pontiac. Take it out, bang it on the ground, rinse it in av-gas, and you’re back in business.”
The Dog could lose parts and survive: “It was one of the few helicopters that would fly with an inoperative tail rotor,” says Scholle. (A helicopter’s tail rotor is intended in large part to oppose the tendency of the fuselage to rotate rapidly around, and counter to, the main rotorshaft.) “A 34 has an awful lot of side area, and as long as you’re doing 45 knots, it swings around into about a 45-degree crab [angle] and stays there. It’s weird, but you can fly it.