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 4 of 6)
Ron Ferrell was also a corpsman on UH-34Ds, and he and many another pilot particularly appreciated the big, fat wheels and tires mounted on gear struts with generous travel to absorb heavy landings. “We were lifting off under fire one day,” Ferrell says, “and the pilot took a hit in the head just as we took off. We were nose-down, tail-up, and he had the rotors cranked up to full rpm, and then boom, we set right back down. We probably dropped a good 10 feet. I watched those struts go damn near to the ground and then spring back up.”
John Downing, a former HMM-361 pilot, remembers that the big landing gear made it easier to get into a tight LZ. “You could stand it up and put the tailwheel on the ground, haul back on the cyclic, and get it about 40 degrees nose-high; just put the tailwheel on the ground and it’d stop on a dime,” he says. “That got me in trouble when I transitioned to the Huey, because you definitely don’t want to do that in a UH-1. The first thing that hits is the tail stinger; next is the tail rotor.”
H-34s were the first helicopters to get a true stability augmentation system, called the ASE, for “automatic stabilization equipment,” a kind of primitive autopilot that did its best to counter a helo’s tendency to do anything but fly straight and level. When it was working, it created a stabilized feeling; when it wasn’t, they just flew without it.
Well, they did if they were sharp stick-and-rotor guys. HMM-362 door gunner Bobby Johns recalls, “There were pilots who wouldn’t fly it if the ASE was not engageable. It’s a hands-on bird, and with the ASE working, you could set the trim and actually turn loose of the controls.”
The aircraft is extremely sensitive to the controls. Just think about doing something and you’ve already done it, pilots say. It took a lot of coordination to manually adjust the engine rpms with the motorcycle-grip throttle on the collective that controlled the blade pitch. You could overspeed it quite easily, so you had to listen to the sound of the engine and the rotor blades without looking at the gauges. Some pilots compare it to the way the barnstormers flew in the 1920s, listening to the sound of the wind in the wires.
Former crew members’ affection for the Dog originates in a belief that the helicopter would get them back alive. George Twardzik was a door gunner with the HMM-163 Angry Eyes, a squadron named for the glaring samurai eyeballs painted on the nose doors of their UH-34Ds. Twardzik remembers the day in March 1966 when an Army Special Forces unit under siege in the A Shau Valley called frantically for help. When the first helo to assist them was promptly shot down, all units were ordered to stay away from the fight. “For three days, we could hear the troopers begging over the radio for medevacs, ammo, and water,” he says.
Finally, Twardzik’s squadron skipper could take no more. He strode to his 34 and announced that he was going for a ride, and if anyone wanted to join him, he wouldn’t stop them. The entire squadron fired up and headed for the valley. The skipper and three other 34s in the first wave were immediately shot down. It was late in the day, so the surviving helos returned to Phu Bai to regroup. First thing the next morning, the Angry Eyes returned to the LZ and began pulling out soldiers.
Twardzik remembers his aircraft taking fire from a .50-caliber machine gun. Eventually it found them. Twardzik took a ricochet squarely on his flak jacket, and during liftoff the impact blew him out the door. His safety belt snapped him right back into the cabin, where another round hit and ignited a five-gallon can of crankcase oil. The pilot autorotated down into a clearing, where the crew pitched the flaming can out and extinguished the fire. With the engine restarted and the rotors re-engaged, they took off, dragging the main gear through the trees as they headed back to Phu Bai. “I got out of the 34 to view the damage, and the aircraft was literally sieved with bullet holes,” Twardzik says. The Angry Eyes nonetheless managed to save every one of the HMM-163 air crewmen who’d gone down the day before, as well as 190 of the 220 Special Forces troops.