More than 25 years later, even while Drury is at home in Iowa with his wife and three children, the exasperation quickly rises in his voice as he recalls that day. “My first reaction was, ‘You dumb son of a bitch. I told you to stay over the trees.’ But in defense of him, that’s what he had been trained not to do. That mission sticks in my mind because it was the only time I lost a Dustoff. Gunship pilots had the feeling that our job was to protect those people. When we couldn’t do our job, it was unbelievably frustrating, and if we lost a ship, it was just gut-wrenching.”
Gunship pilots like Drury flew a variety of missions, including visual reconnaissance, fire support for ground operations, and escort for troop-carrying slicks and Dustoffs evacuating the wounded. “The adrenaline rush that goes with flying those missions is incredible,” Drury says. “You’ve got so many things going on in the cockpit and there are so many things going on around you.”
The Cobra was a tremendous improvement over Huey gunships, but to exploit the Cobra’s strengths—speed and more armament—teamwork was the most effective approach, Stayton says. “When we did a battalion-level combat assault, we could provide optimal protection with four C-model [gunships], two on each side, with M-model [gunships] behind and to the side and Cobras at 1,500 to 3,000 feet overhead. The Cobras could use their diving capability to pinpoint and snuff out any fire. ”
Early in the Vietnam War, when comparatively few troops were on the ground, wounded soldiers were usually evacuated by the same assault helicopters that brought them to the battlefield. But as troop strength increased and the conflict escalated, this space-available method proved inadequate. In response, the Army began to train pilots and crewmen in basic emergency medicine and trauma management and assign them to fly rescue missions in unarmed helicopters marked with red crosses. “Pilots learned to give shots, about saline solutions for wounds, and about burns and the basic elements of first aid,” says Dustoff pilot Michael Novosel. The radio call sign “Dustoff”—randomly selected from a code book, became the universal call sign in Vietnam for helicopters flying medical evacuations.
Dustoff pilots in Vietnam benefited from an unusual pilot in their midst. At the age of 44, Novosel was at least 20 years older than most of his peers, and at five foot four, considerably shorter. He had flown B-29s in the Pacific during the final days of World War II, and was serving as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve when he tried to return to active duty to train pilots Stateside. The Air Force refused him, saying he was both too old and too senior, so he tried the Army. The Army sent him to Vietnam to fly Dustoffs. Novosel became a warrant officer like most other Army helicopter pilots, a rank that meant he’d have to salute even a lowly second lieutenant. “I just wanted to help out,” he says. “I certainly didn’t think that I’d be in combat.” Because of his total flying time—greater than twice the combined time of every pilot in his unit—he was perfect for teaching instrument-flying procedures needed for missions flown at night or in bad weather, and was in a unique position to shape doctrine for the entire Dustoff community. “There was no flight training designed specifically to help Dustoff pilots,” he says. As more pilots looked to Novosel for guidance and training, he became widely known throughout Vietnam for his skills. “Some units had better training than others,” he says. “I became the unofficial instrument pilot trainer toward my first year [in Vietnam].”
All helicopter flying in Vietnam was risky, but Dustoff flying was the most dangerous of all: Between 1962 and 1973, 207 medical evacuation crewmen were killed, even though there were never more than 140 dedicated air ambulance helicopters flying at any single period during the war. Despite the hazards, an average American serviceman could expect to be airlifted to a hospital environment less than an hour after being wounded—and fewer than one percent of soldiers who survived 24 hours died.
On October 2, 1969, Novosel was well into his first tour in Vietnam. He was stationed at Binh Thuy, South Vietnam. Late in the afternoon, after having already spent seven hours in the air, he was directed to a casualty pickup 30 minutes away on the Cambodian border. Numerous wounded South Vietnamese troops, left behind by their unit and out of ammunition, were surrounded by the Viet Cong in a swaying sea of elephant grass. There were no aircraft available to provide covering fire for Novosel’s unarmed Huey. All directions came from an orbiting helicopter and Swamp Fox 15, an O-1 Bird Dog observation aircraft flying nearby. Without friendly forces on the ground, the situation was completely out of control—according to the regulations that governed Dustoff missions, Novosel was to leave the area immediately.
Novosel’s crew had heard the report from the circling aircraft but remained silent on the intercom, which Novosel took for a commitment to any decision he made. He pushed the Huey’s nose over and swooped toward the ground, aiming for where the spotter aircraft reported sighting a downed soldier.
Automatic weapons fire opened up from all directions, and the soldier was nowhere to be seen under the fans of elephant grass now flattened under the rotor wash. Novosel quickly climbed out of danger. After another unsuccessful attempt, he began to fly race-track circles just above the tops of the grass. Finally, a Vietnamese soldier stood and waved a shirt.