Below them, Carlson says, “lights blinked like the small farms we flew over during night hops from Pensacola. But each [light] was the muzzle flash of a gun being fired at us.” The LZ—landing zone—was hot, so Sabin told the grunts on the ground to mark its center with a small strobe.
“The standard procedure was to spiral down directly over the LZ, in order to present the smallest target for the shortest time. In daylight, this approach was dangerous. At night, I was sure it was impossible.” Carlson remembers that Sabin dropped the collective to the bottom stop to reduce the pitch on the blades to zero, cut the throttle, dropped the nose, and spiralled down like a duck with a shot wing. “After five complete revolutions he straightened out,” Carlson recalls, “and the strobe was dead ahead. I could feel him raising the nose to slow our forward movement and twisting on full power to stop the descent.”
Sabin maneuvered to put the strobe between the helicopter and the waiting Marines, but the light kept moving: The Marine carrying it had mounted it on his helmet, figuring that would make it a better beacon, and now he realized Sabin might try to land on top of him. “Rod landed with his side toward the shooting, so the exhaust stacks wouldn’t be a target, and we picked up our guy,” says Carlson. “I remember as we headed back toward Marble Mountain, Sabin got on the intercom and asked the corpsman down in the cabin, ‘How’s he doing?’ The medic said, ‘I’ve got my hand inside his chest, but he’ll make it.’ ”
Before the end of Carlson’s first night aloft, he and Sabin would do it 11 more times, a typical shift for a ready-when-you-are Dog.
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.