You are 20 years old, Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, seated in the open door of a Huey helicopter launched on aCA (Combat Assault by Air)— There are five other Soldiers seated on the floor of the ship with you. Helmeted/Sun Visored Door gunners man M-60 machine gun’s on the left and right rear of the cabin. There are five other Huey’s to put your platoon into the bush. You are on the third aircraft as they fly in a line. Your Mission: Go Kill the enemy in the Jungle of Vietnam near the Ashau Valley. Flight time about 15 minutes.The beauty of the Jungle stretches to the horizon. A hot wind blows in your face as the ship flies at 100 knots skimming the treetops.
That last 2 minutes in the air, is the definition of anxiety. As the Helicopter approaches the hilltop to land the pilot flares the ship ( to “flare” a Helicopter the pilot puts the nose of the chopper up and reduces speed quickly and gently brings the descending aircraft to a hover at anywhere from 2-8 feet above the ground in the ideal.)
I always preferred to be first off the ship from about 4-6 feet. Remember the infantry soldiers are carrying rucksacks on their back weighing anywhere from 30-50 pounds. This does not include weapons and ammo. And it is during that final approach, the flaring of the aircraft, that’s when you learn all pilots are not equal. There may be smoke or even fire on the LZ ( the Landing Zone), maybe a couple of Cobras on-station (Helicopter Gun Ships) —-The Door Gunners on your ship, swivel their weapons, watching the LZ closely as the descent begins. If you have an experienced combat pilot he’s going to come in fast, flare and drop you from 4-6 feet off the ground. He did his part (getting you in fast and close to the ground ) — Now you (Grunts) do your part — Get the Fuck out of the ship! –— (Where is the rest of the unit? In the near tree line? In that clump of elephant grass ? Were you paying attention to the ground as you came in? Did you see how the first 2 Choppers went in?). Again I prefer to be in the open door if not on the skid as my launch point to disembark. Get a Nod from the crew chief if you want to stand on the skid during approach. In the open door, you will be able to gauge how the Pilot brings the ship in and leap to the ground — (There is an art to this, too long to go into here– ) It is at this moment when you jump to the ground that is an inexplicable high!! …..Once hitting the ground, the roar of the ship is deafening as the rest of the team exits the Chopper. There is now a partial sense of relief...” Well, I’m on the ground and no one is shooting at me yet”. As you run to join the rest of the platoon, the tremendous aircraft engine noise fades away as the last ship in departs the LZ. Suddenly it’s very quiet. Listen! If there is No small arms fire that is a good sign!!…… the Pink Team or an O-2 may still be on-station, but your immediate environment is now quieter and easier to interpret. One key to staying alive in the jungle is noise discipline. Don’t make unnecessary noise! Communicate by whisper or hand signal. Once the platoon Sergeant has the unit organized, we move out Going who knows where…. In my experience, the majority of CA’s were not met with enemy resistance. Thankfully! Yet that last 2 minutes on the ship and the first couple of minutes on the ground are the most fun, exciting, gut-wrenching and stimulating time of your short life. Professionally I was a Network level TV News cameraman for 20 years. —– but nothing in my life experience, ever matched the RUSH of going in on a Helicopter CA in a Slick as a member of an Infantry unit. Believe it or not…. it could be addictive!
Many in the infantry received the Blue and Orange ribbon “Air” Medal awarded for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.”. I remember when my Platoon Sgt. handed me my orders as a recipient of the Air Medal. No Ceremony. No Handshake. Just “here you go“. When I look at my framed Air Medal hanging on a wall in my home, it is that last 2 minutes Inbound on the chopper that comes back to me. The whap-whap-whap of the Huey, the hot air in my face, the sound of the fighter-bombers, the stomach in knots, and the leap to the ground….
I remember it all, even now as an old man…..
Mike Whatley / 42nd IPSD / 101ST Abn / I Corps / 70-71
Charlottesville, Va. July 2017