The round green one that I had gotten on graduation from Cobra School showed a snake with its tongue flickering and fangs bared, coiled in front of the silhouette of a Cobra gunship. The other was made for the F/8's gun platoon: an oval white patch with a cobra's head and the words "Blue Ghost Reds" stitched around it. Instead of fangs, the snake had a tiny minigun shooting flames out of its mouth.
The AH-1G Huey Cobra was the world's first helicopter engineered to be a true gunship, and every effort had been made to create a fast and stable weapons platform. With a top speed of 190-knots (230-mph) in a dive, it was nearly twice as fast as the Huey. Also, it possessed a system of electronic flight stabilizers, called SCAS for Stability Control Augmentation System, which dampened out wind gusts and turbulence much better than the Huey's mechanical stabilizers.
Considered in its design was the fact that a gunship had to dive directly toward its target, which was just as likely shooting back. Even though the aircraft was almost forty-five feet long and over thirteen feet tall, the fuselage was barely three feet wide, providing an extremely narrow profile when viewed straight on, thus making it a difficult target to hit.
Its greatest vulnerability was immediately after breaking from the diving rocket run, when the unprotected sides and belly were exposed, a fact that Charlie-Model and Mike-Model Huey gunpilots, with their door gunners to cover the break, liked to point out. Regardless of its few shortcomings, the newer Cobra had almost universally replaced these famous gunships in Vietnam. For sheer firepower, no chopper could match the Snake.
After learning my way around in the daytime as a frontseater for "Red," our gun platoon leader, and team lead Luke McConnel, the mission seemed almost laid back compared to the stress of maneuvering close to the ground, circling the searchlight. Time-tested routines for conducting the missions were repeated each day, making the transition easier. The lead gun was usually mission commander, although the C&C (command & control) Huey would sometimes take responsibility if one was assigned that day to the team. Whoever commanded the mission also controlled the scout's movements during the recon.
To support the varied tactical situations that might be encountered, Cav gunships carried a dog's breakfast of weaponry and warhead combinations. Besides the notorious minigun, the grenade launcher could fire four-hundred-fifty rounds of 40mm high-explosive projectiles per minute from the gun turret controlled by the copilot in the front seat. The weapon was normally employed during an LZ prep or at the break of a rocket run, where the relatively slow grenades would continue impacting on the ground while the gunship climbed away from its low pass to prepare for another run.
The saying went that anyone could fire a minigun, but the chunker required finesse. I seemed to have a natural feel for the cumbersome weapon, receiving a backseater's generous acknowledgment on more than one occasion, like last Tuesday, when I put the first rounds through the roof of a hooch that the scout had taken fire from, impressing Red and myself.
On the heavier side, the 2.75-inch diameter rockets could deliver artillery-like support at a second's notice. Almost without exception, we carried the ten-pound warhead version instead of the seventeen-pounder because more rockets could be loaded aboard within weight restrictions. Cobras in the Cav rarely carried the big nineteen-shot pods on the outboard wing-store positions either (only in the inboard slots), choosing the smaller seven-shot pods as a trade-off for the extra speed and maneuverability needed to chase a loach (LOH or light observation helicopter) around all day.
The types of rockets were mixed as well between high-explosive, white-phosphorus, and flechettes, each having its own special purpose. High-explosive, HE, was the most commonly used, especially when shooting at a fixed target such as a hooch or bunker. White phosphorus, WP or "willy pete," was used to start fires with its white-hot chemical reaction, impervious even to water. Willy pete was also handy to mark targets and landing zones with the prodigious white smoke its explosion produced.
The strangest, and probably most fearsome, was the flechette rocket, or "nail." Strictly designed to be used against troops caught out in the open or when firing at a general position such as "the treeline at nine o'clock," each warhead contained 2,200 steel nails with fins stamped on one end, resembling tiny darts. After the solid-fuel motor propelled the rocket to supersonic speed in less than two seconds, the warhead exploded a few hundred feet above the terrain, leaving a red dye cloud to mark the release point.
From there, the nails would drop at a steeper angle because of their resistance to the wind. The shower then struck the ground in an elliptical pattern approximately the size of a football field. The pilot used the puffs of dye to adjust the firing angle indirectly since he rarely could see any signs of impact. Usually, the flechettes were spread around the target somewhat to increase the likelihood that something was hit.
While conducting the mission, Cav gunships followed two basic rules: maintain constant visual contact with the scout loach and always be in position to cover him with fire. If either rule was broken, however briefly, the loach was immediately ordered to come up to altitude until the team was reset.
As with Nighthawk, Brigade designated boxes in the AO to be searched each day; and the mission commander would put them in order and plan fuel requirements. The loach pilot would determine exactly how he wanted the recon to run -- which way to enter or exit, the type of terrain, and any specific areas for extra caution that he remembered from previous missions.
Enroute, the team would fly at fifteen hundred feet to stay above the range of most small arms. When a recon was initiated, the guns would descend to a thousand feet or less while the loach continued down to make a high-speed, low-level pass. His objective was to draw fire before slowing and circling back to start a thorough search. I was struck by the sheer nerve of these pilots, hovering over the brush to peek down inside.
"You know, those guys amaze me," Red once said over the intercom, as we watched Captain Lodge following a set of footprints through the brush. "They're throwbacks to the old Indian scouts of the horse cavalry days: looking for broken twigs, knowing how heavily laden a man is by the depth of his footprints, especially after a good rain, even how fresh the trail is."
Compared to loaches, gunships had it easy. Protected to a certain extent by altitude, we enjoyed even greater advantage in being easily recognized. The enemy knew us as an arsenal of death that required their respect. They had to be desperate to take us on in direct confrontation, although they wouldn't hesitate if cornered. The low and slow scout, on the other hand, was a tempting target, even though they knew a diving Cobra would result from any threat on the loach.
The week before, Warrant Officer Loren was flying scout in the southeastern part of Arizona Territory. He followed a thin trail that lead to a bunker between two hooches. As he reported the finding, a small gun cover flew off; and a Viet Cong opened fire at near point-blank range. Two rounds exploded through the plexiglass bubble and a third tore a fist-sized chunk from the tip of one of his rotor blades. Loren's voice vibrated over the radio from the violent shaking in the airframe, as the feedback forces of the severely unbalanced blades began to overwhelm the aircraft. The helicopter was quite literally trying to shake itself apart.
Loren headed for the nearest clearing, about two-hundred yards away. As he tried to put the Cayuse down in a dry paddy, the nose pitched over, and he crashed hard. Luke rolled in with HE rockets on the bunker while Dick swooped down with a slick full of Blues to extract the crew. I covered the break with minigun only, avoiding the possibility of a short round from the chunker landing near the security element.
I watched as Dick's crew-chief and gunner ran over to help get the unconscious pilot from the wreck. The other crew member stumbled out on his own and followed the rescuers toward the slick. Meanwhile, the Blues, our infantry platoon, set up a defensive perimeter around the loach in preparation for recovery.
Dick departed swiftly for the hospital pad, carrying the pilot and shocked observer. Captain Gretchan hovered another slick into position to hook up to the sling and hoist the crippled aircraft out of the jungle. The radios remained uncharacteristically quiet as the guns escorted Gretchan back to base after the recovery, staying close with the over-grossed Huey to provide cover in the off chance we came under fire while enroute. More than one chopper had been lost to enemy fire in Vietnam while traversing "friendly" territory and not paying attention.
After landing, I postflighted the aircraft and caught a ride to the hooch, still wondering what kind of shape Loren was in. Later, at the club, I learned he had suffered trauma to the head and would be sent back to the States. If he recovered.
Due to obvious safety concerns, the Cobra's weapons systems were never armed until we were well clear of the base and actually ready to commence a mission. Two circuit breakers were then pushed in, and the large master-armament switch was pulled and lifted to make the systems "hot." Conversely, before returning to base, the reverse procedure was performed, followed by a radio call of "cold and pulled" to the rest of the team prior to entering the traffic pattern for landing.
One day a gunpilot, with another unit based at Marble, simply forgot the procedure. After landing, he taxied toward the revetments on the east end of parking. Built by the Army out of 55-gallon drums filled with dirt and stacked two rows high and deep around a U-shape, they were not as fancy as the concrete and steel revetments built by the Marines but still afforded decent protection during a mortar or rocket attack.
Instead of using the traditional method of setting the aircraft down outside the revetment and sliding in on the skids, the gunpilot decided to hover directly in to save time. The Cobra began rocking and yawing severely as he fought the whopping turbulence generated by the rotorwash inside the confined area, nearly striking the tail at one point.
The handle on the cyclic contained several buttons that operated radios, landing lights, control settings and weapons systems. As he struggled to set the Snake down as coolly as possible, the pilot jabbed one of the buttons with his thumb in an effort to reset the forced-trim's magnetic brake on the cyclic. In his rush, he hit the wrong one, sending a pair of high-explosive rockets screaming out of the inboard tubes.
One crumpled into a smoking heap against a second-level drum, barely twenty-five feet in front of the ship; but the other glanced off the top of the barrier and veered sharply toward a maintenance hangar less than fifty yards away. Inside were a dozen technicians and mechanics working on aircraft.
The rocket shot upward through the open doors and struck the metal trusses in the pitched ceiling, which deflected its path again, sending it crashing through the back wall to imbed itself in the sand outside. Incredibly, neither rocket exploded. Terrified nonetheless, the men bolted from the hangar, some hollering at the top of their lungs as they ran out onto the tarmac.
The pilot swung his canopy open and jumped off the high step on the fuselage, leaving the copilot to shut down the aircraft. He was visibly shaken as he walked toward the hangar through the group of oncoming men. The men stopped near the edge of the revetment and turned to look, as the pilot stood open-mouthed at the doorway assessing the damage.
EOD was contacted and quickly arrived on the scene to recover the warheads. After placing sandbags around them, they carefully unscrewed the fuses to disarm them before removing them to a remote part of the base to blow them up. Their initial analysis concluded that the shock of the impact against the revetment had damaged both fuses before they could arm the warheads, rendering them harmless. At least as harmless as a ten-pound chunk of metal could be while travelling at the speed of sound through a busy hangar.
While EOD finished their work, the CO arrived on the scene with a small entourage to join the growing crowd of curious onlookers, including myself. After determining what had happened, the major proceeded to chew the pilot's ass with a vengeance. When the tirade ended, the pilot was speechless. What could he say at a time like this? Excuse me for being such a dumb ass as to shoot a rocket into my own maintenance hangar?
One by one, the men dispersed, some looking disdainfully at the pilot and shaking their heads. For some reason, the incident made me think back to something totally unrelated that happened in the advanced stages of my flight school.
I had arrived earlier than usual, one Monday morning, to catch the bus to class and was surprised to find myself the only one waiting in the lobby. As departure time approached and no one appeared, I became convinced that I had missed a holiday, that I should quietly sneak out, drive home, and go back to bed. When Mister Clark, the flight's tactical training officer, TAC, stopped and glared, I knew it was no holiday.
"Just why aren't you in class, candidate?" he hissed.
I braced the wall at attention, staring straight ahead. "Sir, Candidate Austin, I'm early, sir!" I shouted, using the prescribed order of speech when addressing a TAC.
"Follow me, candidate," he said in a more relaxed tone.
Maybe it was O.K., I thought, as I walked behind him toward the administration area. He was probably just screwing with me. TAC's liked to do that. But why did he want me to follow him? He could screw with me out here in the hallway just fine.
It was a rare glimpse inside the TAC's offices, and I discreetly looked at each as we walked in. Mister Tidwell, the First-Flight TAC, was reading a newspaper. Lieutenant Wohler, the Senior TAC, peered over his coffee cup to see who had entered the hallowed room.
"Found Candidate Austin here wandering around in the foyer," Clark announced loudly. "Says he's early, but he just can't seem to figure out where the rest of his fucking classmates are."
The TACs rose in unison from their coffee and paperwork, staring at me in disbelief. In seconds, they surrounded me, screaming insults and threats, saying I was the stupidest bastard they had ever laid eyes on, and that I was never going to make it to graduation. I had never been more shocked and puzzled in my life.
"You got a different fucking calendar than we do, candidate?" Wohler's eyes were wild as he spit the words in my face.
"What time is it, candidate?" Clark demanded.
"Sir, Candidate Aust...."
"Goddamn you, I asked what time it is!" he screamed before I could answer.
I shot a glance at my wristwatch and quickly resumed attention. "Sir, Candidate Austin, oh-six-forty-five, sir!"
He howled with laughter for a few seconds before he was back snarling in my face. "It happens to be oh-seven-forty-six to be precise. Whaddya take me for, candidate? You actually expect me to believe you forgot about the time change Sunday morning? You calling me stupid, candidate? Goddamnit, you calling me stupid?"
I then realized I had forgotten about going on daylight-saving time over the weekend and resetting my watch ahead. I was an hour late. "Sir, Candidate Austin, no sir! It was an honest mistake, sir!"
Now Clark's nose was almost touching mine; and he spoke very slowly ... painfully enunciating every word. "I want to make something perfectly clear, candidate. Honest mistakes kill people!"
As the pilot stood alone before the hangar, I finally, fully, understood Clark's lesson.
(Post-story note: Warrant Officer Loren, the scout whom I described in the crash, suffered permanent brain damage. He was never quite right after that and, a few years ago, decided to take his own life in Florida.)