A Failed Night Ranger Extraction, Phan Thiet, 1969

Copyright Jim Schueckler, 8219 Parmelee Road, LeRoy, NY 14482- may be copied if attributed, including the dedication. You may download a word processor version of this file.

Dedicated in memory of CPT Thomas E. "Okie" Campbell, WO1 John P. Wright, SP5 Chubby D. Lowrey, and PFC Ezequiel Torres, Jr.

Flying at night in Vietnam scared the hell out of me. Here in the good old US of A, flying at night is not so dangerous. In most places here, there are thousands of lights on the ground to give references of where the ground and horizon are. Vietnam wasn't like that. The high humidity caused a haze that totally obscured the horizon, and there were no lights on the ground in the mountainous jungle areas. Flying at night in Vietnam was instrument flight. Nobody flies on instruments when close to the ground, but our missions required us to be close to the ground. You can't hover on instruments, because to hover you need very fast information to the brain about the aircraft's attitude and position.

My Peter Pilot was a newby, about as Long as the Mekong River. In Vietnam about a week, he had his "in-country check ride" just the day before. As aircraft commander, I introduced him to supporting C Company of the 75th Rangers, using a Huey H-model slick. We dropped a few Ranger teams in the jungle, took supplies to some of them, brought one team back, and did a few other ash-and- trash missions to firebases and compounds near Phan Thiet. We had thought our work-day was over.

One Ranger team was to stay out in the boonies overnight, but got into a firefight with an undetermined number of VC at about 10 PM. Our gunships and one of our slicks dropping flares went out to support them, and their platoon leader was in an Air Force FAC Bird Dog. We were called to operations: "Go pick up the team. Use McGuire rigs because they can't find a clearing. They are under trees that are forty to fifty feet high."

I had made McGuire rig pickups before--in daylight. The Rangers on the ground would put on a body-harness with a locking hook at chest level. We would hover above the trees. A Ranger-guy in the back of our Huey would drop long ropes with rings on the end. Very simple: the guys on the ground would connect their hooks to the ring, tell us on the radio or with a thumbs-up that they were ready, and we would pull them straight up until they were clear of the trees. We would fly back home or to a nearby firebase with the men hanging far below the Huey. We had to remember to terminate at a very high hover, then go straight down very slowly. We used to joke that nobody was sure if McGuire was the name of the man who invented the process, or the one who died the first time it was tried. ( Children: do not do this at home ).

We got airborne within a few minutes and joined the FAC, the gunships, and the flare ship in the air above the embattled Rangers. The area was well illuminated by the flares that our sister-ship was dropping from high above, so I asked the Peter Pilot to fly the approach. We were only a few hundred feet up, with our searchlight on, when tracers came up towards us from several different places. I turned off the lights, grabbed the controls, turned real sharp, and got out of there as fast as I could.

More nervous now, I remained at the controls. We went back, just above the trees, with no lights on except the navigation lights that can only be seen from above. The flares were swinging under their parachutes, making the treetops look like an eerie, rolling, sea. The Ranger on the ground directed me to him by the noise I was making.

The men on the ground were talking on their FM radio, and folks in the air were on UHF, but only the FAC and we were trying to use both. On the first pass, I was trying to talk with the Rangers on the ground, but the almost continuous air-to-air talk would frequently cover them. I set switches on the intercom units and then told my Peter Pilot: "You talk to the guys in the air, I'll talk to the guys on the ground."

My almost fatal mistake was that I did NOT tell my Peter Pilot that I could no longer hear the air-to-air conversations.

Finally the man on the ground said we were directly overhead. The Ranger in the back of our Huey dropped the ropes. They tangled. He pulled them back up and tried again. We couldn't see the men on the ground, but the one with the radio could see our silhouette against the glow of the parachute flares, so he gave us directions: "Back up, go to the left, no that's too much, go right..." He had to scream into the radio to overcome the sound of our rotor. I was pouring with sweat and my heart was pounding for what seemed to be an eternity. Finally the Rangers were connected and gave the signal to pull them up. Because the ropes were over the skids, not at the center of gravity, I had to rise very slowly.

Then the lights went out.

Black. VERY black. All around us.

It seemed as though nothing existed outside of the Huey except darkness.

The slick dropping flares had called out by radio when they had thrown out the third last, then second last, then last, flare. My Peter Pilot didn't know that I couldn't hear that radio. I hadn't heard the warnings.

There were no more flares. No more light.

From the feeble red glow of the dimmed instruments and the seat of my pants, I could tell that we were spinning. Fast. Spinning like a top, around a bunch of ropes now tangled in the trees. Full opposite pedal did not stop the spinning because we were pivoting around the ropes over the skids.

I couldn't go up because we were tied to the trees, but I couldn't go down for fear of hitting a tree, losing the tail rotor, or otherwise destroying the aircraft.

But I couldn't see ANYTHING outside!

"Okie" Campbell, our gunship platoon leader, saw my navigation lights spinning. He raised the nose of his C-model Huey and punched off a salvo of rockets high into the air. From that few seconds of rocket-flame glare, I was able to stop the spinning. My frantic groping also had finally found the landing light switch. Click. I'd rather get shot at than do that spinning again.

Now able to see the tree tops, I reduced power to stop the spinning.

The Ranger in the back of our Huey cut us free of the tangled ropes as he screamed in anguish because he thought his buddies in the darkness below us were dead or soon would be. I felt terrible, wondering how many men I had just killed. As soon as the Ranger said we were free, I pulled maximum power to low-level out of there. After building airspeed, I switched off the landing light and climbed like a bat out of hell.

Within a few minutes, we found out by radio that the Rangers did not fare too badly. They were just a few feet off the ground, and only one was cut from the trees. The Ranger platoon leader had seen it all from the back seat of the FAC plane, and he asked the Rangers on the ground if they would prefer to spend the night where they were. I thanked God when they said they wanted to stay on the ground.

The VC were either killed by our gunships or thought that our mission to pick up the Rangers had been successful. There was no more enemy contact, and the Rangers found a big clearing to be picked up the next morning.

About two weeks later, another one of our slicks was trying to extract some Rangers from a clearing on a hill at night. The main rotor hit a tree and the aircraft rolled over; killing one Ranger and injuring several others and the crew. A second gunship team went out to support their recovery. Okie's last radio message said they had inadvertently flown into a cloud; a very bad thing to happen while low in that rugged terrain. We searched all night, finding the wreckage and the bodies of Okie, John, Chubby, and Zeke the next morning. That day our company commander and the Ranger company commander agreed to have no more night extractions. Gunship fire and dropping flares all night if they needed it, but no more night pickups.

Dedicated in memory of CPT Thomas E. "Okie" Campbell, WO1 John P. Wright, SP5 Chubby D. Lowrey, and PFC Ezequiel Torres, Jr.

Rest in peace, brothers.

Copyright Jim Schueckler, 8219 Parmelee Road, LeRoy, NY 14482- may be copied if attributed, including the dedication.

You may download a word-processor version of this file.

FlewHuey@FrontierNet.net 19Feb97