I must be losing it. It's my last day on the duty roster, the LZ's hot, and I'm letting the Peter Pilot fly. Those are Australians out there--Free World Military Forces. They're in contact, have four wounded, and we're off Long Binh enroute to them.
It started when we got a call in the middle of the afternoon. We're second up and I was hoping we wouldn't have to fly. First up is out around Tay Ninh somewhere on an urgent medevac. This mission was called in as urgent, too, so here we are.
Smitty is doing okay. He'll be an AC shortly after I'm gone, so I'm letting him do the flying. He's picking his way around afternoon thundershowers east of Long Binh and I'm trying to find us some guns. It's not going to happen. This is late '72 and there's just not many American gunships left in the AO.
Arriving on station, we find a classic medevac situation. It's a hover-hole, the troops are in contact, and us with no guns. Not exactly what I'd envisioned for my last mission in-country.
The Aussies had used some explosives to clear what they called a landing area. At night it wouldn't have looked so bad, but this was in the middle of the afternoon, and I could see how small it was. I could also see that there was shooting going on down there. According to the smooth-talking Aussie on the radio, they were "taking a little fire from the north and east." It looked more like heavy fire to me. Smitty made one of those tactical approaches we'd taught him, zeroing out the Huey's airspeed, then dropping the nose so we'd fall like a rock to the tree tops. He headed right to the LZ and honked back on the cyclic only to find it was too small to make a normal landing. We had to come to a hover over it and ease our way down into the clearing. That left us sitting ducks.
We started drawing some small arms fire, but because of the trees the bad guys couldn't get a clear shot at us. Smitty managed to get the helicopter on the ground without hitting any of the surrounding trees, and without us taking any hits. As the wounded were being loaded, the intensity of the firing increased and tracers started coming from everywhere. I could see them impacting the ground in front of us and off to our right front and couldn't figure out why the bad guys didn't just raise their sites a little and let us have it. Must have been some more of the divine protection that had kept me in one piece throughout my tour.
Being the AC, and being about as short as a body could get, and knowing that if you were going to get killed, your last mission was the most likely time for it to happen, I took the controls. There was no room in the clearing to turn around and the only way out was straight up. I was about to try something drastic. It was something I'd been told about, but had never tried. Something the older AC's had called a "tactical departure."
Telling the crew to hold on, I put the cyclic in what I thought might be a '40 knot attitude', pulled 40 pounds of torque and as soon as we cleared the trees slammed the left pedal against the stop. We went up like a corkscrew and were through 2,000 feet before we knew it. We must have presented a pretty difficult target, because nobody hit us, and there were plenty of people trying. I was also pretty dizzy.
The patients were evacuated successfully and my tour of Vietnam ended. On September 27th, 1972, I passed the urine test at the Pee House of the August Moon, trimmed the handlebars off my mustache, and boarded the Freedom Bird for home.