SAMs Over An Loc
By David Freeman
Note: The first time I posted this story, I was challenged on its authenticity. According to the official records there wasn't a Cobra lost to enemy action on May 11, 1972 that could have been associated with our mission. I did a lot of research on my own and had to agree that nothing about it matched the official records. For a while, I took it off line, but I'm reposting it now. I've learned that the official record is not always accurate and complete. This event happened as I recorded here. The only possible deviation is that it may not have been a Blue Max Cobra. That part was pulled from my memory, but the date and the circumstances of the mission were documented in my personal logbook.
On May 11, 1972, we were heading to An Loc to attempt an evacuation. A Blue Max Cobra was along to provide gun cover. The main highway below, the one that went up through Lai Khe, was being controlled by the NVA. The had been firing at us with radar-controlled 37mm anti-aircraft guns. We were on top of a broken cloud deck at 5,000 when air bursts began to saturate the sky around us. The fire was very accurate, with bursts right at our altitude.
We began varying our altitudes, changing every thirty seconds to through the AA gunners off. Suddenly, the Cobra, which was to our right in about the two o'clock position and maybe a hundred yards away, exploded in mid-air. One second it was there, the next it was a fireball. In shock, we didn't know what to do. Someone screamed, "Hit the deck!" and we did. We headed for the treetops as fast as we could without pulling the Huey apart. We headed back to our staging area at top speed. We didn't know what had hit the Cobra and Operations didn't know what had hit it, either.
We were still shaken up at dinner that night, when Captain Heuter, our new CO, came in and told us it had been a SAM, an SA-7 surface-to-air missile. Two other aircraft had been hit in that same area and one had just avoided being hit in the Delta. Their crew chief had seen a smoke ring on the ground when the SAM was fired and had warned the pilots. They had avoided being hit by going into a tight, descending spiral.
Within three days after the SAM incidents, our helicopters were being equipped with special heat deflector kits designed to protect them from the heat-seeking missiles. Exhaust stacks (we called them "toilet bowls") were added that diverted the exhaust from the turbine engine up into the rotor system where it was dispersed. Metal shields were placed over the other heat-producing areas, such as the oil cooler.
We were briefed on how to watch the ground for signs of the missiles being fired, and how to listen to our radios for signals that indicated a lock on by the missile's tracking system. We were told that the missiles didn't really have time to lock on to us if we were below 2,000 feet. We were subject to small arms fire and anti-aircraft fire at the lower altitudes, so we had to take our choice of the evils we wanted to face.
Crews began flying with all eyes on the ground, looking for the telltale smoke ring that would indicate a SAM had been fired. On more than one occasion, the crew chief or medic saved us by warning the pilots about a SAM firing. Supposedly we were supposed to be able to hear a "beeping" sound in the radio that would indicate we were being tracked by an SA-7, but I never heard that sound myself. If we heard it, we were supposed to descend immediately in a tight spiral.
It was amazing how rapidly we were furnished with the anti-SAM kits after some birds had been lost. The Army must have known we were going to encounter SA-7s. Why else would the had the heat-dispersion kits under development? It would have been nice if they had gotten them to us before the need. A few more people would be alive now.