Condrey was sharp and always
seemed to have a little smirk on his face like he
had something planned for me and it was my job to figure it out.
He was always planning ahead and didn't mind at all to tell me when I was
doing something wrong. The first thing he made me do was to put my
seat all the way down and back as far as my legs would allow. I believe
he said something to the effect that he didn't want me sticking out like
a sore thumb and getting shot at because one of the rounds might hit him.
That sure made me feel good.
The next thing he had me change was the way I held the cyclic, he made me put my hand down where the cyclic started making its curve, just under the grip. In this position my wrist was always resting on my right thigh making arm and wrist control movement minimal. Need to transmit, just stretch out a finger. That was the secret to his smooth flying. He could make that ship turn in any direction and I swear you couldn't see the cyclic move even a fraction of an inch. It seems like he was born to fly choppers.
When we had our mission briefings Condrey would later take me to the side and give me his version of the briefing. Condrey always planned for a screw up if it could happen and covered himself as best he could. On some missions we would carry less fuel than most and on some others more fuel than most. Carrying less fuel on one particular mission saved us from going into the trees and becoming POWs or worse. Like I say, Condrey was on top of everything.
On that particular mission we were flying out of the Oasis, just west of Pleiku, and I now had almost 3 months of combat under my belt. I was no longer there just to get the ship back in case the AC got shot, I was in full training mode and Condrey was pouring it in as fast as I could absorb it. Since every ship we could get up was needed we were given one of the units “dog” helicopters, the one some joker had put the Volkswagen engine in. It was really under powered and could not lift a regular load. Because of that we were honored with the position of “Tail-End-Charlie” so we could have the entire landing zone to ourselves in case we had trouble stopping. The ARVN we were supporting had come under fire and we were pulling them out. We were only taking 3 ARVN while everyone else was taking out 5.
When we fueled up Condrey stopped us short of what we were told to get. Instead of a 30-45+ minute reserve he had us down to a 20-30 minute reserve at most. When I asked why he said he wanted the extra power and if we ran out we could set down at one of the many other sites along the way and blame it on the gauge. Less fuel means less weight which usually means one more person can get on or that much more power to get airborne.
Condrey moseyed us along quite a distance from the rest of the formation. It was a 2 ship LZ and as we lined up for final, everything had gone OK except for the last ships coming out reporting hearing small arms fire. Hearing that, the Wolf Pack got ready for Condrey's call coming out so they could start taking out the tree line on that side of the LZ. Condrey landed us long and turned to hover back when he said something like “Ah S---”. There were the last 3 ARVN and next to them 2 additional and much heavier American advisors they failed to count and now we were their last ride out.
Four of them scrambled on board while the last American blasted away at the trees to our left. We let lead know our problem. After the crew chief helped the last one on board, along with the others on that side of the ship, he began hosing down the tree line because the LZ had just gone HOT. We were now in a shutout with the bad guys. Our extremely low fuel status had covered us for one extra GI but not the other. We sure couldn't leave him so off we went. Our only advantage was that they were at the far end of the LZ which would give us that much more room at the running start we now badly needed to clear the trees at the other end of the LZ. It also meant they had that much more time to try and shoot us down. As Condrey pulled in power he gave his call "coming out" and the Wolf Pack began taking out the tree line on the "hot" side of the LZ. I scrunched in my seat a little because I knew this was going to be a close one and on this one it had to be perfect. I was sure glad it was Condrey in that seat. If Condrey (pictured to the left) was able to clear those trees at all there was another problem waiting for us and that was the fact that we had to take off uphill. As the ship pulled forward and with my hands and feet already on the controls as well I began reading off the power gauges which Condrey needed to know in order to maximize our takeoff. If we were to get out of there at all everything had to be just perfect and he knew he would be pulling down what little power we had. With Condrey pulling everything she had and using as much of the LZ as we could and with a little bit of cyclic climb we just barely made it over the trees. Our engine RPM had been pulled off to probably only one RPM above Master Caution. Then I heard those fateful words; “You Got It”.
I about died. I thought Condrey had been hit. I took the controls as Condrey promptly grabbed his carbine and began firing out his window. I couldn't believe he was doing that and with all that gunfire communication between us was lost.
I now had in my hands an overloaded ship that was going in and out of Master Caution and pulling full power all she could muster was 30 knots and a 50 ft a minute climb, 1/10 of a normal 500 ft a minute climb out. All I could do was hold what I had and thank the LORD that our 50 ft a minute climb exactly matched the slope going up that mountain. We were stuck between a hover and flight where a chopper finally leaves the forward side of the big air bubble of high density air that the rotor blades pack down under the ship. We were stuck in what is called transitional flight. We were pulling so much power that it was pulling down the engine but we had no choice. She wanted to fly but just couldn't and we were shaking badly. If we could have gotten just 5 knots more out of her she would have streamlined out and we would have been out of there. I couldn't nose it over because the skids were already scraping the tree tops and I couldn't go left or right because of the immediate ridges on both sides of us. I couldn't even lower pitch to get back some rpm. When all the shooting stopped Condrey heard the Master Caution now blaring in our helmets and immediately took in our situation. I said, “Don't touch a ------- thing”. The slightest jar in the controls would have kissed our lift good bye which would have put us into the trees right then and there. All I could do was hold what I had and dip when I could and try to pick up some rpm but it was pretty much all uphill. The skids were picking up leaves and small branches and there was nothing we could do. A big limb or taller tree top would have easily tripped us. Ahead of us I could see the slope of the mountain steadily increasing which left me with no choice. I started a very shallow turn to the right in the hope that we could clear the ridge on that side of us before the pitch of the mountain got us. I was also praying we wouldn't lose that bubble of air we were still riding on just yet which the turn just might do. Talk about pucker factor!
About this time a few words of acknowledgment came in from lead. I believe it went something like this, “You guys all right, I can see your rotors”. From above, you start seeing individual rotors only when the blades begin to slow down. Yea, like we didn't know that already. Lead didn't get an answer because we were a bit preoccupied. All was quiet on the radios after that, the others were now well aware of our plight and knew it would probably take a miracle for us to get out of this one. Condrey realized he couldn't chance jarring the controls but that sure didn't keep him from thinking. I believe, and I may be wrong on this, it was then that he ordered, via the floor mike, all the ammo cans thrown out. Other than people that was all we could throw out to get lighter.
The ridge was closing in fast and it was going to be only inches if we made it at all. All was silent for the next minute or so. The crew knew what was happening and I believe so did our passengers. Other than a mid-air collision or a catastrophic failure at altitude, going into trees was about as bad as it could get and the crew knew it. Going down into dense trees means those blade will be thrashing around and cutting up everything they come in contact with. It also means all that torque from the blades hitting the trees would more than likely put out the transmission, pitching it forward and instantly killing either the crew chief or door gunner then getting both pilots as the blades cut through the cockpit. Now you see why we were giving it our all to keep that ship flying. I wonder how many prayers were being said for us by the others watching all this from above?
I know the prayers helped but I still wonder how much of an effect losing those ammo cans had. In any case, brushing the trees along the way, and in a deathly silent chopper with all eyes staring at that ridge we barely cleared it by just inches. I held what I had for another 10 seconds or so then nosed her over. Within seconds the air around the helicopter streamlined as the chopper's blades finally got a good grab at the air and pulled us into flight and did she ever want to fly. I believe we all heard a little groan from that engine when I brought the power back down for cruise. It sure was nice seeing all those trees WAY down below us for a change and not right in our face and to have all that shaking stop.
I said to Condrey, “you got it” but he wouldn't take the controls and instead said something to the effect that I was doing just fine and to get us back home. The cockpit was understandably quiet after that and we finally caught up with the rest of the flight just before reaching base. We were well into our 20 minute light when we finally touched down but that just didn't seem very important after what had just happened.
All in all I believe the whole thing took only 2-3 minutes but to us it seemed like an eternity. I figure we hover/flew about a mile and all of it up hill and brushing trees all along the way. I think all our Guardian Angels got the next week off for pulling that one off and to give them time for their little wings to rest and return to shape.
After we shut down Condrey told me I did a nice job. In doing so he still had that little smirk of confidence he always seemed to have but I believe I detected a little gleam in his eye too. I don't believe that gleam was for me. I believe it was for himself for having taught me well enough to do what I had just done. At least some of what he was trying to teach was sinking in and it just got us out of a mighty tight spot. I wasn't just "the new guy" any longer, I was part of his team.
One other thing, while we were shutting down, one of the two Green Berets that we had pulled out of there waited by the ship until we shut down. He then told us he had flown with us enough to know that we were in trouble with the overweight condition. He said as soon as he saw that single ship come in by itself, he knew someone had counted wrong and getting out would be a problem. Because the LZ had gone "hot" he knew he couldn't stay, he also knew the ship would be straining to get out of there with two extra people. Once out of the LZ he knew the problem wasn't over because of all the shaking and knowing that the ship should have been flying and a lot higher by now. He said, if the ship was about to go into the trees he would have jumped out to lighten the load in order to save the others. With the ship going that slow and and only inches from the tree tops he would have had a chance of making it. That man was a "professional " soldier and is the basis for why we were so proud to work with the 5th Special Forces (Green Beret). They seemed to be all like that.
I don't remember when it was but right around this time Condrey gave me a little talk on how to crash a chopper. More than likely it was right after this incident. He said if you hit something soft the ship will flop around like a fish out of water and the transmission will pull forward and kill both pilots. He then said if you hit something hard it will snap the rotor system off at the mast and the blades will fly off leaving the transmission in place. That wasn't in "The Book", it was one of those things pilots passed on to one another. It was also something that would save my life just a few months down the road when I, as an AC, would have to intentionally put one in, with 14 people on board. I'm here now because of Condrey and like virtually all other Peter Pilots owe my life to the skills being passed from one pilot down to the next. I can't say enough about that.
Condrey made several choices that day that probably account for the fact that I am still here to write about all this. The first was planning ahead and going light on the fuel. The second was instantly sizing up the situation and not grabbing and chancing a jar in the controls. The third was getting rid of those ammo cans and not just sitting there waiting for the inevitable. We worked as a team and once again won out over the adversity of circumstances that we often found ourselves in. What we were not aware of was the fact that other pilots and crews were doing the same thing all over Vietnam...they were rewriting the "Book" and in doing so gave countless others a second chance at life. Condrey did the hard part in getting us out of that LZ in the first place because that was the real miracle of this story. Those guys had been given another chance at life because of his expertise, I had the easy part considering what had just taken place. I don't recall how many times we were hit getting out of there but I do recall getting peppered pretty good. I do know that nothing critical got hit and maybe, just maybe, that was because Condrey got the one guy whose bullet was about to take out our engine. I won't know the story on that until I get to the big de-briefing in the sky.
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Nabors (Condrey's sister) for the use of Tommy's picture for this story.