As my life begins to slow down
I am able to understand much more
about myself, and why things ended up happening the way they did.
As I now look back I can see where the LORD has nudged me at certain
times in order to get me going in the direction I needed to be going in.
I believe that one of those nudges was the crash.
I believe the date was June or July of 1968. We were flying various assaults out of the Ban Me Thout area. I had been an AC for a few months now. On this particular lift we were hauling tiny (children) ARVN troops. I can remember the crew chief lifting one for a weight check. We figured, with full pack, they weighed in at about 80 lbs. As I remember there were about a half dozen ships in the lift and we all had the new “H” models. Everyone was taking 10 troops and we were putting them into an LZ that was on about a 30-45 degree slope. We had to put the left skip on the top of a huge bolder in order to let them out. I believe I was #4 ship or so and we were going in one at a time.
The approach to the LZ was such that a missed approach could be executed to the right which was the valley side and the tree line treetops were just below the height of the boulder. None of the ships before me had reported any kind of a power problem. I was making a rather shallow approach so that I would have a good idea of where my power was before touching the skid down on the boulder.
We were on short final having just cleared the tree line at the front of the LZ and beginning to lose transitional lift when all of a sudden my pedals went soft and I began an uncontrolled right pedal turn. By the time I could react I was facing 90 degrees to the right and flying sideways towards the boulder. I immediately yelled “Go Emergency, Go Emergency, Go Emergency” into the mike so that the PP would put the engine governor in the emergency position. It was my hope that with the extra power I could pop the ship over the tree line to the right and into the valley then lower pitch and hopefully streamline the ship and slide her in at Ban Me Thout. The PP was new and couldn't find the emergency switch.
From the instant I knew we could not make it out of the LZ, everything happened in slow motion. Yea, I know your saying “What did he just say?” but it happened that way and it was the 2nd of 3 times that happened in my life. Call it an adrenaline surge to the brain or whatever but that is the best way I can explain it.
As I completed the first of 3-1/2 right turns I could see that none of the troops had made it to the far end of the LZ as yet so I tried my best to make it over to that area. I found that I could lead the ship a little and sort of point the ship in that direction. As the turns got faster and faster that was harder to do and I was beginning to get dizzy. Just as #3 turn was beginning I knew I had to set it down then and hoped that no one was under me when we hit.
I knew that I didn't want to flop around like a fish in the LZ after we hit which meant I had to get rid of the rotors as soon as I could. I remember Condrey telling me that if you hit something soft with the rotors it will pull the transmission out and pitches forward which will usually kill one of the crew members and probably both pilots when the blades come through the cockpit area. He said if you hit something hard with the rotors the torque hasn't time to think and chances are the blades will shear off at the mast and the transmission will stay in place. As the tail cleared the upside of the slope I gave it my best guess and cut the throttle in the hopes that we would stop parallel to the slope. We did and there we were, in a hovering autorotation at about 20 feet up. Just before the right skid was about to touch I gave full right cyclic and dug that rotor into the slope as hard as I could just as Condrey had said. It worked as planned and snapped the rotor off at the top of the mast and the transmission stayed put. The ship then rolled over on to its top and wedged there on a large rock.
I remember seeing the tall grass up against the windshield. Being now upside down everything looked strange. I could hear the ship still running and I knew I had to get out of that thing fast. I put my feet over my head and released my harness and fell to the ceiling. I thought I was fast but as I turned around all I could see was the butt of my copilot, the rest of the ship was empty of all personal. Out of 14 people on board only one sustained any kind of injury. One of the kids we were carrying didn't think the one in front of him was going down the slope fast enough so he jumped on him and broke his leg in the process. I was later told that was the only injury sustained in the accident. "Thank You" Condrey.
My thanks these many years later to Michael Van Dyke, my doorgunner, for giving me the picture to the left, which was given to him by a crewmember of one of the other ships. Notice the tops of the trees below, that was one steep bank. Had the ship not rolled over on to a large rock at that exact spot we would have rolled all the way to the bottom of those trees. Good work Guardian Angel/Angels.
After realizing all were safe I climbed back in the ship and attempted to shut the engine down. I remember turning my head to orient it to the now upside down ship, which allowed me to find the switches I needed to shut her down. With that completed I made my way up to the main boulder, with the rest of my crew and our gear, and got on the next ship that came in.
We were dropped off at the pickup area and returned to Nha Trang later that evening. As soon as I got back I had to tell what happened to the brass. Due to regulations both pilots involved in a crash are grounded for 3 days. I had heard that maintenance was sending an inspection team to Ban Me Thuot where the ship was put after they pulled it out of the LZ. I asked if it was OK to go along and they said it was OK with them.
The maintenance officer didn't want anything to do with me. I had broken one of his ships and that was that. His tech sergeant did though and we talked most of the way there about the incident. I knew they were chalking it up to a new inexperienced AC pulling too much power and losing pedal. I also knew I was still too far out for that to happen, something had gone wrong. The sergeant said that from what I had told him the gearboxes either came unglued, the drive shaft was severed or the pitch cable broke, that was it. For the rest of the flight I tried not to make eye contact with the maintenance officer.
When we got to Ban Me Thuot the ship was at the end of the runway, lying on its right side where they had dropped it. The tech sergeant and I went straight for the ship, I do not remember the officer following us. The first thing the sergeant did was take his screwdriver and undo the fasteners on the vertical stabilizer cowling. Bingo! There it was, right in front of us. The phenolic pulley that put an angle in the tail rotor cable had broken and allowed the cable to slip out. The resulting slack in the cable fooled the tail rotor into thinking it wasn't needed anymore so it went to flat pitch. The ship was 64 hours out of maintenance and whoever was flying it at that time was in for the ride of his life and that pilot turned out to be me.
As we took a closer look see we found that a dropped ratchet had apparently hit the pulley. The etchings on the ratchet's handle had left an imprint on the pulley and had begun a crack. We could see where the old crack had propagated as well as the new crack that was caused by the shaking of the aircraft as it began coming out of transitional flight to a forward hover. A picture was taken and we eventually went back to Nha Trang. I sure felt good about finding that broken pulley.
In Nha Trang my vindication was short lived. I was called before the brass and told that since I was just a warrant officer, with no intention of making the service my career, the crash was being judged as pilot error with possible maintenance malfunction. In this manner the maintenance department would not have to undergo a formal inspection from the higher ups and I would have my AC orders back in a couple of weeks. This would also allow the maintenance dept. to find out who worked on the tail rotor and correct the problem. So much for military politics.
“Pilot Error” is a devastating title to have. All my flying after that was as PP to the brand new ACs and that meant I rarely touched the controls for any more takeoffs or landings. They didn't want me crashing their ship. The only time I was given the controls was after we reached cruise on the trip to or from base. Funny thing, no one ever asked me how I managed to set that thing down on such a steep slope without direct injury to anyone. It was just assumed that I didn't know what the heck I was doing. Several years later that same instinct, that was so nurtured and groomed by the 281st, allowed me to unexpectedly put a jet ranger between the upper and lower spans of some power lines just west of Barberville, KY. You can find that story in the March 80' issue of FLYING magazine.
So many weeks had gone by that I kind of settled into the fact that I would never see my AC orders again. Then came word that the 192nd, to our south, was having a DEROS problem since they all came over on the boat together. Several pilots from each of the other units would be swapped to ease things down there. I volunteered to go in order to get my AC status back and the 3rd day there I was made AC again. 30 some years later someone told me that an officer that did not care for me was holding up my AC orders. I had earlier told him I didn't care much for his flying and I guess that was his way to get back at me. Little did he know he was being used to nudge me in a new direction, the direction I was needed in.
That tail rotor failure was the first of three that I would have in Vietnam. The other two were at a hover and resulted in no damage to the aircraft. As soon as I left the service I went straight to Teterboro School of Aeronautics and obtained my federal aircraft airframe & power plant maintenance rating. I was not going to crash again because of hanger rash.
Though at the time I was really down at what had happened to me I can now understand the politics of the situation. Had I been the brass I would probably have opt to do the same thing. I though, would have given that pilot his AC orders back as soon as I could have. I wonder if maintenance ever told the brass about the broken pulley? In any case, my time with the 192nd was just as memorable and if it weren't for the crash I never would have taken that course in life.
Mike VanDyke (Door Gunner)
To whom this may concern.
I am writing my account of the crash of helicopter
tail # 66-17129 on 4/26/1968.
We were a flight of six helicopters carrying Arvin troops to an LZ up north.
We were just a few minutes from dropping off the Arvin troops when I heard over the radio that we could be in trouble. The pilot said that we were losing the tail rotor and as soon as he said that we started to spin. We spun about three time and then dropped onto a huge rock that made the helicopter roll and threw everyone out of the helicopter. Jonny Hughes was injured as was I.
We both complained of our backs hurting after the violent force that we experienced being thrown from the helicopter. I had back surgery forty years later because of that crash and believe me Jonny hughes was also hurt. Jonny complained of his back hurting until I left Vietnam a few months later.
Michael Don Van Dyke
281st assault helicopter company
E-4 door gunner
Here is what I remember. The first that
I knew we were in trouble is when it came over the radio that the tail rotor
was not working. I do remember looking back and seeing the rotor right before
we started to spin. Once I knew we were going in I took off my seat
belt and was getting ready to jump, I never got the chance I was thrown from
the ship and was on the ground. I do remember feeling the helo starting
to roll. Once on the ground I started to run from the helo. The
next thing I remember was being on the ground and seeing another helo hovering
and my cc yelling at me to get to the helo I ran up the hill
and was pulled aboard.
I just remembered the injury that I had, the breast armor plate that I wore came up and about broke my jaw, I had to suck threw a straw for two weeks to be able to eat anything. It was the cc that must have hurt his thumb. I just remembered my back hurting. I was told by someone that the handle on one of the 60's was bent by super human strength but I don't know if it was me or the cc.