BY: Jack Serig, Sr.

    One dark, cloudy night, the unit commander  summoned my Otter* aircraft crew to his native-style quarters in our 18th Aviation Company’s hooch village, located at the northeast section of the Nha Trang Air Base.  It was mid-1962. An emergency request had been received to take a packet of human blood to Dalat.  An ARVN soldier, stationed in Dalat had been severely wounded.  The blood delivery could make  the difference in saving the injured soldier’s life.  The South Vietnamese Air Force unit stationed at the base was unable to take the mission.  Our unit commander agreed to fill in.  Keith Mowry was the crew chief, Louis Oliverio the pilot and I was aircraft commander.

    There were two airfields at Dalat.  A respectable, long concrete field with an operations building/terminal and tower located at the base of a mountain which held the town of Dalat in its upper region.  A much shorter grass strip was on a sloping, small plateau within the town of Dalat on top of the mountain.  Neither field had night lighting and we were unable to determine from the emergency request at which field we were to deliver the blood. My crew’s selection for this mission came about for several reasons.  We were available; and I had personally experienced one daytime landing at each field.  With the CO we jointly determined that we could deliver the blood, barring adverse weather conditions.

    In planning the mission several important items were discussed:  How to keep the blood cool; the overcast weather; flight planning; instrument qualifications; airfield familiarization;  NOTAM (notice to airmen) check; and to whom the blood should be delivered. We estimated an engine-start time to coordinate the blood’s delivery and purloined a container of ice from the mess hall to keep it cool during the flight.  Preliminary weather reports indicated overcast conditions enroute.  We should be able to fly on-top after penetrating the cloud bank by climbing to altitude over the South China Sea, back to the Nha Trang ADF (automatic direction finder) beacon, then flying a prescribed direct route to Dalat with sufficient altitude to clear the mountainous terrain.  There were no NOTAM’s for Dalat. We would land at the main, concrete runway at the base of the Dalat mountain.  If no one was there to meet us we would do our best to fly to the mountaintop strip near Dalat city which had low overcast cloud cover on our takeoff.

    The lifesaving blood was delivered to us and we took off from Nha Trang, proceeding as planned.  We initiated our approach from the Dalat ADF, announcing our intentions on the prescribed radio frequencies and broke out of the soup just east of the airport, above minimums.
There was one visible light, a small electric bulb, which gave a ghostly appearance to the tower’s interior as we passed on a high recon, and one small outside security light to the rear of the operations/passenger terminal.  The runway was not lighted.  The field was in a narrow valley and there were no landmarks other than the close mountain ranges to either side of our direction of travel.  We prepared for landing after circling the field on the high recon and lined up on final about a half-mile out, landing to the west. Upon touching down my peripheral vision was picking up blurry objects both left and right.  As the aircraft slowed down we realized how fortunate we were to have stayed over the centerline.  A few short yards to our right and left were large piles of construction rock and sand at close intervals along our path of travel.  The runway was being readied for repairs.  We had specifically checked NOTAMS for Dalat prior to our departure from Nha Trang.  There were none.  We had been lucky---so far!

    We slowed on the main runway pulling off onto the available parking apron before reaching the dimly lighted operations area.  I advised  Louis to keep the engine running and to be ready for a quick get-a-way as we had seen a person in black pajamas, conical hat and slung weapon, come out of the shadows from the area behind the operations building.  “Was it a good guy or bad guy?”, I wondered.  I dismounted and approached him, simultaneously unloosening the strap to my .45 caliber pistol and checking my jungle knife, building my courage. The pajama-clad figure watched me approach, his rifle still slung.  I took him for a good guy.  As I got closer I could see his smile.  He turned out to be the airport’s sole night security.  I pantomimed “telephone”, smiling back. He pointed to a phone booth.  

    The Vietnamese female operator put me through to the home of the Senior MAAG (Military Assistance Advisor Group) advisor in Dalat city, atop the mountain, a army lieutenant colonel whom I had flown to Dalat with his family earlier in the year on my only other flight into Dalat.  He had remained at his home anticipating a call.  His reception party  was at the dirt strip, on the plateaued mountaintop waiting for us.  I advised that we may not be able to get into that strip as the cloud cover was below the mountain tops.  “Could he send a party down to the main airfield?”  “No!”, he replied,  “The Vietcong controlled the roads at night and ambushes had been experienced before.”  It was too dangerous to send a land party.     I responded that we would take off, climb on top of the cloud cover and try to find a hole through he cloud bank and search for the strip.  He provided me with several radio frequencies from his jeep radio so we could communicate.  I advised him how to position the several jeeps he had along the airstrip so we would have a source of lighting if we were successful in breaking through the cloud cover. The colonel concurred.  Thanking the night security man with a few bows,  I re-entered the Otter hoping our luck would hold and reviewed in my mind just how fortunate we had been so far: flying instruments at night with no radar tracking nor any knowledge of other aircraft in our vicinity; landing exactly where we needed to land to miss unbeknownst piles of construction materials; and encountering a pajama-clad person who could have been on the wrong side.  So far, so good!  

    We were soon in the clouds again, climbing in orientation with the direction of the valley to avoid collision with the known, close-by mountains.  We broke out on top, finally, heading in the direction of Dalat city.  We concentrated on searching for a break in the clouds and spotted a lighted reflection coming from the city below.  Checking the horizon left to right we were again over the extensive cloud bank.  Suddenly and unexpectedly a small hole appeared exposing the cities lights.  We cut power and lowered the nose steeply, making it through the small tunnel of hope, leveling off several hundred feet above the city.  We radioed the MAAG  chief that we were over the town headed east toward the airstrip and would flash our landing lights.  He “Rogered!”, had his jeeps flash their lights, and we responded, “Field in sight!”  

    The lighting provided by the jeeps was perfect.  There were also smudge pots along both sides of the runway, an   unexpected assist which helped us in setting up our low approach.  We completed our checklist and landed.  Upon deplaning we turned the blood over to a South Viet army surgeon.  He bowed and we bowed in return to his gesture of appreciation.  There were nearly a hundred Vietnamese smiling and waving plus the colonel and his small MAAG contingent.  Their reception was heartwarming and happy.  There was clapping and excitement.  We were made to feel like brothers-in-arms---“BLOOD BROTHERS!

*11-place DeHavilland airplane with STOL (Short Take-Off/Landing capability)

This article was published in the LOGBOOK,  a  tri-annual publication of the Army Otter-Caribou Association, July 1993 edition.