GUTS 'N GUNSHIPS
What it was Really Like to Fly Combat Helicopters in Vietnam
A True Story
by Mark Garrison
Copyright 2015 © Mark Garrison
Listen to a preview of the audiobook:
Since I returned from Vietnam, I've had a burning desire to ensure that my story did not die with me. Perhaps, I thought, that people would understand the day to day, nuts and bolts of the war a little better when seen through the eyes of a combat helicopter pilot. Added to this, was my family's insistence through the years that I write my memoirs before they are lost to time.
Most importantly, I would like to thank my son, Andrew Garrison, for his priceless help and advice that allowed me to successfully navigate the e-book world. Without his assistance this book would probably not exist.
A couple of other people were also involved with the technicalities. First of all, I would like to thank Mr. Ronald Gawthorp. Being a published author himself of, "Richer Than the Rockefellers," and "Glimpses of Glory," he was invaluable in helping me develop and edit a manuscript.
Several other people have encouraged me through the years to write this book, but one in particular deserves special mention. The late Mr. James Donnelly, a dear friend and avid reader, formerly of Davenport, Iowa, tried to light a fire under me to write this memoir for decades. Well, Jim, may you rest in peace, you finally succeeded. I sincerely thank you for your perseverance that finally trumped my incredible procrastination.
One other thing was at play here. That is that I felt I had to write this book as a kind of cathartic exercise to clear the combat cobwebs from my mind. It has seemed to help some. Time will tell just how much.
In 1967, hundreds of young men were lured into the U.S. Army's Warrant Officer Rotary Wing Aviator Course. Mark Garrison and I were two of these young men. We could not know the reality that would face us a year later. Being a helicopter pilot in Viet Nam was serious business. Mark and I were helicopter gunship pilots, both in the 119th Assault Helicopter Company stationed at Pleiku in the Central Highlands. Mark has captured the essence of what it meant to perform that duty in Guts N' Gunships. I have read the book and I can say without question that Mark has told a true, honest and brutal account. We fought for each other and most importantly for the men on the ground. And in that fight we were wounded in physical and mental ways that would only manifest many years later in our lives. This true story is a must read for anyone who is interested in knowing about the lives of the young men who wore the coveted U.S. Army Aviator Badge in Vietnam combat flight.
LTC Richard L. Gill
Master Army Aviator
U.S. Army Retired
(Croc 4, sometimes known as Waldo)
This book has been rolling around in my head for a long time. First of all, it started with the concept that there was no way in hell that I even had the capability of writing a book, especially one like this one.
Then I went through a phase where I made the astute observation that there were a lot of books sitting around in bookstores, so there must have been people writing them. There was also a constant howl in my ears from family members and others, that this book should be written, if for no other reason, than posterity's sake. A strong desire began to develop in my mind to at least try to tell people what it was like to be a helicopter pilot during the heaviest fighting of the Vietnam War. It was a surrealistic experience to say the least and one that has been extremely difficult for me to simply transpose to paper. It is almost impossibly difficult to describe war, especially to those who haven't experienced it firsthand. There are really no words in the English language that can adequately describe the brutality, incredible violence and outright terror that war entails.
So, from these humble truths, the story began to take shape.
This is my story, and I have written it as I remember it. Many of the names have been changed to protect people's anonymity, but the encounters and episodes that I have described here are true and correct to the best of my recollection.
There was a television series in the 1960's called The Naked City. It was about New York City, and its population at the time was approximately eight million people. The program always ended with a voice saying, "There are more than eight million stories in The Naked City. This has been one of them."
In the same vein, I am only one of many helicopter pilots who served in Vietnam with their own stories. This is one of them.
HOW DID ALL THIS HAPPEN
The Wake Up Call
We were on mid final approach in a UH-1H (Huey) helicopter. I was in the copilot's seat and could clearly see the bright, streaking tracers from AK-47's coming at us. The landing zone, or the LZ as we called it, was in sight and there were mortar rounds impacting all around it. I glanced to my left, expecting to see Cowboy, the Aircraft Commander (AC), adding power to abort and make a go around. But he wasn't, we were apparently going from the frying pan to the fire. You could now hear the AK's and the mortars, as if some sadistic director of a morbid film had ordered more reality.
I started to say, "Cowboy, are we still going in? It's awfully damned hot down there." But the words wouldn't leave my mouth. I felt like I had just learned how to put on boxing gloves, and had then been thrown into the ring to fight for the heavyweight championship.
Cowboy adeptly dropped the aircraft into the LZ. It was a frenzied chaos on the ground, with American troops running everywhere, as North Vietnamese enemy troops attempted to breach the perimeter. Just then, what sounded like several rounds impacted the aircraft, making a slapping "ping" sound as they ripped through it.
It was a surreal world, with far too much sensory input for my brain to process. I couldn't wait to get the hell out of there, but the clock had virtually stopped and everything seemed as if it were happening in slow motion. My ears started to buzz and all the violent sounds merged into one. I saw the AK round hit the plexiglass right in front of my face, but then again I didn't. My brain had divorced itself from all of this and it was like I was watching it in third person. I mean, come on now, it couldn't be this violent, this crazy, this fucking insane. Could it?
Then a few thuds, and the ship shook as troops boarded. There were four of them; one who had been carried and all appeared to be wounded.
A mortar round exploded close enough to hurt my ears and dirt and shrapnel hit the ship. At that, Cowboy added power and began our ascent out of the hell hole. I heard several more pings as we made our way out. Apparently the North Vietnamese troops decided they didn't want us to leave the party just yet.
My eyes continually scanned the instruments. Gas producer (N1), (N2) RPM, exhaust gas temperature (EGT), transmission oil temperature, transmission oil pressure, engine oil pressure and the entire master caution panel. Fortunately, everything remained in the green, normal zone.
We continued our ascent and headed straight for the medical pad at Camp Holloway in Pleiku, Vietnam. We had leveled off at about 2,500 feet above the ground but the elevation there was 2,500 feet also, so the aircraft thought it was flying at 5,000 feet, or about a mile up. As copilot, it was my job to handle the radios. There were three of them, the UHF, for talking to the other troop deployment helicopters (slicks), the VHF, for talking to the gunships giving fire support, and the FM (FoxMike), for talking to the guys on the ground. They actually expected you to listen to three conversations at once. Being new to it all, the only thing I heard was an unintelligible swirl of bullshit.
In my dazed and confused state, I somehow managed to dial in a radio frequency to tell them we were coming with wounded. Just then, something softly touched the left side of my neck a couple of times. I had flight gloves on and I reached up to feel it and when I brought my hand back, it was covered with blood. Then something touched me again and I got another hand full of blood. I thought I may have been shot. I had never been shot, and thought it possible that maybe you didn't feel anything sometimes. This time I glanced over my left shoulder and saw a wounded soldier lying in the middle of the cargo bay. His booted left foot was up around his head, because his left leg had been virtually blown off, mid-thigh, and was only held on by a few strands of twisted muscle, tendon, and skin. His femoral artery was severed and it jerked back and forth with each heartbeat and squirted streams of blood, sometimes hitting me in the neck and shoulder. He appeared to be no more than 18 years old. I was 21. In my mind, I imagined him running through a lawn sprinkler with other children back home in the States just a few short years before. Now, if he lived, he wouldn't be running anywhere.
With the whine of the jet and the beating of the rotor blades, you couldn't hear what he was saying. But the expression on his face was easy to read. The poor kid was terrified. As I screamed at a crew member to tourniquet the leg, I read the kid's lips as he stared blankly forward, with vacant eyes and a bluish cast to his face.
He was saying, "Mom, Mom.........Mom."
In my heart, I was calling for my mother also.
I know the boy was alive when we got him back to the medical pad with the others, but I wasn't in a position to learn his identity so I don't know if he made it or not. It haunted me then and still haunts me today. That ghost, even after all these years, has never died.
We, however, were just beginning. Cowboy, the crew and I, had to go back to that damned LZ again. Three more times we went back and each time members of the NVA tried their best to kill us.
When we finally, miraculously I thought, made it back to Camp Holloway in Pleiku, Vietnam, and shut the aircraft down, my mind was a blur. I had just experienced massive sensory overload. I glanced at Cowboy, who was about my age, had dark brown hair and eyes, a well-trimmed mustache, and was about five feet ten-inches tall and weighed around 160 pounds. We both held the rank of Warrant Officer grade one, or WO1, but he had more time in grade. He calmly unbuckled his seatbelt and shoulder harness. His fatigues were a light washed out green from the many launderings they had received. His jungle boots, with leather bottoms and an artificial canvas material up the sides to make them cooler in the tropical heat, were worn and tattered, but nicely shined. During this entire episode, Cowboy had stayed calm and in control, at least on the outside. He had been hardboiled and I had been somewhere between scrambled and poached. He acted as if he were used to this sort of thing, and I was having trouble believing that any human could ever get used to this sort of thing. Cowboy threw open the door and said, "Let's go get a beer, Garrison. How'd you like your first mission?" He had been there almost a year, and was still acting as if nothing unusual had just happened. I, on the other hand, who had just got to Vietnam, in my brand new dark green fatigues and unblemished boots was thinking that a whole shitload of unusual crap had just happened!
This had been my very first mission in country after my proficiency check ride, and I remember distinctly what I thought at the time.
How in the hell do they expect anyone to live through a whole year of this incredibly insane violence?
I Was Just A College Student
How in the hell did I get into this mess anyway? I had been a student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, a year and a half before. I had just finished my second year on my way to a bachelor's degree.
I had applied for a student loan through the Illinois Student Loan Program and was working at a factory that manufactured oil, air, and gas filters for automobiles, in the summer of 1967. I had planned to save all the money I could, and borrow the rest to fill the gap.
I still well remember, the nice, warm, sunny day that I got the letter from the Illinois State Student Loan Program, approving only half of what I had applied for, which left me running out of money in the middle of a term. I felt I had no choice but to drop out for a while and work in the private sector and save money as quickly as I could.
This was before the draft lottery was implemented in 1969, and you had to report to the draft board any change in your student status right away. This was required by law, and if you failed to do so, you could wind up in a pile of deep shit with no shovel. I reported my change in status and quickly went to category 1A. This meant that you were near the top of the list to be called by the military. I thought that if I played my cards right, I could get back in school before I was drafted. After all, Vietnam was flaring and no one in their right mind wanted to go over there.
Well, the way it worked out, I was quick but the local draft board was quicker, and I was ordered to report for duty in just a few short weeks.
Damn it! This never happens to rich kids does it?
Even then I knew war to be a rich and powerful man's game fought by sons of the poor.
I was trapped in a circumstance that few envied, to say the least. Then I started to control my own future as much as possible. I visited a local army recruiter and asked him what my options were. My brother, who was a couple years older than me, had learned to fly and I had an interest in aviation, so I asked the recruiter about military flight school.
The recruiter said, "You know, you would be a good candidate to go to helicopter flight school in the army."
I said, "How do I do that?"
He said, "I can set it up for you. You will have to go to St. Louis, Missouri, to take a first class physical, and there is some aptitude testing involved that you must pass."
"Set it up. At least I want to learn something worthwhile in the army," I replied.
Now, please understand that I didn't want to do any of this crap. None of these choices were mine. Like kids across the nation I was caught in circumstances beyond my control, and I felt that my choices were bad, worse, and worst. I was just a twenty-year-old kid from a small town in southern Illinois. Just a few years before, I had been playing Pony League baseball. My biggest problem was that I couldn't afford to buy a decent baseball glove. Needless to say, my problems had now escalated by about six orders of magnitude.
I went to St. Louis and took the flight physical and passed. The next step was an aptitude test called the "Flight Aptitude Standard Testing" examination known as the FAST test.
I was told that a person could only take this test one time, and if he failed it, he was rejected at that point and the process ceased. The test was pass/fail.
Tests had always come easy for me and I didn't have any trouble with this one.
The next step was to sign a form of contract with the U.S. Army, guaranteeing flight school entrance for me, as long as I continued to meet the standards and requirements of the program.
I signed the contract.
For some obscure and mystifying reason, I had not considered that I was, indeed, mortal, and that flying helicopters in combat may not have been such a great idea from a personal safety standpoint. As Mark Twain once remarked, "It's too bad youth is wasted on the young."
I left St. Louis by train headed for Fort Polk, Louisiana, on August 23, 1967, to report for basic training. Later I would learn all the Warrant Officer Candidates (WOCS) were sent to Fort Polk for basic, and a WOC is what I had suddenly become.
When I signed up for flight school, I had done so under the Warrant Officer Candidate Program, as most guys did. When you completed flight school, you received your wings and were appointed a Warrant. You outranked all the enlisted men and noncommissioned officers (NCOs), such as the privates, corporals, specialists, and sergeants. At the same time, you were technically under the commissioned officers from lieutenants to generals. You were basically off in a separate branch by yourself. Most of us didn't care about the rank anyway. We just wanted to learn to fly.
But first, I had to get through Basic Training, and I had heard plenty of horror stories from my friends about the nature of this particular beast.
I was at the ripe old age of 20 when I arrived in Shreveport, Louisiana. I disembarked the train and got on a waiting bus for the rest of the trip to Leesville, an army town that hosted Fort Polk. Fort Polk was the major civilian employer and an economic shot in the arm of the entire area.
As soon as the bus went through the gates saying, "FORT POLK," I noticed how neat and clean everything was. The grass was manicured, the buildings well kept, and there was not as much as a cigarette butt lying around on the ground. Every few yards, it seemed, we would pass a group of soldiers combing the grounds for litter and debris, called policing the area in the military. At least that explained why everything was spotless.
And my god, was it hot! Temperatures edged above 100 degrees amid lung-baking humidity. You knew because the sweat just ran off you and drenched your clothes and just would not evaporate. In other words it was miserable, and I was becoming more apprehensive by the second. This was not going to be a pleasant experience.
Basic training is just what the name implies. It is training to convert a civilian to a soldier. The course in the U.S. Army was, at the time, eight weeks long. It consisted mainly of arduous physical conditioning and of the unforgettable instilling of military protocol. A large percentage of the green troops in my platoon didn't know the difference between a private first class and a four star general. In other words, many of us didn't even know what a salute was; let alone who you were supposed to salute.
The bus pulled up and stopped in front of a large building with a sign out front that said, "Registration." The bus was filled with several new recruits, and we all were asked to form a line and wait to be processed. That was the last time I was asked to do something for the next eight weeks. From then on I was told, in no uncertain terms what I could, would and should do, and the commands were usually punctuated not with exclamation marks, but with pushups.
We all went through various processing stations at this registration depot and then were told to re-board the bus to be taken to the Quartermaster, known as supply in the civilian world. Here we would be issued our military gear, such as clothing and other items necessary to complete basic training. All this gear was stuffed into a duffle bag by each of us and we were told to re-board the bus to be taken to our assigned unit.
When we arrived at our destination, several sergeants swarmed the bus and started screaming at us to get off and stand on one of the numbers that were painted onto a large black asphalt parking lot. Soon we all assembled by the number on the parking lot, in August, in Louisiana, with our duffle bags in the 100-degree heat and 100- percent humidity. Next, a first lieutenant started screaming at us from a makeshift podium. From his tone it was obvious he thought one of us had just burned his wife at the stake and kidnapped his children.
He screamed: "You are all nothing but green recruits, and there's nothing lower on God's earth than a goddamned, fucking green recruit." After that poignant summation, he "really" started cussing us. This is where I began to learn profanity was a necessary part of military communication.
Well hello, U.S. Army!
We were next herded like cattle into a torture pasture and the games began. We were ordered (not asked and not told) to strip off our civvies and dress in the newly issued military garb. We were given five minutes to figure out how to dress, take it out of the stuffed duffle bag, put it on, and get everything else that we were not actually wearing back in the bag.
The drill sergeants then lined us up at our civilian facsimile of attention. There were three drill sergeants, men who had been in the army several years in most cases, and they all held the rank of E6 or above. The army has a ranking system that goes from Private E1 to Sergeant Major E9. Those from E1 through E4 are known as enlisted men. From E5 through E9 are the Non Commissioned Officers, (NCOs). To give you a breakdown of all their titles, I offer the following clarification table from lowest to highest rank.
The E system denotes pay grade next to the rank. Everyone in the "E" pay grade group had the same base salary. Specialists were generally not considered to be in the general chain of command.
E1 - Private
E2 - Private
E3 - Private First Class (PFC)
E4 - Corporal / Specialist 4
E5 - Buck Sergeant / Specialist 5
E6 - Staff Sergeant
E7 - Sergeant First Class
E8 - Master Sergeant
E8 - First Sergeant
E9 - Sergeant Major
The drill sergeants (aka "Yes Drill Sergeant!") were trained in the specialty of taking perfectly normal civilians off the street, breaking them down to the lowest human denominator and reassembling them into homicidal maniacs. On this occasion they started with the closest guy who was attempting the position of attention. They got in his face and screamed at him with all the volume they could muster. Apparently, they considered him an idiot for not knowing how to dress himself in military gear. They verbally berated the poor guy until he was a pile of trembling flesh, then they proceeded with the next guy.
I remember thinking that these guys must be complete idiots if they couldn't even put their pants on right. But, at attention you must look straight ahead at all times with your eyes fixed on an imaginary point and not move a muscle. That much instruction had been given. All too soon, these yelling, screaming life forms found me. I learned then and there that I was apparently even a bigger idiot than those who had already been critiqued by the welcoming committee. In fact I was a total dunce when it came to donning military garb. They ripped me up one side and slashed me down the other until leaving me in a smoldering heap of would-be military trash before they moved on. I was convinced after my first encounter with these aliens that their training had included several courses in sadism and its related application and implementation. In short they were nasty bastards!
After convincing us that we were all imbecilic morons, one of the drill sergeants suddenly appeared in front of us, properly dressed, and taught us how to dress just like him. I remember thinking at the time that they had the order of things reversed.
Basic training painfully drug on with all of its nuances for what seemed like forever. We would march a mile in step, and then jog a mile in formation until you were absolutely ready to drop in the Louisiana heat and humidity, and many did, only to be converged upon by the screaming sadists to be further derided.
Once, we were trudging around a seemingly endless track that circled a wooded area. I was thinking about stopping and catching my breath, when two covert drill sergeants from the woods, converged on a collapsed soldier who was vomiting all over himself, and started kicking and cursing him for stopping. That incident was motivation enough to keep me moving.
During small arms training, if one of us were foolish enough to call our rifle a gun instead of our weapon, he would be made to stand in front of the whole platoon and announce the following over and over:
"This is my weapon (holding up his rifle)
and this is my gun (grabbing his crotch)
My weapon's for killing
My gun is for fun."
I'm well aware that this little incantation was made famous by the movie, "Full Metal Jacket," but believe me, it was alive and well at Fort Polk, Louisiana well before the movie was made. We all screwed up sooner or later and wound up in front of the platoon reciting that little poem.
In the army, when you learn to march, you must be in-step and in-formation whether you are walking or jogging. This is done with the drill sergeant marching alongside you singing a cadence song, such as "The Fort Polk Boogie." This song gives the platoon rhythm and makes staying in step much easier. I am sure you know the rhythm refrain from army movies:
Sound off one, two
There are a thousand different obscene ditties made up to go with this little refrain, but frankly I do not feel the need to recite them here.
In all truthfulness, I was pretty out of shape when I got to basic training. I wasn't overweight, but I was soft and out of condition. I had dark brown hair and brown eyes, was five feet ten inches tall and weighed one hundred and fifty pounds. By the time I finished basic in eight grueling weeks, there wasn't a soft spot on me. I was as Bob Seger says, in the song, Like A Rock. Every ounce of fat had been left with the tough old Fort Polk drill sergeants.
To graduate from basic, soldiers were required to pass a rather difficult physical test of strength and stamina, known as a PT Test. During the giving of this test in the last week, I got very ill with a virus and high fever and went to "Sick Call." This is what you did if you were sick in the military. I was immediately placed in Fort Polk's hospital for a couple of days. I feared that I would be held back to repeat part of basic, so as soon as my fever broke, I told the doctor I felt fine to get on with it, even though I felt horrible. I really had to push myself with that PT test, but I did. I passed. Thank God for that. I didn't want to go through any of that again.
I was now done with Fort Polk and its boogie and off for a few days leave at home before heading for flight school. One goal achieved! So far, so good!
Flight School Preflight
After basic training I got a much needed leave. While I was with my family in Illinois, I watched the news every night which was always riddled with coverage of Vietnam. One night, while watching, a journalist on the ground captured live footage of a firefight between an American platoon and several North Vietnamese troops. I saw several American dead and wounded, being evacuated by helicopters. One of the helicopters, on final approach into the area was shot down, crashed and burned, killing the whole crew. This left a rather unsettling image in my mind, to say the least about it. They were calling it the Vietnam Conflict, since the United States had never officially declared war. Well, it sure as hell looked like a war to me.
After a few days of leave at home in Illinois with my family, I shipped out by train from St. Louis to Dallas, Texas, on the way to Fort Wolters in Mineral Wells, Texas. Fort Wolters was the primary flight training center for rotary wing aircraft for the Warrant Officer Candidate Program in aviation for the U.S. Army.
After a short wait, which is an unusual event for the army, I was transported by bus the eighty or so miles west to Fort Wolters. Like cheese, I was once again processed and put up in a barracks reserved for beginning flight students in the preflight program. This was basically a program that taught more military protocol and began to orient the candidates (WOCs) about aviation. That's what they said, anyway. We soon found out that it was a severe harassment period where they did everything they could think of, short of outright killing you, to see if you could take the pressure. Some guys did break down and quit at this point, having decided that they had had enough before even setting foot in a helicopter. They were usually then assigned to Advanced Individual Training (AIT) in the infantry. (Gee guys thanks for trying.) That's one thing that kept me going and putting up with their bullshit. I definitely did not want to wind up as a ground pounder in Vietnam, also commonly known as a grunt. I intend no disrespect with my use of the term "grunt," either. I grew to understand and respect these men immensely a few months later in Nam. They suffered horrible conditions and often fought for their very lives. They fought with valor and bravery second to no soldier before them. This harassment lasted for about four weeks before I was then assigned to a beginning flight school class in November of 1967.
I then processed to a barracks on "The Hill," a slight rise in elevation where housing had been built to accommodate flight students. We lived in two-man cubicles, so each of us had a roommate. My roommate was a fellow by the name of Al Gafton. We got along fine.
The cubicles were not big, but adequate and a big improvement over the open barracks of Basic Training. They were enclosed on three sides by solid walls, and the absence of a fourth wall created an opening to a spacious hallway, where one could see clearly into the cubicle across from it. They were equipped with bunk beds on one side, and a dresser-like piece of furniture on the other side in which we kept personal belongings and things for routine inspections. On the third wall was a small table and two chairs under a window that gave you a view of the outside road and buildings directly across the street.
The barracks were two-story, and the bunks were filled with flight school candidates. The number would dwindle somewhat, however, as flight school progressed because of the constant pressure and harassment.
We arrived at the barracks on a weekend and classes started first thing Monday morning. One week your flight would have classes in the morning and fly in the afternoon. The next week the order was reversed. Academic studies in class included subjects such as meteorology, avionics, and the aerodynamics of flight, etc. Flight time, of course, meant actual time in the aircraft with an instructor pilot. Most of these instructors at the beginning student level were civilians who had contracted with the army. Later, more and more military instructors were employed, especially ones who had returned from Vietnam after flying combat.
Primary Flight School
The very first time I climbed in a helicopter, I didn't know jack diddly damn about one. I quickly learned, however that a helicopter is much different than a fixed wing airplane. I knew a little about flying small airplanes from flying with my brother, the pilot. I had hogged and wallowed one around a few times and at least landed without crashing or even damaging it. But this thing didn't even have wings that were fixed in one place. Instead it had two rotor blades that were slung around in an arc at about three hundred plus RPM. This whole affair was attached to the aircraft by one nut, commonly called the Jesus Nut for obvious reasons.
It didn't have control surfaces like an airplane's ailerons, elevators, rudders or flaps either. The stick coming up between a helicopter pilot's legs was called the cyclic. This cyclic controls pitch and roll by affecting push pull tubes that alter the arc of the main rotor system. Push the cyclic forward, and the nose drops, pull it back, and the nose comes up or flares. Move it to the left or right depending on what direction you would like the aircraft to go. It didn't have rudder pedals either, but anti-torque pedals, which controlled the small tail rotor in the back to counteract the torque of the main rotor system. Even the pedal you pushed during flight was generally the opposite of an airplane. These pedals counteract the torque of the aircraft and are used to keep the nose straight forward during normal flight. In a fixed wing you apply right pedal in gasoline-powered aircraft when you add power, on takeoff, for instance. In a helicopter, you apply left pedal when adding power for takeoff in normal wind conditions to control the direction of the nose or yaw.
And, there is the collective pitch control in a chopper. This is a stick that is to the left of the pilot with a throttle control on the end of it, much like a motorcycle throttle on the handlebar. The pilot raises this collective when he wants to takeoff while at the same time he rolls the throttle on to add power and keep his RPM up.
To better illustrate: Think of a fan you have running in the summer blowing cool air across you. The fan does this by having a preformed angle of attack to the air around it, giving it the capability of pushing the air. If you would flatten the blades so that they would have no angle of attack, or pitch, the fan wouldn't be able to move air. The fan would just sit there and rapidly spin. The same thing happens in a helicopter. As the pilot raises the collective, he increases the angle of attack that the blades have in relation to the surrounding air mass. In so doing, the blades create a high pressure area under them and a very low pressure over them which creates lift. This is exactly what an airplane's wings do by the virtue of forward airspeed. It is also the reason that a helicopter can fly with no forward airspeed of the aircraft itself, and a fixed wing airplane cannot. This is because the chopper's blades, or airfoils, are moving through the air in an arc, powered by an engine and therefore, can create its own lift.
◆ ◆ ◆
My first flight instructor was a civilian named Bela Toth. He was a Hungarian American who had been a U.S. Army chopper pilot and had served a tour in Vietnam. I, at the time, was twenty years old, and had worked at various jobs since my father died when I was thirteen. I worked to help my mother keep a roof over our heads. These jobs included driving farm tractors, working in a filling station, helping rebuild and overhaul automobile engines, etc.
Apparently Toth was unimpressed with my mechanical knowledge, because on about my third or fourth hour in the air, he made the comment, in heavy Hungarian brogue, "Garrison (Gad-i-son), you've never been around machinery, have you? I can tell because you seem to have no concept of RPM."
"Well, yes, Sir, I have operated a lot of machinery, but nothing like this beast."
With a wave of his hand, Toth rejoined, "You should have stuck with cars and tractors! You're trying to kill us in this thing!"
If Toth was trying to humble me, he succeeded.
Let me explain something about a helicopter in those days. You have an RPM gauge in a chopper that shows both rotor system and engine RPM. These needles should be joined and in the green (normal range) at all times as long as the engine is running. In the Hiller OH23D helicopter that I was attempting to learn to fly, there was virtually no dependable automatic throttle governor to control RPM for you. You had to do it yourself by constantly making manual adjustments to the throttle to keep it in the green range. It's extremely difficult to do at first; ask anyone who has ever flown a Hiller.
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Toth, of course, knew this and was just fucking with me. I do admit that, at first, the only time the RPM needles were in the normal green zone was when I was passing through it. I either throttled too much or not enough.
After finally learning the basic controls and how to use them, it was an intensive endeavor to put it all to practical use and actually fly the aircraft. After you had been taught how to make various standard rate turns, fly straight and level, climb and descend, and to do an autorotation in the event of an engine failure, it was time to hover the beast. And was it ever a beast in the beginning!
I swear that the first time I tried to hover the Hiller, they must have thought I was going AWOL (absent without leave), and taking the instructor pilot with me as he was fighting for the controls, after I had him securely gagged and bound. I couldn't keep the damned thing in a 40- acre field. I was up, down, over and out and all over the place. Toth had to take it away from me several times just before I put it in the ground in a flaming heap with us in it.
A helicopter such as a Hiller, like this OH23D, that I was attempting to stabilize at a hover, has what is known as a control lag. This means that when a pilot moves the cyclic stick between his legs to move fore, aft, left or right, there is a fraction of a second where the aircraft hesitates (does nothing) before it responds by moving the arc of the main rotor system. To the inexperienced student pilot this usually results in over corrections on the controls. In other words, when I moved the cyclic forward and it did nothing for a moment, I moved the cyclic further forward. Then when it decided to respond, it lurched forward, keeping instructor Toth on his toes. Likewise, when it lurched forward and I pulled the cyclic back, it went through the same lag time so I pulled it too far back. When the aircraft again responded to my control input, the nose would pitch up and she would rapidly come back, to be followed by another exaggerated control movement on my part. In just a few seconds, we were galloping through the air like a wounded horse and virtually out of control. As a matter of fact, that's basically the admonition he gave me the first time I tried to hover.
He said, "Candidate Garrison (Gad-i-son), I've got it, you're losing control of the aircraft!"
Whereas I sat there put in my place once again. There would be several of those kinds of moments in flight school. I know of no helicopter pilot, then or now, who was not humbled when they first attempted a hover.
Day by day we went to class for half a day, and then flew with our instructors for the other half. One week we would fly in the morning and do the academics in the afternoon. The next week we would have academics in the morning and fly in the afternoon. There was never really a free moment during a weekday in flight school. You were gotten out of bed at 5:30 in the morning, when you showered, shaved and dressed in your uniform. We wore starched fatigues that were pressed with precision, and changed daily. Our combat boots were expected to be spit shined to the point of a mirror polish. Our hair was cropped very short. The fatigue shirt that you wore had a U.S. Army insignia above one pocket and your last name above the other.
After dressing in the morning, everyone would fall out into a platoon formation at attention in a parking lot just outside the barracks. Then one of us, when our rotation came, would call cadence and march us to the mess hall, which is military lingo for cafeteria. We would stand in line and enter single file, pick up a tray, and it would be filled by other enlisted personnel who worked in the mess hall.
You were expected to eat quickly and regroup, to march to class in formation unless it was your week to fly in the morning. During those weeks you were bussed by a military vehicle from the mess hall to the flightline.
When reporting to the flightline, and may God help you if you forgot, was your helmet carefully stowed in a helmet bag and your pre and post flight checklist for the kind of helicopter you flew. The preflight of a Hiller was exhaustive and you were expected to do it, by the book, every time just before you flew.
Many times in civilian and military life, experienced pilots get complacent about preflight checks and don't do them. Maybe it's because they just flew the aircraft and they assume everything is still alright. Or, maybe they just get in a hurry. Almost all of them will tell you, however, that a good preflight check is not a good thing to skip, and has caused a lot of pilots and passengers to be seriously injured or killed by some malfunction or damage that would have been found and corrected had a preflight check been done.
Consequently great emphasis was placed on a proper preflight check, and I have been grateful through the years for the military beating that concept into my head.
In the evenings, after flying and class all day, you again marched to the mess hall and were fed. Everyone learned quickly to eat what was offered, even if you couldn't identify it as plant or animal. If you didn't eat you went hungry. Simple as that. And with the stress of military flight school you needed the nutrition, believe me. A lot of moms have rules like that but at least you could identify what was on the menu.
After eating in the mess hall you returned to your barracks and had some time to study in the evening and prepare your uniform for the next day. The time had to be used wisely, because it was lights out at 10:00PM and you were expected to be in your bunk promptly at that time.
It was also a time for socializing with your comrades in the adjacent cubicles who found themselves in the same predicament as you. Many Hiller horror stories were exchanged. You could also write to your family. I recall after an exasperating day of trying to fly a helicopter I wrote a letter home to my brothers which said,
"If you see a helicopter fly over, don't believe it. No one can actually fly one. It's a figment of your imagination."
I was single at the time, and had not left a steady girlfriend or fiancé at home so I didn't have to write as often as the married guys did. I was quite pleased with the fact that I was single. At least I didn't have a wife at home constantly worrying about me and my welfare. I considered that a plus.
When instructor Toth had valiantly given me eleven and one half hours of dual time (instructor pilot and student), he deemed me ready to make my first solo flight. This is a rather huge deal in the life of any student pilot. It's the first time that you take the aircraft up all by yourself.
As I said, Toth had gauged me ready to go. I wasn't so damned sure about it as he stepped out of the chopper while the engine was running and told me to fly three touch and goes around the patch. He waved goodbye as he said, "You'll do fine Gad-ison, just remember what I've taught you."
He then nonchalantly turned and walked away, ducking, of course, under the slinging rotor blades as he left.
All of a sudden, I realized that I was terribly and incredibly alone.
This momentous event happened at a stage field, as it was called, a small airport in the Texas countryside. It was one among many where flight instruction was given to military students. My instructions were to fly three right hand patterns, taking off and landing each time. A pattern consisted of a takeoff leg into the wind if possible, followed with a right climbing 90-degree turn called the crosswind. Next came another 90-degree turn to the right, leveling off at 500 feet above the ground (called the downwind). When you reached the end of the runway—that you keep in sight to your right—you made yet another 90 degree descending turn on base leg. Lastly, you pulled another 90 degree turn to line the aircraft up with the runway on final approach. In other words, you had just flown a large rectangular pattern.
I was to repeat this pattern three times to complete my solo and proceed with flight school.
I wrapped power on, with the motorcycle-like throttle on the collective, with my left hand to bring the aircraft out of flight idle and up to engine and rotor system RPM. The Hiller OH23D, with a 275 horsepower Lycoming power plant sitting right behind you and roaring like a grizzly, operated at a hover at 3200 RPM. You have to manually keep it at that level, or very close to it, while you fly the aircraft. Too much RPM and you can blow an engine or sling a rotor blade, which is generally not good for pilot or machine. Too little RPM and you lose the centrifugal force needed to keep the blades in a proper arc, and they can cone upward and lose all lift as you go down to terra firma like a homesick brick. That's not very good for your health either.
But, at that moment, I was too preoccupied with how I was going to control my beast to worry about such trivia as that.
When I got to 3200 RPM, I slowly added collective pitch to put lift in the system and pushed left pedal as needed to counter the torque of the main rotor system and keep the nose straight. The old girl came right up and behaved nicely.
I made a left turn from a three-foot hover and proceeded out to the taxiway, made another left turn and slowly hovered forward to the end of the taxiway, made a 360 degree traffic clearing turn and called the control tower for permission to takeoff. When the tower gave me clearance for takeoff, I nosed the cyclic forward and the aircraft crept down the runway. It hit translational lift and the aircraft shuddered and then gained altitude and picked up speed.
Translational lift is a phenomenon of rotary wing aircraft that provides greater lift as you start to gain speed close to the ground, because of forward airspeed and groundeffect combined. The aircraft will shudder, dip in altitude momentarily, and then gain altitude and speed suddenly.
I glanced at my airspeed indicator, altimeter and engine RPM and everything appeared to be right on the money. The RPM was, miraculously I thought, still at 3200. I gained about 300 feet on takeoff leg and turned 90 degrees to the right on crosswind, where I gained another 200 feet and turned right onto downwind leg. There I leveled the chopper off at 500 feet above the ground until I turned base leg at the end of the runway and descended. When I turned right on final approach, I was at the proper 300 feet of altitude.
The only thing I hadn't done by the book so far, was that you are supposed to roll the RPM back in a Hiller at altitude to 3100 RPM. I didn't do that. I thought that everything seemed fine at 3200 and if it wasn't broke, I sure as hell wasn't going to fix it. Besides, I remember thinking, if I leave it at 3200 RPM, it's just one less adjustment to make when I return to a hover.
I descended on final and brought the aircraft to a three foot hover, made another 360-degree clearing turn for traffic, and took off again. I did this without incident three times and was feeling quite smug and sure of myself as I taxied the aircraft to the ramp to set it down.
Then, right out of the blue, the wind shifted 180 degrees, and what had been a headwind for me became a nasty tailwind.
In fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft you always take off and do close to the ground flying with the wind coming right at your nose whenever and wherever you possibly can. You always land into the wind whenever possible as well. A helicopter tends to get very unstable if the wind is at your tail. It's difficult to control, even for experienced pilots, and the engine and rotor RPM tend to bleed off and you run out of left pedal control. Even a small reduction of rotor RPM is visible to the trained eye.
Just as I had wallowed and hogged the Hiller back to a parking spot, after looking at the windsock only to see that there was a strong wind now at my tail, my RPM started to bleed off.
I thought, "Shit a brick! What's the chances of that happening?" No matter what I thought, the helicopter ghouls had struck again.
◆ ◆ ◆
Since, by now, I was directly over my parking spot, instead of slightly lowering the collective pitch and adding more power to get my RPM back, I saw that the aircraft was settling in toward the ground, so I just let it settle and hoped that I wouldn't run completely out of left pedal and lose my directional control. As I settled in, the engine groaned and the RPM continued to bleed as I pulled more and more pitch to cushion the touchdown. The blades were obviously slowing and arcing somewhat upward. I ran out of left pedal just as I touched the aircraft down. Thank God for that. I was back on the ground safe and sound.
As I rolled the power off to shut her down, I glanced to my right and saw a foreboding pair of the aforementioned trained eyes glowing in immense disapproval. As these eyes, which happened to belong to Toth, grew ever larger as they rapidly approached my aircraft, I saw they were encased in a head that was shaking back and forth negatively so briskly I could almost hear his perfectly hardened brain rattle. In this, my zenith flying triumph, the trained eyes beheld only mortal sin. "God damn it! What dirty luck! Son of a bitch!"
When he got to me, I had my flight helmet off and the engine was winding down,
"Gad-i-son! Why didn't you add power? You got your tail into the wind, you idiot!
I sat there castigated, feeling like a moron. The Hiller OH23D had yet again humbled me and exposed me as an earthbound wretch when I had but sought to escape the surly bonds of earth.
I would understand later Toth realized I'd really done an excellent job in not piling the chopper up in a fiery ball when the wind shifted to my tail. This was the Army Way for flight instructors. Keep maximum stress and psychological pressure on the candidates. If they couldn't handle the stress now, they sure as hell wouldn't be able to endure the incredible strain of a hot mission in Vietnam. They knew. They had been there and done that.
"If you are going to break," they thought, "break right here, right now."
The Seniors and Super Seniors
Once a student soloed, he wore a rectangular bright orange felt, tab on his shirt. Army fatigue shirts had two front pockets with a U.S. Army insignia tag sewn on above one and your last name sewn on above the other. They had flaps that buttoned down and closed the pocket. This is where you proudly put the orange tab that had a button hole sewn into it.
This was a coveted tab and worn proudly by the student. It meant that he had survived basic training, the harassment of preflight, and the grueling first few hours of instruction and ground school, and actually soloed an aircraft. It was no big deal to those ahead of you in flight school, but those who were behind you held it with awe and respect.
Remembering those ahead of me in flight school brings to mind the seniors and super seniors. The seniors were in the last few weeks of instruction at primary training at Fort Wolters, and the super seniors were finished at Wolters and awaiting transfer to either Fort Rucker, Alabama, where most of us went, or to Hunter Army Airfield/ Fort Stewart in Georgia, for instrument flight training and jet transition into the Bell UH1 Huey.
The seniors wore a black vertical stripe in the middle of the orange tab and the super seniors had two vertical black stripes. These candidates were to be treated by junior flight students as if they were already military officers and were to be saluted by their juniors.
It seems they were encouraged to harass us at every opportunity to increase the stress level further. As if there wasn't enough pressure already.
When marching in formation these sadists would descend upon the platoon in a swarm and proceed to hurl insults at their underclassmen, finding fault anywhere they could.
If nothing was wrong, and there usually wasn't, they would manufacture some supposed wrongdoing on the spot.
We candidates had to stand there and take their bullshit while saluting them and treating them as exalted superiors. You didn't dare question them or try to defend yourself if you wanted the encounter to pass quickly. That was the Army way.
All but a few hotheads learned this rapidly.
I deeply resented the way many of them let this newly found power go to their heads. Some too quickly forgot their own former misery and enjoyed being the harasser way too much.
Once we were marching in formation and were stopped by one of these super seniors, who proceeded to verbally berate everyone in the platoon. It seemed at the time he saved his best derision for me.
He methodically went down every line of our platoon as we were all at attention, stopping and finding nonexistent fault and verbally taking each candidate to task. When he reached me, he started screaming in my face, so close that I could smell what he had just eaten and feel the spittle hit my face.
Apparently my boots were not shined to his standards.
"Sir, Candidate Garrison," I finally said, 'may I look down and see what is so wrong with my boots that you're so upset about."
You always had to say, candidate and state your last name when you were addressing a superior, if you didn't want further trouble.
He said, "You damn right you can look at 'em, candidate!"
I looked down but could see nothing wrong. He started screaming again as he rubbed the sole of his own boot over the toe of mine, scuffing and ruining my spit shine.
He screamed, "Can't you see that scuff candidate, are you blind?" This really pissed me off and I was on the verge of decking the prick but I checked my emotion one more time.
"Yes Sir! How foolish of me to have missed it. I promise to spend more time on my boots and I'm very thankful that you have pointed out the errors of my ways."
He could barely hold back his laughter, but somehow did, and launched himself into another tirade with the next guy.
I realized even at the time that this harassment was designed to help weed out those that were weak. So I didn't really hold most of those guys in contempt. Notice that I said most of them. This prick I did. He was one of those who obviously relished the opportunity to pull rank for no reason other than to unload their newly found power on someone.
Everyone got to know those who fit this category quickly, and they were avoided whenever possible. Sometimes they laid in ambush and you couldn't avoid them. And like I said before, you just had to stand there and take it while they made personal insults about you and your family.
Things like: "There were a lot better examples of manhood that ran down your momma's legs when your daddy nailed her. How in the hell did you ever get born in the first place you motherfuckin' weak-assed excuse for a man? What have you got to say for yourself, candidate son of a bitch?"
And if you wanted to salvage your past accomplishments, you could only say something like: "You're absolutely correct, Sir. I will try my best to improve myself. My goal is to be as strong and wise as you are, Sir."
He would reply with something to this effect: "You'll never be as strong and wise as I am, candidate son of a bitch, but since you're trying I'll let you go this once. But there had better be one hell of a lot of improvement by the next time I run into you or there will be hell to pay."
"Yes, Sir, thank you for your attention to my shortcomings so I can know how to improve, Sir."
So much for the seniors and super seniors—especially the senior and super senior pricks.
The Out of Uniform Bust
When someone soloed they often let us celebrate with a keg of beer for everyone in a small wooded area on a Saturday. All the guys who soloed were honored by the whole flight platoon.
When I had my solo party the beer flowed and lot of it hit me in the mouth. It was warm for a mid-December day in Texas, so many of us had taken our fatigue shirts off and just had on the underlying T shirt.
Mike Bliss, friend and fellow classmate, was married and had gotten a pass to deliver something to his wife. He asked me to go with him so I did.
In the military at the time it was against regulations to leave the post and go into the town of Mineral Wells in fatigues if you were a flight student. You had to wear civilian clothes (civvies) or be dressed in Class A military clothes like khakis or dress greens. Also, you were never-ever-ever to mix civilian clothes with military clothes. You were not only considered out of uniform but a cast out leper. In the eyes of the military it was a No! No! No!
I was soon to discover how seriously the army took these unbendable rules. It was one time in this long process that I foolishly put my candidacy in peril.
I got in Bliss' car, with both of us half looped on the keg of beer. Mike had a pass to get off post but I didn't, but I planned to stay in the car while he delivered the package to his wife at a nearby military building that was off the main compound.
So to get through the gates and the guards, I slipped on a civilian shirt that he had in the car. I now looked like I was dressed in civvies. The guards looked at his pass and let us through. I just stayed in the civilian shirt and fatigue pants because I was going to stay in the car anyway. Right? When we arrived, he got out of the car and said he would be back in just a few minutes.
Well, as I sat there for about an hour, the beer continued to be processed through my kidneys and sent to my bladder for disposal. My bladder must have doubled. I held it as long as I could, until it felt like it was going to explode. I got out of the car with no one around and emptied it on the asphalt behind the car.
Just then, as luck would have it, a CW2 drove slowly by and saw I was out of uniform off-post. He stopped his car and got out and approached me and said,
"Come with me, candidate."
I went with him since I didn't have a choice.
He took me in the building to a captain's office and dumped me there, thinking that he was very important, and acted as if he had just foiled a terrorist plot on the White House. He then went his merry way and I'm certain that he is an example of what super senior pricks become later in life.
Good for him. May the longtime sun shine upon him.
To be fair, let me say now that most warrant officers are not like this guy. They usually thought that a lot of the army regulations were just as ridiculous as I did. They wouldn't have given me a passing thought, let alone taken me to the brass to be humiliated and punished. It's too bad I didn't encounter one of them.
The Captain acted as if I had just abandoned my post on the front lines of combat, allowing my comrades in arms to be slaughtered by the enemy.
The captain berated me to the n
degree. My explanation was worthless. The world was black and white to this guy and I was a maggot dressed in half green. A lot of officers in the army who plan to stay in and make it a career are gung ho sons of bitches. They think they have to be. Captains are especially vulnerable. If they don't get promoted to major within a few years, they are asked to leave the military. The world is clearly delineated to this breed of cat. There is no middle ground for them and they don't negotiate grey areas when they present themselves.
The captain indicated he would court martial me and dishonorably discharge me if he could, but through some technicality that he gave me about this being a lack of judgment on my part, you can't court martial a soldier for a simple lack of judgment.
Well he had me there. I was guilty of lack of judgment and my ass was in a sling because of it. It was all not that big of a deal but right then and there I felt the sword of Damocles dangling from a horse hair above my future. I was still sweating but not from the beer.
The captain also knew that the offense wasn't nearly serious enough for a court martial. Finally, he opted to give me an Article 15. This is a form of non-judicial punishment in the military, much like a misdemeanor in the civilian world.
I signed the paper saying I accepted the penalty and admitted to the heinous crime of having on a civilian shirt and military fatigue pants. My penalty was a month's pay reduction at E5 rates and no off post passes for six weeks. You see such transgressions almost any day on the streets around a military base.
At least, I thought, it wouldn't get me kicked out of flight school. That's what CW2 Adams, our tactical officer for the platoon, told me when I came back to the barracks to get yet another royal ass chewing. I still remember it like it was yesterday.
"What the fuck's the matter with you Garrison. You can't do that shit around here. A lot of these guys are fuckin' lifers! That's how we who weren't planning a military career derided those who did.
"I know the son of a bitch that turned you in," he said referring to the chief warrant officer who took me to the captain. "He'll do anything to get a few brownie points." He paused as if debating whether to tell me more. Finally he did.
"I knew him in Vietnam. He would come up with the most lame, chicken-shit excuses to keep from flying that you've ever heard."
CW2 Adams was a cool guy and I really liked him. He was a Vietnam veteran who had flown choppers himself and was now our Tactical Officer (TO). Every platoon had one and he served as a kind of advisor to our flight platoon. He had been a flight instructor on the flightline when he first came back, but apparently some sort of medical condition had grounded him and he wound up with us.
I'll say one thing for myself. I never ever went off post in a mixed uniform again.
The Piss Poor Excuse for a Display
Just because I resolved to do better, didn't mean I avoided further ass chewings for undeserved reasons. No, the salvoes continued to fly, but in one I actually came out ahead of the game.
Each Saturday morning we stood inspection by the company commander, Captain Bolt. He was another former Vietnam helicopter pilot who had been assigned a flight platoon when he returned to the States. Sometimes these inspections were white glove, where he would put one on and feel about everywhere to see if he could come up with any dirt or dust anywhere. God forbid if the white glove should ever be soiled on your station.
Well, of course, he always could soil the glove. It's virtually impossible to get every speck of dust out of your cubicle no matter how hard you try.
They used these inspections as an excuse to make flight school an even bigger pain in the ass than it already was. Somehow the U.S. Army equated specks of dust with moral decadence.
During these inspections we displayed our personal toiletry items, extra belt buckle meticulously shined, carefully folded socks and boxers, etc., for the inspector to admire.
The razor, toothbrush, etc. was supposed to be the one you used every day, but everybody, even the inspectors, knew that it wasn't. But, they couldn't prove it, because you had hidden your regular worn day to day stuff outside the cubicle.
These items were displayed in an open drawer on a pristine white towel and were expected to be immaculate.
On one of these inspections my cubicle mate and some other guys in the platoon decided to play a little joke on me at my expense.
Before the inspection a sentry was usually posted by the door to give everyone a heads up when the captain was coming. I happened to be the sentry this time and was away from my cubicle. I had just placed my items for inspection on the white towel and they were as impeccable as required.
While I was watching for the captain, these guys ran out the side door and retrieved a handful of mud and grass and brought it back in and rubbed it on my display. It was spread over the white towel, toothbrush, belt buckle, everything.
They knew it was time to stand by the door and greet the captain military style and I would not be able to return to my room before he came in.
Finally came the captain and I greeted him at the door with all due respect.
"Sir, Candidate Garrison, good morning Sir." Then I followed him into the room, not looking down at my display. Why should I? I knew it was perfect because I'd checked it several times that morning.
Then came the barrage. The captain flew into a blinding rage and administered an ass-chewing worthy of a drill sergeant. I was flabbergasted, not knowing I had been sabotaged.
Once again, I was torn to pieces and left in a smoldering heap.
When he regained his composure—probably out of breath— I started to ask permission to speak. But I wasn't quick enough. He launched another verbal assault that would have put Bobby Knight into shock.
When he started hyperventilating and couldn't speak for a moment, I used the opportunity to get a word in edgewise.
Once again he regained partial composure and said.
"You had better goddamned well have a damned good explanation, candidate, or your ass is a field of weeds and I'm a fucking bush hog."
"Sir, Candidate Garrison, may I look down and see what you are so upset about, Sir?"
He gave his permission.
I looked down and saw the incredible mess.
Realizing that I had to think quickly on my feet, I said,
"Sir, do you think I would be fool enough to have done this? I'm not crazy and I'm not a masochist. If I were you, Sir, I would suggest you check my bunkmate and the other guys in the cubicle just across the hall and see if they have any traces of mud on their hands."
These guys were not being successful at keeping a straight face anyway.
At that, the captain, letting common sense prevail, checked their hands and did indeed find evidence that they had been the perpetrators.
Then the captain gave them a verbal lashing that made mine look like a Sunday school lesson. I thought he was going to have a stroke. My bunkmate and the other guys didn't look much better.
The captain grounded them to the post for six weeks.
He then turned to me, and since my Article 15 punishment had been completed, said,
"You've been through enough Candidate Garrison. Just living with lowlife criminals like these has been punishment enough for you already. You get a pass for the entire weekend. Have a good time and drink one for me."
When the captain left the building he screamed at my joke-happy friends and led them into a small parking lot. As I left the post for a much needed break an hour later, they were still low crawling through the asphalt parking lot on their hands and knees.
The captain was calling cadence for them. Between verbal assaults, that is.
◆ ◆ ◆
Relating this story made me think of another guy in our flight. His name was Peter Lisko. He was from Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the river from the Big Apple, and I really liked the guy. He was super street smart and knew all the angles. All that said, Pete was more than a little gullible.
We had talked several times about where we were headed, and Lisko didn't like it one bit. He didn't think much of the idea of being a live moving target for at least a year in Vietnam.
I can't honestly say I blamed him.
One night we were talking in the barracks after another day of solo work in the aircraft, and I mentioned that I was from southern Illinois about a hundred miles east of St. Louis.
All of a sudden his eyes got big and he said,
"East St. Louis! I saw a film just before I came to the army and it said that East St. Louis was the roughest town in the country."
This uttered, remember, by a boy from New Jersey which had its own reputation. "They talked about a Shelton Gang that virtually controlled the whole state outside of Chicago, back during prohibition when Capone was there. They said even Al Capone was afraid to screw with the Sheltons and as long as they didn't move into Chicago, they could have the rest of the state. So they reached a sort of gentlemen's agreement."
"I believe that's pretty accurate, Pete," I said. "And, by the way, my great grandfather was a Shelton so don't fuck with me or I'll plug ya just like those crazy fuckers would've." The only part of that which is true is that I was indeed a Shelton descendant.
"Are you serious, Garrison? You're related to the Shelton Gang?"
"Yep, I sure am."
Immediately, Lisko's eyes widened and his face took on an expression of deep awe and respect. He was talking face-to-face with a descendant of violent, murderous criminals.
"Goddamn, Garrison, those bastards were crazier than hell. They had a scene in the movie where they were going a hundred miles an hour down the road side-by-side, shootin' it out with tommy guns. Is that right? Did they really do that?"
"Yes, apparently that happened. They had a war going with a rival group called The Birger Gang. Earl Shelton hired, maybe even forced, a pilot to fly an old biplane over their headquarters while he sat in the back throwing out homemade bombs trying to blow them up. I believe it was the first documented time that an aircraft was used as an air assault vehicle in the United States." That was also true.
"Garrison is all your family just as crazy as they were? What about you, are you that crazy Garrison?"
It was here I paused to take a deep re-evaluation of Lisko. Was he putting me on or was he actually serious. If he was street smart, he was history poor. The damned Mafioso had practically grown up in his own backyard. But, he seemed to be genuinely fascinated with southern Illinois crime? I decided to take him for a ride.
I replied looking very serious, "I don't know much about my family because most of them are in jail for murder, drug-running, bookie operations, or all three."
Pete's awe seemed to grow by the second. He obviously had a deep respect for those who played outside the sandbox.
He then said, "Yea, but you know 'em. What are they like to just talk to?"
"Pete, I never ever said much. Family wasn't even off limits if you said the wrong thing. And if you got that look from one of them, you knew right then and there that you wouldn't hear the rooster crow in the morning."
At this point, Lisko was enamored with the fact that he was not only talking to a descendant of criminals, but a man who had lived his life dodging their wrath. He then was curious about my stability.
"What about you, Garrison, do you go nuts if somebody crosses you?"
Still kidding but acting serious, I said, "You know it must be in the blood or something. I usually carried one or both of a pair of top breakdown 32 caliber revolvers strapped to my lower legs at about sock level, especially during high stakes poker games. These revolvers were passed down to me from none other than my Great Grandfather Shelton."
"Damn, Garrison, did you ever use 'em?" he said.
I said, now acting very serious, "A couple of times, but people learned damn quick that they sure as hell better not cheat if I was at the high stakes poker table."
He said, "Did you shoot a couple guys?"
I said, "I'll let you be the judge of that. I'll just ask you, what do you think those deep strip mining pits that are full of water up there are used for? There are skeletons galore in the bottom of those things that the fish have picked clean years ago. The cops can't prove anything even if they would happen to find the body.
I said, "We play hardball up by East St. Louis, Pete."
He said, "I can't believe I'm talking to a guy related to the Sheltons. I can't wait to tell the guys back home."
It was close to 10:00 PM and lights out at this point, so he left then, acting as if he believed everything I had said. I think he did because from then on he treated me like a king and confidant.
A few days later, Lisko came into my cubicle while I was spit shining my combat boots and said,
"I don't think I want to go through with this flight program, Mark. I think a guy's nuts to go to Vietnam voluntarily to get shot at for a year." He then said, "I think I know a way to get out of this, Mark."
Lisko was slumped with his back against the wall while sitting on my lower bunk bed. He had left his boots at the cubicle's entrance and had his socked right foot cocked up on the bed, and his left leg was sprawled out to his side. There was seriousness about him I had not often sensed before.
"How's that, Pete?" I asked. I was not sure I had heard him correctly.
"You'll find out soon enough" he said resolutely, "and I know I can count on you not to say anything."
He then left, and I wondered what Pete had up his sleeve. The visit and his remarks were somewhat unsettling but, what the hell, I had boots to spitshine.
Advanced Primary Flight Training
at Fort Wolters
After a student finished the basic flight instruction at Ft. Wolters, he had to pass a checkride, given by another special group of instructors who were usually ex-military pilots turned civilian. This checkride was mandatory and a student had to pass it or be washed out of flight school. I had reached another critical junction on my journey. This was a flight where the instructor would tell the student what maneuvers to perform with the aircraft and the student would do his very best to accomplish the task correctly.
You could be asked to perform any flight maneuver on which you had previously received instruction. Things like straight and level flight, hovering, standard rate 180-degree turns, 180-degree climbing and descending turns, settling with power, and autorotations might be requested.
Let me back up and explain what an autorotation in a helicopter is. In simplest terms, an autorotation is bringing the aircraft safely to the ground after engine failure. At our present stage we already trained for mechanical failure. In military warfare the failure was often mechanical failure as a result of enemy fire. The U.S. Army mandated daily training for such an event. Simulation included engine shutdown to a complete, safe stop on the runway. Success was not a foregone conclusion. There was always danger of pilot error, weather complications, etc. Our life was literally in our own hands in practice.
The instructor first rolls the power off to flight idle. The first thing that you must do quickly in a helicopter to keep up main rotor RPM is to bottom the collective pitch control with your left hand. This removes the pitch, or angle of attack of the rotor blades (remember the fan blades example) relative to the surrounding air mass passing through the blades. Now, with the pitch at zero, the blades will spin on at normal RPM indefinitely. If you don't do that, the blades will slow so much that you will lose all lift and fall out of the sky to your death. That's a pretty good incentive to get the collective down in a hurry. Once you do that, you start to rapidly descend to the runway that you have chosen for touchdown. The pilot then stabilizes the airspeed at around 60 knots in a Hiller, during the descent. Then at approximately 30 to 40 feet above the runway, the pilot brings the cyclic back to flare and bleed off airspeed. This flare slows both the aircraft's forward speed and its rate of descent. Then as the aircraft continues downward, the pilot starts to put pitch back in the blades by partially raising the collective pitch control. If done properly, the chopper will slow its descent further and as it approaches the ground the pilot slowly raises the collective to maximum.
Expertly done, in an autorotation one can dispel all forward airspeed and runout of flying RPM of the blades just as the aircraft touches the ground. This is why, as a pilot of both fixed wing and helicopters, I would much rather have an engine failure in a helicopter than in an airplane, especially if over water or trees. Simply stated, because of autorotation you can stop all your forward momentum, and you sure as hell can't do that in a fixed wing where momentum just hurtles you forward, into anything in its path. Usually if you correctly autorotate a chopper you're going to collide with the water or trees without momentum.
Every candidate is nervous about a checkride. You know how to do the maneuvers, but you must prove that to the instructor. Some of the things you are expected to perform at this stage require enormous precision.
Some candidates clutch and bomb on these checkrides. Usually they were given a pink slip. We had reached a new plateau in our training. The system was no longer designed to chase you away but to salvage you and improve your skills. The instructor was told your areas of weakness, and he worked with you for a few days and then another checkride was given. The problem was that the candidates that flunked the first test, tended to get more and more nervous about the next checkride and would bomb it too, and collect another pink slip. Three tries and three pink slips and you were out of the system.
The U.S. Army had a lot of money invested in a student at this point and didn't want to see anyone fail. It was a lose-lose situation. Yet they realized that if a student failed three checkrides in a row, he probably wasn't cut out to be a combat pilot, or any other kind of pilot for that matter. So the candidate was washed out and usually assigned to the infantry or some other exciting branch.
At the end of my checkride, the instructor said, "I've got the aircraft, candidate. You can relax now and I'll take her in." When he asked for the controls my heart sank. I felt certain that I had bombed the ride and would be getting a pink slip. Surprise awaited me back on the ground.
"Congratulations Candidate Garrison. You delivered the best performance on a checkride that I've seen in a long time. You should be proud of yourself. I'm sure instructor Toth is very proud of you."
I thought, Jesus Christ, is this actually happening? Toth acts like I'm going to kill us both every damned time we go up. I sure as hell wasn't going to argue with the man. I was glad to get it over with. I'm sure that the aircraft I flew that day had my hand prints permanently embedded into the controls, I was holding on so tight. I passed! It was on to advanced primary flight at Fort Wolters.
In Advanced Primary Flight School at Fort Wolters, you were taught to land in what was called white, yellow, or red tire areas located in the Texas countryside, usually on the bluffs. These target areas had painted automobile tires in them that could be seen easily from the air.
The white tire areas were fairly large and spacious and comparatively easy to fly in and out of. The yellow tire areas were smaller and more difficult to negotiate, and a student had to be with an instructor or be cleared by an instructor to fly into them solo. The red tire areas were small, and it took a lot of precision to get in and out of them. A student had to be accompanied by an instructor to fly into them.
Working on more advanced maneuvers and flying in and out of these tire areas was the bulk of the rest of the training, along with continued study in ground school courses. When a student would fly solo into one of these areas, he would land and follow a precise procedure for safety's sake.
He would first land the aircraft and roll the throttle back to the reduced RPM of flight idle. He would next unbuckle his seat belt and shoulder harness and exit the aircraft, always careful to duck under the whirling rotor blades. Once on the ground, he would perform what was called a ground reconnaissance. He looked for obstructions to his upcoming takeoff and counted paces back to mark the area with a stick or similar object that could easily be seen from the cockpit, to tell him how far he could hover backwards before getting his tail rotor into trees or other obstacles. He would then climb back into the aircraft, buckle up, hover backwards to give himself clearance and take off into the wind.
Once I saw what appeared to be a large diamondback rattlesnake in one of the tire areas and I stayed as far away from it as I could and got out of there as fast as I could. A classmate and friend who made the same discovery dealt with it differently. It's a story worth telling.
Candidate Kevin Nielson was a real frontiersman, hailing from the mountains of northwest Montana, and came to flight school looking for adventure. He had hunted grizzly bears with a bow and arrow in his native mountains and lived through many other crazy-assed adventures. He claimed to be a practicing Mormon, but if, indeed he was, he was the least observant Mormon I ever met. He smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish.
Everyone liked adventurous, unconventional Kevin.
One day I had spent the afternoon flying in and out of the tire areas, almost to the point of tedium. Finished for the day, I brought my aircraft back to the main heliport and was shutting it down when I noticed another Hiller OH23D coming in on final approach.
It looked like it was being flown by someone who had no idea what the purpose of the controls were, let alone how to use them. The aircraft came to a wobbly hover and proceeded to a parking spot on the concrete ramp and was clumsily set down.
As I watched in amazement, the aircraft continued to run at full RPM for an inordinate amount of time before the power was rolled off to flight idle. It was then shut down but no one got out of the aircraft. I decided something was wrong with the pilot and approached it cautiously.
When I got to the Hiller, I saw the pilot sitting stiffly. Then I saw a huge diamondback rattlesnake coiled around the cyclic stick and one of the anti-torque pedals. The rattler looked as if it did not enjoy its first unsolicited helicopter ride. As a matter of fact, it looked downright pissed off.
The pilot sat motionless. The rattlesnake found the door, dropped to the ground and slithered away. The pilot then took off his flight helmet, revealing his identity. It was Kevin Nielson, and sweat was streaming down his face and his eyes were as big as dinner plates.
"Jesus Christ, Kevin," I yelled. "How did that snake get in there with you? I thought whoever was flying this bird was having a stroke!"
Nielson explained later that evening at the NCO Club over a few beers that he had seen the snake in a tire area and went back to the aircraft and got his helmet bag.
He then found a forked stick to pin the rattler on the ground just behind its head and had captured it and put it in the helmet bag and zipped it up. His plan had been to bring the snake to the barracks and let it loose just to see what the rest of us would do. "Just to have a little fun with you," he said. "Of course," he added, "I would have milked it of its venom, first." Like that would make us feel better.
The snake had other plans, however, and worked the bag open in flight and crawled all over him and the cockpit while he was attempting to fly the aircraft back at, 2,000 feet. That certainly explained the spastic approach I had witnessed.
"Goddamn! That's the last time I'll ever do that!" Nielson said.
As I said, everybody liked Nielson. I'm not so certain he would have retained his title as most popular if he had let the rattler loose in our barracks, milked or not. At least he left us an amazing and unforgettable story for the telling and we will always fondly remember the crazy Montana mountain man.
◆ ◆ ◆
A few days after that incident, I was again doing solo work in the Hiller and heard a call come across the radio that one of our aircraft was down and right in my vicinity. Just a minute or two afterwards I saw a medical evacuation chopper hovering over some small trees not far from me. It looked as if they had the pilot out and there was no fire. I had no idea who the pilot was. When I got back to the company area, I was told that it was Peter Lisko, my pal from Hoboken who went down.
"Is Pete alright?" I asked the candidate who had shared the news.
The other flight student then said, "Yeah, pretty much alright, but he's complaining about his back hurting."
I thought right then and there that Lisko had finally executed his well thought out plan to get out of this mess called Vietnam. I couldn't totally blame him either. I smiled. If he wasn't detouring around Vietnam, maybe he was trying to get away from me, before I gave him one of those mean Shelton looks.
I never got to talk to Peter again, but I understand he was discharged medically for a service connected back injury. I thought to myself: Lisko, you sly fox you. My best wishes to you. He had indeed found a back way out. If that was indeed his plan, it was well thought out and masterfully executed.
The day to day grind continued as I prepared for my final check-ride at Wolters. One day seemed to merge with the next as everything blurred. Vietnam was on all of our minds because everybody knew without a doubt, that's where we were going.
The final check ride eventually came. I passed the check and all the academic requirements and then it was so long Fort Wolters and hello Fort Rucker, Alabama. The U.S. Army program was working its magic. At Rucker we would receive instrument flight training and jet transition to the UH 1 Huey helicopter, the original workhorse of the new war.
Fort Wolters will always have a special place in my heart, I thought, nearly tearing up. The guys I went to flight school with were the finest bunch of guys that I'd ever known to that point in my military career. I still regard them all with fondness, and will for the rest of my days, but little did I know there were new and brighter bonds to forge.
About the Author
Mark V. Garrison was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army on December 31st, 1970. He went on to receive a bachelor's degree from Southern Illinois University in 1973. Garrison then completed four more years of study at the oldest and largest chiropractic school in the world, Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, where he received a doctorate in 1977. Dr. Garrison then practiced in Illinois for 30 years before retiring in 2006.
Dr. Garrison and his wife of 42 years, Lynn, have four children and five grandchildren. His hobbies include flying, painting, drawing, playing his guitars, and writing. He is now starting his second book about things he encountered in medical practice.