DUC MY PASS
Paul J Greiner
We were a flight of four
Intruder slicks and three Wolf Pack gun ships en-route to Ban Me Thuot where the
Vietnamese Provincial Headquarters had been over run by an NVA regiment. The
date was October 25, 1968.
I was gunning on an aircraft flown by Intruder
26, John Wehr with PP, Buck Sorem. For the life of me, I can’t remember the CE.
I had been assigned to that aircraft because 455 was down for maintenance. I
remember though, I didn’t like the assignment from the start. I had arrived on
the flight line well before dawn. The aircraft was really filthy, full of red
earth and mud from the Ban Me Thuot area. The guns were filthy too. I can’t
remember who the regular gunner was and I don’t know why he wasn’t flying that
day. I went and got my own M-60 and I felt better about that. I do remember we
were all flying long hours and long days and it was apparent that this
helicopter had been back and forth to Ban Me Thuot many times in the previous
week. It needed work and I’m sure, the crew needed rest. I’m not finding fault
with the performance of the crew. In any event, I was uneasy. Most of us
are familiar with that uneasy, gut feeling, that nagging intuition that
something’s wrong. For me that morning, that feeling just wouldn’t go away.
The CE arrived and
we prepped the ship for flight. He was soon followed by John Wehr and Buck
Sorem. As the two pilots conducted the pre-flight inspection, they became
concerned about the tail-rotor. They discussed the play in the “whatever” and I
thought to myself, “Hell with this, just Red-X this thing and be done with it.”
Did I get my wish? Hell no. We were going and that was it.
Soon the flight
line was alive with the smell of burning JP4 and the sounds of turbines and
rotor blades. We departed Nha Trang, into the early morning sky, as the lead
ship in the flight of nine. I don’t recall how long into the flight it was, but
as Sorem was flying, he reported a vibration in the pedals. Wehr took the
aircraft and said he couldn’t feel anything out of the ordinary. Then, I heard a
loud boom and the bottom seemed to drop out. I’m not ashamed to say, it scared
the crap out of me. I had been on plenty of practice auto-rotations while
training the ROK pilots and Peter Pilots but I wasn’t ready for this. The
aircraft started falling and the transmission was making a winding sound, and it
was loud. Wehr radioed, “Mayday, Mayday, Intruder 26 going down with
tail-rotor failure”. Someone in an aircraft behind us, quickly responded, “Negative,
Negative, your engine’s on fire”. Wehr radioed back, “Roger. Intruder 26,
auto-rotating.” He slammed the collective down and we dropped like a rock
After that much of it is a blur. I remember the
CE and I pulling the survival pack off the rear wall and I asked a couple times
if we could open the doors. I was thinking, “crash and burn”, and I
wanted to exit that aircraft as soon as we touched down. Wehr told us to hold
tight and keep the doors closed. The following is an excerpt from an email I
received from John Wehr about the incident:
As I recall, the auto rotation was a hairy
chopper ride Paul, and our only chance of survival was to make that knoll on top
of a jungle hill. It was a long way off, at my 9:00 o’clock and I had to
initiate some hairy butt s-turns to build rotor RPM which I’d use to extend the
glide path to make the landing. I remember bleeding RPM to 5700 (dangerously
low), a couple of times then dumping the nose and initiating more sharp turns to
build back RPM. I figured it was our only chance, really two choices, either
crashing into three canopy thick jungle or a controlled crash on a hilltop knoll
where we had a remote chance of survival. All of those things, and a million
others, like we were topped off on fuel, were going through my mind. Duc My Pass
was not an ideal place to have an engine failure. With the cargo doors shut, the
reduction in drag would help us reach the hilltop.
We all focused on the task at hand. Sorem read
power, Wehr flew and the CE and I started thinking about ground tasks such as
assisting the pilots, removing guns, ammo, and avionics and defending the
aircraft. A large number of NVA had been reported in the area and that became a
The auto-rotation took us though layers of scattered clouds and haze. With the
turning and banking there were times I was blinded by the sun suddenly bursting
through the hazy layers and other times I couldn’t see through the clouds and I
came close to spatial disorientation. I wondered how the hell Wehr was managing
to find a spot for touch down. But I never doubted he would. As we got closer to
the ground I could see thick jungle and deep elephant grass waiting to swallow
the aircraft. Wehr did a magnificent job of choosing a spot, flying to it, and
judging the flare. As he flared, he ordered us to open the cargo doors. I didn’t
need to be told twice. As the doors locked open, we slammed into the ground,
quite hard, but intact. The fire had blown out during the auto-rotation and the
now the scramble began. Again, an excerpt from John’s email:
After the auto-rotation one of you guys hugged
me, I don’t recall who, but just about broke every rib in my body. As we touched
down, Wolf Pack guns were already suppressing the area and a slick hovering over
the top of our bird extracted us and flew us back to home base. It took minimum
time to zero the COMSEC and remove the guns from the downed chopper. You guys
were like a NASCAR pit crew. Wonder why? Was it because we were in bad guy
territory? …..We survived that day because we were a team and a crew. You guys
talked to me and kept me focused. Remember, after the mayday call, I reached
down and shut the radios off because of all the radio chatter and traffic. Hell,
the accompanying flight knew we were going down.
Bad guy territory. That certainly motivated me
that morning. I was the one who ran over and hugged Wehr. Didn’t mean to hurt
him though. Adrenaline, you know. As I look back, I am proud of the way we
performed, all of us. But most of all, I am grateful for the flying skills of
John Wehr. If not for his actions that day, we wouldn’t have survived. We came
through it alive and ready to fly another day. Even though the game plan had
changed, the entire flight managed to adapt to the circumstances. The rest of
the flight continued on to the battle in Ban Me Thuot as we returned to visit
the flight surgeon. My ribs were sore also, but from the landing. I found out
later they had been cracked. The flight surgeon gave me the rest of the day off.
Wehr got cleared to continue flying. He writes:
Upon returning back to base I had to go to the
17th Avn. Group flight surgeon for clearance to fly. The only thing I
told the flight surgeon was that my ribs were sore. Anyway, the co-pilot decided
to take the day off and Maj. Dahill, Operations Officer rounded up a new crew
and I went back to Ban Me Thuot. I flew to Ban Me Thuot and learned of a 281st
bird shot down, destroyed on the ground, with the downed crew in the LZ. I went
into a hot LZ and extracted them out, don’t even remember who. ...Ah, just
an ordinary day, like so many others in the 281st.
Buck Yancy recently told me that he was the
ship behind us when the bearings blew out of our engine. He relates what
happened in the following email:
When you guys lost your engine we were in a
diamond formation, and I was in the ship directly behind you. We were
supposed to be the pick-up ship, but when your engine blew it covered my
windshield with oil. So the number two ship picked you guys up while I flew
cover -- I was flying with my head out the window till we stopped to clean the
windshield at Ban Me Thuot. Then we went on the mission while John drew
another helicopter. I was in 136, and we got the tail-rotor, and 90 degree
gear box either knocked of, or shot off with an explosive round -- no one ever
figured it out. Anyway we crashed, and I broke my back with a hairline
fracture, which was believed at the time to be a pulled muscle. I didn't
know it was break for a few years, just thought I had done permanent damage to
the muscle. Anyway 136 went to the bone yard as unrepairable.
We were on the ground about 30 minutes, as we moved to a near by LZ under fire.
Once we reached the LZ Wehr arrived, and came in and picked us up. Hence I will
never forget the day you had your engine failure at the pass.
It turned out to be quite a day for Wehr and
the others but for me, the rest of the day was quite uneventful. I returned to
the Bandits hooch feeling lucky. There, I ran into my CE, Kelley, who was
getting ready to go down to maintenance.
I was smiling. “Just getting up and around”?
He nodded and asked why I wasn’t flying the
mission I had been assigned.
I said something like, “Hell man, I flew it,
crashed in the jungle, was rescued, and now I have a half day off”.
"Bullshit", Kelley replied.
I just smiled.