Bandit Platoon Leader, 11-67 to 11-68
Assault Helicopter Company supported the 5th Special Forces, specifically
Project Delta B-52. A 5-year tenure in Vietnam
eventually fostered the concept and current Army Doctrine for special aviation
operations. During Project Delta counterinsurgency and Long Range
Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) operations in, some UH-1H airframes
(Bandits & Rat Pack) were rigged with mechanical hoists, ladders, McGuire Riggs
along with an assigned recovery team member. Unit Wolf Pack gun ships,
C-Models, were equipped with mini-guns, rockets and 40MM. Aviation support
orchestrated by the Command and Control aircraft provided the synchronization of
combat power to augment forces on the ground. This included Wolf Pack direct
fire support, combat assaults, combat service support, medi-vac and extraction to provide a lifeline to LRRP and
Project Delta forces on the ground.
answering directly to the Joint Chiefs, MacV
Commander, 5th Special Forces Commander, and some missions required
White House approval, took on the most dangerous assignments, going deep behind
enemy lines to penetrate Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. Project
Delta operated in free fire zones. Again, this mission was made possible
with aviation support provided by the pilots and aircrews of the 281st,
task organized with a slice of combat service support from the rear.
Contrary to some reports, across the border operations did occur in Laos [and] Cambodia
and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail splinter leading into
the A-Shau Valley. 281st
aviation support - and sometimes no external support at all - was available to
support the LRRP mission. Project Delta missions included single ship
insertions for counter-intelligence operations, bomb damage assessment,
detection of troop concentrations, locating enemy facilities, detecting troop
and supply movements, identifying targets for B-52 bombers and daring attempts
to snatch enemy prisoners. Together, the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols
teams that seldom exceeded 7 men and the 281st were a formidable team
that worked day and night in execution of daring missions few can begin to
imagine or talk about. Most can recall the flying in support of the
Project Delta in remote areas of Vietnam,
the Delta, Central Highlands, and A-Shau Valley in the north. Vietnam areas are
indelible in the minds of aircrews: Kontum, Pleiku, LZ Oasis, DaNang, A-ShauValley, Hue-Phu Bai, An Loc, Ban Me Thuot, Gia Nghia, Ninh Hoa, Duc Co, Ple Djereng,
Polei Knron, Plei Me, Cheo Reo, Phan Thiet just to name a few.
This mission of the 281st and its
doctrine and tactics was different than any other aviation unit I served with to
include the 1st Cavalry Div (Airmobile) in Vietnam and the 82nd Aviation
Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division, Ft. Bragg, NC.
A pilot reporting into the 281st was of immediate value to the unit
and experienced pilots took the new pilots under their wing to learn how to fly
and survive in Vietnam.
They learned how to support special operations, to employ augmented
insertion/extraction gear and win. During unit operations, the legacy of the unit was pronounced time and again loudly and clear
along with its unwavering commitment to Project Delta B-52 and the Recondo School. As a newly
assigned member you learned of the heroics of the 281st, the history
of daring missions, the past operations, cross the border operations, special
operational missions, the night and day support to include inclement weather
flying. You saw and sensed first hand the unrelenting aviator/crew
devotion to the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols that depended on the aspects
of Army Aviation. The 5-year relationship of the 5th Special
Forces and the 281st can be best described as a brotherhood bonded in
blood, guts and glory centered around mission accomplishment and against all
odds of survival. This was pointed out in a book written by a Special
Forces Ground Commander; Thomas Ross, titled “PRIVILEGES OF WAR”
in the extraction of Montagnard held slaves for eight
years by the NVA and VC. The mission took place in the Valley of the
Tigers located deep in enemy territory and the combined operations were daring,
dangerous and courageous. Approximately 200 Montagnard
men women and children were rescued to live a better life. A humanitarian
mission or mission of mercy received international news media attention.
The 281st (pilots, crews, maintenance, combat service support)
depended on each other in times of crisis because Project Delta operated deep in
enemy territory. Out of necessity units were self-contained with the only
initial response so dependent on unit aircrews, aircraft readiness and pilot
prowess. The daily Project Delta missions, the danger, the challenge,
coupled with unit cohesion was the strong fabric of unit integrity and
accountability ever present and interwoven in the 281st Army Aviator
and air crews not present in other aviation units I worked with or was assigned.
Oh yes, the 281st had its share of ash and trash missions flown from
Nha Trang, but the soul and heart of the unit was combat operations flown in
support of the 5th Special Forces.
judgment the knights of the 20th century were the Army aviators of the 281st.
The 281st pilots and crews are singularly like the knights of old,
because they went out day after day, singly or in twos and threes, to hold the
battlefield against all comers, and to do battle in defense of Project Delta
B-52. Pilots and aircrews felt they were invincible. Single ship
missions were to be alone, to have your life and the crew in your own hands, to
use your own skill, single-handed against the enemy. A single ship insertion
into a jungle hole was a result of collective mission planning between the
Project Delta LRRP team leader and the aircrews. The teamwork for the
organizing, planning, equipping, operations, rehearsals, briefings and execution
of this precision mission held the balance of success. This process drove a bond
of close relationship, cohesion, accountability and ownership for a Project
Delta LRRP team during all stages of operation to include extraction and
debriefing. Pilots and aircrews followed the daily movement of their
inserted LRRP team and were prepared to extract the assigned team under any
conditions day or night. In the process of emergency extraction a few sets
of rotor blades were lost but the LRRP teams were home to safety ready for
another day of work. In summary, I didn’t find this bond of cohesion and
trust between the grunt and Army aviation in other units I served with.
Each act of valor I witnessed went so far beyond human comprehension that no one could
explain it very well -- not even those who had served in battle with the
unfolding events. Today, 34 years later I find these acts of sacrifice so
profound that I am somewhat uneasy with the commonness of my own humanity.
The 281st certainly did personify the ideals and virtues of Army
Values: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity and
Personal Courage. The battlefield and the strategic environment changed as
the 281st moved from the Delta, Central Highlands and A-Shau Valley but the character of the unit did
occasions the 281st displayed immeasurable loyalty and courage under
the most harrowing conditions. As I recall, the 281st fighting in the A-Shau Valley, aircrews risked
their lives repeatedly during insertions, extractions, combat assaults and
evacuating wounded/dead out of a deadly landing zone. The 281st became the
LRRP’s and reaction forces only connection to the world outside the
bloody battleground. During this tactical emergency, many aircrews flew
again and again through a barrage of antiaircraft and small arms fire to support
Project Delta. I was there as a Platoon Leader, I witnessed the events
that unfolded while flying aircraft 113, with Ken Smith (co-pilot), Jay Hays
(crew chief) and gunner Ron (Short Shaft) DeLeon. For Jay Hays those twin sixties he fabricated
saved us as they barked with distinction providing suppressive fire time and
again. I never did ask Jay where he obtained the extra M-60 Machine
Guns. Someday I will. The modification, neat floor mic switches Jay fabricated allowed Jay and Ron to keep
those machine guns barking while talking to the pilots about the grave
situation. Other aircrews and 113 went many times into this single ship hot LZ
while withstanding a gauntlet of automatic weapons fire. 113 went time and again knowing an aircraft ahead of us had been
shot down or shot up with wounded on board. We sucked it in and went to
deliver ground forces or extract wounded, down crews and rescue a maintenance
rigging crew. Unfortunately, some made the ultimate sacrifice and others
were wounded. Heroism was reflected in physical courage, deep moral
conviction, and stamina to stay with the fight.
281st legacy is a story of a remarkable, unyielding spirit and
uncompromisingly fierce defiance in the face of death and a determined enemy.
With this unit I clearly remember the many acts of valor in other areas of
Vietnam, the fidelity, and sacrifice of the pilots and
crews who fought and served with one of a kind aviation unit in
Vietnam, the 281st. Today and
as always, my heart, mind and soul is with the 281st because this
Army Aviation Unit was the best of the best and above the best in everything it
did and achieved. The “Hell From Above” and Intruder Call
Sign was all about soldiers who met the test of courage. There were no
words spoken by the pilots and aircrews of the 281st………such as……..I can’t.
later there is some fun still left in me as I reflect back on Army Aviation in
general. I am not the author of the following article but I have doctored
it up in certain areas. Someone sent this to me but I can’t recall whom.
Thought you might enjoy it, so I include it for your leisure
reading: "You never want to sneak up behind an old, high time
helicopter pilot and clap your hands. He will instantly dive for cover and most
likely whimper...then get up and smack you." There are no old helicopters
lying around airports like you see old airplanes. There is a reason for this.
Come to think of it, there are not many old, high-time helicopter pilots hanging
around airports either so the first issue is problematic. You can always
tell a helicopter pilot in anything moving: a train, an airplane, a car or a
boat. They never smile, they are always listening to the machine and they always
hear something they think is not right. Helicopter pilots fly in a mode of
intensity, actually more like "spring loaded", while waiting for pieces of their
ship to fall off. Flying a helicopter at any altitude over 500 feet is
considered reckless and should be avoided. Flying a helicopter at any altitude
or condition that precludes a landing in less than 20 seconds is considered
Remember in a helicopter you have about 1 second to lower the collective in an
engine failure before the craft becomes unrecoverable. Once you've failed this
maneuver the machine flies about as well as a 20 case Coke machine.
to Paul Greiner’s account of an autorotation in Duc Me pass to Ban Me Thuot, October 25, 1968. What a hell of a way
to get a day off Paul!) Even a perfectly executed autorotation only gives you a glide
ratio slightly better than that of a brick. 180-degree are a violent and aerobatic maneuver in my opinion and should be avoided.
When your wings are leading, lagging, flapping, recessing and moving faster than
your fuselage there's something unnatural going on. ! Is this the way men were meant to fly?
school, while hovering, if you start to sink a bit, you pull up on the
collective while twisting the throttle, push with your left foot (more torque)
and move the stick left (more translating tendency) to hold your spot. If you
now need to stop rising, you do the opposite in that order. Sometimes in wind
you do this many times each second. Don't you think that's a strange way to fly?
For Helicopters: You never want to feel a sinking feeling in your gut (low "g" pushover) while flying a two bladed under slung teetering rotor system.
You are about to do a snap-roll to the right and crash. For that matter, any
remotely aerobatic maneuver should be avoided in a Huey. Don't push your
luck. It will run out soon enough anyway.
everything is working fine on your helicopter consider yourself temporarily
lucky. Something is about to break. Harry Reasoner
once wrote the following about helicopter pilots:
"The thing is, helicopters are different from planes. An airplane by its
nature wants to fly, and if not interfered with too strongly by unusual events
or by an incompetent pilot, it will fly. A helicopter does not want to fly. It
is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in
opposition to each other, and if there is any disturbance in this delicate
balance the helicopter stops flying; immediately and disastrously. There is no
such thing as a gliding helicopter. This is why being a helicopter pilot is so
different from being an airplane pilot, and why in generality, airplane pilots
are open, clear-eyed, buoyant extroverts and helicopter pilots are brooding
introspective anticipators of trouble.
They know if something bad has not happened it is about to."
Having said all this, I must admit that flying in a helicopter and logging 2145
flight hours in Vietnam, surviving two combat tours is one of the most
satisfying and exhilarating experiences and skimming over the tops of trees at
100 knots is something we should all be able to do at least once. And
remember the fighter pilot's prayer: "Lord I pray for the eyes of an eagle, the heart of a lion
and the balls of a combat helicopter pilot."
In closing, I know that flying in Vietnam was sometimes anything but
fun, but now it ÍS something to brag about for those of us who survived the
experience. To me the 58,000 names inscribed on the Vietnam War Memorial
are at a place of honor for they are the true heroes of this war because they
made the ultimate sacrifice.
John R. Wehr
Aviator Cradle to Grave
281st Assault Helicopter Company, Nov 3 1967 – Nov 3, 1968, Vietnam
1st Cavalry Airmobile, March 3 1970 – March 3, 1971, Vietnam
NO MISSION TO DIFFICULT, NO SACRIFICE TOO GREAT…………
WHO FOUGHT FOR IT, LIFE HAS A FLAVOR THE PROTECTED WILL NEVER KNOW.