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John Wehr
Bandit Platoon Leader, 11-67 to 11-68

The 281st 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.

Project Delta 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-Shau Valley, 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.

In my 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 not.

On many 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.

Indeed, the 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.

34 years 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 outright foolhardy.

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. (Refer 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?

In flight 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.

If 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
Army 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



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