Like many who got in tight spots in Viet­nam, sol­diers of the 2nd Bat­tal­ion, 14th In­fantry, run for the Hueys.

It all started with the train­ing at Fort Wolters.

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - BY JAMES R. CHILES

“I hated chop­pers,” Hickey re­called in 2006, “the way they banked in the turns, flew to­ward treetops, and jumped up at the last minute. I had to sit in the seat and cover my eyes with my hands.”

But he ap­pre­ci­ated the Army fliers more dur­ing a visit to the re­mote Green Beret camp Nam Dong in 1964. On July 5, hun­dreds of en­emy sol­diers at­tacked af­ter mid­night. The de­fend­ers held the perime­ter through the night, but in the morn­ing, en­emy ma­chine guns drove off six Marine Choctaw he­li­copters at­tempt­ing to de­liver re­in­force­ments. Hickey re­called a wave of fear and dis­ap­point­ment among the sur­vivors. But then a sin­gle Huey swooped over the treetops, door guns blaz­ing. The Army crew cleared a path for the re­lief he­li­copters to re­turn. “Fear­less, those kids,” Hickey said.

“We were all young and crazy then,” says Jim Messinger, who flew Hueys in Viet­nam. “My first job as an adult was to fly around in a he­li­copter and let peo­ple shoot at me. I was 20 years old in flight school.” That school was the Pri­mary He­li­copter Cen­ter at Fort Wolters, Texas. Of all the he­li­copter pilots who flew in Viet­nam, 95 per­cent passed through the cen­ter at Wolters. Lo­cated in north-cen­tral Texas, the school, which ran from 1956 un­til the end of the Viet­nam War in 1973, was an es­sen­tial part of the pres­sure cooker process that trans­formed any­body who qual­i­fied—from teenagers to grizzled com­bat of­fi­cers—into world-class he­li­copter pilots.

“There was a huge range of ex­pe­ri­ence,” re­calls A. Wayne Brown, who worked at Wolters as a flight in­struc­tor for con­trac­tor South­ern Air­ways. “Some had never been in a plane, and some were fixed-wing pilots. I had to show some of them how to buckle a seat belt—they were that green.”

Wolters re­lied on three mod­els of small train­ing he­li­copters, all pow­ered by ga­so­line-fu­eled pis­ton en­gines. These were cheaper to op­er­ate than the Hueys and in many re­spects were trick­ier to fly—hence good train­ers. None of them came with in­stru­ments for fly­ing in clouds—such ad­vanced train­ing hap­pened else­where, such as Fort Rucker, Alabama. Wolters was all about learn­ing to con­trol flighty ma­chines un­der “con­tact,” or vis­ual, con­di­tions. Stu­dents—mostly war­rant of­fi­cer can­di­dates, but com­mis­sioned of­fi­cers too—flew day and night. Flight school had two phases of in­struc­tion, each eight weeks long: Pri­mary I and Pri­mary II.

“Pri­mary I taught ’em how to fly a he­li­copter. Pri­mary II, how to use it,” says

Brown. “Our work­day was about 6 a.m. to noon, or noon to 6 p.m. It was prob­a­bly the best fly­ing job I’ve ever had.” Given Brown’s long fly­ing ca­reer, that’s say­ing a lot: Af­ter the war he flew off­shore he­li­copters, taught mil­i­tary pilots in Iran, then op­er­ated a va­ri­ety of he­li­copters in the South, be­fore be­com­ing as­sis­tant chief in­struc­tor at Bell He­li­copter’s train­ing academy in Texas. When ac­tor Har­ri­son Ford bought a Bell 407 and needed a world-class in­struc­tor, Brown got the as­sign­ment.

South­ern Air­ways pilots like Brown taught ba­sic skills in Pri­mary I, and mil­i­tary pilots just back from the war typ­i­cally han­dled Pri­mary II. Dur­ing my visit to Wolters, Brown in­tro­duced me to Dwayne “Willy” Wil­liams, a com­bat vet­eran who added wartime lessons to the Wolters cur­ricu­lum. Wil­liams came to Wolters as a War­rant Of­fi­cer Can­di­date, then flew UH-1B gun­ships in Viet­nam. Af­ter the war Wil­liams stayed in the ro­tary-wing world, in­clud­ing work­ing as chief test pi­lot for man­u­fac­tur­ers like Bell and MD He­li­copters. He was copi­lot on the first test flight of the Bell/agusta BA609, the first civil­ian tiltro­tor.

In­struc­tors took three stu­dents at a time and got to know them well. Now, 50 years on, vet­er­ans of the pro­gram still re­mem­ber class num­bers and hat col­ors, fly­ing bud­dies and in­struc­tors. “Ev­ery eight weeks we threw out the old bunch and took on a new one,” Jim Messinger said as we had lunch in Woody’s, a Quon­set-hut diner on the main drag of the nearby town, Min­eral Wells. “Col­lege cour­ses should be like that, eight weeks long.”

Af­ter fly­ing Hueys in Viet­nam, Messinger re­turned to the fort for two years, serv­ing as an in­struc­tor and stan­dard­iza­tion pi­lot. He spent a sec­ond year in Viet­nam as a Siko­rsky CH-54 heavy-lift cargo pi­lot.

Now Messinger teaches com­puter science at nearby Weather­ford Col­lege. He de­votes his spare time to set­ting up the Na­tional Viet­nam War Mu­seum, to be lo­cated in Min­eral Wells, just over the hill from one of the wartime he­li­ports. Af­ter fill­ing his garage with mem­o­ra­bilia do­nated for the fu­ture build­ing, he found space in a hangar. When we vis­ited the me­tal build­ing, he showed me a box with dozens of framed class photos circa 1967: rank upon rank of smil­ing stu­dents hop­ing to fly in com­bat. I asked about faces marked out with red grease pen­cil: Some washed out of the pro­gram, Messinger said, and oth­ers died in ac­tion. “I stopped keep­ing track of all the stu­dents af­ter a while. It was just too hard.”

Messinger re­counted his days teach- ing the ba­sics of hov­er­ing and fly­ing a pis­ton-en­gine he­li­copter at no-frills fa­cil­i­ties called stage­fields, spaced well away from the main he­li­ports. Prac­tice at the stage­fields helped build the com­plex skills needed for land­ings and take­offs. In­struc­tors threw in­flight emer­gen­cies at the stu­dents with­out mercy.

“It was in­tense,” said Brown. “No loose time, no bor­ing holes in the sky.”

Wolters trained pilots for all branches of the armed ser­vices and for al­lied coun­tries, in par­tic­u­lar the South Viet­namese army—a to­tal of 41,000 in 17 years of op­er­a­tion. At the peak of ac­tiv­ity, just be­fore U.S. forces be­gan a long with­drawal

from the war in 1969, Wolters was send­ing 575 pilots per month for ad­vanced train­ing at Fort Rucker. There they learned in­stru­ment flight rules, tac­tics, for­ma­tion fly­ing, and how to op­er­ate the big­ger, tur­bine-pow­ered Huey. The en­tire process—from boot camp to Wolters through grad­u­a­tion from Rucker—took less than a year. In that time, a high school grad­u­ate was trans­formed into a UH-1 pi­lot, hold­ing the rank of war­rant of­fi­cer.

A teenage en­lis­tee at the re­cruit­ment cen­ter might have had vi­sions of an ex­cit­ing, all-ex­penses-paid he­li­copter ca­reer, but he may have missed the part about hav­ing to go through not just one but two spi­tand-pol­ish phases called boot camp. The sec­ond, at Wolters, was called pre­flight school, and for war­rant of­fi­cer can­di­dates it lasted four mis­er­able weeks, a pur­ga­tory ruled by a liv­ing terror known as the TAC (Train­ing, Ad­vis­ing, and Coun­sel­ing) of­fi­cer, who spe­cial­ized in find­ing all lev­els of im­per­fec­tions, down to mis­align­ment of socks in the drawer, uni­forms in the closet, and note­books on the desk. An in­frac­tion by one WOC could bring down fire upon his en­tire pre­flight class.

“It was like OCS [Of­fi­cer Can­di­date School], all spit-shine,” said Messinger. “The more you cleaned, the more they looked. If the sink was too clean, they took it apart to find some­thing wrong. They got us up at mid­night and turned us into the hall­way. But af­ter four weeks it got eas­ier.”

Why the grief? Top-notch fly­ing skills wouldn’t be enough to cope with the chaos and fury of com­bat. An air­craft com­man­der in Viet­nam—even if too young to vote—was go­ing to hold life­and-death power over his copi­lot, crew, pas­sen­gers, and many oth­ers within range, so he needed a cool and steady tem­per­a­ment. Oc­ca­sion­ally a se­nior pi­lot was in­jured, and brand-new copi­lots had to take com­mand. And they could face such tri­als very soon af­ter land­ing in Viet­nam. Wil­liams re­called that one of his class­mates, hav­ing been called into ac­tion while on an ori­en­ta­tion flight with a vet­eran air­craft com­man­der just four days into his first tour in Viet­nam, was killed in ac­tion. Jim Martin­son, another stu­dent, had been in-coun­try just a month when he was shot down twice in one day. “I can re­mem­ber the first com­bat as­sault I saw like it was yesterday,” Wil­liams said. “It was in­tense. We were on the sec­ond lift, and ev­ery time a slick [on the first lift] would get on the ra­dio you could hear the gun­fire. There were gun­ships fly­ing over the tar­gets, [white phos­pho­rous] smoke, and the en­emy fir­ing from the tree­lines. I thought, I don’t know how long I have to live. It was sur­real, like: How did I end up in this movie?” Hence the daily ha­rass­ment of war­rant-of­fi­cer can­di­dates at Wolters. “The first four weeks was like a fil­ter,” Messinger said. “If you can’t take this, you can’t take com­bat ei­ther.” Messinger re­called the re­bel­lion of an ex­pe­ri­enced non-com with a fine ser­vice record. “He said, ‘I’m a staff sergeant and I don’t have to put up with this.’ So he just left and

went back to his E-6 rat­ing.”

A few flight in­struc­tors car­ried the tra­di­tion of tor­ment past the pre­flight bar­racks and into the air, scream­ing at their stu­dents and rap­ping them on the hel­mets with a stick. But that was not stan­dard pro­ce­dure, and as crit­i­cal tests ap­proached, stu­dents who strug­gled to learn un­der one in­struc­tor’s style could re­quest an al­ter­nate.

AS WE AP­PROACHED a row of two-story dor­mi­tory-style build­ings, Messinger stopped his Dodge van and pointed to a sec­ond floor win­dow at the end of Build­ing 779: his Spar­tan quar­ters while a War­rant Of­fi­cer Can­di­date.

By com­par­i­son, com­mis­sioned of­fi­cers who came to Wolters for iden­ti­cal flight train­ing en­joyed the good life. They avoided the first month of hell and re­ceived a stipend to live off-base, so they usu­ally had enough cash for ameni­ties and week­end mis­ad­ven­tures.

“The pay was good,” re­calls Hugh Mills, who was a lieu­tenant when he ar­rived at Wolters in 1968. To stretch his salary he shared an apart­ment in Weather­ford, a half-hour east, with other of­fi­cers. They com­muted in style. “One of­fi­cer I knew had a Dodge Charger, one a Corvette. Mus­tangs were pop­u­lar,” Mills says. “Mine was a 1968 GT350 Mus­tang, four-speed, two plus two, with a Pony pack­age.”

Whether a priv­i­leged of­fi­cer or lowly WOC, all stu­dents faced the risk of fail­ure. There were con­stant tests and emer­gency drills. The most hair-rais­ing of the flight ma­neu­vers re­quired trainees to cope with com­plete en­gine fail­ure: They had to take their hurtling, un­pow­ered ma­chines all the way to a screech­ing stop on the ground. It’s called a touch­down au­toro­ta­tion. Af­ter the in­struc­tor pulled off the power and left the main ro­tor to wind­mill, stu­dents had only sec­onds to ad­just the con­trols and find a safe land­ing spot—which could be out of sight be­hind them. This taught them to scan in­stru­ments con­stantly, and be aware of traf­fic, ter­rain, and wind di­rec­tion at all times. Over his ca­reer of fly­ing and in­struct­ing, Brown prac­ticed the ma­neu­ver more than 80,000 times.

Mis­takes dur­ing au­toro­ta­tion prac­tice at Wolters caused air­craft dam­age, in­juries, and a hand­ful of fa­tal crashes. “But af­ter 200 flight hours,” Messinger says of the whole trial by fire, from Fort Wolters through Fort Rucker, “we were su­per-highly trained by civil­ian stan­dards.” Wil­liams re­calls that his train­ing at Rucker ended with a few days at a for­ward he­li­copter base that sim­u­lated con­di­tions stu­dents would find in Viet­nam, dur­ing which stu­dents were awak­ened at night with big fire­crack­ers and alert horns that or­dered them to their ships at a flat run.

If the stu­dents failed a key test along the way, they washed out of he­li­copter

school. Dur­ing the peak en­roll­ment years, 1968 and 1969, about 15 per­cent failed to grad­u­ate from Wolters. While non­coms and of­fi­cers could go back to work they had been do­ing, a newly ar­rived War­rant Of­fi­cer Can­di­date who failed had no such fall­back, and likely would end up slog­ging through rice pad­dies in Viet­nam.

For those who grad­u­ated as war­rant of­fi­cer pilots and went to Viet­nam, “you were au­to­mat­i­cally looked upon as a leper by the grizzled old com­bat vet­er­ans—any­where from 19 to 21 years old,” Wil­liams re­calls of his days as a new pi­lot. “[But the train­ing] worked be­cause the ma­jor­ity of he­li­copter pilots made it home, and it’s hard to put a fig­ure on how many thou­sands of lives were saved as a re­sult of the Huey, and the brave young men who flew them.”

Of all the State­side tests to earn that ticket, the most crit­i­cal and mem­o­rable was the solo flight and the check ride lead­ing up to it. Some stu­dents never de­vel­oped the hand-eye co­or­di­na­tion to keep the ag­gra­vat­ing ma­chines steady in a low hover, and so never got a chance to fly solo around the field three times and move on. The strict timetable at Wolters re­quired stu­dents to qual­ify for solo­ing af­ter 10 to 15 hours of dual in­struc­tion.

Stu­dents who sur­vived the solo saw im­me­di­ate and happy changes. One hap­pened on the bus ride at the end of the day: The ve­hi­cle pulled over at a Hol­i­day Inn, and fel­low stu­dents dragged the new soloist out and threw him into the swimming pool, re­gard­less of weather. He also got a wings em­blem to sew on his cap. Solo­ing brought great im­prove­ments to the so­cial life of the war­rant of­fi­cer can­di­date who, un­like of­fi­cers in the same train­ing, had been con­fined to base and sub­ject to TAC of­fi­cers’ ha­rass­ment. Stu­dents with the big “W” em­blem on their caps could fi­nally get leaves, and many sought com- pan­ion­ship in fe­male-rich places such as the Amer­i­can Air­lines stew­ardess school in Dal­las, or Texas Women’s Col­lege in Denton.

Fear of fail­ure also eased (slightly). With each suc­ces­sive week, the Army be­came more in­vested in fledg­ling pilots, so flunk­ing a test was more likely to lead to re­me­dial in­struc­tion than to be­ing tossed out.

WOLTERS BE­GAN WITH a sin­gle heliport and four stage­fields for daily prac­tice. In 1965, with Viet­nam de­mand­ing more he­li­copter pilots, the fort added two big he­li­ports and 21 stage­fields.

The Army gets credit for start­ing the pi­lot pipeline as early as it did: When the pro­gram started, no war was un­der way, no­body had worked out the cav­alry-like

tac­tics, and the ga­so­line-pow­ered he­li­copters then in use were barely ad­e­quate even for war games. The year Wolters opened, Bell’s UH-1 had just en­tered flight test­ing as a pro­to­type, and was still four years from the assem­bly lines.

Stu­dents in the small, pis­ton-en­gine he­li­copters learned to cope with mar­ginal per­for­mance: In sum­mer­time, the OH-13 mod­els could barely get off the ground. “With two stu­dents on board on a hot day, us­ing the skids for a run­ning take­off was the only way to get in the air,” says Brown.

Bump­ing and scrap­ing the skids along the pave­ment was a skill all stu­dents at Wolters learned, no mat­ter which model they flew. For one, it was a sim­ple but ef­fec­tive safety pre­cau­tion at the crowded heliport. Be­cause so many he­li­copters were parked on the apron, and be­cause be­gin­ners find pre­cise hov­er­ing so dif­fi­cult, the school feared col­li­sions dur­ing taxi­ing, so in­struc­tors had their novices skid down the traf­fic lanes on the way to take­off, ap­ply­ing just enough power to be light on the land­ing gear but not so much as to rise off the ground.

That noisy prac­tice would come in handy later: “Many times in Viet­nam,” Wil­liams says, “fly­ing a loaded gun­ship on a hot day, you’d have to skid down the run­way un­til you achieved trans­la­tional lift.”

Wolters’ orig­i­nal, or Main, heliport is barely vis­i­ble now, be­cause of changes that fol­lowed af­ter the Army handed most of

the fort over to Min­eral Wells for busi­ness re­de­vel­op­ment. Most of the con­crete ex­panse, once home to 550 he­li­copters, is cov­ered by rusty fences and heaps of even rustier oil­field equip­ment. Thanks to a cadre of vet­er­ans and vol­un­teers, though, a re­stored main en­try looks as good as ever: Visi­tors to what is now an in­dus­trial park drive un­der a he­li­copter-theme arch­way. On the left side of the or­ange, steel-frame arch­way sits a re­stored Hiller OH-23-D. A sturdy and pow­er­ful 1950s he­li­copter, it’s still used for light cargo and crop­dust­ing around the world. On the other side of the arch sits the TH-55A Osage, a light two-seater orig­i­nally de­vel­oped in the 1950s by the Hughes Tool Com­pany’s Air­craft Di­vi­sion for sale to po­lice de­part­ments. A sim­i­lar ver­sion is still sold to­day by the Sch­weizer di­vi­sion of Siko­rsky Air­craft.

The third he­li­copter type used at Wolters was the H-13, the mil­i­tary ver­sion of the bub­ble-canopy Bell 47 civil­ian mod­els made fa­mous by old movies and tele­vi­sion shows. At the peak, the fort had swept up nearly 1,300 he­li­copters for its trainees. A tor­nado in April 1967 dam­aged 179 of them.

By the end of 1968, the three he­li­ports were han­dling at least 2,000 take­offs and land­ings daily, five days a week. “It was like Oshkosh ev­ery day, twice a day,” said Wil­liams as we toured the out­skirts of Min­eral Wells in Wayne Brown’s SUV. “The most ex­cit­ing part of the day was the re­cov­ery, when there were 600 or 700 he­li­copters all com­ing in about 11 a.m. We did have a cou­ple of midair col­li­sions—i’m not sure I’d do it that way now.”

We set out with hopes of get­ting into the now-aban­doned Dempsey Heliport on U.S. High­way 180; I’d heard that it had a well-pre­served aerial map in one of its brief­ing rooms, show­ing the train­ing ar­eas in great de­tail.

See­ing Dempsey Heliport’s red-and­white wa­ter tower, Brown turned down Op­po­site: Two Army sol­diers watch a wave of Bell UH-1 Iro­quois he­li­copters dur­ing the Viet­nam War, ca. 1967. The Viet­nam He­li­copter Pilots As­so­ci­a­tion es­ti­mates that the Huey had more com­bat time than any other air­craft in the history of war­fare. an ac­cess road and stopped at the gate. There was no sign of ac­tiv­ity. The only sug­ges­tion of some­thing valu­able was a pad­lock on the gate and a sign read­ing Junco Inc.

As we stood at the gate, Wil­liams said, “Darn! We need a he­li­copter to get in there.”

For­tu­nately, no he­li­copter was nec­es­sary to get a good look at rem­nants of the stage­field known as Bien Hoa, two miles north. Like all the stage­fields, it had a small con­trol tower, paved strips and pads for land­ing prac­tice, and a build­ing for stu­dents to study in be­tween flights.

See­ing the rusty steel frame of an air traf­fic con­trol tower from the county road, Brown and I climbed a gate and then the rusty stairs to get a bird’s-eye view. Brown pointed to rem­nants of an as­phalt strip nearby, where he­li­copters pulled up for re­fu­el­ing. Other long strips and pads to the east were for prac­tic­ing ap­proaches and au­toro­ta­tions.

The close at­ten­tion to off-air­port skills at Wolters, and later at Rucker, makes sense in light of what the new ar­mada of gas-tur­bine he­li­copters of­fered to U.S. forces in Viet­nam: the abil­ity to land, or at least hover over, any place in the war zone. This agility com­pen­sated for he­li­copters’ draw­backs rel­a­tive to fixed-wing air­craft: slow­ness, ex­pense, vul­ner­a­bil­ity to small arms, and shrimpy pay­load. By 1965, swarms of Hueys proved able to shift hun­dreds of troops in cav­alry fash­ion, ac­com­pa­nied by gun­ships fir­ing on en­emy forces who’d be un­touch­able by any other weapons plat­form. They re­trieved wounded sol­diers and re­stocked am­mu­ni­tion. Larger he­li­copters hauled ar­tillery tubes and bull­doz­ers.

But fully ex­ploit­ing these virtues re­quired ex­tra­or­di­nary fly­ing skills. Of­ten suc­cess de­pended on the abil­ity to hug the ter­rain in nap-of-earth fash­ion, then plunge into tiny clear­ings among the trees. Some of those clear­ings were barely big­ger than the he­li­copter it­self. And tak­ing off was even chancier. Given high air tem­per­a­tures and heavy pay­loads—such as a load of res­cued troop­ers—pilots had to know how to use ev­ery foot of the space avail­able, and ev­ery pound of lift.

While tak­ing off may sound easy— Don’t he­li­copters just rise straight up?—a he­li­copter climb­ing ver­ti­cally can’t de­velop nearly as much lift as a he­li­copter that climbs out di­ag­o­nally, with for­ward air­speed. In the con­fined ar­eas around Wolters, which were marked by tires of dif­fer­ent col­ors to note their dif­fi­culty, stu­dents learned how to get out of very tight spots. It was a les­son they’d use of­ten.

Be­fore the Bell UH-1 could be­come the work­horse of the Viet­nam War, right, thou­sands of pilots would need to be trained. They started with the Hiller OH-23 Raven, at Texas’ Fort Wolters pri­mary he­li­copter school (op­po­site).

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.