Initially I had received orders to Parris Island as a Recruit Company Commander. During my tour in VN, I had put in for flight training, so my orders were changed, and I went to NAS Pensacola. It was interesting to see the improvement in my hearing on my flight physical, once I got to Pensacola, compared to the one I took in Vietnam. I started flight school in June and received my wings as a helicopter pilot in May 1968. While in flight school, (according to Navy Times) I was one of only six 23-year old Captains in the USMC at that time. In peacetime it normally took 4 to 5 years to make Captain. The fact that we were promoted after only two years was a testament to how things were going in Vietnam.
The first four weeks of flight school were called Pre-flight. It consisted of classroom work and PT. The classroom studies were such items as basic aerodynamics, power plants, and meteorology. The Pt was the usual physical fitness items consisting of cross-country runs, calisthenics, etc, plus swimming and parachute training. The cross-country run was no problem, but the wind sprint requirement was a problem. When I explained that I had a piece of shrapnel in my hip, I was given a bye. I didn’t happen to mention that I was slow as molasses on a cold day before the injury.
Since I was undergoing training with the US Navy and they tend to fly over water quite a bit, there was a lot of swim training involved. We had to take a stroke’s test, using four different strokes. We had to swim the length of the Olympic-sized pool with one stroke, turn and swim back using the next stroke, repeating the process with the third and fourth strokes. We had to tread water, in a flight suit, using only our feet for several minutes. Jumping off the high dive, we had to swim underwater for 25 meters to simulate jumping off of a ship and swimming under burning fuel on the surface. We learned how to take off a shirt or pair of pants and make a float while treading water. The most fun was a device nicknamed the “Dilbert Dumpster.” It was metal cockpit simulator on a set of rails that we were strapped into. When released, it slid down the rails, into the water with a good-sized splash, and turned upside down, near the bottom of the pool. We would have to unstrap and swim to the surface. Since there was always one or two in each class that would try to swim through the bottom of the pool they had a diver ready to send them in the right direction. We had to swim a mile. You could probably guess who was the last one out of the pool? It took me 45 minutes! I guess I am as slow in water as I am on land.
Parachute training consisted of learning how to put one on and the importance of securing the straps between your legs, if you didn’t want to sing soprano in the future. We put on a chute harness and jumped off a 2nd story balcony. The harness was hooked to a safety rope, so one of our fellow students could control our descent. Being first (last name again) I jumped and went down like a sack of cement. My spotter had grabbed the wrong rope! Luckily I had paid real close attention when they showed the proper technique for landing, called a parachute-landing fall (PLF). I did a flawless PLF onto the mat that was on the deck and wasn’t hurt, just surprised.
With each new aircraft, we would go to school on the aircraft with particular emphasis on the power plant and emergency procedures. At least 50% of flight time was spent doing emergency procedures. Naval flight training is as good as there is anywhere in the world. When I talked to some of the Army helicopter pilots, I was extremely appreciative for the rigors the Navy put me through.
Primary Flight Training was in the T-34 a low wing, two-seater that was very maneuverable and forgiving. After my first few solo flights and some acrobatic training it was time to move on to the next phase. The first time a student pilot goes up and does acrobatics, solo, it’s a real nail-biter. (After doing acrobatics in an aircraft, most theme park rides are pretty tame).
Then it was on to Milton, Florida, east of Pensacola, for further fixed wing training in the T-28. The T-28 was another low wing two-seater, but much larger than the T-34. It was basically a WWII era fighter-bomber. Some of them were sold/given to third world countries in the 1950-60’s for their Air Forces. After learning to fly the aircraft we went into instrument training. Christmas was approaching and most of the instructors and students took off for two weeks to go home for the holidays. I kept training to get ahead.
One of the things we practiced was doing a penetration while on instruments. It was to simulate arriving at an airport at an altitude of 10,000 feet, making a rapid descent, at a rate of 6000 feet per minute, down to 3000 feet, entering a landing pattern and landing the aircraft on instruments. All of this was done with the student pilot under a hood so all he can see is his instruments. The first day I went up during the Christmas holiday period, suffering from allergies, the rapid change in pressure blew out a sinus cavity during the descent and I was medically grounded for two weeks. So my plan to get ahead went by the way. Maybe I was lucky because I got the two weeks off without taking leave and not having to report for duty.
We would fly up into a couple of unmanned airfields in southern Alabama that are only used for student flight training. On the way up we would fly along the Escambia River, which fed into the Escambia Bay at Pensacola. As we passed two paper mills and a Monsanto plant we could see the river change color from all of the pollution being dumped in it. Later I read that the EPA, in the 1970’s, designated the Escambia Bay as one of the most polluted bodies of water in the USA.
Speaking of the Escambia River reminds of another character I met. One day I was sitting at a table at the PX, drinking a coke and reading The Navy Times, when this major asks if he can join me. We talked a while and then he left. Later I read in the Navy Times, where he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He had been grounded for reckless flying because he had stretched a wire between the skids of his Huey so he could fly low enough to try and decapitate enemy soldiers. One day he’s sitting around his squadron when they get a call that a recon team was being chased down the beach by a group of VC. Even though he was grounded, he jumped in his aircraft and took off to help the team. After expending all of his ordnance on the enemy he started cutting them down (literally) with his wire. It wasn’t too long after he got the Medal of Honor that while riding his motorcycle, he decided he would jump the US 90 highway bridge over the Escambia River as it was being raised for boat traffic. He didn’t make it!
During flight school I lived in a mobile home park where most of the tenants were flight students. We had a Peeping Tom that started coming around. One night there was a bit of a ruckus on the street outside my trailer. One of the pilots walked up to the peeper and shot him in the leg as he was getting into his car. Why- I don’t know? Maybe he thought that would slow down his nocturnal wanderings. Someone had called the cops. When the officer arrived and heard what had happened, he told the pilot to go home and told the Peeping Tom to go get his minor wound fixed. These days the outcome would have been a whole lot different.
I heard on the radio that Martin Luther King had been assassinated while I was driving to flight training in Milton. It didn’t have much effect on things around Pensacola, but some of the Blacks in the larger cities went berserk and started burning down their areas. This was after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, when the press turned against the war further fueling the antiwar sentiment. It was a turbulent time to say the least. There seem to be riots popping up everywhere as I watched the TV news. It was surreal, since all was quiet in Pensacola as I concentrated on my flight instruction.
Part of the T-28 training was formation flying cross-country, with an instructor in one plane and one or two students flying solo in other aircraft. During the war the Navy needed most of their experienced pilots for tours in the South China Sea so they used retired pilots that volunteered to come back on active duty and some of the recently minted pilots as instructors, until they were ready for them in the fleet. These new pilots were called plowbacks since they were plowed back into the training command as soon as they graduated. I had known one of these plowbacks in high school. He and I flew on a formation cross-country flight together. When I went over to his house for dinner and met his wife, I was surprised. He had “gone steady” with the same girl from seventh grade through high school and had then married someone else.
One of the plowbacks was returning from a formation cross-country flight when the weather turned bad. They were flying above a rising cloud layer, so he decided that he and his student would descend down through the soup and level off under the clouds. The student punched out of the clouds fairly low and leveled off like he was supposed to do. The instructor didn’t and flew into his aircraft into the ground with fatal results. That’s why I always thought using inexperienced pilots as instructors was a bad idea.
When I finished up with the T-28, I went back to Pensacola, to Ellison Field for helicopter training. The difference between a fixed-wing aircraft and a helicopter is that a fixed-wing wants to fly relatively straight and level and will do so if the pilot releases the controls, while a helicopter doesn’t want to fly straight and level and won’t if the controls are released.
When I returned from Vietnam I proceeded to make up for lost time drinking too many cokes and consuming too many cookies. I started gaining weight. Word got around that the flight doctor would prescribe diet pills if you wanted. I got a 30-day prescription and started losing weight. I can’t remember ever feeling that good, or so energetic. The Navy shut the doctor down on further prescriptions. It seems that the diet pills had a wee bit too much speed in them. I can see how the actors and rock stars can easily get hooked on them. I went back to being my usual self, none the worse for wear, after one month visit to the land of the pill poppers.
The first helicopter I flew was the Bell 47. It’s the one that looks like the pilots are sitting in a goldfish bowl. It first appeared in the Korean War and has been used as a crop duster for years. It was real squirrelly to fly. I would never want to be an instructor in that aircraft; too many hard landings. We were taught not to try and set the aircraft down, just to think about it, and low and behold it would start to settle. There was a large square painted on the tarmac at the training field. We would practice hovering around inside the square with the nose of the aircraft on the lines. The instructors would offer to buy a new student pilot a case of beer if he could stay in the square as he hovered around it. No one ever had to buy any beer.
The final part of flight school was flying the CH-34, which was still being used in Vietnam at that time. It had a very loud 1820 cubic inch radial engine. The pilot’s sat up high over the engine and the exhaust was right under the left pilot’s window. Some of our instructors had flown them for years and were partially deaf in their left ear. The engine leaked oil so bad that if we walked out to preflight one and it wasn’t leaking, we wouldn’t fly it. It probably meant the aircraft was low on oil.
When I got my wings, I was sent to MCAS New River, NC. When I got there, I ran into some buddies from flight school who informed me that a CH53 Squadron was forming up to go to Vietnam the next summer. I reported to personnel and reminded them that due to the current rule of two years between Vietnam tours, my schedule would fit nicely with HMH361’s, so I lucked into the heavy haulers. I wanted Ch-53’s because the survival rate for their pilots was much better than the other helicopter types.
At New River, I flew as much as possible, taking numerous cross-country flights to New York City, Key West, Montgomery, Atlanta, and New Orleans to build up my flight hours. On one of my cross-country flights to New Orleans the crew chief was Sgt. Domino. As we flew over the city, he tried to show us his Uncle’s house (Fats Domino.) I got to be real good friends with a pilot from NY City and we flew up there several times. One time we flew part way up the Hudson River and under one of New York City bridges, which is a big no-no. The Naval Air Station outside of New York City was called Floyd Bennett Field and it was located in the air traffic control area for JFK Airport. It usually wasn’t a problem getting in and out of JFK’s traffic. We usually were cleared in at low altitude. One day we flew up there and JFK was socked in and everybody was landing on instruments. They kept directing us around in different directions and altitu
des for about 20 minutes. I got vertigo so bad I could have sworn I wasn’t flying straight and level. I kept ignoring my inner ears and made the landing. When we got on the deck, I told my buddy how bad my vertigo was. He said why didn’t I say something, and he would have taken control. I said I wanted to prove to myself that I could handle it when I was an aircraft commander.
My first cross-country flight as an aircraft commander we suspected a mechanical problem and set down along the NC coastline to check it out. While the crew chief was busy, I walked over to a sign that said it was the site of the Wright Brothers first flight. We had landed at the Kitty Hawk National Park.
Flying helicopters is the next best thing to sex. You can fly over areas only accessible by air as low and as slow as you want. As I flew in different parts of the world it was like living in a series of “National Geographic” specials. The scenery and wildlife were something to behold. The magic of helicopters is that if you see something interesting you can slow down or even hover to observe it more closely. People sometimes ask me if I miss it. After 13 years of flying the answer is no, except on every beautiful day with clear blue skies and puffy white clouds!
My flight instructor photo (I’m not sure I would want to fly with that guy, he looks kind of spacey?)
When it came time for the squadron to transfer overseas, we departed New River, NC, ferrying the birds across the country to San Diego. We didn’t get much sleep the night before we departed, because we stayed up to 2:00 to watch the first moon landing live on TV. It was a fantastic five day experience. What a way to see the USA! We flew at 2000 ft. When we got over the New Mexico desert I went down to 500 feet to get a closer look at the rock formations. The major in charge of our flight told me to get back up to altitude. I guess he wasn’t appreciative of the aesthetic qualities of rocks.
The aircraft along with a few of the squadron members were loaded on a ship and shipped to VN while most of us flew over via commercial charter with a refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska (no movies, no beer, and no room, once again). There were more shots in Okinawa, then a flight to Danang. Déjà vu all over again!
A Key West sticker on our CH-53 at NAS Key West-1969