Writer  |  Soldier  |  Pilot

Combat flying in Vietnam: Low and Slow

I was not a pilot in Vietnam but during my two tours as a combat advisor accumulated about 180 hours of combat flying. I was a crew member (recon), passenger (med evac), or using aircraft for combat missions or transporting me around Vietnam. Over the next several months I will take chapters from one of my books, edit them so they will read as a separate article, and they will appear here, on my web site. My flying activities in Vietnam earned me a Purple Heart and an Air Medal. Enjoy!

#1 - Combat flying in the Cessna O-1 Bird Dog by Bob Worthington

A short article from my book: Under Fire with ARVN Infantry

In November 1966 I was the senior combat advisor to a Vietnamese Army 330- man infantry battalion. We had just completed an eight-day battle against a North Vietnam Army regiment. We won the fight. Now the battalion was posted in an old French Army fort, comprised mostly of underground bunkers. Our mission was twofold: protect the nearby village and seek out and destroy enemy.

To do this, we needed information on the enemy location, strength, and capabilities. One way to collect this intelligence is by aerial reconnaissance.

I was able to get some USAF pilots to fly recon missions over Que Son Valley with me as an observer. The first time up was a unique experience. The pilot, a captain, flew into an airstrip maintained by U.S. Marines where I met him. As he exited his plane, I walked over to meet him, saying I was Bob Worthington, his passenger for this afternoon.

He said he would be my guide for the next hour or two, asking if I had ever flown in a Bird Dog before, and I replied “no” (my military flying experience had been limited to larger cargo and transport planes and of course, helicopters). He said he would show me the plane. When we reached the Cessna O-1, he proudly walked around and explained the tail dragger plane to me, being a two-seater (fore and aft), powered by a 213 horsepower Continental 0-470, air-cooled piston engine. We would fly low and slow, he continued, with a max cruising speed about 115 miles per hour but we would fly about 90 to 100.

The O-1 Bird Dog is a newer version of the WW II fabric covered, high wing, small liaison airplanes. In 1949 the Army wanted a high wing, all metal liaison plane. Cessna, re-engineered the civilian C 170 aircraft, creating a Cessna 305, with the military designation of L-19 (L means liaison). Cessna’s military plane began production in 1950, just in time for the Korean War. The name “Bird Dog” refers to its ability to seek out and locate enemy on the ground. At the beginning of the Vietnam War (1962) the L-19 was used primarily for observation and forward air control missions, so it became the O-1 (O for observation).

The pilot gave me the capabilities of the Bird Dog stating it can loiter over a target area for five to six hours. Under ideal conditions, the plane can reach 20,300 feet, but Vietnam is too hot and humid, and this Korean War vintage aircraft is too worn out to do that. He said we would fly at 3,000 to 4,000 feet above ground (above small arms range) until we get to our recon area, then drop down, closer to the ground, if we must, to see what is there. I asked what armament the plane had. Pointing, he noted the weapons it carried (his M-16 and several hand grenades) and the plane’s four target marking phosphorus rockets.

Opening the door on the right side of the fuselage he said I would sit in the back, while he would be up front. Pointing to a stick in a holder lying flat on the floor, he explained if he got shot to place the stick in the hole on the floor and I would then be the pilot. I prayed he would not be shot or incapacitated, I was not a pilot. I climbed into the back seat. After he made sure I was strapped down, he stood beside me and pulled out a map. Turning it over and around to find the right place, he pushed it in front of me. Putting a finger on the map, he pointed out the air strip we were now sitting on. Moving his fingers southeast he tapped Que Son Valley, where we would go sight-seeing. He climbed into the front seat and shut the door. Priming the engine, he yelled “clear” out his window and turned the starter over. The prop in front began to slowly turn and then spun quicker as the engine belched to life.

The air strip, controlled by the marines and, because of the level of aerial activity, had its own control tower, a rickety wood structure rising thirty feet above the ground, topped with a sandbag-covered platform. The rainy weather had induced the controllers to erect a framework over their heads which they had covered with transparent plastic.

The pilot contacted the tower requesting departure instructions. He was cleared to back-taxi the runway for departure. Glancing at the aircraft’s instruments he adjusted a couple of knobs, set the altimeter, set the slotted flaps at 30 degrees, looked up and down the runway, and pushed in the throttle. Kicking the right rudder, the diminutive, dull olive drab green; high wing tail dragger bounced and skidded into a right turn onto the runway. Bouncing along we quickly came to the end of the runway where he gave the plane more throttle and kicked the left rudder to spin us around, facing into the wind, down the runway.

Checking the altimeter, he pushed in on the brakes, and revved up the engine. Turning the ignition, he checked both magnetos, adjusted the gyro to the compass, and pulled the throttle back out to ease off on the power. Wiggling the stick fore and aft, he seemed satisfied with everything, telling the tower he was ready for departure.

The pilot smoothly pushed the throttle forward, released the brakes, and the little plane lurched forward, bouncing down the runway. At thirty miles an hour, he pushed the stick forward, lifting the tail off the ground. At sixty miles an hour, he eased back on the stick slowly as the plane began to lift off the ground. At seventy miles per hour, it was completely airborne. Easing the stick forward again, the small plane, level with the runway, picked up speed. At eighty miles per hour, he pulled back on the stick and we began to rise again at six hundred feet per minute. In a few minutes we were cruising toward our target doing a hundred miles an hour at four thousand feet, above the ground.

This was quite a change from the Hueys I was used to. The UH-1B helicopter was a large, massive metal craft that looked and sounded like a powerful war machine. By comparison, this Bird Dog was a small and fragile plane. The Plexiglass windows all around and the narrow sides gave me the feeling of being suspended in the air rather than being inside a plane, a sensation enhanced by the knowledge that the thin aluminum sides of the plane were no thicker than a soda can. It was frightening to realize that my very life depended on such a flimsy airborne vehicle.

Soon, however, my attention was diverted to what I could see. For the first time I was able to study the ground from above, in the Que Son Valley, where we had recently fought for over a week. Speaking to me through the headset, the pilot discoursed on how he been here many times before for the marines and had seen the valley was full of VC Main Force units. He explained that we could go lower, and they would not shoot at us because they’re afraid we’ve got some air force F-4 Phantom II fighter-bombers just waiting to unload on them. Then we went down as both the plane and my stomach dropped out from under me.

Pulling back on the throttle, the pilot pushed the stick forward and to the left as he gave it hard left rudder. The Cessna tipped over on its left wing, the nose dropped, and it went into a tight spiral down to about one thousand feet above the ground. Twisting and turning to get me the best view, he pointed out enemy trenches, machine gun positions, and enemy soldiers trying to hide. It was amazing to me to be so close to the enemy, watching them working and moving about in their encampment area, watching me as I observed them, with no shots being exchanged. This was a ridiculously hard part of my war to understand, just watching each other. We flew back and forth, making steep and abrupt turns for an hour as I made notes, diagrams, and maps on what I saw. I completed my chores at about the same time my stomach was getting ready to vomit my lunch in my lap. I pleaded for the pilot to return home as I was finished. He pushed in the throttle and we slowly rose back to four thousand feet and leveled off for a smoother flight home.

Our landing, though, was another frightening experience. Because of the high probability of enemy ground fire on a normal approach, the pilot flew high, over the airstrip, set the flaps at 60 degrees, and then spiraled down, very quickly, over the end of the runway. At one thousand feet he dove for the ground and flared abruptly, diminishing airspeed rapidly for a perfect three-point landing.

As I climbed out, relieved to be back on the ground again, I thanked the pilot, who gave me a thumbs-up sign, as he taxied back to depart to Da Nang. I had to sit in my jeep for several minutes to calm down before driving off.

Later, after going over the data with Major Van and his intelligence people, we realized I had not learned much different because we knew where the enemy was. I had, though, confirmed that the VC unit was still there and a potential threat to our area. Besides, I was able to watch the enemy accomplishing their normal work from a vantage point I never imagined possible.

Flying in Vietnam on the first tour was not a favorite pastime of mine. Getting shot on the ground was one thing, as the furthest I could fall was five feet, ten inches. In a plane or helicopter, though, getting shot was only half the problem. Getting down safely was the other half. Flying in combat was too risky for me. Ironically, though, during my second tour of duty in Vietnam I enjoyed flying and did it as much as possible. And when I finally got shot, where was I? Flying in a helicopter on a special ops mission!

Thanks to my two wing ladies, Lucy and Kathi, for keeping me honest.

This article was adapted from my book: Under Fire with ARVN Infantry, published by McFarland & Company, Inc, Publishers.

#2 - Combat flying in the AC-47 by Bob Worthington

Here is my second article describing my experiences in flights in combat aircraft in Vietnam. I did not become a general aviation pilot until 1975, after my 38th birthday, as a major in the Army, several years after my Vietnam flying experiences. As a combat infantryman on the ground, my life was spared numerous times because of the USAF AC-47 gunship, call sign “Spooky”. One night I was invited to join the crew on a gunship mission. Here is my story.

Combat flying in the AC-47

17 October 1966, the Vietnamese Army infantry battalion I advised received a warning order to immediately prepare for a major combat operation.  Two Vietnamese outposts guarding the only producing coal mine in South Vietnam had been overrun.  A sister battalion went to their rescue, took over one outpost, then became surrounded and trapped.  Our 330-man battalion thus made a night helicopter assault on the then unknown force.  Later we learned it was a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiment of 1200 soldiers, with the single mission of destroying the coal mine.  

Upon landing we immediately deployed, creating defensive positions and quickly engaged the enemy.  We rapidly realized we were fighting a superior force and, if we did not get help, would promptly be wiped out.  Fighting at night in defensive positions can be very hazardous being surrounded and not being able to see.  The enemy could sneak up on us without our knowing it.  And that is exactly what they did.  But we had an ace up our sleeve, “Spooky”.

“Spooky” (known as Puff the Magic Dragon because of its spitting out a steady stream of gunfire in reference to the 1963 song by Peter, Paul, and Mary) is the call sign of a WW II twin-engine C-47 cargo plane (the military version of the civilian Douglas DC-3) converted to become an artillery battery.

Loaded with several thousand 7.62 mm shells and parachute flares, the three 7.62 mm six-barreled Gatling guns stuck out the open door and two open windows on the left side of the plane.  This was the pilot-in-command’s side.  Each Gatling gun could fire 6,000 rounds per minute, but typically only fired 3000 rounds per minute.  A three second burst could place one round in every 2 ½ yard portion of a 50-yard circle.  The pilot “sighted” the weapons by looking through a plastic gun sight on his left window and lining it up with his left wingtip and the target.  Pivoting on the target, he would then fire one or more of the three guns, creating havoc on the ground below.

We had on-call an AC-47 available from a detachment of the USAF 14th Air Commando Wing based at the Da Nang airport about 35 miles away.  Flying at 130 to 140 mph, the plane could loiter on target around 7 hours, flying at 3000 feet above the ground.  Because of the closeness to the unit’s base, Spooky could be relieved in place either at the end of their mission or when running out of ammo.

During our first night Spooky (using flares and extremely accurate gunfire) kept our casualties (dead and wounded) to 50 men (15%).  Our night defensive positions were surrounded by barbed concertina wire rolls that the NVA troops would try to infiltrate by a group of soldiers rushing the wire and being shot down with another wave using their bodies as steppingstones across the wire barricades.  With flares converting the dark night to brilliant daytime, the hordes of the enemy were seen by Spooky and quickly eliminated.

For eight days and nights Spooky kept watch over us and saved our bacon, night after night.  This was my introduction to the AC-47 gunship and its tremendous firepower.

A few weeks after this battle, I was able to hop a ride into Da Nang on a marine resupply chopper to personally thank the commander of the Air Commando Detachment, and his crew who flew Spooky, which kept us alive during our recent operation.  After accepting my thanks, the lieutenant colonel commander asked if I wanted to fly in one of his AC47s that night.  I said sure and was told to return at 8:00 pm.  As I was leaving his office, he told me to bring a jacket as it gets cold up there at night.

Before 8:00 pm I was back, carrying a field jacket and waiting in the ops briefing room for Puff’s crew.  They entered and told me the USAF had one possible mission which could not be confirmed until we were on station.  

After we boarded and took off.  I learned one thing quickly.  Even though it might be hot on the ground, 3,000 feet higher, with open doors and windows it was cold as hell in the plane.  Even with my field jacket on, I froze my butt off.  The unit that had asked for Puff originally did not have any need for us, so, using the plane’s radios, I called the Vietnamese infantry battalions to see if they needed any help from Spooky.  They were really surprised to hear from me, overhead, however, none of the ARVN battalions needed our services this night.  We had started back to Da Nang Airbase when suddenly a U.S. Marine unit called for help.

After reaching the unit’s position and orbiting over it, the marine company commander on the ground oriented the pilot as to what was happening.  The crew began to drop flares to light up the area and then the ground commander asked for fire support from Spooky, describing where the enemy was.  Placing the plane’s wing on the target, the pilot began a graceful orbit around it.  With the ground commander’s approval, the pilot let off a rapid stream of firepower from the number-one gun positioned in the open doorway, causing an ear-splitting “blurppp” as the Gatling gun spit out each burst.  The muzzle flashed in the dark night, and a solid stream of tracers lit up the whole inside length of the fuselage.  Empty brass flew all over, covering the floor of the aircraft.  After a few more passes, the ground commander said that the VC in front of his unit had left, and we were free to go. 

This action was enough to show me what it was like in combat, inside Spooky.  I was amazed at how accurate the pilot’s shooting was from so high up and with no natural lighting.  After midnight we returned to Da Nang and I thanked the pilots and crew for a fun evening.  Now I had experienced both ends of the AC-47’s power and thankful to have that kind of backup in battle.

Thanks to Kathi and Lucy, former military pilots, for pointing out errors.

This article was adapted from my book: Under Fire with ARVN Infantry, published by McFarland & Company, Inc, Publishers.

#3 - Combat Flying in Vietnam Flying the Pilatus PC-6 by Bob Worthington

Much of the transportation needed by combat advisors was provided by the CIA-owned airline, Air America.  This article describes my first flight for my second tour in Vietnam as a combat advisor.  The dangers of flying into small dirt strips in Vietnam are never known.  For example, a couple of years before this flight, a friend’s father, a former military advisor, working as a state department advisor, departed this strip in a CIA plane at night.  The plane was shot down and all aboard killed.  Sometimes a flight is safely concluded (as this flight was), at other times, it is very dangerous.  I was awarded the Purple Heart, being shot in a helicopter just a few miles from this airstrip, ten weeks later.

Flying the Pilatus PC-6

At the CIA operated airline, Air America, passenger office on Tan Son Nhut airbase in Saigon, I am waiting for my ride to my next assignment with Vietnamese combat units on the Cambodian border northwest of Saigon.   Several minutes later a high-wing taildragger, white bottom with a blue upper, signifying the Air America colors, pulls up and stops about 25 yards away.  After shutting down, the pilot exits the plane, turns toward me, asking if I am his passenger to Hau Nghia Province and I nod in the affirmative, responding with a yes. 

The plane, a fixed gear single engine, is a Swiss Pilatus Porter PC-6 built under license by Fairchild Hiller in the U.S.  At 36 feet long with a wingspan about 50 feet, it carries almost 1300 pounds of people or cargo.  Its turbine engine allows it to perform at peak powers needed to transport individuals and freight, into short and rough dirt jungle strips found all over Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Cambodia.  During the Vietnam War the CIA owned and operated 23 PC-6s throughout Southeast Asia. 

The plane looked weird to me.  The nose was too long.  In all single-engine planes I knew about, the distance from the front windscreen to the nose was about a quarter the length of the plane.  On this Pilatus it was about 1/3 of the plane and the nose in front of the three-bladed propeller narrowed to a point.  The prop was huge with a diameter about 8 and a half feet.

As we approach the plane, the pilot grabs the handle of the rear door on the right side and slides the door back.  Inside are six seats made of metal tubing with canvas backs and padded seat cushions.  Grabbing my duffle bag, the pilot places it between the rows of seats, mid-plane.  Asking if my carbine was unloaded, I remove the magazine (which is full of bullets), and slide the bolt back, showing the chamber is empty.  I let the bolt move forward and he reaches for the carbine and the magazine.  Slipping the loaded magazine back into the carbine, he places it on the aircraft floor, next to the bag, muzzle pointing toward the rear of the plane.  Leaning forward he swings the right-side crew door open and motions me inside.

Since he had already done a thorough pre-flight before taxiing to get me, his counterclockwise inspection is quickly accomplished.  His hands shake the various tail and wing control surfaces.  Tires and engine cowling are visually checked, hands slide over the leading edges of each propeller blade, checking for any nicks picked up when taxiing here.   Repeating the process on the left side of the plane, he turns and opens the left door, hops in, checks my door, and fastens both our seat belts.

Most of the cockpit is like any other single-engine plane except the Pilatus has a shelf running across the bottom of the instrument panel.  On the floor, in front of each seat is a control stick for maneuvering the plane, except my column was removed.  Rudder pedals and brakes, for both seats are on the floor, forward of the control column.  On the left panel, are the primary flight instruments and other gauges providing information on the health of the engine.  To the right are engine control levers and behind them, on the panel are more engine gauges.  Further right are all the radios and navigation instrument controls.  The shelf is cluttered with a variety of loose papers, maps, aviation charts, and check lists. 

The pilot reaches in front of his control column removing a pin, which had locked the control column.  Slipping on his headset, he grabs his check list from the shelf, placing it in his lap.  His right hand rotates the control stick, insuring freedom of movement.  He begins the process to start the plane, first checking to confirm no one is near the plane and the taxi area is clear.

Left hand reaches forward to select an igniter starter then moves to grip the control column as the right hand extends to the center of the instrument panel to push the start switch.  The prop slowly rotates, speeds up, as the turbine engine spools to life in a few seconds.  Adjusting power, radio frequencies and navigation instruments set, the parking brake is released as power is added to move the plane forward.  We begin to taxi forward, as the airport diagram for Tan Son Nhut with its radio frequencies is consulted and checked on the radios, the pilot calls ground control.  He receives taxi instructions to the active runway, adjusts the altimeter to the current barometric pressure and moves again.  Because the plane’s tail is on a wheel on the ground the nose is too high to look over.  So, the pilot must make a series of “S” turns to be able to see the taxi way in front of the plane.

Stopping short of the runway, he calls the tower, signifying he is ready for departure.  The tower releases him, providing the initial heading to fly.  Looking over to the approach end of the runway to insure no plane is landing, he moves into position, and reaches overhead to crank the proper adjustment to the flaps as the left hand reaches down to adjust the rudder trim.  Lined up with the center of the runway, he changes the idle control and pushes the power lever full forward for takeoff.  Feet dancing on the rudder pedals to counter-act any engine torque or crosswind, he eases the control column forward to lift the tail.  As the tail rises and the aircraft speed approaches 70 mph, the plane gently rises above the tarmac as it passes from ground-based movement into flight.  Control column pulled back, we ascend at 900 feet per minute, the hot humid air, rising from the black runway, bumps and tosses the Pilatus along its climbing path.

The pilot turns west bound, toward my destination combat air strip, and holds the stick back until easing forward at 5500 feet.  Power controls reset, the plane purrs along at 130 mph, above any rough air burbles, smooth and cool.  Glancing at the gauges he insures all are in the green indicating the engine is functioning perfectly.  

In this plane is an array of various navigation equipment and radios with different frequency ranges.  This allows the pilot to talk on the civil aviation band (other aircraft, and all the various controlling frequencies) or talk to combat units on the ground or different military aircraft.

Flying west bound, he intercepts the Tan Son Nhut TACAN outbound heading for 287 degrees, which is the compass heading to fly to the air strip.  When the needle centers, the pilot makes a gentle turn northwesterly and flies, keeping the needle right in the center of the dial.  Looking at his DME he notes that he still has a few more miles to go to reach our destination.  The air strip is exactly 17.25 miles from the Ton Son Nhut TACAN station.  In a couple of minutes, we will be over it.

The combat air strip is crude dirt, oriented almost due east and west.  It is not completely dirt as it has 1500 feet of pierced steel planks (PSP) with 300 feet of dirt over runs on each end.  The runway is 83 feet wide with ditches running along both sides.  PSP are interlocking pressed and perforated steel mats (later made of aluminum), ten feet long, 15 inches wide, weighing 66 pounds, created during WW II to be used as portable materials to quickly make aircraft runways.  

This air strip does not have a windsock, but pilots use the Vietnamese flag, flying above the province compound just northeast of the short field to get the direction of the wind for landing.  

While daylight flights into this air strip are classified as mostly secure, pilots are urged to use caution.  This means the pilot would approach the landing strip flying above the main road, which runs parallel to the runway.  Since the runway is only 30 feet above sea level, landing aircraft must drop a mile very quickly as a slow approach like into a normal airport is not wise.  The aircraft must make a combat approach almost over the runway.  This can be exciting, seeming just like a rapid roller coaster ride or dropping like an anvil. 

A few miles out from the airport the pilot begins to set up the PC-6 for a combat landing.  The Vietnamese flag suggests that a landing to the west is preferred, and the plane is already flying in that direction.  Glancing at the panel, eyes and hands moving around, setting the throttle to full idle, slowing to about 120 MPH, adjusting the trim, the pilot descends in a hurry.  Hands, arms, eyes, and head movements are hurried but measured as he seems to be all over the cockpit in front of him.  He switches on the auxiliary fuel pump, retards the power control lever, stretches up to crank in flaps and drops the plane on the end of the runway.  Control column forward, as the speed decreases the column is gently eased rearward and as the tail slowly touches the ground, the plane is braked to stop.  

 Wow!  What a ride.  It seems like just seconds ago we were a mile in the air and the next I know; we are on the ground.  Just a subtle reminder that I have re-entered another hostile and dangerous segment of my life.

At the dirt end of the runway, he turns the plane around and taxies to the parking area, midfield, and stops.  At idle, he removes his head set and explains to me how to get out, slide open the rear door, retrieve my gear and weapon, and cautions me to not move forward at any time but always move toward the rear of the plane to avoid the propeller.

My Jeep ride is waiting as I watch the plane reach the end of the air strip and twist around.  Spooling up the engine, the plane is braked so at full power it doesn’t move.  Engine roaring, brakes released, the plane rockets down the PSP but does not take off.  This is to gain speed on the ground so when he does lift off, he has power to zoom rapidly, make a left turn over the road and quickly climb above small arms range.  He swiftly disappears into the eastern sky.  My flight from Saigon took less than 30 minutes.  It is August 1968, and I am now beginning my second tours as a combat advisor.

Thanks to my two readers, professional pilots Lucy and Kathi.  This article is an edited version of a chapter in my book, Fighting Viet Cong in the Rung Sat, to be released in November 2021.