Combat Flying in Vietnam

#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.