OU’RE NOW IN CHARGE”
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It was early March, 1968, Capt. Gawkowski, Mustang Platoon Leader, had just finished his tour and was back in the States. Major Charles Mix was now the new Mustang Platoon Leader. Major Mix had been transferred to the 68th just a few weeks before Capt. Ski went home. Ski had done his best to train Mix as the new platoon leader. However, there was a problem. Major Mix was a converted fixed wing pilot and only had 50 hours of transition flying into the Huey, and he didn’t know anything about gunship tactics.
Major Mix was an easy going guy and was doing his best learning to fly a loaded gunship and tactics at the same time. He had been flying as pilot/gunner with most of the senior AC’s and fire team leaders; today it was my turn to have Major Mix as my pilot/gunner. Just before Capt. Ski had departed he had promoted me to AC and Fire Team/Section Leader. It was a quick promotion since I had been in the gun platoon for only five weeks. I had extended my tour and had been in country for 13 months, so I knew how to fly a loaded Huey. I had watched the gunship pilots for months and was quick to learn their tactics, thus the quick promotion.
Since this was the first time I had flown with Major Mix so I asked a few of the other pilots how he was doing and how he reacted to being a pilot/gunner for much younger aircraft commanders. They all told me he was pretty rough on the controls but was trying his best, and had no problem being told what to do by a younger and junior officer. I was glad to hear those comments, but I still felt a little intimidated having a career army officer who was much senior in rank and age as my pilot/gunner.
When we got in the aircraft that March morning and prepared to start the aircraft, I thought it best to make sure we were both on the same page, when it came to who was in charge. So I said to Major Mix, “When these blades start turning, I’m in charge. Don’t question my decisions while we’re in the air.” I then asked him if he was okay with that, and he replied, “I’m good with that, I’m here to learn.” We then started the aircraft and got ready for takeoff.
We were going to be working with an ARVN unit out of Xuan Loc on a company combat assault mission. We escorted the Tiger flight to Xuan Loc and then all the pilots met with the CO and the American Advisor to the ARVN unit for our final briefing. The first LZ was about 10 miles northwest of Xuan Loc. The other fire team would recon the LZ, but unless they received fire they would not prep the LZ with fire. Having worked with ARVN units numerous times I was not surprised by that decision. They seldom went into a hot LZ.
As the Tigers took off from the airstrip my fire team took up our escort positions on each side of the flight. I was still climbing to altitude and was at about 400’ to 500’ when I heard a loud bang and the aircraft yawed quickly to the left. As a pilot you never wanted to hear a loud bang from your aircraft because it usually meant something was seriously wrong. At the same time as the bang and yaw I also noticed a slight surge in the engine, another bad sign. A quick glance at the instruments seemed to say everything was okay, so I said to my crew chief, “What the hell was that?” As I looked back at my crew chief he was looking outside the aircraft towards the tail boom. He then responded, “We don’t have a tail rotor or gear box, and the tail boom looks like a piece of Swiss cheese.” That explained a lot. We had obviously been hit by some type of anti-aircraft fire or maybe an RPG. We were over the jungle but I had a small clearing at my two o’clock position. Seconds counted, it was pitch down, throttle off, no need to worry about pedals, we didn’t have a tail rotor. This was going to be a dicey landing.
I immediately called my wingman and Top Tiger 6 and informed them that we had taken a hit and was going down. I told TT 6 that my wingman had my location. As I began the auto rotation I instructed the crew chief to rip off a couple hundred and rounds and set up a perimeter guard once we were on the ground. I told the door gunner that he was responsible for pulling the mini-guns from the aircraft. The Major and I would take care of getting the radios out. This was all standard procedure when a gunship got shot down, so I was just reminding everyone of their responsibilities. I told everyone to hang on tight because this could be a rough landing.
Being one of the company’s Standardization Pilots I was very familiar with the proper way to make a tail rotor failure landing. However, all that practice was done on runways where you could make a running landing. I was going into a small clearing in the jungle so no chance for a running landing. I was prepared for a violent spin of the aircraft when I killed off my airspeed and pulled pitch to cushion the landing. I held off the flare as long as I could and kept the aircraft in a flare as I pulled pitch hoping to drag the tail boom on the ground to minimize the spin. At ten feet I pulled all the pitch I could and the aircraft settled softly to ground, with no spin. I wonder then and would wonder for many years why the aircraft didn’t spin. I can think of only one explanation. By rolling off the throttle there was no engine torque when I pulled pitch, resulting in no spin. I’m not certain that was what happened, but quite frankly I don’t care. We were safely on the ground. I immediately called my wingman and told him we were all okay and would be turning off the battery and pulling the radios and standby for pickup.
As we all exited the aircraft and started pulling guns and radios I could see my wingman flying low overhead, which was a welcome sight. For now the excitement was over, so I moved to the nose of the aircraft and started helping Major Mix pull the radios. The Major and I were shoulder to shoulder pulling out the last of the radios and I tuned to him and said, “By the way, you’re now in-charge.” He just looked at me with a slight smile and said, “You have a strange sense of humor.”
The Tiger flight was turned around and brought the ARVN troops into the clearing, two ships at a time, to secure the area, so my aircraft could be recovered. Unfortunately one of the ARVN soldiers popped a smoke grenade in the clearing which set the dry elephant grass on fire. They couldn’t put the fire out and it eventually spread to my downed aircraft and blew it up. The crew and I were on the ground for about 20 minutes when Tiger Tail came in to extract us and the equipment we had removed from the aircraft.
That was the only time I flew with Major Mix. He apparently pulled a few strings and within a few weeks was back to flying Mohawks.
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