On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
In and Under Flying Things
Re-printed from Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
Memoirs might flow as narrative accounts to those who compose them, or be read as non-fiction histories by those who seek them. To the Footloose Forester most ideas destined for memoirs were mere flashes of sights, reveries and impressions so powerful in their effect that he hoped just not to forget them. Some of the most vivid of his memories were so sudden but so fleeting that it was always going to be a real challenge to commit them to tales worth the telling. After languishing for many years as stored thoughts, the telling was going to be a daunting task. This effort is a feeble start.
Inside Flying Things
Coming in for a landing that windy day at Banjul Airport in The Gambia would seem to have been routine for most passengers on our Air Afrique flight out of Nairobi. Routine, that is, for those who perhaps did not notice that upon final approach the right wing dipped so severely that the plane was within inches of doing a cartwheel down the runway. From the looks in the eyes of other passengers, nobody seemed to notice or wondered why the pilot then gunned the engines and aborted the landing to go around a second time. The Footloose Forester was sitting in a window seat on the right side of that DC-9 aircraft, studying the landscape as he had done hundreds of times before. He saw what was unfolding. When we landed he waited until after all the others had departed so that he could have a few words with the pilot. Although the pilot looked as cool as a commuter debarking from a ferry boat, he quietly acknowledged that a strong wind shear almost stuck the right wing into the pavement. No other comment from that skilled professional was forthcoming, but none was needed.
The Bell AO-1 observation helicopter flight into Bear Cat, Viet Nam was among the most thrilling of the nearly 100 helicopter commutes that sometimes pop into the daydreams of the Footloose Forester. In those days during the Viet Nam war he carried a set of travel orders that authorized him to fly anywhere, in any available aircraft. Getting to Bear Cat by road was out of the question, and that tiny fire base in Binh Long Province was so small that it didn’t have a runway for fixed wing aircraft. So we flew in a two-place Bell AO-1. Two seats! The rail-thin pilot who approached two Bear Cat passengers at the gate didn’t tell us at the time what kind of craft he was flying. Probably he didn’t want to disappoint us because he knew the next infrequent ride into Bear Cat might be days later. The first passenger, a soldier, had a big duffel bag which got lodged behind the seat and he himself sat perched in the middle, sort of sharing the regular passenger’s seat. The Footloose Forester got the right side, the outside position. Too small to get his right arm and right leg into the compartment, so we could not close the Plexiglas door that kept the wind out, except that this craft had no Plexiglas door. It had been removed. So Footloose Forester flew the 50 miles or so to Bear Cat with one arm and one leg sticking out. But the thoughtful pilot let him have the safety belt, just in case a downdraft bounced him out of his shared seat. It was a thrilling ride.
Another thriller of a helicopter ride was with a Marine pilot out of Tuy Hoa north of Phan Ranh. That “Mr. Roberts” type of cowboy took off in his Huey slick at the edge of the regular runway, just like he was taking off in a jet. That is to say, he didn’t work the stick to rise up vertically at take-off, but zoomed forward down the runway a few feet off the deck; and when we reached the end of the tarmac, he pitched the craft forward and downward to just above the tops of the rice fields below the runway. The Footloose Forester didn’t know at that time that the Tuy Hoa airfield was built on a plateau. We skimmed along the rice fields until it was clear that we were below the level of the village he was headed for. The Footloose Forester remembers looking up into the bottom floor of a hut and seeing daylight through the back of the hut. Cowboy suddenly rotored up and we just cleared the tree line; then he abruptly dropped the Huey back down again to the level of the rice fields on the other side of the small village. The cowboy smiled, having obtained complete surprise with his flight path and with his little game with greenies in Viet Nam. He then confided to us that the routine was to make us a downward target, just in case someone in the village wanted to shoot at us.
Once in a while the Huey copters were called slicks, primarily to carry cargo and passengers, and once in a while they were known as gun ships armed with one or two M-60 machine guns mounted in the open doorways. It didn’t matter which type you were in, the VC might shoot at you if they had an opportunity. But the Footloose Forester sometimes wondered when climbing aboard a gun ship if this was going to be the time some VC on the ground was going to challenge the side door gunner to see who the better shot was. The VC did shoot at Medivac helicopters, so there was no illusion about the sanctity of those big Red Cross emblems painted on both sides of Medivacs.
Under Flying Things
To be fair, the only time that the Footloose Forester can remember a case of the VC shooting at a Medivac helicopter was when he was directly below a copter as it was coming in for a landing on the roof of the evacuation hospital in Saigon. As they came in from the northwest, the Medivacs flew directly over the fairways of the Golf Club de Saigon. Footloose Forester was a member there and was walking down the 15th fairway in the company of an Irish water systems engineer when a Medivac helicopter came overhead. We both looked up as the chopper passed over our heads and then heard the whiz of three bullets that passed just under the fuselage. We never heard the sound of the muzzle blasts, only the whiz and snap of the bullets.
Yes, we played golf during the war. The only18 hole golf course in the country was the Golf Club de Saigon and since it was within sight of the Military Assistance Command, Viet Nam headquarters on Tan Son Nhut Airport, it was itself a battle ground for a VC assault on the MAC-V headquarters of General Westmoreland during the Tet offensive and again during the second summer offensive of 1968. Since the Footloose Forester‘s office was just across the street from the club house of the golf course, he sometimes played during his lunch hour. With a long siesta type lunch period it was not difficult to squeeze in 9 holes if he got to the first tee without waiting. Golf amid the machine gun bunkers and Claymore mines that decorated the fairways is another story—for later.
To be sure, the fondest memories of being under flying things were those times when he was under the canopy of hang gliders in Pennsylvania and at Kitty Hawk; and under the lighter canopies of para gliders near Kitty Hawk and in the highlands of Wales. He could never get enough air time and ended his flying days with too little experience, but great daydreams.
One other episode that Footloose Forester wanted to commit to print was the chain of events during the Tet Offensive of early February 1968. Four aircraft were part of that full story, but some of the details are now long forgotten. The story began with a trip from Saigon to Dalat in the resort area of the Central Highlands where Footloose Forester planned to take his belated honeymoon. Before he could execute a straight flight into Dalat on a previously scheduled company business trip (honeymoon to follow), he was called to work on a dust and erosion control plan for 20th Engineer Battalion at their headquarters in Dong Ba Tin, just opposite the sprawling Army, Navy and Air Force base at Camh Ranh Bay. When a general called for you, you went, post haste. So Footloose Forester made arrangements with his new bride, Thu, to fly on a commercial Air Viet Nam flight into Dalat and wait there until he arrived a few days hence. All well, to date. The Caribou cargo plane (or a C-130) to Camh Ranh was routine and the Dust & Erosion Control Plan writing assignment that led to a $1.5 million project went well. He doesn’t remember what kind of aircraft took him from Camh Ranh to Dalat, but the rest of the story is still pretty vivid in his memory.
The Tet Offensive broke out at the tail end of their honeymoon. The honeymoon was planned for three or four days and was pretty tame. Since he had arrived on official business in a military aircraft and was expected to complete his assignments in Dong Ba Tin and then in Dalat in a business mode using the resources provided to him, he arranged his return trip on another military flight, then said “see ya later” to Thu and trusted that her return trip ticket would take her home to Saigon. He set out for the Dalat airport early in the morning, since he had gotten word the night before when his flight was expected to depart. When he got there he was surprised to learn that his ride was going to be on an Air Force DC-3, the fabled “goony bird” of World War II fame. Once aboard, Footloose Forester became just another passenger who soon was informed that something big was going down.
Our destination was Tan Son Nhut on the outskirts of Saigon. When we got over Saigon the crew informed us that we could not land because the airport was under attack and various parts of the city were under siege. Our DC-3 went south to Can Tho for fuel, then back to Saigon to discharge the people and supplies that were part of the original mission. No deal. After we circled for some time, we flew south again to Soc Trang, deep in the Mekong Delta, for more fuel. Then we flew over Saigon once again and once more were denied landing instructions, so the pilot chose to go north to Nha Thang, even further north than Cam Ranh Bay. It was there that we changed planes. An Air Force brigadier general commandeered a small twin-engine “Twin Beech” and announced his intention to fly to Saigon, no matter what. He asked if anyone else wanted to go along since there were plenty of seats and he had only a few staff members with him. The Footloose Forester was the only taker, since he lived on the outskirts of Saigon and wanted to get home to his new bride.
Once again, it was no deal for landing in Saigon and once again we proceeded to Can Tho for fuel. Probably the word was out that Can Tho was one of the few major bases that was not under siege. Then we tried a final time to land at Tan Son Nhut and when we were again diverted, we were instructed to try for Bien Hoa Air Base some 25 miles east of Saigon. When we arrived over the airfield, the general, who was also the pilot, announced into the intercom that there was a fire-fight going on at one end of the runway and another fire-fight going on at the other end. Tighten your seat belt, he said “I’m going in steep and putting it down in the middle of the runway.” So he did. As the only civilian on the plane, the general told Footloose Forester that they had other responsibilities and he taxied directly across the runway to a large sandbag bunker where he dropped off Footloose Forester to fend for himself for about 24 hours. The following evening the Footloose Forester accepted a ride on an ammunition supply run from Bien Hoa into Tan Son Nhut, where he remained for about 10 days. He slept under his desk every night and ate his meals at one of several Army mess halls linked to the MAC-V operations. Only when he got home some 10 days after the last hours of his honeymoon did he learn that his sweetheart was safe, with her own tales to tell.
Most of the time the Footloose Forester commuted up and down country in the four-engine C-130 Hercules cargo planes that were the work horses of the Air Force, and sometimes in the noisy twin engine Hiller-Fairchild C-123s. When combined with a hundred or so flights in helicopters, he remembers an informal count of over 500 flights. When Pacific Architects & Engineers finally obtained two of their own DeHaviland Caribou twin engine transports over the strenuous objections of the Army Contracting Officer, the scheduling around the country became more predictable and Footloose Forester logged nearly two hundred more trips. Hard to reconcile that number now, some three decades later, but the trips throughout Viet Nam were in his work files, so he had records of his activities, if not of every leg in those sojourns.
A workhorse C-130 in action
Other memories of flight creep into his daydreams. One was of looking up to watch a young herder on a mountain side as our Fokker Friendship came in to land in a dry river bed at Pokera, Nepal. Another was the sheer amazement at the pilots and their aircraft at an air show in Guatemala. On his way back to Florida, the Footloose Forester was delayed when the main international airport was closed to accommodate the event. He had a free, ringside seat; and he can never forget seeing a twin-engine Fokker pass the main viewing stands with both engines shut down and the plane flying silently in an inverted position at a speed of nearly 200 miles an hour and only a hundred feet above the ground. It was the best air show he ever saw.