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Bach Ma

Posted: April 8th, 2008 @ 12:00pm

Source: Gary Dombroski "Hawk 21"

This occurred during a preplanned mission to insert troops into the Bach Ma area. Bach Ma was a former Viet Namese mountain resort located at somewhere around 5000 feet about thirty miles or so south of Phu Bai. The mission called for us to stage with about 20 Hueys in an area along Highway 1, climb to altitude, then following an Aerial Rocket Artillery (ARA) preparation of the area - we would escort the Hueys into the LZ. For some reason, we were carrying 17 pound rockets for this mission, so we were quite heavy.

Note: Our normal load was 10 pound rockets, but there were many occasions we carried 17 pounders. That type rocket may have been requested for the mission or it may have been the way the aircraft was loaded after its last mission or it may have been all we had to rearm with at the time.

Time came for us to depart the staging area. The Hueys went first (and because they were going in at such a high altitude, they were carrying only 4 or 5 infantry each). They started their climb immediately after takeoff. We followed (and struggled to keep up with them during the climb because we were heavy). As things went, the Hueys leveled off at altitude and we were able to take up our escorting positions.

Approaching the insertion area, the command and control (C&C;) ship advised the Huey lead to expect a right turn into the area. He wanted us (the escort ships) to stay on the inside of the turn because there was some rising terrain that would be on the right side of the formation. ARA aircraft would start their prep when the Huey lead estimated they were five minutes out.

The flight lead called "five minutes" and things began. Three teams of ARA Cobras started their attack runs around the LZ. The Hueys continued inbound and we were in position on the right side of the formation. Because we were on the inside of the turn, we had to slow down somewhat to maintain position. Our airspeed was somewhere around 60 knots, maybe a bit less, during the turn to final.

The ARA aircraft had finished their planned runs when the C&C; aircraft determined the lead Huey was a bit behind his planned timing. About 30 seconds out, when we were just about to begin our first pass, the C&C; cleared an ARA team to make another run. Just as I lowered the nose of my aircraft, an ARA aircraft passed through my sight line. I had to hold my fire and tried to maneuver the aircraft to stay in position - That's when everything turned to crap.

Because I had to maneuver erratically, the aircraft began to "mush". Applied collective to increase power but that only aggravated the situation - the LOW RPM Warning Light and Audio came on and the aircraft began to vibrate. My only choice at that time was to lower the collective and the nose of the aircraft in an attempt to recover RPM. It also turned out that because we were so close to the ground, I had to dive the aircraft through a saddle in the terrain to the left of the formation. By the time the aircraft was back under control, I had lost about 2000 feet of altitude. Was very glad the saddle was where it was or I would have hit the trees.

Note: At altitude, helicopters lose horsepower from the engines and the rotor systems are less efficient. "Mushing" was a very common occurrence. It showed up when the demands the pilot placed upon the aircraft could not be met by the engine and/or rotor system. The indications of "mushing" included loss of altitude, an increase in rotor vibrations and (if engine power demands were too high) - a loss of engine and rotor rpm. The required corrective action was to reduce the severity of the maneuver and if necessary reduce collective to reduce the demand on the engine.

As it turned out, the C&C; aircraft called the mission complete and released all aircraft to return to their home base. We would be advised when we were needed to come back for the extraction. Turned the aircraft towards Phu Bai to head home. During the flight home, our cockpit cooling fan failed. Without any air coming into the cockpit, we sweated profusely but got back home without further incident.

Ops had another mission for us, so we drank some water, toweled off, got another aircraft and went out on that mission. On the way back, Ops advised us the extraction at Bach Ma would be occurring soon. They also wanted us to switch back to the first aircraft we had because it had been fixed and they wanted this aircraft for something else. We landed and moved our stuff back to the first aircraft. Shortly after we got the call the Bach Ma mission was ready to start.

Taking off from Lift Master helipad (the Hawks home base at the time), I noticed the aircraft seemed to be performing a lot better then it had earlier that day. It climbed very well and seemed to maneuver nicely. I looked outside and noticed I could not see the 17 pound rocket warheads, so I attributed the change in performance to having 10 pounders on-board. (10 pound rocket warheads were not visible when looking out of the cockpit).

Joined up with the Hueys. The extraction went smoothly. As the last Huey cleared the LZ, the C&C; ship declared the area a "free-fire" zone and asked all gunships in the area to expend their ordinance around the area. Our turn to shoot came, so I chose a target and rolled in to make a rocket run. Pressed the firing trigger and nothing came out! Quickly rechecked my armament switch positions and circuit breakers. They were where they were supposed to be. Tried shooting again, nothing!. Told the front-seater to "have fun" and after he expended his mini-gun and grenades, we turned for home.

After landing, I was only mildly surprised to find there were no rockets in any rocket pod! Maintenance had had them removed while work was being done on the cooling fan, nobody had them put back in - and I never thought to look in the pods when I got back to the aircraft! I just assumed rockets were on-board because they always were and had been the last time I had been in the aircraft.

Wound up buying a round of drinks at the club that night for "my mistake". Yep, embarrassing, but the thing I remember most about that day was how hot the inside of a Cobra can get without cooling air. Was also very glad that a month or so later we started getting replacement aircraft with Environmental Control Units (air conditioning). The only thing I liked as much or more than an air conditioned cockpit was the aircraft with 20mm cannons we got a bit later.

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