Challenges in Vietnam
Air Facts Journal

Another day in the life of an Air Commando living by our motto:  any time any place. This is about my experiences in the 19th Air Commando Squadron, South Vietnam, for about a year beginning in 1966.


Another day in the life of an Air Commando living by our motto:  any time any place.

The first mission I flew as part of my in-country check out, was with “Firebug” (a nickname that he was tagged with because of having several fires on the aircraft that he was flying). The last mission that he had flown that he where he experienced a fire was on a mission to Thủ Dầu Một,the capital city of Bình Dương province, Vietnam.  The cargo that he was flying there was a full fuel trailer and it caught on fire.

Fortunately for them, the field  was only 10 miles from Saigon. They landed and stopped the aircraft as quickly as possible and abandoned the aircraft. The flight mechanic and load master went out the rear doors, but the pilots had to get out through the cockpit windows. By the time they had cleared the aircraft a safe distance and looked around, the aircraft was fully enveloped with flames. Our intelligence later determined that a thermite bomb had been placed in the fuel trailer. The thermite burns hot enough to penetrate metal in a few seconds.

My flight with Firebug was going okay until we were running the AFTER TAKEOFF/CLIMB checklist. The flight mechanic was running his checklist and when it came to the APU, he stated that when he pushed the fire door open to look into the APU compartment, all he could see was flames. Firebug told him to use the fire extinguisher to push open the door and discharge the whole fire extinguisher into the compartment. The load master then brought him the second fire extinguisher.

Firebug had already turned the aircraft back towards the runway and we were busy running the BEFORE LANDING checklist and talking to the tower about having firetrucks to meet us when we landed. Firebug told the flight mechanic to use a nozzle of the second fire extinguisher to open the fire door, and if he still saw flames, to discharge the whole fire extinguisher into the compartment. He then told the load master to get the fire extinguisher from the cockpit and instructed a flight mechanic to use it to open the fire door and if he still saw flames, to only use half of it, and save the rest in case the flames broke through the compartment sidewalls. We landed, pulled off at the first taxiway to exit the runway, stopped the aircraft on that taxiway, and handed it to the fire department. We later learned that the fuel line to the APU had broken.

Lai Khe was a French rubber plantation not too far from Saigon. During my tour, we flew numerous missions in and out of there; however, it was my first mission there that I vividly remember. We had landed, offloaded our cargo, and without stopping, had taxied back to the runway. Our normal operation on missions like this was that the load master, after landing, would release all of the tiedowns on all of the pallets except the last one in the rear of the aircraft. We would taxi the aircraft and swing the tail around so the rear of the aircraft would point to the offload location. We then went into reverse and backed the aircraft (rolling backwards) until the rear ramp was at the offload location. The load master would release the tiedowns on the rear pallet, and we would come out of reverse, and with forward thrust, would stop the rearward motion and would cause the aircraft to move forward. This would cause the pallets to roll out of the back of the aircraft.

C-123 landing

The C–123 was a great aircraft for our mission because of its attributes allowing us to avoid challenges from becoming catastrophes.

We had a directory of frequencies used at different locations. We would announce all movement operations over that frequency. We had not heard anything on the radio, but noticed on the rise to the right two helicopters at the refueling location. After run-up, we announced taxiing onto the runway. We lined up, held breaks, and ran up to maximum power. After announcing that we were taking off, we released the brakes. Because we were empty, we accelerated rapidly. The two helicopters lifted off and positioned themselves in line and pointing away from us in the middle of the runway. We lifted off and headed to the rubber trees on the left side of the runway. As we neared the tree line, we banked back to the right to parallel the runway heading. I’m thinking, good grief I have just started my year’s assignment here.

Loc Ninh was the area often referred to as Viet Cong (VC) regional headquarters. The runway, one of the better ones that we used in Vietnam, was 3,900 feet long and 66 feet wide. The field elevation was 446 feet. It’s obvious that the 446 feet elevation was measured midpoint in the runway as the runway started on the upslope of the hill, went all the way over and down the other side of the hill. I called the Army controller and ask if he had any traffic. He said that there were a couple of choppers on the top of the hill refueling, but they were well clear of the runway. We landed and went into reverse, but as we neared the crest of the hill, I saw two helicopters, side-by-side, with the skid of the closer helicopter inches from the runway.

I was startled that the 66 feet of runway width and my 110 foot wingspan meant that I was going to wipe out a couple of helicopters. In order to prevent that, I went off the runway to the left, estimating how much I need to go to the left to clear the helicopters. My aircraft was slowing rapidly, and I knew I was marring down in the grassy area. I came out of reverse and into forward thrust almost to the point of maximum power just to keep the aircraft moving so it wouldn’t bog down. We passed by the helicopters without hitting them and I headed back to the runway on the downslope. I pulled the throttles back, and into reverse thrust, to keep from picking up speed on the downslope.

Sometimes it wasn’t all challenges and there were some humorous things that happened. I’ll relate this story of a mission into Loc Ninh to deliver a load of fuel bladders. These fuel bladders (see below) that we called doughnuts contained approximately 400 gallons and weighed a little over 2,500 pounds each. We could carry up to five of the fuel bladders.

fuel bladder

The doughnuts contained approximately 400 gallons and weighed a little over 2,500 pounds.

After landing, we were slowed to taxi speed on the downslope side of the runway, when I saw a soldier (GI) with his T-shirt off, get up and stretch and hand motion where he wanted the bladder to be positioned. I taxied down, swung the nose around so that the tail was pointing to the position that he had indicated, went into reverse and backed up, came out of reverse and put on brakes. The load master popped the tiedowns and started rolling the bladder rolling out of the aircraft. The terrain had a slight downhill slant.

The GI positioned himself between the bladder and where he wanted the bladder. He took a position, with his arms forward, in order to stop the bladder. The bladder wasn’t rolling that fast, but when he made contact with it, the bladder wiped him out. He disappeared under the bladder. The bladder quivered a little bit as it rolled over him, but continued until we saw first the GIs left leg, then his right leg, and finally the bladder uncovered him completely. He stood up and brushed himself off as if nothing had happened. The entire crew was glad that he was okay, but we were all laughing. I only wish that I could’ve gotten that on film.

Song Be was a 4,600 foot asphalt strip reported to have been built by the Japanese during WWII. During my approach, landing, offload, and taxi back to the runway, I had been in constant communication with the Army ground controller on the radio. When I was ready, he cleared me for takeoff stating that he had no other traffic in the area. On takeoff roll, I had lifted off and retracted the landing gear, when a stick of Huey’s came over the trees to the right side and swung directly over the runway. I leveled off just above the runway, and heard the word “break” over the radio. I saw Huey’s going in every direction, and continued flying just above the runway until I reached the end of the runway. I couldn’t see any Huey’s above me or in front of me so I started to climb out. The picture I included below was not taken at Song Be, but shows two sticks of Huey’s, one on each side of the runway.



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