In March 1967, as I finished my first year as a draftee in the Army, I kissed my wife good-bye in Tulsa and flew to San Francisco to go to war. The Oakland Army Terminal process was smooth and efficient; they had done this nearly a quarter-million times before. I received a bed assignment with orders to report the following morning for transportation to Travis Air Force Base outside San Francisco. At Travis, we boarded a chartered DC-8 airliner for the flight to Vietnam. There were about 120 seats—all the same from front to back—a long aluminum shipping tube without partitions or any divisions between officers and enlisted men.
We took off from California at midmorning and flew eight hours over cloud-studded Pacific waters to Honolulu International Airport. Regulations required all passengers to disembark for refueling. My most persistent memory of Hawaii from that one hour on the ground is that importation of all goods to an island results in a hefty price increase for everything.
Back in the air, we climbed along the beach at Waikiki past Diamond Head and set a course at 30,000 feet for Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. The sun moves westward at about 1,000 miles an hour. We were headed the same direction at about 500. That meant the day was elongated so that 16 to 20 hours after leaving California, we still had sun low in the western sky as we refueled at Clark. Add to that the psychological disorientation of crossing the International Date Line, and jet lag begins to set in just thinking about it. The ground time in the Philippines, however, allowed night finally to catch up before we once more took off for the last leg of the journey westward.
As we began to descend over the dark coast of Vietnam, the captain’s voice came over the intercom. In his best Chuck Yeager/John Wayne imitation, he said, “The planes ahead of us have been reporting sniper fire on approach to Bien Hoa Airbase. The last one to land took a rifle bullet through the rear galley area. Because of this, we are planning a nonstandard arrival. Please secure your belongings and return to your seats because we will be turning off all interior and exterior lights in the aircraft. The only lighting will be the instrument panel in the cockpit. Keep all seat belts fastened and remain in your seats until we are stopped on the apron at Bien Hoa. I usually would wish you all luck during your stay in Vietnam, but tonight it appears that we may need some luck for our arrival as well.”
What normally would have been a time of contemplation of what lay ahead became doubly tense as we looked at each other and tightened our belts. The cabin crew made their usual walk down the aisle to check that we were strapped in, but no one had failed to follow the instructions from the cockpit.
Military fighter pilots often use a procedure called an overhead arrival. Rather than slide smoothly down the glide slope dropping three feet for every 100 feet of forward progress guided by an electronic beam from the end of the runway, they cross the field at a high altitude and spiral down in a 360 degree turn to land. Many airline pilots flew in the military before entering their civilian careers with the airlines.
This captain obviously was a product of that system. He brought the DC-8 over Bien Hoa at about 3,000 feet aligned in the direction he wished to land. With reduced speed near the stall break, he dropped the nose of the airliner and kicked into a left descending turn to float down like descending a spiral staircase. From my seat near the rear, the entire cabin tilted downward and rolled left. The centrifugal force of the turn and sensation of the nose-down attitude were counterbalanced by controlling roll, airspeed, turn rate and descent. He leveled the wings when pointed at the runway inside the perimeter of the air base, well away from “Bien Hoa Bob” and his rifle. The plane touched down within seconds of our return to normal attitude. After reverse thrust and braking, the pilot restored the cabin lights and we continued to taxi to the apron.
When the doors popped open, a blast of hot, humid air swept through the cabin. We left the plane to stand in formation in the sweltering darkness of the Vietnam night waiting to retrieve our duffel bags, grateful for the safe arrival and apprehensive about the year ahead.
Welcome to Vietnam.