As pilots we’ve all experienced it, that nagging feeling that something’s not quite right. The instruments are all in the green. The navigation is spot on and you know exactly where you are. The weather couldn’t be better but…
Call it what you will. Gut feeling, experience, or lack of it. Even when passengers or crew don’t share that gut feeling, you should pay attention to it. It might save your life.
That was a lesson I learned during my tour in Vietnam as an Army helicopter pilot. Frankly, I had several instances of things that were hard to explain but I had not spent much time questioning my good fortune. I always was grateful, but I was afraid of too much introspection as it might appear to be a lack of gratitude on my part. When the fates have been kind, accept it and move on.
However, one such incident stood out among the others. It was an incident, an experience, a gut feeling that was so strange, so totally unexplainable with such profound consequences I decided it might be worth sharing.
On an early morning in late 1968, I was flying a Huey in a combat assault as part of a three-ship formation inserting troops onto a mountain ridge line. It was supposed to be three lifts on what we called an “admin lift.” No enemy action was expected and there was none. We were just re-positioning an infantry unit from the lowlands to the mountains.
After the lift was completed, the three ships were to disperse for their individual missions for the rest of the day.
Flying Hueys in close formation while heavily loaded with seven grunts in full gear, a crew of four and 1,600 lbs. of fuel to a mountain landing with a high density altitude is somewhat akin to landing jets on an aircraft carrier. You don’t need the enemy to make it dangerous. It is dangerous in and of itself.
The greatest danger is at the bottom, as you need to pull in power to slow the descent. You pick your landing spot at about 50 feet and in doing so you stop flying formation on your wingman. Trust is necessary.
Things happen pretty quickly as you are watching your spot, looking for hidden stumps, rocks, holes, glancing at the engine instruments, making sure you are not carrying too much speed and in danger of overshooting the ridge line and listening for the telltale sound that you are running out of power and getting a low RPM audio warning. When you are on the controls at the bottom, a state of hyperawareness is not unusual. It is required.
We could see the ridge line LZ (landing zone) from the PZ (pick-up zone). It was just a climbing turn to the right to 3,000 feet to set up a final approach to the 2,500-foot ridge line. The pick-up, climb and initial descent were routine.
As we got to the bottom, I started to pull in power and just before touchdown, at the point of greatest power-demand, I heard a strange sound. We touched down, the grunts jumped out and we nosed over the ridge line and took off for the second lift.
I got on the intercom and asked my crew chief, “Frank, did you hear anything strange at the bottom?” He said, “Like what?” I said, “I don’t know. It was a high-pitched, high-frequency kind of sound.”
Frank was proud of his ship and didn’t care for the seeming slander. His response of “No, sir” carried an implied, “You’re an idiot.”
The second lift went just as the first. Load up, climb out, set up the approach, begin descent. Again, when we got to the bottom, I pulled in power and heard the same strange sound. It was nothing like I’d ever heard after hundreds of hours flying a Huey.
And again, on climb out I asked Frank if he’d heard anything strange at the bottom. Again, his “No, sir” was only marginally above contempt. I didn’t blame him. He was responsible for the care and feeding of his ship and he took it seriously. He was a great crew chief.
I polled the co-pilot and gunner. “Did you guys hear anything?”
As we were about to land at the PZ for the last load of troops, I said to Frank, “When we’re on the ground, get out and look at the engine deck. See if you see or smell anything unusual.” I got a curt, “Yes, sir.”
After the troops were loaded, Frank got back in the ship, plugged in his helmet and said, “Clean as a whistle, sir.” He wasn’t kidding. He kept the engine deck clean enough to eat off of. Had there been an oil leak or hydraulic fluid where it shouldn’t be, it would have been obvious.
At this point, I was beginning to question myself, but I was still concerned. As we were climbing out with the last load, I told the crew, “OK, as we get to the bottom I want you guys to listen up. See if you can hear anything unusual.” All three acknowledged over the intercom.
As we were on final approach, I spent a little more time looking at the instruments than I normally did. No worries about the touchdown point as we’d landed there twice. The instruments were all in the green and steady. As we got to the bottom and I pulled in power, there it was, louder and more insistent than ever.
“Don’t you guys hear that?”
“No sir.” I couldn’t believe no one else heard it. I made a decision.
We were supposed to report to one of the infantry battalion headquarters to spend the day as its re-supply ship. I got on my aviation company’s UHF radio frequency and said, “This is Dolphin 14. I think I have an engine problem. I’m going to make a precautionary landing at the Ha Thanh Special Forces camp. Can you send out the Witchdoctor?” That was our maintenance ship.
The operations officer replied, “What’s the problem?” I thought to myself, “good question.”
“Dolphin 14, I’m not sure. Instruments are OK, but it sounds funny.” It wasn’t funny at this point.
I’d now committed. If I called off a mission and called out the Witchdoctor and I was wrong… pilot humiliation that I didn’t really want to contemplate. At a minimum, I’d have to buy several rounds at the O Club bar for the maintenance guys. Worse, I’d have to endure the contempt of my crew chief. Worse still, whispers. Bruises to my reputation as an aircraft commander. Possibly an audience with the Commanding Officer about, well, God knows what, but nothing good.
My crew said nothing. They’d heard my radio call. We flew over to the next valley and landed inside the wire at the Special Forces camp. “The sound” was there but no one said anything.
I shut down the ship and we staked out some shade trees to wait on the Witchdoctor. Frank opened the engine cowling and looked around, but he didn’t have the tools to do any major engine inspection. He came over to the shade and waited with me. I took a nap.
When the Witchdoctor landed and shut down, the engine techs came over to me and asked what the problem was. I explained, as best I could. At that point, it sounded pretty thin, even to me. I was wondering if I was to have an audience with the CO in my near future.
So, I waited in the shade to hear my fate, not knowing that my fate already had been decided.
After about 20 minutes, the engine tech came over and said, “Tell me again what you heard.” I repeated, again, “It was a high-pitched, high-frequency kind of sound I’ve never heard before.”
Frank was there with me. The engine tech said, “Well, the bearings on the 2nd-stage gas-producing turbine rotor melted and were fused.” I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant but I knew it wasn’t good.
He continued, “I’d say you had about 30 seconds to 60 seconds more runtime before the engine exploded.”
And then he added the kicker, “There’s no way you should have been able to hear anything. When that happens, it just goes with no warning.”
Had that engine turbine flown apart, taking fuel lines with it and causing the entire engine to explode, it almost certainly would have taken off the tailboom and/or a main rotor blade. From 3,000 feet, no one survives that.
I’m pretty sure I remember Frank dropping to his knees and kissing my jungle boots. But maybe he just fainted. I remember being a little lightheaded. After that, I just remember the Chinook coming in to sling load my ship back to our maintenance ramp. I have no recollection of how I got back.
I didn’t have to buy any drinks. I didn’t have to talk to the CO. My reputation was intact and I had Frank’s undying gratitude.
Most of all, I was alive. And while I couldn’t explain why, that gut feeling became a standard part of my personal checklist.