Serving as aircraft commander of “Dustoff 619,” a medical evacuation helicopter in Vietnam, we sometimes flew long hours, grabbing a meal of “C” rations while the aircraft was refueled, keeping the engine and rotor blades turning for a fast departure, if necessary.
On this particular day, I was impressed with the tower controlled at the Da Nang main USAF airbase (one of the busiest airports in the world at the time). As we sat eating (my favorite meal was ham and eggs, chopped, pound cake and fruit cocktail, washed down with a Coke), and refueling between the two active runways, we received a call for an emergency medevac. I called the tower to ask for an expedited departure.
To my amazement, he radioed, in one long sentence: “all aircraft cleared for departure, hold position—all aircraft cleared to land, make an immediate 360-degree left turn remaining clear of other aircraft cleared to land—Dustoff 619, cleared for immediate departure.”
Pretty impressive, and off we went.
The medevac mission was to retrieve a wounded GI, but there was no landing zone (LZ) close by, so we would have to extract him by holding the helicopter at a stationary hover about ten feet above the trees, and use an internal rescue hoist and a “Stokes litter” wire basket. The trees were about 75 ft. tall at the scene, and the basket was quickly lowered, the soldier placed on board, and both were lifted up to the helicopter.
As the wounded GI was being attended to by our medics, we received another radio call from the ground unit. It seemed that one of their members had been granted a seven day “R & R” to begin the next day, but it would take him at least one and perhaps two days to hike out to somewhere he could be picked up to prepare to travel for his vacation from the war. They asked if it would be possible for us to hoist him into our helicopter and carry him and his wounded buddy to the 95th Evacuation Hospital, located in Da Nang, so he could catch a plane to his desired R & R location.
We agreed and lowered a “jungle penetrator” (a metal object shaped like a good sized bomb, but with folding seats that a soldier could sit on) and the GI began his assent to our ship. Just as he was to be pulled in through the open aircraft door, the GI reached around the internal rescue hoist to help himself into the helicopter and inadvertently hit the emergency switch—which cut the hoist cable, and he plunged 75 feet onto a rocky stream bed.
Unable to now extract the injured man due to the lack of an LZ, we immediately left the scene with the soldier we had initially rescued, plus the now inoperative rescue hoist, and made our way as rapidly as possibly to the hospital, and radioed our “Da Nang Dustoff” base to have another hoist ready for us when we arrived. En route my crew had disassembled the inoperative rescue hoist, while administering first aid to the wounded soldier.
When we arrived at the “95th Evac,” we were met by their orderlies and a gurney, and unloaded our patient. The flight from the hospital to our base was only about 5 minutes, where the new rescue hoist was loaded quickly, and we departed to the original scene to now recover the GI who was to be deprived of his vacation. He had a broken back and concussion from the fall, but was immediately hoisted to our ship and flown to the hospital.
The poignant part of flying medical evacuation helicopters in wartime is the inability often to discover the outcome of the patients we carried. After delivering the wounded into the hospital for their care, we were frequently en route to another emergency. When I volunteered to become a medical evacuation pilot, I did so because—although it was a war—I did not wish to injure anyone, but rather to help others receive the care they required. At least that portion of my goal was accomplished.