Boredom and Terror. Hauling Trash in Vietnam

One of the clichés you hear if you hang out much with pilots is that flying consists of hours and hours of utter boredom interrupted by occasional moments of sheer terror. Flying C130s in Vietnam in the late 1960s involved a lot of routine flying, day-in and day-out, but it never got boring, and although there was danger on all sides, I don’t recall any of those “moments of sheer terror” either. For myself, and I think for most of us involved in “airlift’s greatest moment” the story is in that routine, day-in, day-out, flying. To appreciate the C130 stories you need to understand what that daily routine consisted of.

The C130 is a four-engine turboprop transport. Four big four-bladed propellers turned by four big jet engines. They are constant-speed engines, which means the props maintain a constant rotational speed, regardless of power setting. Changes in thrust are accomplished by changing the pitch of the propellers. This feature provides the advantage of instant throttle response. In the 1960s most pure jet engines took a little time to wind up after you poured the coal to them, and if you were sinking at the time and seriously needed to stop sinking, that wind-up period could get to be a long, long time. In a C130 you boosted the throttles and you got an instant change in the pitch of the props and an instant boost in thrust. This feature has rescued many a C130 pilot from an otherwise embarrassing situation.

The other big advantage of variable-pitch, constant-speed propellers, is the ability to instantly reverse thrust. The engine and the prop continue to spin in the same direction, but the props reverse pitch and the air blows forward instead of backward. This permits the C130 to land on a very short runway. In Vietnam, in order to help us land and get stopped on one of those very short strips of pavement, pierced steel planking or aluminum matting, runways were marked with a pair of foot-wide white stripes painted across each end, one a hundred feet from the threshold, the other at five hundred feet. The four hundred feet in between was the touchdown zone. If your wheels touched before the first stripe, you were too short. Likewise, if you sailed past the second stripe and weren’t yet on the ground, you were too long. (Since the landing gear is sixty-five feet behind the pilot, you had to develop a certain instinct for how far back the wheels were.) If you touched down in the touchdown zone you had a half-mile or so to slow this 130 thousand pound juggernaut from 110 miles per hour to a dead stop. Piece of cake.

We called such landings max effort or assault landings. An assault landing went like this: out in the bush we approached a runway from a PACAF Random Steep Approach, which basically meant we would arrive high overhead and roll into a steep, diving spiral, tightening the turn as necessary near the end to roll out on short final at approach speed, with gear and flaps down, in a high, but controlled (more or less), rate of descent. To the uninitiated (like a new copilot) it appears the pilot intends to crash a hundred feet short of the runway. Just before the crash he adds a little power, raises the nose a bit, and transitions for just a second into a normal approach angle. He sails over the end of the runway and, if he isn’t too high, wipes off the power (meaning, he retards the throttles to Flight Idle), rounds out (raises the nose a smidgin), sails past the first white line and touches down before the second. He immediately drops the nose wheel to the runway. The cargo compartment bangs and rattles like every rivet on the airplane has jarred loose. Passengers in the back grab hold and hang on, one eye on the nearest emergency exit and one eye on the loadmaster to see if he seems alarmed. After the pilot drops the nose wheel to the runway he abandons the control yoke and grabs the nose wheel steering wheel. Left hand on the steering wheel, right hand on the throttles. The copilot takes control of the yoke and flies the wings while the pilot steers the rudder with his feet and the nose wheel with his left hand. Simultaneously with touchdown and grabbing the steering wheel, the pilot lifts the throttles over the Flight Idle detent and drags them back through Ground Idle to full Reverse. At full Reverse the engines develop sixty percent of max forward thrust. While yanking the throttles and groping for the steering wheel, the pilot throws his boots on the brake pedals and applies maximum anti-skid braking.

Actually the brake pedals and the rudder pedals are one and the same; you get the brakes by tilting your toes forward and you control the rudder by pushing your whole foot. When the left foot pushes, the right foot retreats and the nose swings left. At landing speed it takes very little foot pressure to make a big, scary swing with the nose. As the aircraft slows it takes more and more foot travel to swing the rudder enough to steer the nose, and nose wheel steering becomes more and more the dominant directional control. You feel the anti-skid system cycle the brakes on and off through the soles of your boots. As you roar down toward the end of the runway, your throttle knuckles go white, your knees lock, your jaws clench, and your eyes snap to the big trees down there where the jungle and the runway merge. Of course, you always get stopped, usually before the end of the runway disappears under the radome, but there’s always that moment after you stop rolling when the reversing props suck all that red dust you’ve been stirring up behind and blow it out in front. This is how you show your crew how really cool you are. If the dust storm blows up around your nose for a few seconds it’s obvious you haven’t registered the fact that you’ve stopped the airplane. It’s a bad sign if the copilot notices this before you do.

Once you get the thing stopped on the runway, reversing props also permit backing maneuvers. Many times in Vietnam there was no taxiway, so you had to turn around and taxi back on the runway. In a C130 this is a lot like turning a pickup around on a narrow country road. You back around in an arc, stop, cut the wheels and roll forward, cut the wheels the other way and back up again, until you get it turned around. You use forward thrust to stop while backing, because if you use the brakes you may settle on the tail, which is, I have been told, a big thrill sixty-five feet in front of the wheels.

Anyway, that was how a routine assault landing was done, and a typical day on a C130 in-country shuttle consisted of anywhere from two to ten of these. Weather factors complicated things. In a crosswind you flew final approach crabbed into the wind, then just before touchdown you straightened the nose with rudder to line up with the runway and lowered a wing into the wind to kill the drift. If you learned to fly in Lubbock, Texas, you had this maneuver pretty well mastered before you got your wings. Maximum crosswind for landing was determined by how steep you could tilt that wing before you snagged a wing tip on the ground. If the crosswinds were gusty the landing became more complicated, because the aileron and rudder combination required to keep the airplane lined up with the runway was in a constant process of radical change.

During the monsoon it was sometimes necessary to land out of a GCA, or ground controlled radar approach. This was routine at bases where the Air Force provided the GCA, but at Army-controlled bases the controllers were grunts, and grunts did not feel themselves bound by standard air traffic control procedures. Once we shot a night GCA in weather to an Army field at Dak To. We flew down to minimums and the field was still socked in, so we executed a hairy missed approach in the dark in the clouds between some fairly respectable mountains. Before we departed his area the grunt controller told us he knew the field was below minimums before we started, but we had mail on board and he thought we might get lucky and make it in. We felt lucky to make it out.

At night most fields we flew into had runway lights, but a few had “bean bags”, portable battery powered lights with about the wattage of your standard bug repellent porch light. It took a lot of self-control to pull off the power and sink into that inky Vietnam night, knowing you would pick up the lights at the last possible instant and have to wave your wings around close to the ground to line up with the runway. The Army made some typical Army-style improvements to the system; they converted some of their daylight-only airfields to night operations by lighting a couple of oil drums at the approach end. Sometimes you even got barrels at both ends. I hated night assault landings.

One night early in my copilot days a C123 landed in the dark at Dalat on an unlighted runway to deliver a tire and a crew to change it. It was the night before national elections and the brass were expecting terrorist activity all over the country. They didn’t want to leave a C130 parked on an unsecured airfield overnight, so they told us to stay with our airplane and sent in the tire change crew in a C123, which showed up after dark. Runway lighting consisted of a pickup parked at the end with its lights shining across the runway. A C123 is smaller and slower than a C130 but it still takes cojones to land one in the hills in the dark. They kicked out the tire and took off blind. Two nights later they flew their C123 into a mountain twenty miles east of Dalat.

Some of the runways had other unusual qualities. Like Bao Loc. Bao Loc was a strip about 3,000 feet long, a comfortable runway length for a C130, except at Bao Loc the runway sloped uphill so steeply that you had to be climbing at touchdown or you would hit too hard. Then you climbed to the mid-point of the runway and started downhill. The downhill slope was equal to the uphill. The airplane didn’t want to slow down much once it got started rolling downhill, so you needed to be firmly under control when you topped the ridge. There was a steep ravine off the end of the downhill run. One day I landed at Bao Loc and taxied back to the cargo area for unloading. The cargo area was on the spine of the ridge near the middle of the runway. I got out to stretch my legs and watched another C130 come in for a landing. He disappeared from view before he touched down. He sank completely out of sight, even the tail, which on a C130 is massive and stands 40 feet in the air. Then he came roaring up the hill ahead of a cloud of red dust and swept past onto the downhill run. Before he got stopped he completely disappeared again. Even the 40-foot tail. Pilots loved to land at places like Bao Loc. The rest of the crew didn’t get to vote.

Dong Xoai was a paved highway straight enough and long enough to make a runway. They just cleared the trees back a hundred yards or so and we landed on the road. One runway ran uphill and ended at the base of a steep mountain. Another had a pretty good dogleg in the middle. Most runways in Vietnam were 65 feet wide. Since we had a 130-foot wingspan, when we landed the outboard props were over the dirt.

C130 pilots universally agreed that the most annoying and potentially dangerous airfield conditions in Vietnam were called helicopters. The damn things were everywhere, operated under no discernible air traffic control, stirred impenetrable clouds of dust at runway thresholds, hovered invisible in the dust, and were armed like drug lords. Not only that, when you were trying to sleep after an all-night mission, they used your hootch as a major navigation point. The war in Vietnam would have been a whole lot more civilized without the helicopters.

We hauled every kind of cargo you can imagine (not for nothing did they call us Trash Haulers)– Class A explosives–small arms ammunition, flares, hand grenades, artillery shells, bombs, even occasionally black powder. We hauled gasoline in drums and gasoline in big rubber bladders and various other chemicals of an explosive, corrosive or otherwise toxic nature. We hauled deuce-and-a-half trucks, jeeps, armored personnel carriers, half-tracks, bulldozers, road graders, small helicopters, and, once, a ’49 Ford coupe.

Loading

We carried beer and C-rations and potato chips and fresh produce by the ton, boots and jungle fatigues and underwear and shower clogs. We transported passengers on regularly scheduled runs like an airline (Max Pax)

Bien Hoa passengers

and we hauled passengers jammed together on the floor on empty metal cargo pallets with tie-down straps stretched from wall-to-wall for safety belts (Combat Loading).

Combat loading at Duc Pho

We hauled Vietnamese troops with families and farm animals, refugees, and sometimes dead or wounded soldiers. Once we hauled a planeload of prisoners. The MPs had 150 VC prisoners, which was about twenty-five more than our load limit, but they had only two guards. The MPs said we could have the guards if we took all 150, but if we insisted on leaving the other twenty-five behind the guards would have to stay with them. We took the guards.

The great majority of non-combat C130 operational losses in Vietnam occurred under circumstances that included aircrew fatigue. The official C130 crew duty day in Vietnam was ten hours. You had to get back to your operating base within the allotted ten hours or get a waiver to exceed your crew day. Requests for waiver were never denied. In the months after the Tet offensive in 1968 the crew day got to be twelve hours. Pilots were not allowed to fly more than eighty hours in a calendar month without a waiver from the flight surgeon. These waivers were available for pick up at the flight surgeon’s office, already filled out and signed, from a basket on the reception desk. You just filled in your name.

Our wing, the 314th Tactical Airlift Wing at CCK Air Base, Taiwan, had a forward operating base at Tuy Hoa in South Vietnam. We had ten C130s at Tuy Hoa and flew eleven missions a day. Number One took off before dawn and landed in the afternoon to be turned around for Number Eleven, an all-nighter. When we arrived at Tuy Hoa for a sixteen day in-country shuttle we were first assigned quarters in a tent. We would usually be scheduled to fly on the next day after arrival. Our first mission was typically the early takeoff, then each day we would be scheduled for a slightly later takeoff. After two or three days we would move out of the tent and into a hootch, an open sided shelter with a concrete floor and screened sidewalls to allow the breeze off the South China Sea to blow through. A central latrine and bathhouse served six or eight hootches. Each day our schedule took us deeper into the night. It was nearly impossible to sleep during the day due to temperatures inside the hootch and the ordinary noises of a busy air base. (Tuy Hoa had an F100 fighter wing as well as the C130 operations.) Before we would get into the all-night missions we would usually be moved again, this time into the Meat Lockers, air-conditioned, insulated cubicles that were constructed like, well, refrigerated meat lockers. In these windowless boxes there was no light, the air conditioner was loud and the only thing to keep you awake was anticipation of the next mission.

Each day there is a slight shift in the body’s normal day/night wake/sleep cycle. The problem begins to compound on the day you arrive at the flight line, fully rested, breakfasted and ready for an early morning takeoff, only to find the aircraft you were scheduled to fly is broken down at Pleiku or somewhere. After a couple of hours waiting for a spare you are put back into crew rest. You can’t sleep, you just had a full night’s sleep and you are wide awake. About four in the afternoon you come out of crew rest and start pre-flight for an evening takeoff. About two in the morning, roughly twenty hours since you slept, you are on final approach to a short, narrow runway you can’t see in the dark, with thirty thousand pounds of Class A explosives on board and a full load of fuel in the wings. You are not sleepy. Lord no, the adrenaline is surging through your body like a tsunami. You are hyper-alert. When you are twenty-eight years old you can do this over and over and still feel indestructible. But the effects of fatigue are cumulative and insidious. After sixteen days of this you get extended for another two or three days. You have a young wife and a family back in Taiwan and you want to go home. Finally, you get a fatigued airplane to fly back to the home base for serious maintenance. You get to sleep in your own bed for a few nights and then you’re on your way back to Tuy Hoa or Cam Ranh Bay for another sixteen day shuttle.

Aircraft accident reports always include input from the flight surgeon. How long had it been since the crew slept? Did they feel rested? Had they eaten a good meal? Had there been symptoms of fatigue—irritability, cat napping under the wing between sorties, cat napping in the seat enroute, hyper-alertness during critical flight operations? The symptoms were well known, we were warned continually about them and they were invariably listed among the contributing factors in every accident report.

Napping on the Ramp

But the primary cause in every accident report was always pilot factor, in that the pilot failed to recognize some hazard and flew into a situation from which he could not recover. Afterward, the commander was obliged to post a letter in the Crew Information File reminding each pilot of his duty to continually assess the situations he encountered, always consider the condition and capabilities of himself and his crew, and always refuse to fly an airplane or a mission that was, in his judgment, unsafe or beyond the capability of himself or his crew. The next commander up the chain would add his stern admonishment that such dereliction of duty would not be tolerated in his command. That was the official line, meant to cover the commander’s ass. However, the message you got out under the wing while you discussed with the Chief of Maintenance whether the fluid oozing out the back of an engine was a Bad Thing or not, was “if you don’t want to take the plane we’ll find somebody a little less timid to fly it”. In a C130 outfit the mission hackers were celebrated, and refusal to fly an airplane or a mission you considered unsafe was to invite unflattering comparisons with other pilots with more balls.

Fatigue was a devious, invisible threat. Mixed in with a twenty-eight year-old’s testosterone or a forty-five year-old’s need to measure up to the great mission hackers of airlift lore, it was a killer.

For myself and I think most of my peers a C130 tour in Southeast Asia was a year of flying that was too exciting to ever be boring but never quite approaching the level of sheer terror. However, for the crews of the nearly fifty C130s destroyed in Vietnam between 1965 and 1972 the experience was decidedly different.

In June 1968 I was flying an airdrop mission north of Saigon when I heard a distress call on the emergency channel from another C130. From the call sign I knew it was a C130 from Tuy Hoa. I heard calls for fighter cover, and there was an Army helicopter following the wounded transport to provide cover and rescue if they had to crash land before they reached Tay Ninh. Later, I learned that the crew was from my squadron, the 50th TAS, and the aircraft commander, Pat Hatch, a gifted young pilot with a magic touch was a classmate of mine from C130 Combat Crew Training in Tennessee. The riveting details of the last moments of AF621861 are best related by Britt Blazer, Pat’s copilot that day, at http://www.xpertweb.com/Katum/. Their story is one that will live on in the lore of Trash Haulers for generations to come.