Looking up, my mind reeled. It was a rivet! There were another and another just inches above me! Push the nose down! Turn to the left side! Level off and look. It was a US Air Force C-123 cargo plane! It had flown right up the back of my plane, missing me by mere inches. My adrenalin was flowing. I switched the UHF radio to “GUARD”, our emergency radio frequency and screamed into the mike, “C-123 flying north of DaNang, this is Covey 249. You just had a very near miss! Look out your left window. You just missed me by inches!”
Someone in the C-123 came back saying, “Covey 249, we are nowhere near you, the sky is clear around us.”
I knew it was pointless to argue.
So started another morning in the northern regions of South Vietnam. It was tough enough trying to keep the enemy from killing me, let alone my fellow Americans. It was always when things were the calmest that you were at the greatest risk. When you were engaged in an air battle, you were working on adrenalin and were at your best. It was when you were relaxed and assured, that put you in danger of the unexpected. Fortunately, most of the time you were in fear for your life and ready for combat, but on these morning commutes it was hard to feel threatened. This area of Vietnam was just so beautiful. There were the mountains of to the West. Before me they came down to the sea on the Northern side of Da Nang Harbor. This created the most perfect crescent bay. As you passed this mountain ridge, you flew over the very large lagoon of Däm Lap An, with san pans fishing and always an American Navy gunboat on patrol. The steep volcanic formed mountains were close on the west side of the lagoon and it was just plain picturesque. Small fishing villages were scattered along the shore and from on high, it looked so ideal. Often I thought it would be a wonderful tourist stop. On the right, the beaches along the South China Sea shore were beautiful, like a ribbon of light tan, with the light playing on the lines of breaking waves. I longed to walk the endless miles of sand. You can see how easy it was to be distracted from the seriousness of the war.
But, serious it was. In this particular job, the pilot casualty rate was fifty percent. My squadron worked behind the enemy lines. Our forward base, Quang Tri, where I commuted too every morning was very close to the Demilitarized Zone between the South and the North. It was too risky to leave planes at this airfield overnight, due to enemy rocket attacks, so I flew an hour commute each way to Da Nang. I was generally glad to do so, since my concrete barracks at the Da Nang Air Base were far superior to the temporary buildings and tents put up in the red clay of Quang Tri.
“May Day! May Day! Aircraft on fire! Vampire 20 has lost control! Ejecting!”, came a voice loudly across my Guard frequency.
Looking upward, I saw a stream of smoke trailing a descending F-105 (“Thud”). I soon spotted a chute inland maybe five miles from the coast. I pushed the transmit button on my planes steering yoke, “Hillsborough, Covey 249 has Vampire 20 in sight.”
“Roger Covey 249, you are assigned Search and Rescue, what are your coordinates?” Hillsborough was an airborne command center. They circled the war theatre in a C-130 transport, outfitted with a lot of radios, electronics and air controllers. They were the nerve center of the air war.
I rattled off the coordinates, making sure they were in the area, but not too close to the pilot just landing on the ground. I did not want the enemy to know exactly where he was. They were always listening.
“Roger Covey, a Jolly Green is being dispatched from Da Nang. ETA 15 minutes,” said the voice from Hillsborough. The Jolly Green was a Sikorsky CH-3 helicopter, used specifically to recover downed pilots.
“Covey 249: Loach 32.”
“Loach 32: Covey 249, go ahead.”
“We are below you. We have you and the pilot in sight. Looks like he has fallen into a bomb crater. He is face down in the crater. Permission to land and assist.”
“Roger Loach 32, permission to land,” I responded as I watched the small Hughes OH-6A observation chopper, with its two member crew; land a short distance from the downed pilot. I watched the co-pilot jump out and run to the single prone figure.
“Covey 249; Loach 32; we have pulled the pilot from the crater, he was face down in the mud. He is alive, but unconscious. We think he may have a broken neck. We will stand guard until rescue comes.”
“Roger that Loach 32, Jolly Green coming in from Da Nang, ETA 12 minutes, can you cover him that long?” I asked as I saw the lone man with a rifle standing over the pilot. The pilot was keeping the chopper ready for a hasty retreat if necessary.
“We will stay as long as we can,” came the reply.
“Covey 249, Dustoff 12.”
“Go ahead Dustoff.”
“Covey, we have you and Loach 32 in sight. We are approaching from the Southwest. Ask permission to land and assist,” said the pilot of a Bell UH-1 Army medical evacuation chopper.
“Dustoff 12, permission to land,” I stated as I thought how great it would be to have Vampire 20 under medical care and hopefully off the enemy held ground where he now lay.”
“Covey 249: Jolly Green 48: Do not move pilot. Do not allow Dustoff to move the pilot. We are in route to your location, ETA 10 minutes.”
Surprised and alarmed I clicked the mike key, “Jolly Green 48, Covey 249 has Dustoff 12 on site and able to render immediate medical aid to Vampire 20.”
“Negative Covey 249, do not allow Dustoff to assist. Wait for our arrival, ETA 9 minutes.”
“Covey 249: Dustoff 12: What do you want us to do?” It came across as a tense, excited question.
“Hold your position Dustoff,” I replied watching the chopper with a bright red cross on its side hovering just a short distance from the pilot and his guard. I was confused and growing angry. Being a pilot, I wanted the wounded pilot safe. I knew and trusted Dustoff medics.
“Covey 249: Hillsbourough: You are advised to wait for Jolly Green 48. Do not move Vampire 20.”
Once more I repeated the situation and our ability to get the pilot to safety, but to no avail. Being the Search and Rescue Commander, I knew I had the right to override the instruction to leave the wounded pilot on the ground. I did not understand why they did not want Dustoff to land. Was it just to give the Jolly Greens another rescue for their already impressive statistics? “Loach 32, what is the situation down there?”
“We have no enemy in sight, but we have seen NVA (North Vietnamese Army) in the area earlier.”
“Dustoff: Covey: Please hold in the immediate area. Loach: Let us know if the situation changes.” I radioed, very uncomfortable with the conditions.
“Covey: Jolly Green: We have you in sight, ETA 5 minutes.”
There was nothing else to do but circle and wait. Nobody talked and the silence combined with the lack of action was surreal. Minutes crawled bye. All eyes were watching for enemy movement. The Dustoff was flying a circular search pattern. The large Jolly Green approached from the south. As it got near, the Loach backed out of the way, leaving its co-pilot standing over Vampire. The Jolly Green lowered a medic on a cable. After a couple of minutes a basket was lowered, the wounded pilot was placed inside and winched up into the lumbering Jolly Green. The Jolly Green recovered their medic and slowly turned back to Da Nang without saying so much as a word. I was afraid to speak, due to my anger. The Loach and Dustoff also turned away from the area without any comments.
“Loach: Dustoff: thanks for the assist!” I said in farewell. I got a couple of terse “Roger that” in return. I flew North toward Quang Tri, but I felt angry and embarrassed as to how two brave Army helicopter crews were treated by my Air Force.
It was later, upon my return to Da Nang that I was able to inquire and vent as to my search and rescue. I was told by my squadron commander that it was concern, due to the “broken neck” statement by the Loach pilot, which had caused Jolly Green to act as it did. They obviously did not trust the Dustoff medic to care for the pilot properly. I continue to believe that it was a bad idea to leave a defenseless pilot lying in enemy territory, due to an unconfirmed belief that only the Jolly Green medic, knew how to deal with a broken neck. I was told the pilot returned alive, but that was all the information I was to receive. The War moved on...