THOSE DARING YOUNG MEN
I hope your book does well. Not shunning all bravery of the commissioned officer pilots, but thinking about all the credit you gave in your book interview to us young kids who were warrants, here is something I wrote a few years ago. It was included in a series of RVN helicopter stories by another pilot buddy of mine...Mike Lazares. He died of prostate cancer from Agent Orange a few years ago. Thought you might enjoy the read.
Who in their “right mind” would allow a teenager to command a million-dollar flying machine; one that was capable of firing machine guns and rockets and grenades? Who would be so imprudent to let a young man do this; a “kid” apparently so young and immature that he couldn’t even purchase a handgun in the local sporting good store?
During the Vietnam War, there was a special group of young men who were placed in Uncle Sam’s combat military aircraft to fight what would become known as “The Helicopter War.” Some of these young aviators were as young as nineteen-years-old when they became aircraft commanders of various types of helicopters, from light observation models to large tandem rotor cargo and troop haulers.
When President Johnson started the build-up of American troops being sent to Southeast Asia in the mid-1960s, the Army quickly realized that there was going to be a need for a large number of pilots to fly helicopters, especially the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, commonly known as the “Huey.” In order to fill this need, the Army decided to take a chance on eighteen-year-olds with only a high school diploma. To some “Doubting Thomas’s,” this wouldn’t work. It looked like the Army just needed an expendable source of quick manpower for a hazardous calling.
The other military branches, Navy, Marines and Air Force, were requiring their pilot candidates to be college graduates, which meant that they were closer to the age of twenty-two before they could even start pilot training. Even after these military services lowered their standards to that of a two-year college education in order to fill their quotas for the Vietnam effort, it still meant that after their aviator training programs, a Navy/Marine or Air Force pilot would be close to their mid-twenties before piloting an aircraft.
Four years difference in maturity was going to be a risk for the Army by allowing someone to command their combat aircraft. These were young men who had barely started to shave. They were at the age determined by law not responsible enough to even drink alcoholic beverages. These potential Army pilots were even under society’s legal age of twenty-one for making a decision to get married without their parents’ signature. They were even too young to vote for the politicians who would send them to war. But it was a gamble that the Army was willing to risk, and one that later would prove to have paid-high dividends in mission accomplishment.
When the Army began enhancing their WORWAC (Warrant Officer Rotary-Wing Aviation Course) flight program for high school graduates in the 1960s, their goal was to train as many pilots as they could. The chance of becoming an Army helicopter pilot and going to Vietnam was almost a “given.” A nine month program, five at Ft. Wolters in north central Texas and four at Ft. Rucker in southern Alabama, there were approximately 250 pilots graduating each month. By 1967, that had more than doubled.
The tremendous need for Army helicopter pilots came for two primary reasons. First, the success of the helicopter’s versatility was being evidenced on a daily basis for combat support to ground troops; in troop movement, resupply, med-evac, and armed gunship support. During the Vietnam War, almost nine million flight hours were logged in Army helicopters, with nearly eighty-eight percent being in Hueys. Records also show that out of 7,013 Hueys serving in the Vietnam War, there were 3,305 destroyed. Almost all were Army.
Secondly, there were a lot of casualties among helicopter crews. Out of 37,500 Army helicopter pilots, 1,869 were killed. The majority of these, two-thirds, were in the warrant officer ranks. The youngest to be killed was a pilot in the 119th Assault Helicopter Company, WO1 Raymond H. Chase, Jr., KIA 10 Nov 1967. He was just 19.3-years-old. The average tour length for a helicopter pilot before being killed was just 154 days; less than half of their assigned deployment period.
So what was the attraction for thousands of young men, with many having just graduated from high school, to gravitate towards a profession of flying a machine that even just the aerodynamics of which have been questioned by so many aeronautical experts? What made them desire to be placed in harm’s way, which they obviously knew they would encounter in the Vietnam War?
As one of those young Army warrant officers, I personally know it wasn’t for the money. In fact, my love of flying made it difficult for me to comprehend that I was getting paid for something that I truly enjoyed doing.
I strongly believe these young men had the same allure that has drawn men to flying since before the Wright brothers. In flying, there is something adventurous about defying Newton’s Law
of Gravity. There is something about the adventure of aerial freedom. There is quizzically something mystifying about the dauntless challenge of having so much power and control over something that few others can claim. There is something about “living on the edge” of life when you are young and have first achieved a sense of personal freedom from “cutting the strings of your mother’s apron.” And maybe even to some degree for a young man, there is something about the perception of charm that wearing a flight suit has for the opposite sex.
Ask any troop who set-foot on the jungle floors of South Vietnam what their most vivid sound memory was from their time spent in combat. I can almost guarantee that most will say it was the “Whop-Whop-Whop” sound of a Huey’s rotor blades. It was the Huey that meant more ammo, water, C-rations, and even mail from home were on the way. It was the Huey that called forth the fear of going into battle, as well as the relief of that fear when being removed from the battlefield. It was the Huey whose rockets and mini-guns suppressed enemy action from over-running your line of defense. For some who were wounded or dying, it was the sound of those blades that became the beating wings of their “Angel of Mercy.”
Behind the sounds of the Huey were young Army aviators who were still too young to realize that they were not invincible. Day or night, these daring young men in their flying machines put mission accomplishment first. Thousands became unsung heroes to their fellow aviators and comrades on the ground. But to each other they were just kids who had only months before traded-in their high school street hotrod in exchange for an aerial thrill of racing among the clouds.
So, again I ask, “Who would be so unwise to allow million-dollar combat aircraft to be flown by such adolescent ‘boys’?” Well, I guess the United States Army would. And this decision would become the historical testimony and legendary achievement for the Army’s Warrant Officer Aviation Program.
Ron Corbin <email@example.com >
Monday, August 27, 2018 at 22:18:01 (EDT)