Dustoffs at Night

By David Freeman

By late 1971, the American Dustoff crews in the Delta had transferred the bulk of the daytime ARVN medevac support to the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF). The VNAF medevac pilots, despite their vast flight experience, were not inclined to fly at night. The 57th Medical Detachment continued to fly night medevac missions in support of both American and Vietnamese forces in the Delta until late 1972 when the unit returned to the United States..

Flying at night was a lonely experience. Rarely were there any other helicopters in the air. The few fixed-wings that were flying, such as the Army’s OV-1 Mohawk surveillance aircraft and the Air Force’s Specter or Puff gunships, were usually on a different frequency. The Dustoff crew that had First-up duty typically flew ten to twelve sorties each night. Our only company was provided by Paddy Control, the Air Force radar controllers who provided radar coverage for most of the Delta.

The techniques we used for locating the people on the ground and making a safe pickup provided an interesting set of challenges. The new peter pilots, learned these techniques from the more experienced aircraft commanders. The proficiencies gained in night landings in the boonies have no parallel in civil aviation, with the possible exception of some Emergency Medical Service (EMS) missions.

Staying alive and successfully accomplishing the missions depended upon the Dustoff crews developing excellent crew coordination skills. Everyone was depended upon to do their part. Mission coordinates were plotted on a 1:50,000 tactical map. Paddy Control usually provided vectors to the general vicinity of the pickup. From there, a safe landing could only be assured if two-way radio communication with someone on the ground was established. It helped if that someone knew what they were doing. Many of the Vietnamese units had at least one American advisor who could handle communication with the Dustoff crew. For other missions, a Vietnamese interpreter flew with the Dustoff crew and handled communication with the elements on the ground.

Several methods were used for identifying the landing area. First contact was normally made by sound. We flew without external lighting. There being no other aerial traffic around, there was no reason to provide a visual target for an enemy gunner. To the guys on the ground, the sound of an approaching Huey was unmistakable. Upon first radio contact, we would confirm our proximity to the landing site by asking the ground troops if they heard us, and if so which direction were we from them. A typical response would be along the lines, “We hear you, Dustoff. It sounds like you’re north of us about two klicks.” In thats case we would turn south and ask the ground contact to tell them if it sounded like we were getting closer.

Once in visual range, we needed some type of light to identify the landing area. Among the possibilities were a handheld strobe light, a flashlight, a flare, a small fire, or four small fires built to form a “T” on the ground. Most of us preferred the latter, because it gave us not only a marker for the landing site, but something to line up on for our approach. The base of the “T” was oriented along the recommended approach path.

The least preferred method to mark a landing spot was a flare. This was true for two reasons: 1) the flare would highlight the position of the ground troops, and 2) the flare adversely affected the night vision of the Dustoff pilots.

More often than not, a handheld strobe light or a flashlight aimed at the helicopter were all we had to work with.. The radio operator on the ground would describe the landing area to us, including any obstacles and an estimate of the wind direction and velocity. They would also recommend a way back out, based on obstacles, location of the enemy, etc. Rarely did it make sense to go back out the way we came in, but it did happen.

Using whatever we had to work with visually, and the landing area briefing from the contact on the ground, we would set up a rectangular landing pattern. This would help us stay oriented with the landing spot. We made our approach to a point just shy of the LZ marker. The pilot not flying called altitude and airspeed every few seconds as the aircraft descended. He also kept his hands near the controls. Some AC’s even preferred that both sets of hands be on the controls during short final. The landing light was delayed as long as possible for obvious reasons. Without the light, enemy gunners had only had sound and a possible shadowy outline to aid in target acquisition. Once the landing light came on, it was pretty obvious where the Huey was located.

Normally we took the approach all the way to the ground because of dust and debris, but we would hold the chopper light on the skids. Who knew what kind of surface you were landing on. It could be muddy, wet, lumpy, or littered with stumps or stubs that could easily puncture a hole in the bottom of the aircraft, and more importantly, the fuel cells.

Throughout the approach, the medic and crew chief hung out the sides of the aircraft watching for obstacles or enemy activity. Constant chatter on the intercom was a necessity to keep the pilots informed, since we couldn’t possibly see all that was around and beneath us.

At touch down, the landing light was switched off and the crew in back supervised the loading of patients. They were not to unplug from the intercom in the event a rapid departure was needed. They usually had extra-long microphone cords that allowed them some freedom of movement outside the aircraft.

Seldom did more than fifteen or twenty seconds pass before the crew in back reported being ready to depart.

“Ready right.”

“Ready left.”

“Coming up.”

“Clear up left.”

“Clear up right.”

The landing light was used on departure only if necessary to insure obstacle clearance. Otherwise it was best for the pilots to regain their night vision as soon as possible.

It was not unsual for a Peter Pilot who was flying to be coached by his AC. “Watch your torque, you’re at 38, 40, okay nose her over.”

“We’re still clear left.”

“Clear right.”

And off we’d go, either to a small local hospital, or perhaps another pickup. If there were Americans on board, we’d be heading for the nearest U.S. Army hospital. Enroute, the medic and crew chief would be busy treating the patients.

This scenario would be repeated multiple times each night, night after night.

By David Freeman

Professional dedicated to training and equipping people to live safely in a dangerous world.

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