Our Hueys were equipped with four different radios. An Ultra High Frequency (UHF) and a Very High Frequency (VHF) were both used for air traffic control. Typically, military controllers and facilities use UHF, while civilian facilities use VHF. The fact that we had both didn’t do us much good in Vietnam, but VHF was often needed in the rest of the world, especially the U.S. In Vietnam it just gave us an extra radio to use for air-to-air communications, should we need it.
We had an FM radio for tactical communications with ground units and Dustoff Operations. The Automatic Direction Finder (ADF) was used for navigation, but had the added benefit that it picked up commercial AM radio broadcasts. On it we could listen to the Armed Forces Radio Network (AFRN), which played popular American music. Among our favorites were Gordon Lightfoot and Anne Murray and of course Eric Burton and the Animals singing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” If we were so disposed, we could also listen to Vietnamese music or Hanoi Hanna. We almost always listened to music in the background while we flew our missions.
All of the radios were connected through an intercom system (ICS). There was an ICS box for each crewmember. We plugged into these with our flight helmets, which had a build-in microphone and earphones. The ICS box had a selector switch that allowed you to choose between radios for transmitting. You could also flip a switch to turn the receiver of each radio on or off in your headset.
We usually monitored all radios and learned to recognize the different ones by their tone. It was also common practice to identify the radio you were using when you transmitted to let the person you were calling know which radio to answer you on. “Dustoff Ops, this is Dustoff seven-four, Fox Mike,” would indicate I was calling them on the FM (Fox Mike) radio. The VHF was “victor” and the UHF was “uniform.”
The crewmembers in the back had ICS boxes identical to the pilots, but they commonly kept their transmit selectors in the “ICS” position. We could also go to “Hot Mike” when on a critical mission, which allowed us to talk over the intercom without having to press our push-to-talk (PTT) buttons. Pilots had two PTT buttons, one on the floor that was foot activated and one on the cyclic control that was a trigger-type switch. The cyclic-mounted button had two detents. The first position allowed you to transmit on the intercom and the second one on whichever radio was selected by your ICS. Occasionally transmissions that were meant to be heard only in the aircraft were transmitted to the world inadvertently. This could happen by pushing the floor mounted PTT with the ICS selector not in the ICS position, or inadvertently clicking through the first detent on the cyclic. Though the crewmembers in back had the ability to transmit on the radios, they rarely moved their selectors from the ICS position. It was the responsibility of the pilots to communicate with the world outside the aircraft.
One night our crew was flying between missions and happened to fly near our home airfield, Navy Binh Thuy. Our medic that night was “Pete” Petersen, who had been in Vietnam several years and was a seasoned flight medic. Pete was married to a Vietnamese woman and lived with her in Can Tho. He was on his third or fourth extended tour in Vietnam. He was a good pilot in his own right and had an excellent sense of humor. As we flew near Binh Thuy, he asked if he could make radio call to the tower. “Sure,” we said.
“Navy Binh Thuy Tower, this is Starlighter niner-six, flying over your airfield from east to west at thirty thousand feet.” (We were actually at 3,000 feet.)
“Starlighter niner-six? What is that, a B-52 or something?”
“Way to go, buddy,” Petersen replied. “Blow the Code.” He was forever coming up with something like that to ease the tension and make us laugh. The tower operator never was told the truth.