On December 11th,
1968, I had been “in country” about 3 weeks, following the USAF
Jungle Survival school in the Philippines.
I was a new USAF
Major, with thousands of flight hours in fixed-wing aircraft,
but had “been drafted” into rescue helicopters following a
professor of Air Science (USAF ROTC) position at the University
of Michigan. I went to the USAF helicopter school at Sheppard
AFB in Wichita Falls Texas in the summer of 1968, training in
the H-1 Huey and HH-43 Husky.
In December of 1968
I was getting checked out in Vietnam operations. I had been
rather suddenly assigned to Phu Cat AB because another pilot had
recently been killed in a rescue attempt (also for a downed Army
helicopter crew) just a few days before my arrival. I was his
On December 11th,
myself and Maj Juan Migia, the Detachment commander at Phu Cat
Pedro were on local base rescue (firefighting) alert, and our
other two crews were on rescue alert.
When the alert
sounded for Casper 721, our two rescue alert Pedros launched and
began extraction operations, ferrying the rescued personnel to
the hospital at Quin Non, with fuel stops at Phu Cat operations
as required. I was serving as Operations Officer at this time,
and was coordinating our rescue operations as well as the
In the late
afternoon, a distress call was received from our two Pedros,
stating that they needed more support ASAP due to the number of
extractions, and mainly the need to get a fireman with the “Jaws
apparatus to the
site to extract the pilot (Walt Henderson) without major surgery
on site. The Army personnel on site were very concerned that
the impending darkness would enable the NVA/Viet Cong troops to
overrun the site.
Maj Migia and I
launched immediately with the fireman and the “Jaws of Life”.
Maj Migia was in the right seat, and I was in the left seat. We
hot refueled enroute. The next few hours are hazy due to the
extreme pace of operations. Our three Pedros extracted a total
of 9 souls from the site, including crewmembers Walt Henderson
(pilot) with his legs more or less intact, and John Steen (door
gunner). I was informed later that Army Hueys picked up Ned
Costa, crew chief, and Cliff White, co-pilot.
Photos of an USAF HH-43 "Pedro" Huskie used during the Vietnam War
and similar to the aircraft used in the rescue.
One truly amazing
thing happened as darkness fell over the crash site. We were
extracting the “last two” souls from the site. I don’t know if
they were Casper personnel, passengers, or other people that
were trying to help. We were hoisting these two troops up at
the same time on the Jungle Penetrator. Just as we got them to
the helicopter side door, the cable broke at the hoist motor
area. Thank God that our large crew chief, a Sgt Jessie
Franklin, was able to manhandle one of the troops before he
fell, dragged him partway into the helicopter and literally sat
on him to keep him from falling out. Maj Migia, who was in the
right seat, turned the controls over to me, and got the other
troop to stand on the “bear paw” left front skid of the HH-43,
and kept him from falling over backwards out of the helicopter.
This configuration left me with severe flying problems. Since
the pilot, two rescuees, and the crew chief were all hanging out
of the right side of the HH-43, I ran out of left cyclic stick
control to keep the Pedro from tipping over to the right. I was
able to slowly maneuver the helicopter across a valley with
maximum left cyclic banging the stops , descend to a Army mortar
site (I think), and hover while the panicked Army troops put
their feet on terra firma.
We then returned to
Phu Cat and tried to put the events of the day together. Due to
this quirk of fate, I ended up received the Military Airlift
Command Outstanding Safety Award for 1968. It was an amazing
sequence of events.