In the aviation unit I flew with in Vietnam, our own stupidity and bad judgment usually posed more serious risks for us than those from the bad guys. My assault helicopter company supported the Republic of Korea [ROK] Army troops of the White Horse and Tiger Divisions.
Early in 1972 our ROKs captured a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Rest and Recuperation center in a mountainous valley of central South Vietnam, complete with a treasure trove of live pigs and corn. To “win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people,” the Koreans decided to donate the captured corn and pigs to their adopted local orphanage forty miles away in Nha Trang.
The only way to get the livestock and produce out was for us to fly them out in our helicopter. The Korean troops chopped a tiny clearing in the jungle canopy on the side of the valley, what we called a “hoverhole,” just big enough to fit a Huey helicopter. I was still a “new guy” in country and was flying copilot, known as “Charlie Pop,” that day when our bird got the mission. It was our first sortie of the afternoon, so the bird was heavy with full fuel, and it was starting to get really hot when we arrived in the valley and wormed our way down through the hoverhole.
There were about two loads worth to haul out, but somehow my Aircraft Commander, the battle-hardened pilot in charge of the helicopter, let the Koreans talk him into trying to fly it all out in a single lift. So, the troops packed bags of corn about two feet deep across the entire floor of the Huey, and then threw the five hogtied pigs on top of the pile and told us to go. I was later to learn that these Vietnamese “potbellied” pigs are considered as high-fashion pets by Yuppies, because they are so cute, but I sure didn’t think so that day.
We were severely overloaded as it was, and air temperature was killing our lift, so naturally as the “Charlie Pop,” I was given the honors of being on the controls to bring the bird out. As I pulled in power and started to climb up through the hole in the canopy, the overloaded rotor was already losing speed dangerously, and the controls were starting to get mushy. Understand, our assault Hueys had no doors.
One thing I should mention is that pigs do not like to ride in helicopters. What I mean to say is, pigs really don’t like to ride in helicopters! So about twenty feet up, half a ton of tied-up pigs started squealing and thrashing around in the helicopter, making control almost impossible. As the rotor blades wallowed around in the hoverhole, the blade tips started chopping leaves and branches, swirling loose debris through the cabin, which really pissed those pigs off.
By this time the entire platoon of Korean troops on the ground were standing directly beneath the helicopter, staring up at this incredible sight. There was no way I could let the bird down without squashing a dozen or so of them.
Fortunately, I guess, the pigs got so agitated that they started knocking bags of corn loose from the pile on the floor. Despite the lurching gyrations of the Huey, as loose corn joined leaves and brush flying everywhere, raining down on the troops, the aircraft lost enough cargo weight that the rotor quit bleeding RPM.
As the rotors finally cleared the canopy, I actually thought we were going to make it out alive, and I started to ease the control stick forward, desperate to pick up some airspeed. Too soon. The front ends of the skids caught in the branches and I thought we were going to nose it in right there.
The Aircraft Commander grabbed the controls away from me and yanked the power control up. This succeeded in breaking the skids free of the trees, but also put an excessive load on the already dangerously slow rotor. Turned out, though, it was the tail rotor that was really trying to kill us, because by this time it had also slowed so much that it was impossible to counteract the overtorque on the main rotor.
I never knew until that day that a helicopter could whirl around after running out of tail rotor control and still remain flying. The books say it can’t. But I guess I wouldn’t be telling you this story if it the books were right.
We spun a pair of clockwise gyrating rotations as the Huey plunged down the valley side, skimming the canopy and slinging bags of corn and two of those damn pigs far and wide. As the aircraft fell sideways, the rotor slid into undisturbed air and the bird began to get enough airspeed to re-establish directional control. Even still, it took about four more hairy minutes to nurse enough airspeed and altitude to finally climb out of that valley and start back to Nha Trang.
We had nearly lost four American aircrew members and a million-dollar aircraft, costing about $1,000 per hour to operate, trying to rescue maybe $50 worth of corn and pigs. All of this so the little orphans could appreciate the humanitarianism of our war effort. As it was, we only got about half of the total loot to its final destination.
I figured it would have been cheaper and far more sensible if the Koreans had just shot the pigs, burned the corn, and gone into town to buy some presents for the orphans. Hell, knowing what I do now, I would have paid for them myself. If only to have been spared the memorable experience that evening of scrubing overheated pig feces out of the helicopter cabin.
Note: As with all war stories, I swear that every word of this is the exact honest truth, because you just can’t make this stuff up.