We had been assigned to fly a single-ship mission to haul a load of high-explosive rockets from Pleiku to a Special Forces camp about thirty miles south. The rockets, 2500 pounds of them, were the type used on our helicopter gunships. We often placed caches of them near the action to cut the wasted time of return flights.
They loaded Reacher’s ship while it was shut down. We were parked on the apron next to the PSP runway and across from the latrine at the Turkey Farm. The rockets were packed so tightly that Reacher and the gunner were pushed out of the pockets and barely had room to sit. I doubted that the load could be lifted, but Leese said it would be a cinch.
Leese, as was his practice, let me do all the flying. I liked that.
‘Let’s go,’ he ordered.
The starter motor screamed. The turbine whined familiarly and the rotors blurred above the cabin.
When all gauges showed green, I slowly raised the collective to pull the Huey into a hover. No go. I pulled in full power, but the Huey just sat there shuddering. We stirred up a lot of wind, but we didn’t get one inch off the ground.
‘You’ll have to make a running takeoff,’ Leese said.
If a helicopter can’t hover because of an overloaded condition like this, it can be made light on the skids with the collective and then urged forward with the cyclic so that it slides across the ground on its skids. If it can slide along the ground long enough, it will take off like an airplane, even though it can’t hover.
It is not graceful. I skidded and scraped along the runway to the takeoff position at the field. The noise of the skid plates scraping against the steel runway chattered and growled through the ship.
I radioed for clearance and ground slowly down the runway. The tugging of the skids against the corrugations of the runway made the ship rock back and forth. We moved about a hundred feet at a slow walk.
The idea is to get going fast enough for the rotors to start swinging through undisturbed air rather than in their own turbulent downwash. When the whole rotor system is spinning in clean air, it suddenly lifts very strongly – translational lift.
So I was skidding and bumping along the runway, trying to get the beast to translational-lift speed. It felt like the Huey was disintegrating with all the noise and shaking, but Leese smiled confidently from the left seat. ‘No problem.’
With about a third of the runway left, the overloaded and suffering Huey finally got to flight speed and struggled into the air. Reacher cheered his baby from the back.
We wanted to climb to 3000 feet, but during the thirty-mile flight I got no higher than half that altitude. As we lumbered along, I realized we were so heavily loaded than an autorotation would be a lot rougher than anyone would like when carrying more than a ton of high explosives.
The one factor that was actually improving as we labored along was that we were burning a bunch of fuel. The ship would be lighter for the running landing I was prepared to make at our destination.
At the camp we were going to, the commander had left the job of picking the landing spot to a sergeant especially schooled in the workings of the aviation branch. However, this sergeant was not around, so the job of picking the spot had passed to his assistant, who, although he looked like he knew what he was doing, didn’t.
We made a long, very gentle descent toward the camp.
I spotted the assistant. He had his arms held high, indicating the grassy strip near the forward edge of the camp. It looked as though the spot he was pointing to was just outside the stretched-out coil of concertina-wire fence that ran between the perimeter of the camp and the nearby trees. There was enough room to land, so I didn’t question his judgement.
As I got closer, lower, and slower, I brought in the power. It would take all we had just to cushion the impact.
I crossed the small wall of trees that ringed the camp, and flared. I was six feet over the grass outside the fence when I heard a panicky voice in my earphones.
‘Don’t land there!’ the voice screamed. ‘That’s a minefield!’
‘Minefield!’ Even Leese was impressed.
If Leese was impressed, I was petrified. The Huey was mushing inexorably toward the ground. I was too low to extend my landing beyond the fence. I pulled the collective to my armpit and waited for the noise. The Huey, God bless it, came to a shuddering, engine-wrenching hover just inches from the ground. The low-rpm warning siren blared in my ears, and for a few horrible seconds I wondered if it could hold the hover. The engine was bogging down with the strain. I had to reduce the power or lose it, so I reduced the collective a bit to let the ship drift down closer and give the turbine a chance to wind up a little. When the skids almost touched the grass, the siren stopped and the rpm slowly returned. When it finally stabilized, I hauled it slowly back up to about six inches above the minefield.
Reacher’s illegal tune-up had just saved us, but we still had a problem. The four-foot fence in front of us was too high to get over, and the trees behind us blocked any retreat.
‘Well, at least we can stay off the ground,’ said Leese.
We were, from my point of view, 2500 pounds of high explosive tearing at the air to stay away from the high explosives under us.
We could just stay there, hanging, until we got lighter, but there was the problem of getting shot at near the edge of the camp, and neither of us knew how long the Huey – even Reacher’s Huey – could grind away like this at full power. And we couldn’t dump the cargo.
I pulled in more power, and the Huey climbed another foot, but when it got that much farther out of the ground cushion, the engine strained and the ship settled back down toward the grass. I tried it a few more times and discovered that while it settled back down from the climb, I could milk a few more rpm out of the engine. In this way, I figured I could use the little extra power gained on the way down to pull it a little higher on the next try. I did this over and over, floating a little higher each time.
This technique, and the fact that we were getting lighter by burning fuel, finally allowed me to get the skids fence-high. But when I tried to cross the fence from the top of a bounce, the Huey sank too fast. By moving forward, I had moved out of the ground cushion.
What now? I had Reacher look behind us. He said there was another row of concertina wire about fifty feet behind us. I hadn’t even noticed that. My hope was that by backing up a little, I could get some room for a forward run to clear the hurdle. So I backed up as far as Reacher could clear me, and went for it. No good. I was within a foot of making it, but I had to flare to a stop before I tangled up in the wire. I drifted backward to resume my low hover over the mines.
Leese said, ‘Try a right-pedal turn.’
Perfect. That’s why Leese had lived to fly through two wars. He understood his machines. The pedals control the anti-torque rotor, the tail rotor. Turning to the right – with the torque – would make more power available to the main rotors.
So I backed up again. Instead of charging straight ahead, I hovered parallel to the fence for a few feet and then banked hard right toward it. It worked! This was the extra boost I needed to clear the trap.
I kept turning as I crossed the fence and landed sideways on the other side. Drenched with sweat, I felt as though I had just flown the Atlantic with my arms.
‘Not bad,’ said Leese as we landed on the safe side of the concertina wire. ‘Now, I hope this has taught you a lesson.’ His voice was calm.
‘Lesson?’ I said weakly. ‘What lesson?’
‘Never trust a grunt,’ he said.