Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A tribute to Army pilots

Recently our community mourned the loss of one of its heroes, a young Army pilot named Terry Varnadore, who was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan this past April. CW2 Varnadore is survived by an expectant wife and a child.

On the day his body was flown home the entire community turned out to line the route from the airport to the funeral home. It was a great outpouring of compassion and support.

His story brought to mind my own experiences with Army helicopters and the brave pilots and crew who flew them.

My first flight came during a wargame exercise in Germany dubbed "reforger." At the time I commanded the recon platoon of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, the "Blue Spaders." As a part of this weeklong exercise, my platoon was chosen for a demonstration of air mobility. For this exercise we drove my command track under a Sikorsky "sky crane," the chopper that looks like a praying mantis. We secured it under the chopper by cables, climbed inside, and off we went. My favorite part of this whole deal was watching the notables in the bleachers when we landed. It was hilarious to see them grab their hats and toupees as the prop wash blasted over them.

A year later, when I arrived in Vietnam, I was assigned to command an airmobile infantry platoon. Our "ride" both into the jungle and back out again was the UH6, Huey. We would fly in lifts of six birds, enough to carry the 30-35 men of a rifle platoon. My platoon's assignment was to secure the landing zone, so I flew on the first bird, followed by the rest of my platoon in the other five Hueys. The first chopper carried me plus my radio operator, our platoon medic, a Vietnamese scout, and the "pig" (M60) team. We sat in the door with our feet dangling, flying along at 120 knots and 2000 feet. As we flew, we could see Cobra gunships at both flanks. They provided security for our lift and also "prepped" the lz with miniguns, rocket launchers and 40mm grenades before landed. Every airmobile insertion was another 4th of July.

As we touched down I slid out and directed my platoon into position in order to secure the landing zone. Once the entire company was on the ground in our new area of operations (AO) we moved out in various directions to sniff out any evidence of the movement of supplies along the Ho Chi Minh trail and to interdict any enemy troops.

Every third or fourth day a Huey would fly out to our position with resupplies. And occasionally we had to call on them for the evacuation of a wounded soldier.

We came to be able to distinguish each helicopter by its sound. We could tell a Huey from a Cobra, from a Chinook, from a "loach."

The best sound of chopper blades, though, was that fortnightly "whop-whop" sound of the Hueys that were on their way to extract us to carry us to the rear for a three day stand down.

I grew to greatly admire the brave young men who flew these great birds. They were some of the real heroes of Vietnam; daring, courageous, driven to do their job with the utmost of excellence under the most difficult of circumstances. And today's Army pilots are heroes in their own right. I salute them all.

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