Rescue of A-4 pilot off Chu Lai

 In Veterans

Rescue of A-4 pilot off Chu Lai


anuary 15th, 1966

It seemed like it was going to be just another routine night of search and rescue (SAR) boredom. SAR H-34 helicopter crews were rarely called out to perform in the midst of a tropical storm. 40 knot winds blew off the South China Sea, boiling the sea, driving twenty foot swells onto the beach. A low ceiling and solid overcast of clouds hung a few hundred feet above the sea. How many bombing missions could there be on this stormy night, anyway? Don’t bombers have to see the ground in order to drop their bombs? We expected a quiet night.

Just prior to midnight the control tower called ordering us to start up and stand by. An A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bomber pilot was in trouble and might need our help. We immediately ran out to our two H-34 helicopters, cranked up the powerful engines, checked out our systems, warmed up our radios and dialed up the Chu Lai control tower frequency for further instructions.

The conversation between the tower and the A-4 pilot gave us the whole picture. The A-4 had just taken off with a full load of bombs on a radar-controlled bombing mission. Upon trying to retract his landing gear, it would not retract. He could not proceed on his mission; the aircraft would not accelerate to normal flying speed nor be able to land.

The tower first called the executive officer of the A-4 squadron up to talk to the A-4 pilot, then the commanding officer of the squadron. Those two were puzzled by the problem, so they called the squadron maintenance officer and ultimately the technical representative from the Douglas Aircraft Corp was called.

The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot

The aircraft stranded in the air was flying perfectly with at least another hour’s worth of fuel on board. No need for anyone to panic. The pilot repeatedly kept saying, “I really don’t want to have to jump out of this thing!” (Eject.) Finally, he flew a low pass by the tower and everyone observed that the main landing struts were badly bent and could neither be retracted or extended. There nothing that anybody on the ground could do or suggest that would alter that fact. It was too risky for him to try to belly land with the landing gear partly down in the strong cross winds, he would have to eject.

Flying at a speed well in excess of 100 knots it would be difficult for him to eject with any certainty that he would come down onto the base. Beyond the base perimeter was what we called “Indian Country.” No one wanted to be outside the friendly lines at night. In addition, there was a minefield surrounding the base. We all considered ejecting over land to be certain death.

In preparation, the pilot flew several miles out to sea, and dropped his racks of 250 pound bombs into the South China Sea eliminating racks full of high-explosive bombs to worry about. He homed in on the TACAN signal, made a U turn, headed out to sea once again and timed about one minute to put him a couple of miles to the east over the ocean.

We coordinated a rescue plan with the A4 pilot by radio and flew out to wait and watch. We spotted the flash of his ejection seat through the overcast and positioned ourselves so our rotors would not be a threat to his parachute as he floated down through the dark clouds and splashed into the churning dark waters beneath. This was going to be a difficult pickup. A hovering pick up is a challenging maneuver at any time, but to do it over a boiling sea at night, is near impossible.

He splashed down about a mile from the beach. Tim, the pilot in command, flew confidently and hovered right over the pilot with all of our hover and flood lights turned on. There was never any doubt in either of our minds that we would rescue this pilot. The crew chief in the belly of the helicopter had rolled out 100 feet of cable from the hoist and attached the horse collar to the end. All we had to do was lower it down to the pilot, wait for him to slide into it and reel him up like a big fish. “Piece o’cake.”  During the day, with calm seas and good visibility, it would have been a cinch. This was not daytime nor good visibility. We had the turbulence of gusty winds of the tropical storm to deal with and our potential passenger was bobbing around on the waves like a beach ball in a fan factory.

Tim made several tries to get the horse collar to the reluctant ejectee and failed. Each time the collar was almost within reach the wind whipped it away. Sometimes wave tops collapsed under the pilot, and he slid down a wave, away from the collar. We had to be successful soon or the A4 pilot would drown from exhaustion.

My job was to monitor the instruments and make sure that all the machine’s limitations were respected. Tim was pushing those limits. The operating manual for our helicopter said the limit on the nine cylinder Wright Cyclone engine was five minutes at full power. We were fairly heavy as we had a crew of five and full fuel. It took nearly full power just for us to hover in that situation. After more than 10 minutes, Tim pulled back and flew a quick circle around the pilot and then back down for another hover at full power stating,“The book says full power for only five minutes, it does not say you cannot go back right back to full power after rolling back to cruise power for a short while!” Several more tries of getting the horse collar to the pilot failed.

At one point while we hovered over the sea, a bit of motion caught my eye to my left. I looked up in time to see a huge roller coming right at us at eye level. In his serious intention to rescue the A-4 pilot, Tim had inadvertently followed the slope down the face of a big wave to a position way down in a deep trough between huge waves. I reacted quickly and lifted up the collective lever to raise us above that wave, it kissed the bottoms of our tires as it passed beneath us. It would have slapped us out of the sky like a gnat hit by a fly swatter. Fully dressed in flight gear and boots, we would not have survived a violent crash into the turbulent sea.

We hovered back over to the bobbing, bouncing pilot. After several more attempts, Tim was finally able to get the horse collar to him. Nearly exhausted, he was able to grab it and slide into it. The crew chief hoisted him up into the chopper to safety. We returned the exhausted and soaked but unharmed pilot to his unit at Chu Lai. I give credit to Tim O’Toole’s extraordinary piloting skills that we completed this mission.

We did not receive any medals for this rescue as it was all in a day’s work. Sikorsky Aircraft Company awarded Tim and I each a Sikorsky “Winged S” for using one of their aircraft to save a life on this hoist rescue mission. One of the best sayings that evolved from our time in Vietnam was, “The best medal is a live man’s smile.”

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