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Following the US Entry into the Vietnam War, helicopters rapidly became an integral part of almost every phase of the war. This was the first war in which helicopters were used on a large scale hence the need for large number of pilots and crewmembers quickly became apparent.
To fly helicopters, the Army looked for three basic attributes in those selected for flight school. First, because of the inherently unstable nature of helicopters they needed someone with excellent reflexes, which usually meant someone between the age of 18 and 26.
Next, because of the hostile environment these aircraft would be flown in, they needed someone who could make quick, accurate assessments of a situation and react accordingly. Pilots often were required to improvise much like a savvy streetwise person, someone who could figure their way out of a jam in an instant, somehow complete the mission and get the aircraft and crew back home
The Army also needed someone who could handle the physical and emotional stress of extended dangerous missions that would be flown in all kinds of weather and terrain. Those selected were for the most part young and wanted to fly -- often not quite realizing what they were getting themselves into. Volunteers came forward by the thousands.
Flight training for pilots began at Ft. Wolters, Texas, and continued at Ft. Rucker, Alabama or Ft Steward, Georgia. The training was broken into essentially five segments. Basic training consisted of simply learning to hover, takeoff and land a helicopter. In the next phase, they learned how to land and take off from a confined area, how to land on a pinnacle and cross-country navigation. At Ft. Rucker and Ft. Steward (and Ft. Wolters in the early days), pilots received basic instrument training, essentially how to maintain the helicopter right side up solely through the use of instruments. Next, student pilots were transitioned into the UH-1 Huey helicopter, which became not only the workhorse, but also the symbol of the Vietnam War. Finally, students were taught aviation tactics. The flight program lasted a total of 9 very trying months. There was no let up, when a student wasn't flying they were in class studying aircraft maintenance, proper preflight techniques, military tactics, how to call in artillery fire, first aid, navigation, safety considerations, flight characteristics of the aircraft and much more.
The crewchiefs and gunners were trained at various locations around the US. Beyond basic aircraft mechanics the training was minimal, because the skills needed to survive in Vietnam were both largely unknown and untrainable. Gunners were often former infantrymen who volunteered or extended their tour in Vietnam to get the job. The expectation of fun, adventure and travel brought forward the adventurous and bold. Fortunately, this was just the kind of person needed for the job.
For the most part, survival skills for both pilots and other crewmembers were learned on the job and taught by those who were still there and had first hand experience.
Most pilots came out of Vietnam with 1,000-1,200 hours of combat flight time. Despite the best training the Army could give, it took about six months of flying every day for a green pilot to gain enough experience to become an Aircraft Commander (AC). To make AC was an honor above all else! A pilot made AC only when the other ACs thought he was ready.
Crewchiefs and gunners were normally assigned an aircraft for which they were responsible. It was their
baby. They lived with it constantly, took care of it and sometimes even slept with it. After a long day's mission the crewchief and gunner normally stayed on the flight line to pull a daily or 25-hour inspection. Many times the crew had already missed supper and they knew they would be getting up at a very early hour for another long day. Many Crewchief's would rather miss food, a day off or anything short of their DEROS than not being with their aircraft when it flew. They would fly with anyone just to be with
theirship. There was a bond here that is difficult for the uninitiated to understand. It was not unusual for crewchiefs and gunners to extend beyond their normal 12-month tour to make sure their pilots were seasoned, and
theirship came back in one piece.
Everyone went to Vietnam knowing that they would be placed in harms way. To the men in the infantry and other units in the field, the helicopter was literally their lifeline; it dropped them off and picked them up; it brought them hot food and mail; it resupplied them with ammunition often under heavy enemy fire; it provided them with light at night to see the enemy and covering fire to help drive the enemy back. But most importantly, they knew a helicopter would come for them if they were wounded, no matter what, and quickly get them to a hospital.
The helicopter crews knew they were primary targets of enemy fire and could be killed or wounded. But they all believed deep down that their skills and ability would give them the edge which was often the case. Many more made it out than didn't, and only God knows why some were chosen and others not, something many often reflect on, even after all these years. Maybe that's why the story of the 134th is now coming out.
Every man in the 134th had a job to do and all were important to the functioning of the company, right down to the cooks and mail clerk--maybe especially the cooks and mail clerk!
Helicopters, being complex machines with many moving parts, required very high levels of maintenance. Failure of a single part could be a life or death matter. A common saying was
if something hasn't gone wrong yet, it will. The primary duty of almost half the men in the unit was direct maintenance support, a critical role without which there would quickly be no flyable aircraft. Many long hours were put in day in and day out by the men in the machine, engine, electrical, avionics, hydraulics, sheet metal, armament and paint shops as well as those on Line Crews, PE teams, recovery teams, etc. It often seemed they received little notice or recognition but their peers and the flight crews knew who did the work and who kept them flying, and that's what really counts.
No more fitting tribute can be paid to the maintenance and support personnel than the following words of Walt Chrobak: former gun platoon leader and XO:
One thing about an assualt helicopter unit, there might have been people considered
non-flyingbut just about everybody flew.
The crews flew - they weren't supposed to, but many of the crewchiefs and a few gunners learned to fly - at least enough to get back to base or on the ground if the two front seats couldn't continue.
The aircraft maintenance and signal detachment got to work both day and night. When the flights were over, maintenance began - day or night. The flight platoon leaders knew when platoon maintenance wasn't being done because they were reminded at 0200
come and look at this. The motto of maintenance seemed to be
save the data plate and we won't have a lossand they saved more than one aircraft with little more than a data plate. Somehow the men in maintenance also managed to dig wells, pour sidewalks, repair roofs, fix air conditioners and refrigerators, build showers and latrines, and even build small model cannons that actually fired bearings. After a helicopter came back, no matter how damaged, and after it was fixed, maintenance flew it. They flew the test flight. They made sure the aircraft wouldn't kill us - that was up to ourselves and the enemy. And they didn't log combat assaults, just test flights. Mechanics, technical inspectors, sheet metal - they all flew. They manufactured the door gun mounts for the gunships and the oversized ammo boxes these helicopters carried. They were outraged that we allowed our aircraft to be hit by enemy fire, but they fixed them and nobody died or was injured from mechanical failure. Under the conditions they worked in, this was remarkable.
Supply provided us what we needed when we wore it out or lost it. Where did the
chicken platescome from - they were too old for issue? Supply also provided trading material for the scroungers. They nearly cried when their sunglasses were traded for showers, water heaters, and water tanks - but they gave up their precious sunglasses. Does anybody recall everybody wearing PX wrap-around sunglasses? The supply people also flew to wherever they might get what we needed - boots, gloves, beds, lumber, lights, fans, sandbags.
The real administrative people - the clerks, switchboard operator, drivers - made sure headquarters stayed off our back and made sure we got home on time. They also volunteered to fly to let the flight crews rest - they didn't have to. One particular clerk I recall volunteered to fly on a particularly bad day and although it made him proud his mother and congressman wrote to the CO asking why a clerk was flying combat assaults. The clerk asked to write both responses.
So everybody flew - the cooks who kept a hot meal waiting at night and a hot breakfast in the morning. The clerks, the supply section, maintenance, communications - Hell, even the CO and XO flew. We were and always will be a TEAM!
This history is dedicated to those who made it possible, and especially to those who made the supreme sacrifice for their country and compatriots.
The 134th Aviation Company was originally a fixed wing Caribou company but built its combat record primarily as an Assault Helicopter Unit in Vietnam. To acknowledge its predecessor and namesake, a brief history of the Caribou era is included in this narrative.
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