Before the ubiquitous ‘Huey,’ an unsung hero brought mobility to Vietnam’s battlefields.
When John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, he was faced with a multitude of problems concerning Vietnam. His military advisers in Saigon were asking for American combat troops and large increases in aviation support. While the president was reluctant to commit combat troops, he did authorize teams of U.S. Special Forces to be strategically placed throughout South Vietnam. But it was not until mid-1961 that Kennedy approved any increases in aviation forces. These came in the form of one Marine Corps helicopter squadron flying the Sikorsky H-34 and five Army transportation companies that flew the Piasecki H-21. Since Army helicopters are named after Indian tribes, the aircraft was officially called the H-21 Shawnee, but because of its fuselage shape it was more commonly referred to as the “Flying Banana.”
The first two H-21 companies, the 57th and the 8th, arrived in Vietnam late in December 1961. Over the next nine months, the 3rd, 93rd and 81st arrived, and by October 1962 all five of those companies were fully operational. At that time about 11,000 Americans were in Vietnam, including advisers, aviation units, Special Forces and personnel in the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, or MACV, the organization in charge of all U.S. combat forces. There had been a 9,000-man increase in two years, but that was just the beginning. By 1968, more than 535,000 American troops would be in Vietnam.
A standard transportation helicopter company consisted of approximately 155 men. The commanding officer (major), executive officer (captain), first sergeant and two clerks made up company headquarters. There were two flight platoons, an aircraft maintenance platoon and a service platoon, all commanded by captains. Each company had 18 helicopters. If all five companies were at full strength, there would be 90 H-21s in-country. But companies were seldom at full strength, especially in flight crews, and occasionally there were not enough pilots to fly all the aircraft available for a troop lift.
Piasecki Helicopter Corp. developed the H-21 as an arctic rescue helicopter, and the aircraft first flew in April 1952. Only 707 were built through 1958, when production ended, compared with about 16,500 Bell UH-1 “Hueys,” which are still in limited production.
Measured against today’s advanced helicopters with turbine engines, governor controls of key functions and simplified flight systems, the Piasecki H-21 and the Sikorsky H-34 were difficult to fly, hard to maintain and definitely low tech. Both were powered by the Wright R-1820 radial engine, the same type used in World War II B-17 bombers. Presumably, the Wright engines were used because so many were available, but H-21s required significantly more power than the B-17s did for takeoff and cruising, which created additional stress on engines not built for that much work. As a result, few engines lasted beyond 400 operational hours. Some pilots hated the H-21 because they had difficulty handling its two rotors—they called it “the beast.” But those who flew it well loved it. Overall, the vote was greatly in favor of love. An H-21 company’s mission often depended on its assigned location in Vietnam. For example, the 81st, operating in the Central Highlands, did more mountain flying than did units in the Mekong River delta. Troop lifts, support for Special Forces and supply missions logged the bulk of flight time. The 81st averaged at least one troop lift per week. But units serving the Army of the Republic of Vietnam in the delta did significant more lifts, averaging two or three weekly transporting ARVN troops. All five companies were flying close to or exceeding 1,000 hours per month. Considering the less than perfect conditions for maintenance work, achieving that many flight hours month after month was truly a remarkable accomplishment. Many pilots had been flying the Banana for years, and most crew chiefs were seasoned H-21 veterans from the start. That combination of experience, hard work and unit pride enabled an old-technology helicopter to exceed expectations.
Early in the war, a troop lift was called just that, a troop lift. After thousands of more sophisticated helicopters arrived to replace the Flying Banana, a troop lift became “a combat assault.” A “pickup” was renamed an “extraction,” and a “drop-off” was called an “insertion.” Flying with your gear in or near the trees was “NOE” (nap-of-the-earth). Fancy names for doing pretty much the same thing.
But the later years did see a substantial difference in the types of troops transported to battlefield landing zones and the number of helicopters involved. In early operations, the H-21 companies mainly carried ARVN soldiers and 10 or so helicopters participated in a landing. Following the massive buildup of U.S. forces beginning in 1965, the helicopters airlifted primarily American soldiers, and the number of Hueys could exceed 60.
Several considerations determined the number of troops carried per aircraft. Under good weather, the H-21 on initial lifts might carry 12 to 14 ARVN soldiers. On subsequent lifts, more could be added as the helicopters’ fuel weight was reduced. Flight crews always preferred to start with 12 or fewer troops because a larger number would require more time in the landing zone, exposing the aircraft to more enemy fire. Staying too long was hazardous, and more than 15 seconds was too long. In a “hot” landing zone, Vietnamese troops were sometimes slow getting off the aircraft because they were scared, and occasionally it was necessary to throw one or two out the door. Troop lifts usually started from a dirt airstrip—few airstrips were paved then. The H-21s normally arrived at the pickup point two hours in advance to refuel and receive the mission briefing. Assigned to each company was a single-engine, two-seat observation plane, a Cessna L-19 Bird Dog. Before any troop lift, the Bird Dog would conduct a high reconnaissance flight over the landing zone to provide important details about its size and shape. During the mission, the L-19 would fly above the H-21s, providing distance and direction—important to the flight because flying in close formation at treetop level is no time for reading maps.
A well-conducted troop lift was a silent troop lift. The flight leader did the talking and only when necessary. The importance of a good flight leader cannot be overemphasized. He not only set the tone for the flight but also had to be skilled enough to fly a constant airspeed. Sudden or erratic airspeed changes would ripple through the flight, causing some rear aircraft to make large increases or decreases in airspeed to maintain formation.The rear aircraft might find it necessary to exceed 90 knots. This is known as the “accordion” effect. When aircraft were separated by just slightly more than a rotor disk, flight leaders needed to be damn near perfect. Not all good pilots make good flight leaders.
In mission briefings, all pilots synchronized their watches to start engines and perform takeoff checks simultaneously. After the checks, they turned on their landing lights. When the flight leader saw that all landing lights were illuminated, he announced “flights up” and began his countdown to liftoff. During the dry season when dirt airstrips were extremely dusty, the helicopters lifted off two at a time instead of all at once. The lead aircraft climbed on course to the designated altitude while holding 60 knots, and when the last aircraft in the flight announced, “The flight is formed,” the leader increased his speed to 80 knots, considered the best formation speed. To discourage small-arms fire while en route, the flight normally flew about 2,500 feet above ground before descending to fly the last 15 to 20 kilometers at treetop level, which muffled sound and helped achieve surprise.
For most of the war, it was standard procedure to hit the landing zone with an airstrike before the flight’s arrival, and it was the Bird Dog’s responsibility to stop the airstrike approximately three minutes before landing. North American T-28 Trojans flown by Vietnamese pilots were used for airstrikes during the H-21 period in the war, and they generally did a very good job. But some officials at MACV believed that airstrikes at the landing zone lost the element of surprise, giving the Viet Cong time to escape. There may have been some truth to that. Many initial troop lifts were somewhat anti-climactic because the VC had left the area, and the landing zones were quiet.
Never anti-climatic was crossing the tree line for a landing when both the crew chief and door gunner opened fire with their machine guns. That sudden burst of noise always caused butts to squeeze tight in the seats. Aircraft hits—although infrequent—usually happened when the copters were leaving a site after dropping off troops. Those hits were generally in the aircraft’s rear section, which led the crews to believe that the shots came from Viet Cong sympathizers who had infiltrated the ARVN units. It was easy for the infiltrators to shoot at the aircraft without being noticed because all troops in the area were firing after the landing.
Even though MACV officials were concerned that airstrikes alerted enemy forces to helicopter arrivals, flight crews considered the strikes essential support for any troop landing. There were indications in December 1962 and early January 1963, however, that the Viet Cong were no longer going to scatter when ARVN troops arrived, but instead would stay and fight.
That change in enemy tactics first became evident on December 22, when the 81st and 8th companies conducted a maximum-effort troop lift from Tuy Hoa, an airstrip on the coast in the central part of South Vietnam. Each company was to provide 15 aircraft to transport three ARVN battalions into the mountainous areas north of Tuy Hoa. At the mission briefing held three days earlier, MACV announced that there would be no airstrikes before the landings. The flight leader stood and objected but was told to sit down. The decision was final.
On mission day, December 22, there were no airstrikes before the first lift, consisting of 29 aircraft (instead of the planned 30 because one had mechanical problems), left Tuy Hoa. As the flight crossed the tree line and prepared for landing, the Viet Cong opened fire. Many aircraft immediately received multiple hits. Some ARVN soldiers were killed almost as soon as they exited the helicopter—before they could even get out of the landing zone. For the helicopter crews, 15 seconds on the ground seemed like an eternity. They had a limited ability to respond to the attack because only the outer aircraft in the flight formation could return fire without hitting other helicopters. Luckily, all the helicopters got off the ground, but one with oil-tank hits lost all oil pressure and made an emergency landing before reaching Tuy Hoa.
Before conducting the second and third lifts, the flight’s commanding officer, Major George W. Aldridge, recommended shutting down and evaluating the situation. Enemy fire hit 22 aircraft. One pilot was mortally wounded, and two crewmen were injured. Twelve aircraft were too badly damaged to fly another lift or even return to home without repair. It was decided that the second and third lifts to complete the mission would be conducted using 17 aircraft carrying as many additional soldiers as possible. This, of course, increased the time on the landing site and the exposure to enemy fire. Thankfully, these landings were uneventful.
Within days MACV issued a directive that no troop lifts would be conducted without prior airstrikes. A little late, but at least a lesson learned.
Even though an airstrike and a helicopter gunship accompanied a landing at Ap Bac, about 45 miles southwest of Saigon, on Jan. 2, 1963, the Viet Cong stayed to fight. This time five helicopters, including the gunship, were either shot down or disabled in the landing zone. Some ARVN soldiers were killed, but most hid behind rice paddy dikes doing nothing to suppress the VC fire. Armored personnel carriers with .50-caliber machine guns were close by and available, but the ARVN commander refused to call in those forces even to save his own countrymen.
Just as bad, air support was not readily available because of poor communication and lack of coordination. The Viet Cong, experiencing little or no resistance, maintained their position until darkness and then simply disappeared. If nothing else, Ap Bac disclosed some serious leadership weaknesses in senior ARVN officers. Later, Ap Bac was a major factor in the decision to commit American combat troops.
After Ap Bac, there seemed to be fewer troop lifts, and most flying was for support and supply services. In the Central Highlands, for example, the 81st had four Special Forces teams to support. The teams were so deep in the boondocks that helicopters were basically their sole link to civilization. Working closely with the teams, the helicopter crews developed strong friendships with them—and delivering an occasional case of beer didn’t hurt. Seeing firsthand how Special Forces worked, the flight crews could appreciate the way those teams turned the Montagnards (mountain people) into disciplined fighting units while improving their lives with health care, sanitation and modern agricultural techniques. Montagnards were loyal, fearless and eager to fight the Viet Cong.
In 1962 the South Vietnamese government instituted the Strategic Hamlet Program to consolidate individual Montagnards into fortified hamlets to protect them from attacks and deny the Viet Cong access to manpower, food sources and places to live or hide. From the start the program experienced significant problems, mainly because it was poorly conceived and badly managed. It forced incompatible tribes to live together, took away their precious independence, and worst of all, the compounds were controlled and guarded by Vietnamese, whom the Montagnards despised.
The program was doomed to fail, but it did keep aircraft busy hauling pigs, chickens, tons of rice and hundreds of crocks of a fermented fish sauce called nuoc mam—a staple of the Montagnard diet. A cargo of pigs and chickens meant unpleasant odors on the aircraft, but when a fragile nuoc mam crock was broken, it created a smell that could bring tears to your eyes. Crew members occasionally resorted to wearing gas masks.
To keep the Montagnard compounds supplied, two, three or more aircraft sometimes worked four to five days a week, and the flying hours needed for that program reduced the aircraft available for troop lifts. Still, it was rewarding to see how the Flying Banana made a strong contribution to a program that otherwise had limited success.
Beginning in late 1963 Bell UH-1s began replacing the Flying Bananas. The timing was good because the H-21s were showing their age: metal fatigue was causing cracks, parts were hard to get and cannibalization was the rule instead of the exception. Two aircraft had literally fallen out of the sky, with disastrous results. Not knowing the cause of these failures was a blow to morale.
But the excitement for the new aircraft soon turned to disappointment. The UH-1B was a smaller helicopter. Instead of hauling 12 or 14 troops like the Banana, it struggled to carry six or seven. A 3,000-pound sling load, easily lifted by the H-21, was impossible for the UH-1B. Flight crews were soon saying, “Give us back the Banana.” It would be two years before the “D” model Huey arrived with an engine strong enough to approach, but not match, the power of H-21.
As Hueys replaced the Flying Bananas, the “old girls” were flown to Saigon for transport back to the States. Sometime in late 1964 or early 1965 they left Saigon by ship, but when and where they arrived in the United States is a mystery.
In Saigon there were no parades, no brass bands, no fancy speeches honoring the Flying Bananas for their service in Vietnam—service that was exceptional, considering they were old when they arrived, difficult to maintain, hard to fly and ill-suited for the environment where they operated. Still, they proudly led the way until thousands of high-tech helicopters arrived to change air mobility forever.
Thomas R. Messick, a retired Army major, served for 28 years as an Army aviator, including two tours in Vietnam. Later he retired as manager of flight operations and chief helicopter pilot for General Electric Co.
First published in Vietnam Magazine’s April 2016 issue.