First Remembrance: Learning the Ropes

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

I came to the war with 12 years of military pilot experience under my belt, all in the four-engined world of tanker and transport aircraft. Mostly in the micromanaged environment of SAC. I then had a couple of months in Florida learning to fly the mighty O-1 and then off to Southeast Asia and a very different world of flying where folks really tried to kill you.
We arrived in Saigon with no knowledge of what was in store, except our ultimate destination (in my case the 20th TASS at DaNang) and our vast experience of 20 or so hours in a single engine aircraft. Immediately we were told that flying the O-1 was not an option and that we would go immediately to Phan Rang for check- out in the O-2. I, for one, hadn’t been exposed to this machine at Hurlburt Field and didn’t really have a clue as to what she was all about.
Off we went, same day, in a C-47 to Phan Rang. The most memorable thing I remember of this flight was that the crew chief had a cooler of beer on board of which we all partook during the flight. This was sure as hell the first time I saw alcohol on a military aircraft. It was not to be the last.At Phan Rang we were given exactly eight days to check out in the O-2. All of the flights were with an instructor pilot present, so there were no opportunities to fly solo and get the kind of “feel” of an aircraft that only happens when one is alone and in command.
In addition, there were absolutely no flight manuals available for this aircraft (I didn’t see a manual for the entire time I was in Vietnam). The only reason I even had a checklist of sorts was that I made a copy from one of the instructors. I used it all the way through my tour and, to the best of my knowledge, I was one of a very few O-2 pilots that even had such an aid available. The O-2 had colored markings on its dials and we learned to read our instruments according to these little arcs (i.e. climb power was “top of the green”). For a pilot coming out of the world of SAC this was a change of immense proportions. From micromanagement where we had to know everything, to this world where we didn’t even have a manual or checklist, and we didn’t use actual instrument readings, was more than a bit disconcerting.
And then on to DaNang where, of course, they didn’t even know we were coming. After settling in for a day or so, we got a four-flight orientation. My initial flights consisted of a first basic orientation ride of our AO. No stick time for me, but I did learn where not to go.
The next ride was in lousy weather, so we didn’t make it to Laos, but my instructor needed to go to Dong Ha, so I rode along while we buzzed fishermen and villages to and from. No stick time on this one, either. We literally made people jump out of their boats, and looked in their windows.
Is it really any wonder, in retrospect, that we Americans were not too well liked by the locals? We felt omnipotent and sometimes lost sight, as individuals, of what we should be doing and how we should act. Sometimes we failed mightily as ambassadors of our cause.
The third flight was my night orientation mission into Laos. Since I had to understand the capabilities and characteristics of the starlight- scope, I again flew in the right seat and didn’t get any stick time. It was a beautiful night and I saw lots of stuff on the ground, but didn’t even observe how strike coordination and fighter control really worked. Three missions down and I still hadn’t flown the aircraft or experienced an actual military strike.
Fourth mission: Finally, I’m in the left seat and flying the aircraft. Wow! And we even have a designated strike to control. Unfortunately, the strike is at almost the same time as we come on station so the instructor decides to mark and control from the right seat and I lose my chance to actually put in a strike. However, I did, at least, see and hear how it’s supposed to be done. My instructor did give me one bit of good advice that I always remembered and used throughout the rest of my tour: “Start high and work yourself down as you work an area. You will find the altitude that you are comfortable and effective at. Use this as your base line. To go lower will increase your sense of unease and make you less effective as a FAC. To stay higher lowers your effectiveness because you can’t see as much.”
For me this altitude turned out to be about 1,200 to 1,500 feet above the ground. (This was in 1968-69 and before the wire-guided ground missiles forced even the O-2s to higher altitudes.) I did go lower on occasion and stayed a damn sight higher at night (usually about 8,000 or above). Generally this bit of advice served me well throughout my tour and I pretty much stuck by it.
My fifth mission was solo; all by myself over Laos. Single ship mission with no one else around. Only the second time I had flown since Phan Rang. In addition, I had never put in a strike or controlled aircraft in a combat situation. For a multi-engined jock who had never flown with less than a crew of five, this was one heck of a culture shock.
All went well; the bad guys didn’t take any pot shots at me and I even found a truck in an open area along a road. Turned out when I got back to DaNang that this piece of junk had been there for months and had probably been hit by every new FAC that came in country. Of course I didn’t know that and had called in air.
When I made my marking pass I was so excited that I pulled all the way over the top and ended up doing a loop. The strike fighter pilot commented that this was quite an interesting maneuver and I had to admit that this was my first chance to put in a strike and my first real marking pass on my first solo mission of the war, so I had a right to be a bit excited! I don’t remember the results of the strike (we couldn’t have hurt that hulk no matter what we did), but we did have a bit of a laugh over my acrobatics.
An interesting start to an interesting year. Talk about being unprepared for what we were doing. And maybe this very fact made us as effective as we were. We had to learn as we went along, for there simply weren’t many guidelines for us to go by.
It made for an exciting and challenging environment to operate in. I continued my combat education, particularly on the day I:

I came into country just after the end of the 1968 TET offensive and the breaking of the siege at Khe Sanh. Things were still pretty volatile up around the DMZ, and Khe Sanh, in particular, was not a place that an Air Force pilot wanted to go to for R&R.
I had completed my reconnaissance mission in Laos and was just about to cross the border into South Vietnam to the west of Khe Sanh when I spotted a structure right on the stream that formed the border between the two countries. Having no air to call in and still with my full compliment of rockets aboard, I figured that I might as well put in a couple to see what I could stir up.
One must remember that the rocket pods on the O-2 were not bore-sighted in any way, being simply fastened in their brackets beneath the wings. We had no real knowledge of where these guys would go; straight, left, right, up, down or some strange combination of the above. Very rarely did they go where they were supposed to and we usually had to call corrections related to where they hit instead of where we wanted them to be.
Anyway, I rolled in and fired a pair toward the structure. In this case they both went high instead of straight and landed well beyond the stream. I can say, therefore, that I have the distinction of not only missing my target, but the country I was aiming at.
Nothing stirred so I added power to continue on my way home and dinner, but then I developed a problem. When I pulled up and put the throttles to maximum power, my prop control on the front engine failed and it went to a flat pitch runaway. I have no idea how high the RPM peaked, but I remember that it almost bent the pin on the tachometer. I pulled the throttle back as quick as I could and kept the engine running (a little power is better than none, and I had a mountain pass to cross). I found that I could keep everything in the green with the throttle just a fraction above idle (the engine was at least carrying its own weight).
With this power setting I could barely climb, but limped over the mountains. Calling Khe Sanh tower, I declared an emergency and (horror of horrors) asked for permission to land. I started my straight-in approach to that famous runway. Gear down, everything set, and I’m about to see up close what the Marines had fought with such valor to protect for so long.
About a mile out I decided to give my prop control one more try and, wonder of wonders, whatever had failed let loose (probably a bit of dirt in some oil control port) and I gained full control again. I thanked Khe Sanh for their kindness and declared my intention to try for DaNang. I knew the engine was toast and repairs would sure be easier at the main base. Besides, the land was all downhill from that point so I had good single engine capability, and I always had Dong Ha to fall back on if I had further troubles. I came all the way back without a hitch, but on examination I found I had stretched every cylinder head bolt on the engine close to the point of failure.
As a little sideline to this incident: Starting home from Khe Sanh I received a call from a Jolly Green rescue helicopter coming back from patrol off the coast of North Vietnam who offered to fly formation with me if I desired. Of course I desired, and it sure was reassuring to see this big green bird hanging off the wing of my sick little bird as I wended my way home.

One night my observer and I were on the last mission of the day into Laos. We were flying alone, without a wingman, far from any friendly forces. It was a perfect night for flying, with stable air, unlimited visibility and a half moon that made it possible to clearly make out many objects on the ground, even without night vision equipment. Only two drawbacks impinged on this otherwise perfect situation. First, we had a very thin cirrus cloud deck far above us that gave the bad guys the ability to see us in silhouette, and secondly, an absolute lack of any air power to bring into play. In other words, a full four hours of basic visual reconnaissance faced us along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, without the possibility of being able to do those truck convoys a bit of harm.
We always joked around the squadron that every truck coming down from North Vietnam must drop a case of ammunition at every single antiaircraft position in Laos, for they used ammunition with wanton abandon and would “sound fire” at the slightest hint of aircraft noise. The tracers were a dead giveaway, first, to their position, and second, we could see the streams of fire, making them much easier to avoid. It looked like fireworks on the 4th of July. An interesting, but usually harmless sight and helpful to us from our reconnaissance perspective.
We may fly at 1,500 feet above the ground during the day, but to do so at night would be foolhardy, maybe suicidal, so we entered the AO at our usual night working altitude of around 10,000 feet. My observer was watching a particular fireworks display some miles north of our position and asked if I thought I could hit it with our “Willie Pete” rockets. The O-2 rocket pods were not boresighted, and were notorious for their inaccuracy. We could only be certain that they would fire generally forward. To hit something from 1,500 feet was questionable, but possible. To hit something from 10,000 feet was a pure miracle and a matter of much luck.
I accepted the challenge, not really expecting to end up within a mile of the gun, rolled into an attack pattern and fired off one rocket from each pod. Wonder of wonders, those two rockets tracked like they were running down a single wire and the next instant the tracers were coming out of what, to the gunners, must have been a choking cloud of white phosphorous smoke.
We pulled off, had our little laugh about the gunners (they must have thought they would have a bomb coming down their throat any second), and went on down the trail to continue our reconnaissance. Several hours later we were working our way back up the trail towards our exit point from Laos (east toward the ocean and just south of the DMZ), when all hell broke loose.
We figure that the North Vietnamese must have gotten a bit upset by our earlier attack and were monitoring us more closely than usual. When we came back up the trail they were waiting for us. All of a sudden my observer screamed, “Break left! Break left”. I was looking left at the time at tracers above, below, over, under and ahead of the aircraft. As I glanced to the right, the same sight greeted my view. I flipped the O-2 over on its back, fire walled the power, and dove for anyplace else than where I was. As I have said before, the O-2 is slow, but when you desperately need to get out of a tight spot in a hurry it is slow, slow, slow! Zigging back and forth, even in a dive under full power, is more like flapping your wings than evading.
We found ourselves in the top of an enormous funnel of tracer bullets. Looking back downward, I saw four trails of tracers rising like four red snakes from, what I suspect were four Quad ZPU sites. They knew where we were, could see us against the high clouds in the bright moonlight, and at that moment all I could think of was all of those dark rounds in between every one of the tracers.
I dove, and flapped my wings and went through those streams without a hit. I can honestly say that both of us were still shaking when we got back to the base an hour or so later. I have never been so scared in all my life. I don’t know to this day how we escaped being hit by at least one of those four gunners who had us dead in their sights. The fact that probably saved our lives was that we were quite high and near the top of their effective range. This caused their tracer stream to lose cohesion as the individual rounds began to wander and provided the space that we slipped through.
Now you know why we never flew normal FAC altitudes at night. I can only say that Somebody was looking out for our interests that night, and that’s for sure!