Dan Ford's books
For print editions of Dan's books, go here      For the e-books, go here

HOME > VIETNAM > PLANES 1964

"They just fall apart in mid-air"

[From The Nation, July 13, 1964]

In every daylight hour, from runways and clearings all over South Vietnam, the aircraft lift off under maximum power--helicopters, cargo planes, fighter-bombers, observation craft, even an occasional U-2 spy plane. They strain for altitude, climbing in tight spirals until their altimeters read 2,000 feet or more. Only then do crews and engines relax. The only safe highway in South Vietnam is the sky, and the only safe accesses to it are the slender columns of air space above government-controlled outposts and towns.

"We've been shot at right over the city," a helicopter pilot told me at Vinh Long, home of the 114th Aviation Company. "So we don't fool around any more. These aircraft are flying at max gross every time they take off. Watch the tail-boom--you'll see the skin wrinkling from the torque. No aircraft can take that kind of strain every day of the year."

He might have been any military pilot in South Vietnam, but he happened to be flying the turbo-jet helicopter which the Bell company christened the Iroquois, but which everybody else calls the Huey, from its military designation as the HU-1. The Huey is fast, compact and fairly powerful. It was designed for evacuating battle casualties, but here it flies every conceivable mission, from transporting pigs and cabbages to assaulting fortified Vietcong positions. Most of the Hueys in the 114th have flown more than 1,000 hours in the past year. Four of them have gone down, and ten of their crew men have died.

Altogether, 136 of the 277 Americans who have lost their lives in South Vietnam [up to July 1964] died in plane and helicopter crashes. All but forty of these deaths were attributed to "hostile action," but there is a general feeling here that the casualty list gives the Vietcong far too much credit.

"You'll hear about planes being shot down," one T-28 [North American Nomad modified trainer] pilot told me when I first arrived in Saigon. "But don't you believe it. They just fall apart in mid-air."

This attitude is common among fighter pilots, who must push their aircraft to the limits of their endurance. It became public opinion when the letters of Captain Jerry Shanks were published in Life magazine. Shanks was killed on March 24 when his T-28 shed its wings during a bombing run, a possibility he had predicted many times in letters to his wife.

Since the Shanks letters were published, the Department of Defense has been fighting a rear-guard action against journalists and politicians in search of headlines. A particularly misguided example of legislative zeal appeared in Stars and Stripes a few weeks ago. The story told of a Congressman who was demanding an investigation of "obsolete" aircraft in Vietnam, because one of his constituents had died when a Huey lost its tail-boom and spun into the ground. But the HU-1 is not obsolete; it is simply overworked. And so is every plane which lifts off from a field in South Vietnam--even the great Boeing 707 jetliners. A Pam Am Clipper was hit by rifle fire last year, and its pilots don't fool around any more, either. They take off with the same urgency as the military aircraft.

It is the urgency that kills, not obsolescence. Not all U.S. aircraft are as new or even as reliable as the Huey. The twin-engined B-26 [Douglas Invader, originally designated A-26], which killed nineteen airmen before it was grounded, was designed and built during World War II. But even the B-26 cannot fairly be called obsolescent, given the combat conditions in Southeast Asia, just as a burro isn't obsolete on the east wall of the Grand Canyon. We now build jets. And our planes can fly at twice the speed of sound, carry enormous loads, and span continents without refueling. They're useless in South Vietnam. Here we need planes that can rise from short, makeshift runways and fly at tree-top level at speeds slow enough to permit the pilot to spot the most elusive enemy the U.S. has ever encountered. In short, we need planes very much like those we fielded in World War II. (The reader will have noticed that I write as though the United States were waging a war in South Vietnam. Technically, of course, it isn't, but out here it is difficult to be technical about it. Hypocrisy isn't easily maintained in a combat zone.)

We should have learned the lesson of air combat in the Pacific fourteen years ago. The Air Force put its newest jet fighters into Korea, only to discover that they were too fast to support the ground forces. The pilots could not sight their targets at supersonic speeds, nor could they return soon enough for a second strike, nor pull up in the face of Korea's precipitous mountains. So the Air Force took its P-51 Mustangs out of moth balls, and the Navy flew AD-6 Skyraiders from carriers in the Sea of Japan.

The Skyraider is beginning to see service in Vietnam. It has not been used until now because it is a single-seat aircraft, and Americans fly air strikes against the Vietcong only when there is a Vietnamese aboard, to maintain the fiction that we are here only to advise and assist, not to fight. Whether he was a legitimate student pilot or just a sacrificial lamb, the need for a Vietnamese observer prevented us from using the Skyraider until the Vietnamese Air Force had competent pilots of its own, or until the plane was modified to seat two persons. Both changes are now in progress. Vietnamese pilots are flying a squadron of Skyraiders (under the designation of A-1H) out of Bien Hoa, near Saigon, and two-seater A-1E Skyraiders are scheduled to arrive soon.

The Army has had a similar experience with cargo planes. A few years ago, over Air Force protests, the Army won its case for a cargo plane that was small, sturdy and able to operate under primitive conditions. Vietnam has proved the wisdom of that decision. But when the Army went shopping, it found that there was no U.S.-built aircraft which met its specifications. So it bought the Caribou from de Havilland in Canada, where bush pilots still value tough little planes. The Caribou is a Roman-noses, cigar-shaped plane with a great, soaring tail and an endearing homeliness that is matched by one other vehicle in the world: the Volkswagen [Beetle] sedan.

We are not winning our non-war in South Vietnam--perhaps we are losing it--and we insist upon knowing why. First we blamed our setbacks on the oppressive Diem government, and that government was changed; then we blamed the Vietnamese soldier's reluctance to fight, and that was disproved by a series of costly operations; now we are blaming our aircraft. Down in the Mekong Delta at the end of June, while waiting for the afternoon Caribou to Saigon, I read an editorial entitled "Brave Men Betrayed." It had been clipped from a Scripps-Howard newspaper by an irate colonel, and it told how "courageous young Americans are being betrayed by ancient equipment that is no longer equal to the demands of modern aerial combat."

Unfortunately, combat in South Vietnam is neither modern nor aerial. If it were, we would have won long ago.


[First published, in slightly different form, in The Nation, July 13, 1964. I wrote the dispatch on a tiny Hermes typewriter while waiting for a flight to Pleiku in the Central Highlands. I put it in an envelope with a five-cent stamp on the outside, and the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group generously flew it to Carey McWilliams in New York. McWilliams was what most Army officers would have called a pinko, but he was happy to publish even Republicans like me, if they'd work for what he could afford to pay, which in this case was $65. The T-28 pilot quoted in the story was Mark Diebolt, whose wife I'd met flying on the plane to Saigon, and who later flew an O-1 Bird Dog in America's secret war in Laos. He was a great guy, and I'm happy to say that he survived both wars.]

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford