A Shau Escort--Emergency Diverts
It was the last 60 days of my squadron tour. My awards page showed only 10 Air Medals for over 150 combat missions in Vietnam. The final 50 missions would have to produce some award recommendations or my combat tour was only going to result in a dozen Air Medals. Each day I harped at the Operations Officer and the schedulers for the demanding missions. A Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) would mean a successful combat tour and every fighter pilot hoped for that award. Major "Shooter" Beckwith was getting tired of my bitching and sniveling for potentially award producing flights. Tally Ho, Steel Tiger, Tiger Hound, Sparrow Hawk, SOG, Force Recon, close air support, and even the night Hot Pad were my repeated requests from Shooter. On every mission, I searched for diverts to more demanding secondary targets.
Guard Channel receiver was always on. The UHF ADF was referred to as "The Bird Dog." When a "May Day" came into the earphones, the UHF channel selector knob was quickly positioned from UHF+G to Guard. The ADF switch was toggled to 'ON' and the heading gauge checked for the ADF needle swing toward the source of the transmission. Turning my Crusader's nose to follow the ADF needle, I homed in on the distress location. A typical emergency call might sound like this one I received one day: "May Day! May Day! May Day! This is Dust Man three zero, a CH-46, 20 miles 220 degrees from An Hoa 1000 feet, with an ammo fire. 15 souls on board. We are going down." The ADF needle pointed to the transmitter. I was north of Da Nang on that day and the Helo crashed before I could reach his position. The procedure was to proceed at maximum speed for aircraft configuration to the position of the pilot in trouble. A routine one point mission could suddenly become an emergency rescue operation involving ordnance delivery in close air support of downed Americans. Frequently such emergency conditions provided an excellent opportunity for commendable write-ups from those supported which might result in an award recommendation. That was just what I wanted.
"This is Covey 15 on UHF Guard channel. We are an Oscar One heading north near A Loui air strip in A Shau Valley. We have a rough running engine and request a strike flight to cover us." The guard transmission got my attention and the UHF switch was moved to ADF. I was a single F-8 returning to Da Nang from a Helo Escort mission west of Phu Bai. It was only 30 miles over to the north end of A Shau Valley. The ADF needle swung and locked on 255 degrees. Triggering the mike I transmitted, "Covey 15, Mofak Lead has 400 Delta 20s and is five minutes from your position climbing to angels ten, over."
"Covey 15 is at Angels 7.5 but am losing altitude at 200 feet per minute with this rough runner. Call when you have me in sight." The pilot did not want to crash or bail out in A Shau Valley. His chances of getting out of A Shau without being killed or captured were close to nil. Covey one five was in an aged and frail O-1 (L-19) "Birddog" aircraft which usually had an Air Force Forward Air Controller aboard. Sometimes the Birddog also carried a Forward Observer to handle communications between the FAC and strike aircraft or ground troops.
After crossing the rugged ridgeline at the north end of A Shau, I commenced S-turning as I headed south toward A Loui in efforts to spot the O-1. Within a minute the wings of the Birddog stood out against the jungle canopy. "You are in sight, Covey 15. I'm orbiting overhead at Angels ten. What are your intentions?"
Covey 15 answered, "I'm still losing altitude passing Angels seven. Phu Bai is our destination. If we can clear the ridgeline at 12 o'clock we might make it home." The range of mountains at the north end of A Shau rose to nearly 6000 feet. At the rate the Birddog was losing altitude, it would be touch and go for clearing the mountains.
"Covey one five is passing 6.5. Engine still running extremely rough." From above, it appeared the Birddog had about two miles distance to the ridge. There were lower points on the ridgeline where the Birddog could pass below the peaks. 5500 feet of altitude might be all he would need. That altitude would put him in danger of accurate ground fire if the enemy were on the high ground.
"Covey one five is at 6 thousand feet. I'm going to jog left to try to clear the ridge west of the peaks."
The Birddog turned left to select a lower point in the ridgeline. I commenced a letdown to fly by the O-1 so the pilot could see he was really being escorted by a strike aircraft. Looking over at the tiny little plane I could only see one person in the cockpit. I zoomed back up to a perch position to watch for enemy ground fire. In five minutes he was approaching the crest of the mountain. The O-1 appeared to have about two hundred feet to spare crossing the 5000 foot saddleback he had selected. The jungle canopy was 200 to 300 feet high. The little Birddog quickly passed across the ridge and on to the safer east side of the mountain range.
"We made it Mofak! It's still running rough but I can almost glide to Phu Bai. You're free to continue your mission if you want. I'm ok now." Covey's voice sounded cheerful compared to his serious radio transmissions in A Shau.
"I'll escort you another fifteen miles closer to Phu Bai. You are the only business I have." Holding hands with a crippled Birddog was not very exciting for me but I sure wouldn't have wanted to be in his cockpit in A Shau flying a fragile single engine propeller driven aircraft with that single engine trying to quit. I knew his flight had been a nervous time he would not soon forget.
Ten miles west of Phu Bai TACAN Channel 69, I broke away for Da Nang. ""So long and good luck Covey 15. I'm bingo for Da Nang."
"Roger Mofak. Thanks a ton for chasing me out of A Shau! I owe you one! Going Phu Bai Tower Frequency." Covey was passing through 1500 feet and in good shape for a safe landing. My fuel gauge showed 1500 pounds remaining. Barely enough to get home safely and certainly not enough to cover an emergency divert. Maybe tomorrow I would get that DFC divert.......
Back to Back We Face the Past.
Donald Cathcart LtCol USMC Ret.