BULLET HOLES & BIRD STRIKES
Copyright 2003 -- Donald S. Pepe
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The O-1 Birdog aircraft flown by the Catkillers took a hell of a beating. It
is a testament to the men of the maintenance hangar and the crew chiefs on
the line that the planes flew as much as they did as well as they did. Most
of them were at least 15 years old. They had to fly over 300 hours per
month. They were exposed to monsoon rains in the winter and hot dusty
environments in the summer. They at times got filled with contaminated or
incorrect grade fuel. They always flew over their recommended gross weight.
They were subject to high revving and strong g-forces during evasive
manuvers. There was frequent combat damage. And there were the "bird
The combat damage was primarily from hostile fire and there were two kinds:
bullets, and flack. You could tell which had caused the damage by looking at
the point where the projectile(s) entered the airframe. Bullets tended to
make small, round holes going in, except for 50 caliber bullets which made
large round holes. Usually there would only be one hole. Flack rounds
functioned as a large grenade or small bomb exploding in air; they caused
shrapnel damage--multiple irregular size holes of various sizes. The
plexiglass windows would shatter pretty much the same with either bullets or
There was another type of combat damage, more rare but by no means unknown.
You could call it friendly fire. When artillery rounds or bombs explode they
throw chunks of metal high into the air. If you flew too close to the ground
too close to the target, it was possible to intersect with one of these
chunks at some point in its trajectory. The rarest type of damage would be
caused by getting between an active artilley battery and its target and
catching one of the rounds meant for the enemy. I personally know of only
one instance when something like that happened to a Catkiller.
There is a type of artillery round caled VT which stands for Variable
Timing. It is designed to explode in the air just above the the ground. It
plays hell with troops standing around in the open. Think of it as flack for
ground troops. A single airburst that we determined couldn't have been
anything but VT went off just above a plane being piloted by my good friend
Tony Keltner. We didn't have any idea where it came from; they
weren't even shooting artillery at the time. After he got the plane down we
counted 41 holes in the sheet metal plus a lot of busted plexiglass. Neither
pilot nor observer got a scratch. Ironically, most of the pilots who were
killed during my time as a Catkiller died from a single bullet with no other
rounds striking the plane.
Those 41 holes are the most I can remember anyone bringing back at one time,
but some pilots seemed to be better than others at collecting hits. The
truth is that for at least some of the pilots taking a hit was an object of
macho pride--evidence of battle proven, John Wayne style, war story heroics.
I was one of those guys, at least when I started. I had to conceal this
feeling of relief, almost glee, the night my platoon leader told me they
found a hole through the wing of the plane I was flying that day. I even
went out to the flight line in the dark to check it out for myself. I was
now a member of the club. I had my fencing scar. I could now sit with the
big kids during war storytelling.
There is also something to be said for the general rush of invincibility you
get from falsely realizing that you have cheated death. It's false because
the reality is that death just wasn't seriously interested in you at
that particular moment. But it is still a rush think that way.
Not every pilot believed that a shot-up airplane was prima-facia evidence of
bravery and skill. Married guys and those approaching the end of their tour
were more apt to suspect poor judgement and/or bad luck. In fairness and
with benefit of hindsite I would have to say that the willingness to hang
close to the action was clearly a factor in determining whether a pilot took
hits, but it wasn't the most important factor. I would put it fourth behind
1)blind luck, 2)complacency, and 3)altitude. Blind luck by defininiton you
can't control. Complacency is not something you consciously adopt. Altitude
I don't believe any pilot ever went up trying or hoping to get some holes in
his airplane. What some did do on purpose was consistently fly below the
1000 foot altitude minimum supposedly in effect for missions in South
Vietnam (3000 feet in North Vietnam). When I first came to the Catkillers
1000 feet was a rule. Over time it became more of a guideline. There always
was a sort of gray area, and for some pilots it extended as far down as 5
feet off the ground.
Altitude not only affected the likelihood that holes would appear in an
airplane but also the kind of holes that would appear. Small arms (AK47) and
30 caliber machine guns had a range up to 3000 feet but were much more
accurate at lower altitudes, the lower the better. Flack started becoming
effective around 3000 feet but the higher the better. 50 caliber (12.7)
machine gun fire could be accurate from ground level to over 5000 feet. An
aircraft suffering a shrapnel hit from an artillery or bomb impact would
have been flying a few hundred feet off the ground at most.
There were times when a pilot had no choice but to fly low to accomplish a
mission. Bad weather with low ceilings is the best example. Occasionally
making low passes was needed to confirm a sighting or to scope out a
potential LZ. But there was a minority of pilots who got low and close
to the action in the name of cheap thrills and bragging rights with
dubious relevance to mission need. Most of the Catkiller pilots were, after
all, males in their early to mid 20's, slightly older than most of the
helicopter pilots, but still well in the fat part of the testosterone curve.
Each combat sitruation was unique, and the line that separated bravery from
bravado was not always clearly marked. I probably crossed it more than most,
but not as much as some.
Again, this minority of thrill seekers with few exceptions did not include
married men and shortimers. The most noteable exception was married man
Charlie Finch, an unabashed glory hound who seemed to have a teenager's view of
his own invincibility and a bottomless reservoir of luck to save him from it.
There was one glory seeker that was in a category by himself and he proved that
sufficiently bad judgement can overpower any level of luck. He was the Marine
observer Lt. Ramsay who openly stated that he was out to get a Congressional
Medal of Honor and who managed to get himself and a couple of 220th pilots killed
during my first two months in country. The aircraft toll was one crashed and one
never found. But all that is another story.
The number of pilots who chose to fly low over target areas was not great,
but just about everyone flew low level, at least occasionally, over friendly or semi friendly
areas. It was just fun. The same 1000 foot minimum existed, but there were
never any repucussions unless you made the mistake of buzzing somebody with
high rank and no sense of humor. And that only happened to one pilot that I
On a few occasions I would skim along the rivers, with my wheels just off
the water. One game we liked to play was to fly up on the fishermen and
their families in their boats and try to scare them into jumping into the
water before we pulled up just enough to clear. Great fun and highly
effective in the effort to win the hearts and minds of the populace.
As much as I enjoyed the rivers, I never did take to flying under low bridges,
an idea intially hatched by Charles Finch (who else?). Charlie, who had the
most blind luck of any individual I met in Vietnam, once ran a gas tank dry
going under a bridge. He had just exactly enough airspeed to keep it out of
the water just long enough to switch tanks and get an engine restart. You
can't say enough about that emergency procedure training they gave us at
Now there is a little bit of an issue with regard to flying on the deck and
it involves stationary objects, things like trees, antennaes, towers,
support cables, boats, cars, buildings, etc. No Catkiller ever crashed
low-leveling, but there would occasionally appear a wing dent or some other
type of damage that could not be attributed to hostile fire taken at 1000
foot altitude. These incidents called for incredible creativity and in every
case the American fighting man was up to the challenge.
The all time "That's My Story and I'm Sticking To It" award has to go to Ray
Caryl. Ray happened to be the guy mentioned above who got reported by a
general for low-leveling over his jeep on the road between Dong Ha and Phu
Bai. One afternoon a couple of weeks after that incident Ray made a call
into Dong Ha Tower requesting to clear the runway and alert the crash crew.
He was coming in with the left landing gear messing.
Birdogs have fixed landing gear. They don't retract after take off. The two
struts with the two wheels on the two ends stay stuck out below the belly of
the plane at all times. Now unless you collide with another aircraft, which
Ray did not, it would seem a colossal challenge to explain how something
could have impacted your plane hard enough to cleanly clip off one of the
landing gear struts at the fuselage while you were flying along minding your
own business 1000 feet in the air.
Fortunately for Ray on that same day there had been a mid air crash south of
the DMZ that involved a helicopter. It was all he needed. It was obvious
to Ray that the rotor from that helicopter had spun away from the impact of
the crash, traveled several thousand meters through the air, and severed the
the landing gear of his unfortunate airplane high above South Vietnam. I did
some checking on my own and determined that the crash in question had
occured about two hours before Ray lost his gear and at least 6 kilometers
away. But these were insignificant technicalities to Captain Caryl. The guy
had class. He made about as good a landing as one can make with one wheel.
Pilot and observer walked away; but the airplane required an extended stay
in the maintenance hangar.
Most altitude related damage wasn't as dramatic as Ray's. The case of Dave
Langley was much more typical. Dave was a sour sort of a guy who was
none-the-less a pretty good pilot and was in fact one of the company's
Instructor Pilots (IP) for a time. All of the pilots on flight status have
to take periodic check rides with an IP to confirm their continuing
competency. It was more or less a formality, particularly in Vietnam, but
you generally expected the IPs to be proficient pilots and more aware of the
rules than most. You would particularly expect it of Dave since he could be
almost guaranteed to have a disparaging remark when someone else fucked up.
So imagine the suprise when one afternoon the good Lt. Langley lands at Dong
Ha and pulls off onto the ramp with the leading edge of the right wing
seriously dented. Creativity time.
Two other pilots Tim Johnson and Rick Waxman were on the flight line at the
time. They joined with Dave in a brainstorm session. The idea of a bird
strike came up early on, but it was dismissed because smashed birds would
have smeared the wing with blood, guts, and feathers, and there obviously
were none. Several other possibilites were discussed and dismissed. Then the
crew chief on duty, Bill Roberston, a tall quiet young man from rural
Kentucky who had been listening to the discussion spoke up.
"How about chickens". "What do you mean, chickens." responded Dave. "Well,
you need blood and feathers; you can wring a chicken's neck and pluck him,
you'll get plenty of blood and feathers." "Where could we get a chicken?",
asks Dave, now clearly interested. "Well, a live chicken you would probably
have to get from the Vietnamese in the village. The mess hall would only
have frozen ones." The three pilots looked at each other in silence for
about three full seconds. "Where's the jeep?"
Thirty five minutes later Dave and Tim and Rick were standing in front of
the dented wing each holding a live chicken upside down by the legs as
instructed by Bill, the crew chief. They had decided against the wring and
pluck approach. They reasoned that for it to look like the plane had slammed
into the birds, the birds should be slammed into the plane. As Dave began to
take aim for his first swing, Bill had one last bit of advice for these
officers and gentlemen. "I'd suggest you take off your shirts before you
The names in this tale have been changed to ficticious ones to protect the guilty.
And some of the details I had to fill in because I wasn't there when it happened.
But it did happen....and it worked. The CO had no reason to doubt (until we told him
at his his going away party the night before he left country) that Dave had plowed
through a flock of birds off the end of the runway . The evidence was there.
This was not the first time the "bird strike" scenario was used to explain away
evidence of low altitude carelessness. And it was not the the last. In fact
if all of the bird strikes reported to COs during the Vietnam war had actually
occurred, the anti-war effort would probably have been led by the Audubon
The untold story of the untold story of the Catkillers was the ability of
the maintenance team to overcome the collective damage wrought by the
grueling mission requirements, the enemy gunners, and the company pilots.