Copyright 2003 -- Donald S. Pepe

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 strikes".

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 flack.

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 you choose.

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 recall.

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 Fort Rucker.

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 start."

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 Society.

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.
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