Copyright 2003 -- Donald S. Pepe

I had never, even for a millisecond, considered making a career of the military. I knew from my first days of ROTC at Indiana University that the military and I were not a match. Every superior officer I served under during my time in the Army, including the time I spent in Vietnam, came to the same conclusion.

Since those officers were for the most part individuals who had chosen a military career, this sometimes put me out of step with their agendas. My view was that everyone had a specific job to perform. In our case it was to fly missions and kill the enemy. To be effective in that job you must of course stay alive yourself. I did not like rules and orders that had no relevance to the performance of our job or, even worse, worked against it.

Under the "no relevance" category fell things like dress codes and correctly addressing officers of higher rank. It was brought to the attention of my platoon leader on more than one occasion that I was seen in the headquarters area without my cover (hat). It was also noted that, when I was still a 1st lieutenant, I addressed other pilots who were captains by their first name. My usual response to this attention was "Thank you for caring", and I would pretty much continue life as I had always lived it. I knew that as long as I was flying lots of missions and delivering lots of bodies it would have been awkward for anyone to apply heavy discipline. What were they going to do, send me to Vietnam?

Orders that worked directly against our mission, particularly the staying alive part, caused the most resentment, and not just with me. Nothing spread hate faster than being assigned a new mission that our aircraft were not qualified to fly. Truth be known, we probably had no business being in North Vietnam in single-engine, 90 mph, prop planes. But an even bigger folly had to be the scheduling of night missions over Ashau Valley.

The O1 Bird Dog that we flew was not instrument equipped. It was a visual reconnaisance aircraft. If we wanted to know how far we were from the airport, we didn't look at the instrument panel, we looked at the ground. We determined our location on a map, located the airport on the map, and then counted the grid squares in between. This sophisticated technique was quite difficult to execute in total darkness. Flying night mortar watch in sight of the base is one thing. But 30 miles away, next to the Laotian border, over mountainous terrain made no sense at all for our single-engine, non-instrumented plane.

It is ironic that the commanding officer (CO) who was the worst on the chicken-shit, non-relevant stuff was the best when it came to protecting his men from inappropriate missions. Major Millard Pedersen was awful about things like not having your cover on, or not saluting at all the right times. I pegged him to be just another chicken-shit lifer hung up on playing the game right. But when the order came down for the night missions out in the valley, Major Pedersen went to bat for his men big time. He protested long and loud that ours was not the correct aircraft for this mission. His superiors up the line didn't share his fortitude. He was relieved of his command. That happened on August 6th, 1968. It really pissed us off.

The nonsensical mission assignments came from PCV, Provisional Corps Vietnam, with offices right there in Phu Bai. To this day I have never figured out exactly what this organization was or where it fit into the bureaucracy but it just seemed to show up one day and over a short period of time got the operational say-so for all three of our platoons. The people who went over and dealt with them directly were Tank Meehan, the Marine major in charge of the observers who flew with us on our Marine support missions, and Major Pedersen, our CO. The rest of us underlings just got the results of their meetings. But Tank did keep us pretty well posted on what went down and how.

One name kept getting mentioned as the source of inane directives, Major Parker. Major Parker, the non-pilot G2 Air of PCV, seemed obsessed with finding new and inappropriate ways to employ the pilots and planes of the 220th Reconnaisance Airplane Company. And he was certainly not going to let his ignorance of aviation stand in his way. When someone asked him how the pilots, on a completely dark night, would even know they were over the Ashau, he replied, "Use your radar." Bird Dogs didn't have radar. Never did. The mission stood.

We spent many hours around the club spewing venom toward the assholes at PCV in general and toward Major Parker in particular. Grumbling among ourselves was our only relief from the frustration of not being able to grab that sorry lifer around the neck. He could fuck over us, and there was nothing we could do to him. We didn't even know what he looked like. If there really were a God, I would have gotten a shot at the sorry son-of-a-bitch.

I was taken off the DMZ at the end of August, 1968 and reassigned to the third platoon flying out of Phu Bai. Assignments to the DMZ platoon were for six months. After that you were rotated to a relatively safer (boring) mission. My six months were up and I had no choice in the matter. The CO at that point was a Major Wisby who moved into the position from Executive Officer when Major Pedersen got canned three weeks earlier. I begged him to let me stay with the first playoon, but he told me he thought it was important to set a precedent for the newer pilots. He wanted to show them that it was possible to finish a tour on the Z as a non casualty and get rotated to a sane assigment. It sounded like bullshit to me, and I was able to get in another DMZ six month gig the following year, but at the time I had to accept the order and the reassignment.

After that I filled in up on the Z any time there was an open slot, but I mostly just flew dip shit missions around Phu Bai, things like artillery registrations, night mortar watches and vr's (visual reconnaisance) out in Ashau (yes, at least a couple of them at night). I also got drunk a lot and lead many of the hate sessions over in the club.

One afternoon in late September, about a month after I was taken off the Z, I was scheduled for a 1530 hop for the 101st Airborne. About an hour before takeoff I was told there had been a change, and that it was now a two ship mission. Two ship missions were scheduled for very remote areas. So I drafted another pilot, Captain Doyle, and we made it on down to the flight line with a half hour to spare.

At 1515 two majors saunter into the line shack. I ask who is low ship, and one of them says he is. Being a first lieutenant at the time I am the lowest rank in the room. But I am a big 1st lieutenant and I have zero career aspirations. So the rank technicality seemed of little relevance to me. I ask him where he wants to go, and he shows me route 545 south of Nam Dong which is south southeast of Phu Bai. I had never flown there before, but I could read a map. And it really wasn't a two-ship area.

We head out to the aircraft, and I start doing my preflight. All the while this guy is generally mouthing off in the manner that lifers who take themselves too seriously so often do. I am not paying much attention to it, because I am basically hung over and trying to tune out the details of yet another dip shit mission until I can get back to the club.

We got into a discussion about the function of the low ship on the mission, and he gave a wise-ass response to one of my instructions. It pissed me off, but I let that pass too. Then, just as he was getting into the plane he announced that this was a PCV mission, and that he was the G2-Air. Bells ring; the light bulb comes on. I take the trouble to look at his name tag for the first time. It says "Parker". This is the "use your radar" asshole.

There is a God. I forgot about my hangover; the sun was shining, and life was good again. I quick glanced into the backseat to make sure there was a good supply of barf bags.

Now it doesn't take much airspeed to get a bird dog off the ground. With flaps down you can break ground at 50-70 mph depending on the load and the condition of the air. By using no flaps and pushing the stick forward with everything I had I was able to keep the bird dog carrying Major Parker in touch with the runway through 120 miles per hour. Finally, at the end of the runway I let it up just high enough to make a 90 degree bank turn to the left at about 10 feet above the ground. Once we cleared the perimeter of the field, I leveled the wings and pulled back on the stick shooting us up 300 ft in a max performance climb to a near stall.

And the fun was just beginning.

I took us on out to the area he requested which was only 15 minutes or so south of PhuBai. He has problems working his radio right off the bat, and generally proves not to have his shit together for any part of the mission. Why does this not surprise me?

But this poor clueless wonder still did not have any idea what his situation was. We are flying along the road and he comes over the intercom with a direction he wants to head. I give him a "roger" and make a sharp right turn to head off in that direction. Well, evidently I heard him wrong, because he comes back up and says, "Where the hell are you going."

This was a very unfortunate act of rudeness on the part of this very boorish man. Observers do not give pilots shit, this pilot in particular. I explained to him where the hell I was going and what I heard his directions to be. Then I further explained to the good major exactly what the rules were for this exercise. "Major, I am the aircraft commander and you will address me with respect. One more word from you in that tone of voice, and we will be heading home." I took his sudden silence as acknowledgement.

If you are doing a good job of flying an airplane, your turns will be coordinated. What that means is the amount of bank your plane has will be in just the right ratio to the amount of turn. When these two factors are coordinated, there will be no forces pulling you sideways as there would be in a car making a high speed turn. In fact, if an airplane is making a perfectly coordinated turn--even a steep one, you can have an open glass of water sitting on the floor, and it won't spill a drop, much less fall over.

You may wonder why coordinated turns are important. One of the reasons is that uncoordinated flight subjects the body to forces in many directions other than the straight down we are used to from gravity. This greatly increases the incidence of motion sickness. Beause of the design of the bird dog these forces were strongest for those sitting in the back seat, the observer's seat.

Airplanes do not carry a glass of water to guage coordination of turns. Instead they have a 3-4 inch sealed tube of liquid, slightly curved and mounted horizontally on the instrument panel. There is a marble-sized ball in that tube. When the aircraft is in coordinated flight that ball is resting on the bottom of the tube, exactly in the middle.

Friends, I can assure you that during Major Parker's flight that ball was only in the middle of the tube when it was passing through. It never rested there. It was the most uncoordinated flight of my career, complete with numerous steep turns and low-level passes. The only question was whether we would run out of barf bags before the mission was completed. Fortunately, we did not. The major never caught on to the strong contributions I had made to his motion sickness. Being so ignorant of flying, he must have assumed that all rides were like the one he had.

Once we were back on the ground and he recovered his stomach a little, he actually said that it was a good mission for him. I told him, "It's good that you liked it; you're never going to take another one with me." I told him he was the worst observer I had flown with in my entire time in country. I wrote him up that way in my debrief and strongly advised that he not be allowed to fly with us again.

I never heard any more about the incident. And to my knowldge Major Parker never again flew on a mission with the Catkillers. I don't think that had anything to do with my write up. I think it had everything to do with the major's stomach.
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