One of A/4/77's "Snakes" on the pad at Camp Eagle, RVN. This photo was taken 16 September 1969 by Dave Fuller. Notice the crossed red canons on the ammo bay door and the "Chicken Plate" draped over the #4 Rocket Pod. Not the best photo of a Cobra...but definitely one of ours! Each helicopter was usually parked within a 4' high "L" shaped revetment for protection purposes...for some unknown reason, this Cobra wasn't.
I can still smell the JP4!
A Brief History of A/4/77
(for web surfers and those that don't already know)
A/4/77 (and the 4/77 Bn.) was formed at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma in appx. May 1968. The initial pilots (most of whom came right out of flight school) went through two additional weeks learning aerial rocketry at Ft. Rucker, Alabama on the old UH-1A's & B's before they were sent to Ft. Sill. The newly-formed "A" Battery was then issued UH-1C helicopters which had the improved "540" main rotor system. In November, 1968, the unit ferried their Hueys to Stockton, CA where the aircraft (and a few cadre) were placed aboard the "Jeep Carrier", U.S.S. Kula Gulf. A month later, and the aircraft had docked at Da Nang where they were flown to their new home with the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) at Camp Eagle. In March (or April) of 1970, the unit was relocated to nearby Phu Bai. In January 1972, A/4/77 (along with the entire 101st Abn. Div.) "Stood Down" and returned to Ft. Campbell, KY. Personnel who didn't have at least six months in Vietnam were reassigned to other "In country" units.
OK...that's the basic story. But there's much more to be said about A Battery, Vietnam, the pilots & personnel, etc. The following is a really brief treatise which should touch on most of these major aspects.
Before I go too far with this story, a notation should also be made about the 331st TC Detachment (whose officers are also included within this website). The 331st was an intermediate-level maintenance unit attached to A Battery and followed it around from Ft. Sill, to Camp Eagle, and then to Phu Bai. The unit was deactivated in July, 1971 and it's personnel were folded into A/4/77. These great officers (some of whom were not aviators) lived with us, ate with us, played cards with us, etc. This website is also theirs!
OPERATIONS & DEPLOYMENTS:
A/4/77 participated in several major operations of the Vietnam War. The "Dragons" were also temporarily redeployed (or detached) from our permanent base camp at Camp Eagle (and later) Phu Bai. This is a partial listing of detachments, deployments, and major operations (as I receive more information, I will add it):
1. During early 1969, a "Hot Section" of Cobras were deployed to Camp Evans to provide a more rapid response. This 2-helicopter detachment was rotated on a two week basis, and was ALWAYS on hot status (day, night, in the shower, etc.).
2. Starting in June 1969, the entire Battery was detached to the Americal Division near Chu Lai for three months. We lived in tents and saw alot of action during this period...I got my butt flamed by a .50 caliber during this period (which started a fire, etc.), saw an enire US infantry platoon wiped out, won a few extra medals, saw several other helicopters and an F4 Phantom shot down, got nose-to-nose with NVA troops in the open, etc...lots of fun during this time!
3. In March 1971, the Battery was deployed to Khe San and participated in "Lam Son 719". It was here on the 23rd that an NVA 40-man sapper attack nearly over ran the unit.
"A" Battery was originally equiped with Bell UH-1C Iraquois (Huey) gunships. Soon after arrival in Vietnam, however, the unit was given new Bell AH-1G Huey Cobra helicopters...the "AH" stands for "Attack Helicopter"! This upgrade occured in late February, 1969.
The original contingent of pilots were not qualified in this new helicopter. This required a hurry-up in-country transition course (at Vung Tau) for the few pilots who where initially selected. Training facilities were limited at that time. To overcome this shortage of "Cobra qualified" pilots, many pre-qualified pilots (who received this transition course at Hunter Army Airfield, GA prior to arrival in RVN) were "infused" from other 101st Abn. Div. units into A/4/77. This was my situation and I had already been in Vietnam for three months. Added to this confusion was the swapping of many pilots between sister batteries of the 4/77. However, by mid 1969, "A" Battery consisted of a nice mixture of: 1. Original pilots (both qualified & unqualified in the Cobra), 2. Swapped pilots from other units, and 3. New pilots fresh from flight school.
What's in a name?!?! Just how "A" Battery came by (and stuck with) this nickname is an interesting story. As mentioned earlier, I was infused into A/4/77 during "The Great Personnel Upheavel" of early 1969 (16 February 1969 to be exact). Sometime prior to this, the unit started to use "Dragon" as it's "unofficial" callsign and mascot. However, with each new SOI (Signal Operating Instruction) change; so did our official callsign. I remember some pretty weird "official" callsigns in those days (like: "Bubbles Street"). "The Brass" would attempt to force us into using the "official" SOI callsigns...but this would only last a couple of days following the reissue of another SOI. Somewhere along the line, we all just said "to hell with this nonesense" and permanently stuck with the "unofficial" "Dragon".
FLYING THE COBRA:
The original/older "Charlie" model gunships (UH-1C's) were a delight to fly. I got to fly them for about two weeks before the arrival of the Cobras. However, the AH-1G was beyond comparison! However, they did have a few quirks (like having little visibility in rain, warm to sit in when not flying, screwy Stability Control Augmentation System, and always being overloaded). However, most of us truly loved the Cobra. Additionally, there was always a weight trade-off between weapons, fuel, and density altitude.
The AH-1G Huey Cobra is a single-engine tandem-placed (pilot & gunner) high-performance attack helicopter. It is based upon the proven Bell series of UH-1 type helicopters. It's unloaded VNE (Velocity Never-Exceed at sea level) was 190 knots (with about a 10% cheat factor). We would often dive up to this speed. Due to our weight and ordnance, however, we could only cruise at 135-145 knots (or until the vertical main-rotor vibrations became unbearable). The Cobra was also semi-aerobatic. Although not officially stressed for complete rolls; I know two pilots who did one (and' I've been totally inverted myself). At altitude, the Cobra had the wonderful characteristics of being able to slow down to appx. 40 knots and then wing-over to make a near-vertical rocket-firing dive on a target. Autorotational characteristics were exceptionally good with pleanty of pitch remaining (for you helicopter ghurus who know what I'm talking about). Additionally, John Johnson and Bob Coder (and their respective co-pilots) set the official Battery altitude record of 16,000' over the Ashau Valley sometime in 1970 (Oxygen? Hell...who needs it!). With self-sealing fuel cells and redundant systems, she was difficult to bring down.
Normally, we carried four rocket pods which held nineteen 2.75" Folding Fin Aerial Rockets each (available total of 76 rockets depending upon the load and mission). Depending upon the mission, the rockets were capped with either a 6 lb. AP, 10 lb. PD(standard), or 17 lb VT warhead. Rockets were our primary weapon! Our ammunition bay was supplimented with appx. 3000 rounds (out of a full capacity of 4000) of 7.62 NATO (same as.308 Win.) ammunition for the turret minigun (which fired at a rate of 2000 & 4000 rpm). Our turret-mounted 40mm grenade launcher was beside the minigun. We normally carried appx. 150 rounds for this weapon although the full capacity was 300 rounds. The minigun was a great "personnel hoser" as the tracers provided the gunner with an accurate idea of where the bullets were going. Not so with the 40mm grenades. Most of the time, the crew only had a reasonable idea of where they were going until impact...but boy, did they do a job when they exploded! All of the weapon's systems could be fired from either the front seat (normally the Co-Pilot/Gunner) or the back seat (normally the Aircraft Commander). However, the back seat couldn't fire the turret weapons in the flexed positions and the front seat didn't have the ability to "arm" any of the weapon's systems by himself. As mentioned, we were always limited by weight. Simply put, the Cobra could carry more than she could fly with. As a result, we only carried about ½ to ¾ of the total capacity of fuel. Even so, hovering was often a challenge until the helicopter reached "translational lift" during forward flight.
What if we were shot down (and survived the crash)? Yes, this did happen! Often, another Cobra was put to use for the rescuing of downed pilots. Sitting in the open ammo bay doors (not the best idea) or riding on a rocket pod were often employed (remember that there is only room for the two original pilots within the Cobra).
...And what about personal weapons? Each pilot carried an issued sidearm...usually a .38 caliber revolver for personal protection. During my early days with the Battery, many of us had purchased "illegal" firearms to carry with us during our missions. I had an old .45 cal. M3A "Grease Gun" while others had 9mm "Swedish K's", AK-47's, etc. Eventually, we were forced to give them up...one of the most tragic mistakes that "the brass" ever perpitrated upon us. In hindsight, all but one (of the hundreds) of soldiers taken prisoner in the "South" ever survived. With a little more firepower, some of our lightly-armed pilots may have been able to survive pre-captivity (or go down with blazing guns). Our .38 Special handguns would have been like "pissing in the wind" against an enemy AK-47.
As for uniforms...some of us (in the early days) had "Nomex" (fire retardent) flight suits while others didn't. Anyway, the Nomex suits were very hot. The nylon reinforced "jungle boots" were "officially" taboo for pilots (because they tended to melt during a fire). Therefore, many of us flew with our regular all-leather combat boots. Helmets were either of the "sound protective" or "balistic" varieties. Our flight gloves were a composite of nomex-leather. They usually wore out fast (especially because the rats would nibble on the sweaty leather portions at night). And yes, we each wore an armour plated vest known as a "Chicken Plate".
Who was the enemy? A/4/77 operated in a diverse area of operations ranging from the coastal lowlands of Northern "South Vietnam" into the triple canopy jungle (mountains & valleys) of Northern "I" Corps. We also operated within the beautiful sparse plains of Laos. The indigenous Viet Cong ("VC", "Charlie", "Rice Burners", "Gooks", "Slopes", etc.) were sometimes encountered near the coast. However, most of the enemy we encountered were well-equipped uniformed soldiers of the regular North Vietnamese Army ("NVA"). I also suspect that we encountered "Pathet Lao" forces within Laos. Identification of the enemy really wasn't that difficult because if someone was shooting at you (or they were someplace that they didn't belong); then they were simply "The Enemy". However, rarely did we actually see the enemy prior to engagement as the identification process was usually left to others.
TYPES OF MISSIONS:
Our basic/dedicated mission was as an aerial rocket platform working in artillery channels. Officially, we were not classified as Gunships, but as Aerial Rocket Artillery (ARA). However, there were pleanty of exceptions to this rule! Much of the time, our flying was done in hostile situations...coming to the aid of the infantry that had made contact with the enemy, or spotting enemy targets ourselves. Just as a note...as a previous UH-1H "Slick" pilot for my first three months in Vietnam; not once did I seriously encounter the enemy during that time. As a Cobra pilot...armed confrontation was a regular occurance! Here are some of the types of missions that I flew while assigned to A/4/77:
FIREMISSIONS: This was our primary reason for existance! When the troops on the ground needed help (day, night, and in terrible weather); we were there! Our 2.75" rockets were our primary weapon (and often the only weapon used). Once the alert of "FIREMISSION" had been sounded, then the "2-Minute Hot Section" (supposidly) had two minutes to become airborne (but this launching process usually took a little longer). The "back-seater" (usually the Aircraft Commander) would "crank" the Cobra while the "front-seater" (usually the Co-Pilot) would untie the rotor blades, etc. Once airborne, the front-seater would receive a coded radio message from our Battery Operations that identified the mission, location, unit, radio frequencies, etc. Once uncoded (through the use of the SOI); we were on our way. We got to be pretty good navigators and often had a good (if not exact) idea of where we were going as soon as we identified the unit, FSB (Fire Support Base), particular mountain ridge, etc. Usually long before reaching the ground unit, we had already made radio contact with them. Officially, we could not fire within 200 meters of friendly forces, but this rule was often broken due to necessity. Basically, the friendly troops on the ground would "pop smoke" using a smoke grenade to identify their position. We would then identify their position by naming/confirming the specific color of their smoke. The ground unit would then give a distance and compass direction from his unit/smoke as to the location of the enemy. At night, this "pop smoke" proceedure was usually modified by the use of an electronic strobe light, flair, or tube artillery marker. The lead cobra of our flight-of-two (the Section Leader) would then adjust the fire in concert with the ground unit. Once this was done, then the "Wingman" could "Fire For Effect" along with the Section Leaders remaining rockets. This all happened rather quickly and we all got to be pretty good at it. However, night missions (and inclement weather missions) were always a challenge. I absolutely hated to fly at night as there were always invisable mountains, clouds, and enemy fire to deal with. It was all too easy to get onself in a state of vertigo, turning inside the flight path of your circling Section Leader, or loosing ones night vision due to the rocket motor sparks. Flying at night was dangerous stuff!
VISUAL RECONNAISSANCE: VR's were often flown at dawn and dusk. This particular time seemeed to offer the best chances of contacting the enemy. VR's were my most-favorite type of mission to fly and often provided the most action! Each "Section" of two Cobras was accompanied by a Division Artillery "Loach" (Hughes OH-6A Cayouse)...also know as a "Football" or "Sperm". We were usually cleared into a "Free Fire" zone whereby the OH-6A would fly low & slow to seek out enemy targets and personnel. Once spotted, the Loach would "pop smoke", move out of the area, and give us a distance and direction from the smoke in which to fire.
COMBAT ASSAULTS: During Combat Assaults (where US & ARVN forces were inserted into ground operations), we flew in (and fired our rockets) immediately after the "Tube Artillery" LZ (Landing Zone) preperation...and right before the "Slicks" (UH-1H's carrying the infantry) and "Gunships" (other AH-1G's). This was a closely timed & executed proceedure.
COMMAND & CONTROL NORTH: CCN missions were always interesting. I usually enjoyed them although there were many added risks. CCN is a term given the US Special Forces/Indigenous Unit whose base unit was located just a few yards from our own compound. They were also known as "Sneaky Petes"...what a brave bunch of men! We flew many cover, insertion, extraction, and LZ prep missions for this unit...many times in concert with the Vietnameese Air Force (VNAF) CH-34 equipped "King Bees" who transported the ground troops. As a note...I have nothing good to say about the flying skills and personal courage of these sorry VNAF pilots! Anyway, our missions were performed in Northern "I" Corps, within the DMZ (and sometimes in North Vietnam), and in Laos (...we weren't supposed to be there at that particular time of the war!). Laos was my favorite place to fly, but kinda' scarey at times.
FORWARD AIR CONTROLLERS: U.S. Air Force "FAC's" were great folks to shoot for and we did a lot of work with them. They would "Spot" and we would fire.
ETCETERA: Have I forgotten anything? Actually, we did a lot of "other" missions, like: Medevac Escort, Naval Gunfire Targeting/Adjusting, Extractions, Convoy Escorts (ground vehicles), C-130 Escorting (through the Au Shau Valley spraying "agent orange" as a defoliant), "Sniffer" Escorts (ammonia sensing helicopters that identified enemy concentrations by their urin/sweat), FSB Demolition Escorts (Chinook helicopters dropping huge "bombs" to rapidly clear an LZ), Deployments to other places like Camp Evans and Chu Lai, Shooting All-Day-Long for a specific entity, etc. Truly, our primary mission may have been aerial rocketry, but we did it all!
I hope this gives you a brief idea (or jogs your memory) of what we did...day-in & day-out. Please excuse my memory lapses...after 30 years, it is difficult to remember everything. Additionally, what I may view as being "factual", may be somewhat different to other Dragons. Things did change a bit during the three years that A/4/77 was assigned to Vietnam; each of our memories being influenced by our own personal experiences.
Overall, my tour in Vietnam with A/4/77 was a SUPER experience, surrounded by wonderful gents while flying the most marvelous helicopter ever invented!