About These Men
Who Served in the 281st AHC
[Contributed by John Galkiewicz, Webmaster at:
and Steve Matthews, Webmaster at: www.281stAHC.org]
This is a short introduction
for non-aviation types that will hopefully give you a better understanding of who we are
and how we think. This can not speak for all the crew members of the 281st Assault
Helicopter Company, for each has his own story and feelings, but if you boil things down
this introduction should speak for the majority, and put you in the right frame of mind
and understanding with which to enjoy this site.
When the U.S. entered the Vietnam War the many uses for instant air transportation became even more apparent. The use of the helicopter became a very real part of almost every phase of the war, but it was at the beginning of the learning curve and lessons were being learned at a very high price. Helicopters could be manufactured in a few weeks, but due to tradition, "regular" pilots took years to produce. The need for "chopper" pilots for these machines was beginning to get critical, so a new approach to this problem had to be found.
The powers that be decided that the need for the traditional air crewmen had to be waived because it took too long. They didn't care about education, they needed pilots crew chiefs and gunners NOW! Crew that could be trained quickly, and that could be easily released when they were no longer needed. In short, they needed "Christmas Help."
Who they needed to fly these machines, in the final analysis, was a person that had to have three attributes. They needed someone that was at the peak of their reflex ability, which usually meant someone between the age of 18 and 26, or thereabouts. They needed someone that was street wise, a rather sneaky person, someone that could figure their way out of a jam in an instant and somehow complete the mission and get that bird back home. Thirdly, they needed someone that wanted to fly but didn't really realize what they were getting into. So the call was made, and pilots-to-be came out of the woodwork from every state in the union, along with expert mechanics and gunners. What the military didn't plan on was that they would all later mesh so well and become the backbone of the helicopter war.
Flight training began in Ft. Wolters, TX, where these highschoolers, college dropouts, pre-enlisted and other regular Army officers converged. Flight school for these pilots-to-be would last 9 months, with the first month designed to weed out the undesirables, those of minimal capability and desire. After that, the harassment died down quite a bit and everyone got down to learning how to fly. We were told that a flight school graduate cost the Army $90,000. That training did produce a fine pilot but as the saying goes "There is nothing smarter than a high school senior, and nothing dumber than a college freshman." So it went for the flight school graduate. Vietnam was to be the "wake-up call."
The crew chiefs and gunners were trained at exotic places like Ft. Benning, GA, and Schofield Barracks, HI. The training was minimal, because the skills needed to survive in Vietnam were both largely unknown, and untrainable. The expectation of fun, adventure and travel brought the adventurous and bold to the profession. Just the kind of personality needed for this business.
Once in Vietnam these chopper crews learned to pretty much take care of themselves. The air war was new, and new ways of doing things were being passed down pilot to pilot, crew chief to crew chief, gunner to gunner. Flying by the "Book" could get you killed (that was a NO-NO), and the "Book" was being rewritten on a daily basis. One's rank didn't seem to matter as much as one's experience.
That's where the relationship between aircraft commanders (AC) and the green peter pilots (PP) developed to produce what now are the finest helicopter pilots in the world. For the most part warrant officers (WO) and regular officers (RLO) mixed well in the field because bullets and choppers know no rank.
Most pilots got out of Vietnam with about 1,000 hours of combat flight time. It took about 6 months of flying every day for a PP to gain enough experience to become an AC. To make AC was an honor above all else for it put pride in your step and gave you credibility. You only made AC when the other ACs thought you were ready for it. There were exceptions to this unwritten rule due to rank and more often than not it cost the Army plenty in the long run. Crew chiefs and gunners often stayed for more than one tour to make sure their pilots were broken in well, and to ensure that "their" aircraft came back in one piece too.
There was a tremendous difference between the AC and the PP in his first month that would be continually chipped away at with experience in the months that followed. The following may clarify those differences.
* A PP only knew something was wrong with the ship if he heard a loud noise, an AC felt it in his seat or the collective days before it broke.
* A PP only heard one radio; an AC knew what was being said on all 3 and sometimes 4.
* A PP thought of the enlisted crew just as door gunners, an AC knew his life depended on their skill to keep his tail rotor clear and expedite the troops in or out of the ship when seconds counted.
* A PP thought in terms of the shortest distance between points A & B, an AC thought in terms of the safest distance between points A & B.
* A PP thought the guns never saw real action because they never actually had to set down in a hot LZ, an AC knew "Charlie" got bonus points for downing a gunship and that they were all in it together. Their blood was just as red as yours.
* A PP needed a clear field to set down it; an AC made his own spot.
* A PP flinched when bullets hit the ship; an AC didn't twitch a muscle.
* A PP pondered his near death experience; an AC joked about it that night with the guys while downing a beer or two or three.
* A PP almost never took the first landing into an unfamiliar LZ, an AC almost always did. The PP made the rest of the landings most of the time. Need I say one usually learned things pretty quickly over there. I could go on and on but I'm sure you have the idea.
We all went to Vietnam knowing we could get killed or wounded, but deep down we figured our skills and ability to survive would give us the edge. We were shot down, blown up, sniped at, crashed, rained on, dirty, greasy, sweaty, always had sand in our food, and even froze at nights sometimes and it does get cold at night in the highlands. Many more made it out than didn't, and only the Lord knows why some were chosen and others not. Maybe that is part of the reason these stories are coming out of some of us now.
In our eyes virtually every person that passed through the 281st AHC is a war hero, whether or not a medal was actually given. You could not have gone through a year of all that without getting into something deep. Something that changed you permanently. Our unit's stories alone would fill the Internet, if every story was told. We walk with pride, for our peers know what we all went through in order to survive and that's all that really counts.
Enjoy this web site; for the people talked about here are real heroes and they are the current addition to the legacy of forefathers that fought to give us the freedom we now enjoy.