I had never flown with Don Rice, but he was one of the older, more
pilots in the squadron, and I felt he knew his business. Nevertheless,
an airdrop mission takes close coordination under the best of
circumstances, and a combat airdrop, in the mountains, with adverse
weather and heavy anti-aircraft fire, is not the best place in the
world to get acquainted.
We on-loaded four 2000-pound pallets of supplies at Chu Lai, each rigged with three large cargo parachutes, and then reported to Division Headquarters to plan the mission. They wanted us to airdrop the supplies into a little camp near Hiep Duc where about 500 South Vietnamese and their American advisors had been under siege without supplies for eight days.
We already knew the friendlies were in trouble, by the type of cargo we saw on the pallets--food, water, medicine, blood plasma and small arms ammunition. We also knew the Army had lost several helicopters in there, and that a crew from our Wing had tried this mission the day before, collected several holes in a very short period of time, jettisoned their cargo, and climbed out of the valley.
It was a nasty valley to fly into. Hiep Duc sits in a gash in the mountains about 2000 feet deep and only a couple of kilometers across at the bottom. The north-east monsoon keeps the top third of the mountains covered with clouds, so the obvious approach was to fly up the valley under the clouds, parachute the supplies into the camp, and climb out straight ahead.
Too obvious. That's what the crew from our Wing tried to do. The North Vietnamese knew we had to come in from one of two directions, so they concentrated their guns in two clusters, one on either side of the camp. I didn't relish the idea of flying into either of those flak-traps, and I thought there might be a better way--if we could pull it off.
I knew our C-123K aircraft could dive steeply under full control, so I laid out a mission that called for us to dive through the clouds between the mountains, cross-wise to the long axis of the valley. That meant I would have to know exactly where we were when we started the dive, and Don would have to fly the aircraft absolutely as planned, with little if any margin for error, on instruments alone.
After we took off and climbed through the broken overcast, neither pilot could see the ground. From where they sat looking out of the cockpit windows, the top of one cloud obscured the bottom of the next. But by climbing down in the cargo compartment, sticking my head out the side window and looking straight down, I could see to navigate.
I took my last position fix directly over a bend in a river and started my stopwatch. Then I climbed back up in the cockpit, stood between the pilots, and gave Don the heading, airspeed, and rate of descent for the dive.
As the computed stopwatch time expired, I called, "Stand by to start descent ... ready ... ready ... now!"
As I said, Don watched me plan the mission. He knew some of those clouds had rocks in them; he knew the valley was full of guns; he hadn't seen the ground since we took off, and he had never flown with me before.
He was not a dare-devil, and he was not crazy. He was a sound, sober, mature and responsible man. But he also knew the troops in that camp might not last another 24 hours without supply.
He took a deep breath, chopped both engines to idle, dumped the nose down, and flew precisely the heading, airspeed, and rate of descent I had given him.
We dove through the clouds for what seemed like an awful long time, but when we broke through, we were right where we were supposed to be, in the edge of the valley. We continued the dive, leveled off with about ten seconds to go, delivered the four pallets right into that 75-by-150-yard camp, and then had to pull a steep, climbing turn to keep from running into the other wall of the valley.
Another climbing turn, and we were back into the clouds, on our way home. As it turned out, we surprised the gunners so thoroughly we didn't take a hit.
Later, all the members of our aircrew were awarded medals for that mission, with citations that said we were instrumental in saving the lives of 500 men. That was nice, but looking back, I think I also got something else that day.
Don showed me the difference between belief and faith. Belief is of the mind, an intellectual assent to something or someone. Faith is when you bet your life on it.