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Thursday September 24, 2020

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Flattop Army Aviator

The next morning, we were up early for our required flight instruction. All of us—except one—were picked up by a Navy slick helicopter and deposited on an LST in the ocean off the coast from Soc Trang. The plan was that these pilots would wait there so that they could practice take offs and landings in the Cobra that the one other pilot would fly out to the LST. A key component of this plan was that the person who initially flew the Cobra out to the LST would actually be able to land on the craft to begin with. And it was me who was the one who would fly the Cobra out to the LST and, supposedly, make the first landings and takeoffs.

The day was full of rain and the wind gusty. In fact, the Army probably selected this day for our LST training because the Viet Cong wouldn’t let their boys go out on such a miserable day.

With an instructor pilot in the front seat of the Cobra, I departed Can Tho. I found my way to Soc Trang, passed over it, and then headed out over the gray watery expanse where, the instructor assured me, there was an LST somewhere beyond the mist shrouded horizon. I think I knew what Lindbergh felt like as he left New York behind.

Flying over the ocean, I discovered that a helicopter sounded different than when flying over land. I found myself hearing surges in the engine, grindings in the rotor, and whistlings in the cracks of the canopy that I had never noticed before. And I had never before noticed so many twitches of the gauges’ needles; each one, I was sure, a prelude to an engine failure and a plunge into the eternal sea.

Eventually, I was relieved when the LST appeared straight ahead. I keyed the mike to make contact with the radio operator. I identified myself and asked for landing directions. He replied with some nonsense about “stern” this and “port quarter” that, which I suppose was somehow related to landing on the LST, but as far as I could discern, might as well have been directions for making porcupine gumbo. Besides, who was the Navy to try and tell an Army aviator how to do things?

I simply set up an impromptu landing pattern, flying toward the tail end of the LST, then turning away from it for a downwind leg, and eventually rounding off the corners to make a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn back toward the vessel. This actually worked out better than I anticipated. I was flying parallel with the LST’s length, and when things looked about right, I turned another ninety degrees so I could make an approach perpendicular to the length of the ship. This was going to be a piece of cake.

I began my descent toward the deck and that was when something unexpected happened. The spot on my sight picture to the deck began slipping away. I turned the aircraft to line up again, and just when it looked right once more, the spot moved away again. That’s when reality met theory; I realized the LST was moving. Oh sure, I knew that it could move, but I had assumed they would at least start me out on this training by anchoring the thing down. I was a little aggravated with the Navy for this oversight on their part.

I soon discovered, though, that I really didn’t have to re-aim the aircraft at the deck. Instead, I could set up the approach, get the sight picture, and just let the helicopter drift sideways with the moving LST. With this discovery, the rest of the approach went well. I was lined up on the deck, sliding along sideways at the same rate as the LST was moving forward, and at just the descent angle to clear the railings around the deck.

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