Ronnie G. Leonard
On 4 October 1968, I was involved in a mid-air collision with an AH-1G XX488. We were cruising along at an altitude of 2000 feet returning from a people sniffer mission along the Cambodian border north of Tay Ninh. The mission was complete and we were in route back to Cu Chi. My ship UHIC-XX210 was the lead ship of the fire team. The AH-1G eased into a formation with us. His blades were under ours, and the AH-1G blades were extremely close to our rocket pods, probably within 3 feet and way too close for comfort. I complained about it and our Aircraft Commander CWO Robert “Hayne” Moore told him to back off. He slid out to the right and his blades came up and locked up with ours when he tried to do a wingover leaving. He had misjudged the distance by about a foot. There was a tremendous “BANG!” when the blades contacted each other. The last I saw of the AH-1G he was in an inverted position going in excess of 100 knots and heading down.
The vibration in my ship was extremely intense, at least a 10-1 vertical vibration. I looked out the door and the trees looked about 1/4 inch tall. I looked over the pilots shoulder, the master control panel was lit up like a Christmas tree, and nothing was working. I said very loudly OH FUCK! On the intercom the co-pilot WO Ralph “Nolan” Little was screaming MAY DAY, May DAY, we are ALL going to die. I told them shut up I don’t want to hear about it.
It was all the pilots could do, with both of them on the controls just to keep the nose up. The vibration continued to worsen and one machine gun vibrated off its mount and departed the aircraft. Our M-16 assault rifles that were hanging on the pilot’s seats vibrated off the seats, and disappeared out the cargo door. My gunner’s and my ammo cans with 2000 rounds of M-60 ammunition each went out the cargo door. The altitude was decreasing, and the airspeed increasing. The adrenaline level was through the roof. It was just a matter of seconds and it would be over. I was going to die and watch it happen. Visions of sheer terror ran through my mind, images of an explosion on impact and burned to death, and I was helpless to do anything about it. I felt like a caged rat.
I had already made up my mind that if at 60 feet the pilots didn’t have control of this thing, I was leaving. I was not Captain Ahab; I didn’t have to go down with this ship. I would take my chances hitting the rice paddies below. The vibration intensified further as the altitude decreased the compartment door on the outer wall where I kept my pistol and camera vibrated off. The pistol and camera disappeared out the cargo door. At about 100 feet as I was preparing to unbuckle my monkey strap and find a soft spot in the rice below, the pilots somehow got the nose up and flared the ship some. The vibration intensified further as the flare increased, and my helmet was shaken off my head. In a snap judgment, that I would live or die with, I had to make a decision, the pilots had it flared, the nose was up and the airspeed was diminishing, there was water and mud below and I chose to ride it down. The pilots pulled all the pitch at 30 feet and the ship shook violently as we settled and splashed in the rice paddy. We bounced once and we stopped. Somehow we were still upright. Mr. Moore tried to get out and I grabbed him around the neck and told him to sit still until the blades stop splashing in the rice paddy. It would be a shame to get decapitated with the main rotor blade after doing a spectacular job getting us down. The blades were striking about 10 feet outside the door causing mud to almost explode from the rice paddy. Every time they hit the water and mud it tilted the aircraft. When the aircraft finally stopped moving we exited and set up a small perimeter. Some perimeter, two pistols the pilot had, and one M-60 with about 6 rounds that was still left in SP-4 Jimmy Cardin, my gunner’s gun. The rest had gone out the door on the way down. My nerves were shattered, but other than that unscathed physically. An OH-6 was orbiting overhead for security 10 minutes later a Little Bear slick came and picked us up.
I went over the ship when it was pipe-smoked back in from the field. The transmission mounts were sheared off. The tail boom mounting bolts were badly stress fractured and it is a wonder it had stayed on, the 42% gearbox was missing, the driveline was snapped. All that held the rotor system on was the lift link bolt, and it was half sheared. I have no idea why it didn’t fail. If it had, we would have fallen 2000 feet to a fiery death.
After this incident, my nerves were fried. Mentally I couldn’t fly any longer. I had nightmares for weeks on end and kept a steady schedule with the Chaplain. I chose to work in the mess hall as a cook. I had been in the mess hall for several weeks, when at 3 in the morning a 122mm rocket landed a direct hit in the mess hall, blowing it all to hell with me in it. Enough of this shit! I decided I would rather die flying, than be a sitting duck in the mess hall. I think it was the aiming point for every rocket in Southeast Asia.
In the beginning I substituted for people some on the counter mortar team to just ease back into it. By December I was back into a regular schedule of flying once again, although very apprehensive. It was still better than being a sitting duck for the nightly rocket and mortar attacks.
Thirty-three years later at times late at night I find myself still in that aircraft. Maybe one day I to will get to come home, or it will crash and kill me and finally it will be over.
©Copyright December 29, 2001 by Ronnie G. Leonard