The wind was howling through the cabin, drowning out the baby’s cries, and without his seat straps Mike had freer movement to turn and check but communicating was difficult. Passengers were a rarity and he had no headset for the observer’s position
Mother and baby were physically unharmed, as was Henry, so only Mike had any injuries, the flying glass had opened the left side of his face, which was bleeding heavily. He had also been hit in the left side of his chest, but try as he may, he could not detect an entry or exit wound, nor any trace of bleeding, but the pain was slowly taking hold. It was puzzling, the bullet had all but driven the breath from him, and so there should be an obvious wound in evidence.
Mike explained briefly, but adding that he was not currently experiencing any light headedness or weakness.
Barfight Zero Nine checked out the battered Bird Dog, top, bottom and rear.
“You have a few holes, an antennae that appears to have been shot away… and as well as some oil leaking from the engine cowlings underside, you are losing either coolant or fuel in a slight vapour trail.”
The Continental O-470 engine was air-cooled so it would not be glycol that he was losing. Mike checked his gauges, the engine temperature was okay, so too was oil, at the moment, but he certainly seemed a little light on fuel. The Bird Dog had a maximum range of 530 miles and he had been half full when he was on the ground at LZ Audrey, so that equated to 265 miles, plenty of reserve for him to reach Quang Tri, 136 miles distant, the nearest airfield.
After some quick calculations he knew that with the current loss rate he had barely enough to make it.
Quang Tri’s single runway ran NW/SE and he was flying into the headwind from the east, which was not helping his predicament whilst he still had fuel. However, once the propeller shuddered to a halt he could well need that easterly, at least until he turned onto finals and lost its benefits.
He was currently flying at 5,000ft and declared his intention to climb to 10,000ft. He would have preferred to fly higher but he was not a paediatrician and did not know how the baby’s little lungs would cope in an unpressurised cabin.
The Bird Dog had a 9:1 glide ratio, meaning that it could cover 9 kilometres for every thousand metres of altitude lost. In theory at least, that gave him 90 kilometres, a shade under 56 miles, to play with once the fuel ran out. That was always assuming that the fuel outlasted the oil. His oil pressure was reducing and the engine temperature had climbed a couple of degrees. If the oil ran out first he would have to shut the engine down in order to avoid a fire.
The sky was a deep blue and only out at sea could he see the first clouds forming.
Time passed as clouds and the Cessna closed on each other, the small flat six ran smoothly and it was, Mike decided, the kind of day to be chilling beside a beach with cold beer at hand in the Keys, not shot up in a SE Asian war.
He tapped each gauge in turn, seeking an accurate indication of the fuel and oil that still remained. The oil pressure gauge was hovering over empty but the fuel was already in the red. His engine temperature was high, but not dangerously so, but that could alter pretty damn quickly.
The faint outline of the Thach Han River appeared, glistening in the sun, 30 miles distant. Beside the river lay the airfield, not yet identifiable in the heat haze.
Barfight Zero Nine stayed with them but the other five Barfighters and Jupiter’s T-28s peeled off, entering the circuit and landing to refuel and rearm.
There was no warning, no dramatic moment with the engine coughing and spluttering, the 213hp Continental simply stopped as the last drop of fuel was consumed. The propeller, its blade angle design the result of mathematical equations and skilful engineering to ensure the efficient conversion of brake horse power from the engine into useful thrust, was now as useful as a dead stick, hence the term.
It was not silent in the small cabin without the engine noise, the wind still whistled through the shattered windows and bullet holes but at a greatly reduced rate. The air speed indicator wound down from 130 to a mere 45MPH.
It was still busy on the ground with the constant arrival of aircraft requiring rearming and refuelling, but that came to abrupt end as Barfight informed the tower that Rodeo Zero Seven was ‘dead stick’, no engine. In Flight Ops they chalked ‘WOB’ on the board next to Mikes call sign and sortie number as Barfight declared ‘07’ had wounded on board. The ambulance and fire truck had scrambled and were sat a safe distance from the end of the runway with motors idling, waiting to follow the aircraft as it touched down, or indeed if it ploughed into the trees short of the runway threshold. There was an unmarked route through the wire entanglements and mines beyond the perimeter which the drivers had memorised for such eventualities.
Rooney got the word early, of course, and left the mess hall to watch, standing near the runway with crossed fingers.
Seven of the Trojan T-28s, which had been involved in the rescue, landed first and the crews also made their way over. Major Sherman, the 19th TASS detachment’s CO, sought them out for a first-hand account of what had befallen Phoenix Zero Four and Rodeo Zero Seven.
“Were is he?” asked a voice, and Rooney saw that it was Hector Ortega, wiping his grease and oil covered hands with a kerosene soaked rag, Airman Lynch was at his side, shading his eyes from the sun as he peered up at the sky.
“Probably planning on short finals.”
“Why is that?” asked young Lynch.
“Winds from the east, not the north west, the way the runway is laid out,” Rooney explained. “When he turns in he’ll drop a-ways… hot day like this the air is less dense, it could be like riding a winged brick when he turns onto the approach.”
“Damn, we just got done fixing it only this morning.”
“Well look at it this way, maybe it was your doing such a good job is the reason he is coming back at all, Airman.”
Rooney noticed that Captain Dunstan was stood a little apart from everyone else, and he thought that 19 TASS’s Executive Officer looked exactly like those people who go to watch NASCAR just for the chance to see someone die.
They heard the sound of Rodeo’s shepherding T-28 first; it was circling above a slowly moving speck that had to be the Cessna O-1A Bird Dog.
As the line Mike was taking closed on that of the runway’s approach he began a gentle turn, reluctant to lose a single unnecessary foot in altitude. They had lost 8,000ft in gliding this far, which highlighted the difference between what an engineer’s slide rule says should occur and what actually happens in reality.
Their rate of descent increased as they lost the wind’s air flow over the wings, causing Juiqi to call out in fear. They were indeed descending more rapidly than Mike was happy with. He applied left rudder, yawing 40° into the wind and leeching some of its buoyancy.
Just off the line of approach was a dark area on the ground, a true blot on the landscape, an area which had proven to be a popular mortar baseplate position for hit and run attacks by the Viet Cong. In order to deny to the enemy the cover of trees and foliage, that area had been thoroughly napalmed.
Mike guided the Bird Dog above it and smiled as they were buffeted from below by the small, but welcome, thermal that the dark area produced. Seeking out dark patches on the ground, such as woods, ploughed fields and built-up areas, was a well-known technique used by glider pilots and birds, but unlike lightweight gliders and avians, his aircraft was too heavy to fully capitalise on it, it could not soar upwards in a spiral to greater altitude.
Every little bit helped though, at this point.
Having transited that small area, Mike renewed his former south easterly course.
As the Bird Dog grew larger, and lower, those on the ground gave voice to their feelings, shouting encouragement that Mike could not of course hear.
Ground crews stopped what they were doing to watch the drama unfold and clerks left the air conditioner’s balm to step outside and watch, and then to join in.
Rooney, Hector and Airman Lynch were shouting as loudly as anyone, it was infectious and even the base commander had stepped out of his office to watch. Only Gordon Dunstan wore a veiled look of anticipation.
The voices fell silent as the glide became a dive.
‘Ground Rush’ is a sensation familiar to all parachutists, as well as any air traveller who has stared at the ground as they came into land, that transition of the senses from ‘floating’ to ‘falling’. Henry’s view was a little limited but that sensation arrived as Mike cancelled their yaw to the left and the aircraft’s nose dropped steeply.
Peering awkwardly around the girl’s shoulder he could see that the minefield set before the airfield’s perimeter was looming up, not the runway.
Mike’s eyes flicked from the altimeter to the air speed indictor and back, picking his moment before cashing in the airspeed that the dive had built up, trading it for lift, pulling back on the column with wings level. They soared above the mine field and cleared the 8 foot high coils of stacked barbed wire, separating it from the runway, with three feet to spare. As the speed bled off and gravity was about to take over he flared, settling the Bird Dog onto the tarmac in a perfect three pointer and rolling to a halt.
He was blocking the runway but in a moment there was no shortage of willing hands to push it clear across to the hangar it had left only a few hours previously.
Mike climbed painfully from his seat after retrieving Ali’s photo and returning it to his wallet. He was favouring his left side, almost hunched over, and drying blood coated the left side of his face from the cheek bone on down, matting into the cotton of his flight suit. He turned back to the runway, raising a hand high in a gesture of thanks as Barfight Zero Nine touched down on the tarmac.
Juiqi and the baby were taken to the ambulance and Henry helped Mike fend off the congratulatory slaps on the back as they followed.