Sunday, May 17, 2015

My First Mission

"Headhunter One-Four, cleared for takeoff.". The radio call from the control tower at Camp Holloway airfield was the authorization for my first combat mission as an Army Aviator that morning in mid-November 1967. Camp Holloway was the US Army airfield located two miles southeast of Pleiku, the capital city of Pleiku Province in the Republic of Vietnam. The 219th Reconnaissance Airplane Company, the "Headhunters", had been flying in the Central Highlands of Vietnam for almost two years. I, however, had been "in country" just a little more than a month and had just completed my 10 hours of operational check out flying with an instructor pilot.

I was assigned to one of the four flight platoons, the First, and was given my radio call sign "Headhunter One-Four". The first number in the call sign indicated the platoon but the second was of no special significance. Exceptions were the platoon commanders, each of whose call sign ended in "Six" ("One-Six", "Two-Six", etc.), following traditional Army radio procedures. The call sign of the company commander was "Headhunter Six". He didn't fly very often but when he did he almost killed himself. But that's another story.

Each platoon typically consisted of six O-1 "Bird Dog" airplanes, Korean War-vintage, two-seat, high-wing Cessnas used primarily for visual reconnaissance, or "VR". That means the pilot, in the front seat and the observer, seated behind him, looked out the windows at the ground and reported by radio or later by written intelligence reports what they saw. Or they could drop smoke or high explosive hand grenades, shoot out the windows, or fire marking rockets from under the wings..Observers consisted of US and Vietnamese Army personnel and could be artillery officers, Special Forces team sergeants, or Military Intelligence officers. Sometimes our crew chiefs and other enlisted personnel from the company flew with us.

The Bird Dog had racks under each wing which usually
carried rockets that were used to mark targets on the ground. 
The Headhunters were assigned to support US and Vietnamese forces in the Central Highlands. The First Platoon had the responsibility for providing VR for three Special Forces camps and for US-advised Vietnamese Army units operating in Pleiku Province. Pleiku's western border joins Cambodia.

The Second Platoon supported the same types of camps and units in Kontum Province which borders Pleiku on the north and which shares its western border with Cambodia and Laos. The region where the three countries join is known as the Tri-Border area and it is the general area where Special Forces often operated. The Second based its airplanes at Kontum Army Airfield.

The Third Platoon, flying out of Holloway, directly supported US artillery units positioned on hilltop and mountaintop fire support bases throughout Pleiku and Kontum provinces by providing aerial adjustment of artillery fire, either with artillery aerial observers assigned to the firebases or by Headhunter pilots alone.

The Fourth Platoon, also based at Holloway, flew for the Fourth Infantry Division and conducted VR and artillery adjustment in support of their units in the field, either in Pleiku or other adjacent provinces. The division was headquartered some five miles south of Holloway at their base camp  located at the foot of Dragon Mountain, a prominent, extinct volcano.

Dragon Mountain, with a rocket tube under the right wing of a
 Bird Dog. This photo was taken in the dry season showing
the red clay that was prevalent outside the jungle areas or
rice paddies..

While adjusting artillery fire was primarily the mission of the Third Platoon, firebases throughout the region were were always ready to shoot at any targets any Headhunter could identify. This, along with directing helicopter gunships and Air Force tactical aircraft dropping bombs and napalm, was the fun and action part of what we did.

My mission that day was to fly with another Headhunter to Plei Me Special Forces camp, about 20 miles south of Holloway and pick up two sergeants who wanted to VR an area their team was to operate in beginning the next day.

Plei Me Special Forces camp was cleared out of the jungle.
It was attacked and almost overrun in September 1965. Some
bomb craters can be seen outside the cleared area.
The technique was to fly adjacent to the area and not to overfly it, thus possibly alerting enemy on the ground. The team sergeants used binoculars to scout for potential landing zones and marked them on their maps. Since the operational area was close to Cambodia this was a dual ship mission, and also since it was my first mission, new pilots like me had to fly with an experienced Headhunter in another aircraft. We landed back on that tiny dirt strip (along the top edge of the camp in the photo) , the sergeants got out, and we returned to Holloway. Their operational mission the next day was a success.


  1. Bill, welcome to the world of blogging, and great job. Setting up the blog was the easy part. Now you have to keep it going. So get at it old man, keep writing!

    1. I hope it will once a week until I run out of things to say. My problem now is to cull out some of the extraneous material I have ready.