Another day in the life of an Air Commando
By Ralph Grigg
ACA Member #5218
I was stationed in Saigon, Vietnam with the 19th Air Commando Squadron flying C123 aircraft.
This is about my experiences in the 19th Air Commando Squadron in South Vietnam. This took place in early 1966 through early 1967. The flying was absolutely the best experiences I have ever had flying anywhere else. Primarily the reason was that we had no FAA rules to go by, we had few instrument procedures that we could follow, and the aircraft (C123 without jets) was ideal for the flying that we were doing. When I and everyone else who joined the squadron participated in the orientation flights to prepare us to be productive crewmembers “in country”, we were shocked and sometimes terrified at some of the maneuvering and procedures necessary to complete the missions. It wasn’t too long until we started relaxing and understood that this was the “normal” for accomplishing the missions that we had.
IFR, we had few instrument procedures. We had to improvise most of the approaches that we had. This led to some quite interesting approaches as you can imagine. For instance, going into Saigon when the weather was bad, if you called Approach for an instrument approach, you will be given probably 45 minutes to an hour and a half for an approach time. If that happened, what we would do would be to set the radar altimeter to 200 or 100 feet depending on how bad the weather was. We would fly down over the South China Sea and let down until we broke out. If we didn’t break out, then we would go back and ask for an approach time. If we broke out, we would head back towards Saigon. We would find the inlet of the bay at Saigon and fly north. There was a river that emptied in on the north side of the bay. We would fly up that river. Now, of course, we were high enough that we could see there were several turns and loops that that river had. But we would fly north until we found a creek coming in on the left. We turned to the runway heading over that creek and kept listening to the radio to see if someone had reported the outer marker. If they had reported over the marker, we would do a 360 at that time and allow them to pass overhead. Of course, we couldn’t see them, but we the 360 maneuver would give them enough time to pass overhead. After that we would go back to the runway heading and call the tower and give our call sign of Provide 54 (I’ll use this call sign for all calls in this book) The call I made was, “ Saigon Tower, Provide 54 VFR final for landing.” Usually the response would come back “Provide 54, Saigon Tower, cleared to land.” We would proceed to visual contact of the runway and go ahead and land. Saigon Tower knew the Provide call sign and what we were doing.
For takeoffs, in IFR weather, we would file an abbreviated flight plan. They would give us taxi instructions, and when ready, clearance for takeoff. After takeoff we were cleared to contact Paris Control for departure. We would stay with Paris control, until we were then handed off to one of the other controllers, or if we were in VFR conditions at that time, we would cancel our flight following. One morning, the visibility was extremely bad. Operations knew that the field was closed, but our frag was a tactical emergency (TAC- E) mission. We started engines and tuned the radios to the ground controller and listened for a minute. The tower was transmitting for the VFR aircraft not to start engines or contact the tower until they put out the message that they were ready for traffic. They said the field was closed at this time, and for IFR aircraft not to start engines until they received their Clearance. I keyed the mike and transmitted,” Saigon Tower, Provides 54, TAC E, taxi.” Ground controller prime replied, “Provides 54 taxi runway 25.”Now we had a problem because getting to runway 25 was going to be difficult. As I pulled out of the parking slot. I did see a taxi way light. As I passed that light. I looked ahead until I could see the next light. That’s the way I got to the end of the taxiway in the run-up area. After run-up, we requested and were given permission to take off. I taxied on to the runway and stayed close to the left side so I could see the lights, as I passed one light on takeoff roll. I would look for the next light and so on until liftoff.
One day, quite a few of us were tasked with missions to resupply Quan Loi. The weather was not too bad as we broke out on top at approximately 1500 feet. I flew on top to the general location of Quan Loi, but could not see a thing except the clouds that we were flying over. I contacted the Army controller and found out that the runway was overcast, with the cloud height above the ground at 50 feet at the west end and about 100 feet on the east end As I was maneuvering over the location of Quan Loi. I spotted a hole in the clouds and spotted rubber trees below. I descended through the hole in the clouds and broke out about 150 feet above the trees. Knowing that rubber trees were all about the same height, as opposed to the jungle where you can have a ragged canopy of small trees to 200+ foot high trees, I started flying around over the rubber trees looking for the runway. The terrain was kind of rolling hills, and I was following the terrain over the rubber trees. When I spotted the runway, up to my left and a higher elevation than I was flying, I turned 90° and started climbing up towards the runway. I was climbing towards the west end of the runway. When I passed over the end of the runway, I went in to the clouds at 50 feet. I told the other pilot I was flying with to time me for 30 seconds. He asked what I was going to do. I’m flying Cross wind. I’m going to go 30 seconds and enter down wind. The runway at Quan Loi is 05/23. When the time was up I turned to the heading of 050 and ask him to time me for two minutes. As I was still climbing during these maneuvers. I did break out on top at about 1000 feet. When the time was up. I turned 90° to the left and asked for 30 more seconds. When the time was up. I turned to the heading of 230, dropped the gear and flaps and started descending. On descent, we went back into the clouds. We broke out of the clouds at about 100 feet elevation east of the runway with the runway perfectly aligned about a quarter of a mile in front of us. We landed, and parked. While they were unloading the aircraft, I walked over to the Army controller and asked if any other aircraft had called in? He said, negative. But while we were talking about what I had done, another aircraft called in. The pilot asked if anyone else had made it in. The controller told him,” Yes, one other had made it in.” The pilot asked the controller how the other aircraft had made it in. The controller told him that the other pilot was standing right here and asked if he wanted the other pilot to be on the radio. He said affirmative in a controller handed me the mike. I told him that I had found a hole in the clouds and let down above the rubber trees. I then explained how I had maneuvered to come back to the runway and land. He said okay, but about 10 minutes later, he said he couldn’t find any holes in the clouds, but that he had an idea. He told me to ask the controller if he had any parachute flares. Since the controller could hear the conversation he said yes he did have. The pilot asked that he pop one to see if he could see it. The controller had the type of flares that you take the covering off of one end, slide it on the other end, and pop it with the palm of your hand while holding it in the vertical position. The controller walked out onto the runway and fired the fire. The pilot said he could see it and asked to get three more flares available. The controller asked me what the pilot was going to do. I told him he was going to maneuver the aircraft so that the heading of the aircraft was the same heading as the runway with the flare straight ahead. A few minutes later the pilot asked for another flare. A few minutes later, he asked for two more. That’s the last we heard of him until he broke out, perfectly aligned with the runway.
We were the only two that made it in that morning. Don’t try this at home. We had several factors going in our favor. One was we were well experienced with flying these aircraft at slow speeds, and being able to maneuver them with precision. The other factors were: one: The rubber trees are all the same height and two: We knew the height of the base of the clouds.
A little about the 123: the ones we were flying at the time I was there did not have the jet engines. The ones with jet engines started coming into operation in early 1967. Normally we had a four-man crew of two pilots, a flight mechanic, and a loadmaster. For drop missions, overseas missions, and some difficult to find airfields. We added a navigator. The aircraft was a true assault aircraft. We were equipped with angle of attack indicators and the props could be reversed in the air. The original assault landing procedure called for proper reversal at about 15 feet above the ground. But that procedure was done away with after quite a few accidents and or hard landings. Empty I think we could stop at about 700 feet. For planning purposes, we got out the takeoff and landing data and applied that to the field length -50 feet. We gave ourselves 50 feet of slop. During takeoff from short fields, when we lifted off, we were 15 knots below power off stall speed. That meant that if you lost power, you stalled and you came down (hit the ground) from however high you were. We normally lifted off and leveled off a few feet above the runway or field and accelerated until we at least got past power off stall speed. We now had 15 knots to go to get past minimum single-engine control speed. If you lost an engine prior to reaching the minimum single-engine control speed, then usually the procedure was to pull the other engine and put the aircraft down.
We hauled everything imaginable including people, combat troops, paratroopers, cargo of all descriptions, ammunition, vehicles, trailers, fuel bladders, drums, foodstuffs both frozen and fresh, animals, mail, and the wounded or dead. We also had flare missions. Our missions with the above included air para-dropping or free dropping and air landing. We landed on roads, fields, sidewalks (Song Be City), and runways made of grass, laterite, Sod, Clay, and PSP steel planking.