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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.

Twenty year retired Regular AF with eight years enlisted (five years Airborne Comm & Nav equipment repair and three years Jupiter and Atlas Ballistic Missile Systems Analyst.) Attended OCS and Pilot Training. Counterinsurgency School at Maxwell and C123 training at Hurlburt Field. Instructor Pilot in Viet Nam with 762 Combat hours, 1260 Combat Sorties, and 245 Combat IP hours.

Air Force combat support pilot had dog days at war

By Skip Vaughn, Rocket Editor

When Air Force Capt. John “Scotty” Scott arrived in Vietnam in July 1966, the pilot’s first job was spraying Agent Orange while flying his airplane at the treetops

His airplane got hit by enemy fire three times the first day and two more times that week. When he learned that his commander mistakenly thought he had volunteered for defoliant spraying, Scott gladly changed assignments.

“That was probably the best thing that I did,” he said.

Scott spent the rest of his yearlong tour flying combat support missions in his C-123. He transported supplies and Army troops with his airplane’s four-member crew which included the pilot, co-pilot, flight mechanic and loadmaster.

“We could carry about 12,000 pounds of cargo,” he said. “We mainly just took the Army wherever they needed to go.”

His airplane got hit just two more times from 1966-67 because his altitude was usually out of range of enemy fire. Once a round penetrated the floor and went between his seat and the co-pilot’s but fortunately no one was injured. Scott flew 909 hours and about 1,350 sorties for the 309th Air Commando Squadron based at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon.

“I had it probably better than a lot of people,” he said of his year at war. “But getting shot at is no fun.”

The McColl, South Carolina native received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters and the Meritorious Service Medal.

He lived in Saigon with six other guys in a seven-bedroom house and he would ride the two blocks to the air base on his Honda motorcycle.

His squadron had unofficially adopted a spotted medium-sized dog named Spot who had been with them about four years. Spot slept in the NCO barracks and ate C-rations.

“They called him the oldest air commando,” Scott said. “He loved to fly in an airplane just like a dog would ride in a car.”

Spot would fly in the planes on their combat support missions. He would come running up at the sound of the engines before takeoff. The crews even made him a little parachute so he could jump out with the troops. When a new commander declared that a dog shouldn’t fly in combat zones, the crews still managed to take him along on flights. He would follow the plane as it taxied down the runway, the crewmembers would open the door and he would hop on.

One day Scott was flying with the dog onboard. The airplane made its first stop and Spot got out as usual – he never stayed on board and always returned at the sound of the engines for departure. But this particular day, Spot didn’t return when it was time to leave. Scott and the crew couldn’t wait because this was after all a combat zone. They were nearly in tears as the plane left without their beloved pet. They made another stop before returning to Saigon.

“When we landed to shut down for the day, here he comes running up to the plane,” Scott said. “It was like a happy ending.”

Spot had hitched a ride on another C-123 and beat Scott’s plane back to Saigon.

“When I left Vietnam, he was still flying in the squadron,” Scott said. “He was like a fun dog to have around. What’s the odds of that happening? Everybody liked the dog.”

Scott left Vietnam in July 1967 and then spent a year flying C-123s in Germany. He retired as a major in 1978 after 24 years in the Air Force, including 10 years in Florida. He was trying to work his way through the University of South Carolina but dropped out and joined the Air Force in 1955 with hopes of becoming a pilot. Scott went to aviation cadet school and got his commission as a second lieutenant. He got his bachelor’s in business administration from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1965. Scott met President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 while assigned to an Air Force radar squadron in Key West, Florida.

John ‘Scotty’ Scott

“I tell people I had a great career. I enjoyed all of it except the times I was getting shot at.” he said.

After leaving the Air Force, he managed condominiums on the beach in Destin, Florida, for more than 20 years until he retired.

He and his wife of 60 years, Carole, reside in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Their daughter, Sandi Boggs, lives in Daytona Beach, Florida; and their son, Rusty, resides in Fort Walton Beach. They have four grandchildren. At 86 Scott enjoys tending to his 1,200-square-foot garden. That probably comes from his days growing up on a farm in South Carolina. He is a member of the Daedalians.

Scott shared his thoughts on this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.

“One of the big reasons we went to Vietnam was to stop the spread of communism – the domino effect,” he said. “In my mind, I think we won it. Vietnam was the last domino to fall. Vietnam fell but it was the last domino. They didn’t get to take over the Philippines or Taiwan or Indonesia.”

Editor’s note: This is the 302nd in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.

This article first appeared in print: Jan 13, 2021 in the Redstone Rocket newspaper in Redstone Arsenal, AL.