A Hair Raising Trip
By Garth Brown, 547 Sig Tp
547 Sig Tp was based at Nui Dat in its own secure compound within the 103 Sig Sqn/104 Sig Sqn area. It is pretty well common knowledge now that 547 Sig Tp carried out Airborne Radio Direction Finding (ARDF) tasks in Vietnam continuously from Sep 1967 until late 1971 with the ARDF mission equipment being installed in 161 Recce Sqn aircraft. My primary role during my first tour with 547 Sig Tp was centred on the installation, testing and commissioning of the ARDF mission equipment and subsequently being responsible for its ongoing technical support.
At the time, in late 1967, when we were commencing operations with the Australian ARDF equipment, the Troop was also supported by US ARDF aircraft from the 146th Avn Co which were temporarily based at Nui Dat on a rotational basis. Naturally, I made every effort to familiarize myself with the US ARDF equipment and managed to fly a number of ARDF missions with the 146th Avn Co. One of those missions prompted the following story.
During the latter part of 1967, an RU-8D ARDF aircraft and crew from the US 146th Avn Co (at that time, normally based at “Davis Station” on Tan Son Nhut airbase) were temporarily co-located with 547 Sig Tp for a few months, flying missions from Luscombe Field.
At that stage, Luscombe Field had only been in operation a short time, construction having been completed in December 1966. The strip itself was slightly less than 3,000ft long (Route 2 being the western boundary), had a total downhill slope of 50ft east to west and, because of the tall rubber trees on the northern and eastern edges of the strip, was designated a “One Way” strip. i.e. take-off was east to west only and landing was west to east only. The prevailing wind was predominantly west to east. There were no navigation aids at Luscombe Field.
By December 1968, the strip had been pushed across Route 2 and extended to 4,100ft in length.
US Army ARDF
The RU-8D was a good choice of aircraft at that time for the US ARDF role particularly because of its long range, rugged airframe and its capability for (almost) aerobatic flying. Its main shortcoming was that, in its mission configuration, the aircraft was underpowered and even had difficulty in maintaining altitude on one engine.
Theoretically, Luscombe Field was a 1,000ft too short for the RU-8D however, by limiting the fuel load to bare mission requirements plus an hour’s safety margin and given that the aircraft would normally be taking off down hill and into the prevailing wind; the pilots decided it was safe to utilize the field. (One of the crew chiefs confided later that it was not uncommon for the gear to be pulled up prematurely on take-off so that the aircraft could clear the fence before crossing Route 2).
I managed to score about five operational flights in the RU-8D, all with the same crew, i.e
CPT (Captain) Jack Daniels
The RU-8D didn’t have room for joy riders. If you flew on the mission, you had to fly right seat in lieu of the Co-Pilot and undertake all of the plotting tasks during the ARDF mission; not too difficult once you got the hang of it.
Most of my flights in the RU-8D were
pretty non-eventful, even though I always experienced a bit of an
adrenalin rush when flying in Vietnam. One flight however still
remains embedded in my memory cells as a hair-raising experience.
On this particular day, we were to fly a few tasks up in the vicinity of Nui May Tao and further north into Long Kanh Province. There were a few clouds around (it was the monsoon season) but it looked like a nice day for flying. The day started with Marty Wendt going down to the strip to pre-flight the aircraft. At about 9:30am, Blue Thomas drove CPT Daniels, Joe Weir and me down to the strip; he was going to take Marty Wendt back to the lines and then return and pick us up in about 2 hours time when we returned from the ARDF mission.
The ARDF missions were carried out without any drama though we did notice that the weather was starting to deteriorate with the commencement of light rain and the cloud base thickening up and staring to descend.
On conclusion of the ARDF missions, we headed back towards Nui Dat, essentially tracking along Route 2 and noticing that the weather ahead of us was worsening by the minute. By the time that we were about 30Km from Nui Dat, we had run into torrential rain and visibility was almost down to zero. CPT Daniels was concerned because there were no navaids at Luscombe and the only tool we had for confirming our position was the on-board Doppler system. Because we could only approach Luscombe from the west, he was also concerned that we didn’t get too far west because of the proximity of the Nui Dinh’s and the Nui Thi Vai’s.
Using the altimeter and the Doppler to establish position and height, CPT Daniels tried on about four occasions to drop below the cloud cover and line up for an approach into Luscombe. Although on each occasion we could actually see the strip, we were too far off track and had to abort and go around. After the fourth attempt CPT Daniels, being conscious of our diminishing fuel state, decided to give up on Luscombe and divert to Vung Tau which had full navaids available.
Close Call at Vung Tau
Nearing Vung Tau, CPT Daniels contacted approach control and we were duly vectored in to Vung Tau airbase. As we were letting down, the rain intensified and visibility was zilch – the turbulence was horrific. Then, in a series of split seconds, the sky lightened - visibility ahead increased to about a hundred yards– and there dead in front of us was a Chinook helicopter!!! The ramp was down and (I assume) the Crew Chief was standing on the ramp – his look of absolute terror as he saw us is embedded in my brain forever!!!. CPT Daniels threw us into a violent “wing over” manoeuvre to starboard – I don’t know how our port wing missed the rear rotor of the Chinook, but somehow it did. That was the closest call I have ever had in my life!!
CPT Daniels, cursing Vung Tau approach control for all he was worth, put us into a steep climb and changed course for Tan Son Nhut. The journey to Tan Son Nhut was relatively un-eventful with the weather improving Km by Km. When we were over the outer part of Saigon, at 5,000ft on our approach to Tan Son Nhut, the port engine cut out due to fuel starvation. By toggling the fuel tanks, CPT Daniels was able to re-start the engine and then got an emergency clearance into the STOL strip (I Think from memory – 25 Right). We touched down safely but both engines had cut-out before we finished our landing roll!! Another close call!!!
Aerial view of Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Davis Station is in the
lower right quadrant of the photo below the large hangers.
Photo from Internet Source (comcenterspec.homestead.com)
Back to Nui Dat
We were towed back to the ramp at Davis Station; we refueled and engines were checked and soon were heading back to Nui Dat. The weather was still pretty “iffy” and CPT Daniels had to abort two attempts at landing before we finally touched down at Luscombe Field – the end to a rather stressful day. (Blue Thomas reckoned that he had given up on us when we were two hours overdue and thought he had better go and practice his slow marching!!). Needless to say that several “cold and frosties” were consumed that night!!!
A couple of weeks later I had another opportunity to visit Davis Station. On this occasion, I was paraded before the CO of 146th Avn Co and (as a purely symbolic gesture) presented with a set of aircrew wings and an Air Medal. A nice gesture though !!!