Imagine you’ve been driving on a road trip for a few days. You have gotten very little rest between long periods of driving and your eye lids are getting heavy. You try everything, playing loud music, rolling the windows down, but nothing shakes the drowsiness. You begin to forget driving the past mile. Two. Three. You’re dangerously removed from the situation, lightly dozing sometimes to open your eyes and find yourself swerving. Your heart rate increases when you realize you’ve almost gotten in in accident, but the adrenaline only temporarily wakes you. Now imagine that you can’t pull over, your car isn’t a car, it is a Huey full of soldiers and you’re an army helicopter pilot. You’ve been flying for 40 hours of the last 48. You are responsible for bringing troops into battle, often under enemy fire. You have no choice but to continue your mission and you know that at any time, you can miss a critical moment in the situation that results in the death of everyone onboard. This is what it was like being a pilot in Vietnam.
Recently, I began reading Chickenhawk by Robert Mason and it has opened my eyes to how absolutely batsh*t crazy the war was in Vietnam. The analogy of driving a car while tired came to me when, in the book, Mason and his co-pilot Riker were on what could pretty much be called a marathon. They had been selected to fly a man they called “Grunt Six” to various installments in the jungle to meet with other officers. They would pick him up, fly to an area, and circle it to allow Grunt Six to use his radio equipment to communicate to ground forces then go land at a location so that he could meet with other captains. They went almost nonstop with barely any sleep for two days. Once they were no longer needed to transport the captain, they returned to an installment they referred to as the Tea Plantation at the crack of dawn. They got coffee and were ready to take a break when they were told to be ready to fly for the whole next day.
“We flew alone in the valley between Pleime and the massif, moving small patrols to new locations. We were so tired that caution, proficiency, and even fear left us while we dropped into virgin LZs without company or cover. I had felt pretty good after breakfast, but by ten o‘clock I was pranging the Huey again. So was Len. “Pranging” was an unofficial term we learned in flight school. It was descriptive of both the sound and the deflection of a helicopter’s skids during a very hard landing—the kind of landing that would get you a pink slip and a dirty look from your instructor.
I was having lapses in concentration. I would set up an approach to a clearing and then just sit there sort of drooling stupidly until the ground hit the skids. When we hit, it would shake me enough to wake me for a more or less good takeoff. But when the flight lasted more than ten minutes, I would fade. Len and I took half-hour turns. We were both rotten.
Noon marked twenty-four hours since we had left the Golf Course. It seemed like a month. We had been flying nearly twenty of those twenty-four hours. No wonder we both snickered when we pranged our landings. We were delirious with fatigue.
We continued to fly all the rest of the day and into the night. I don’t remember refueling. I don’t remember the landings. I don’t remember who I carried or where I took them. I didn’t record the number of sorties or anything else I was supposed to do. We were complimented later about our calmness under fire. I don’t even remember the fire.”
This is one of my favorite excerpts from the book. It shows that these guys went nonstop until they were relieved which, in some case only resulted from death. We all have an idea of how bad the War in Vietnam was for American troops, but this really drives home the fact that nothing mattered more than the mission. You had no option but to push yourself beyond what you thought your physical limits were to find your real ones. We never know our full limitations until we find them, and for many pilots like Mason, that meant dying in the process.