The Golden BB

by Old Rotorhead

Copyright© 2012 by Old Rotorhead

True Story: Sometimes it's not the enemy who's shooting at you. Regardless of who it is or what they're trying to hit, all they need to bring you down is one golden BB.

Tags: True Story   Historical   Military  

It was September 1974, not long after my outfit returned from Vietnam, and I had checked out a Bell OH-58A scout helicopter from my platoon of A Troop, 2/17 Cavalry, part of the 101st Airborne Division – this was before it quit pretending to be a jump division and became "Air Assault". I needed a couple of night flying hours to stay current for flight pay, and with fuel being in short supply still, a year after Israel's Yom Kippur War caused OPEC to turn off the oil spigot to the US and sent gas prices soaring, I had pulled in a young WO1 (Warrant Officer First Class, the most junior level of warrant officer) pilot from the Huey section to warm the copilot's seat. His name was Larry, and he had never flown in an OH-58A before.

The OH-58A was a military version of the Bell 206 Jet Ranger, with longer main rotor blades and a lot less power. It was so underpowered, in fact, that on hot days we sometimes had to bump it along the ground until we moved the main rotor into clean air (air not stirred up by the main rotor itself) and achieved what the books called "translational lift". That was actually a good name for it, because when it hit, you felt like you were being lifted on angels' wings, as your helicopter was suddenly translated from a noisy sled into an aircraft and began to fly.

This September evening in southern Kentucky, near the Tennessee border, was warm enough that we had taken the doors off the helicopter – real helicopter pilots never call them "choppers" – so that we would be cooled by the breezes as we flew, but not so warm that we had to bump and run to take off, especially since we were flying light. "Night" flying hours technically began at sundown, and it was still pretty light out as we lifted off just as the sun sank below the horizon. I had planned our flight out to the northwest, which would take us diagonally across the base and up toward the Land between the Lakes, a park operated by the Tennessee Valley on the high ground between the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers where they were impounded behind hydroelectric dams. The first 10 miles of the flight were over military property, and as light as it still was, we elected to fly "contour", staying just above (and sometimes below) the treetops while moving at high speed over the ground.

We were nearing the northern edge of the military reservation as dusk began to settle when I heard a sharp "Slap!" sound. I was sure we were clear of the treetops at that point, since I had just begun to climb to stay legal over civilian property, but the sound was worrisome enough that I checked all the controls and gauges, finding nothing out of the ordinary. Helicopter cockpits tend to be pretty noisy places, primarily from transmission noise, and all the more so since the doors were off and we could hear the engine whine and blade slap (the Bell two-bladed rotor system made such a distinctive "wop – wop – wop" noise that the joke among helicopter pilots was that helicopters were a great Italian invention) very clearly, despite the noise-attenuating ear cups in our helmets. We continued to climb into the gathering darkness until we reached about 4000 feet AGL (Above Ground Level).

Larry was just 19 years old. Yes, we took high school graduates in those days, taught them to fly helicopters, and sent them into combat with peach fuzz on their cheeks. Sounds like the teenaged bomber pilot my parents (yes, both of them) served with in WWII, but it was the real thing. Larry, however, had joined us after we pulled out of Vietnam, and was as virginal a helicopter pilot as one might ever see. "So, we have some armor around these seats? We have more armor around the crew seats in my Huey than I see here," he said. I responded, "If you need the armor, you're in the wrong place. We do have ceramic armor sheets under the seat pans, but not the wraparound stuff you have in your Huey. We also have a few hand-sized bits of armor around vulnerable bits of the engine, such as the fuel control, and this ship just came back from depot with a self-sealing fuel tank instead of the thin bags we had when these ships were flown in combat, but none of it really matters. The key to safety is to avoid being shot at. It doesn't take a cannon. All it takes is one "golden BB" in the wrong place to bring one of these suckers down."

We continued to bore holes in the night sky, navigating by reference to the lights of towns scattered around the countryside on this moonless, but starlit, night, falling into a companionable silence. After a while, I heard Larry say something over the intercom, that sounded like "Got a light?" I was annoyed, because I was a nonsmoker and didn't really like sharing a cockpit or a car with a smoker. I keyed my mike switch and said, with some irritation in my voice, "Nah. I don't smoke." At this point, Larry elbowed me and said, "No! On the panel, on the panel, got a light, got a light!" I stopped rubbernecking and pulled my head (figuratively) back into the cockpit, where I was confronted by the biggest warning light on the panel, a 1X4 inch strip glowing redly with "XMSN PRESS LOW". "I've got the controls," I said, and Larry responded by jerking his hands away from the stick and nervously stating, "You've got the controls!" And I started looking for a place to land.

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