Tom Helwick

Vietnam veteran Tom Helwick served in the Air Force as a pilot.

LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff

Tom Helwick served in the U.S. Air Force as a pilot. He had originally planned to be a physical education teacher. This is part of his Vietnam story. 

Helwick: "My first four years (of college) — into my fifth — I was getting my deferments on a regular basis. Then came the day when I got an induction notice. ... I needed about 60 days to finish the work on my degree. So, I began a frantic search calling up the Navy, the Marines, what can you do for me? What I didn't want to do is end up crawling around in the jungle as a draftee.

"There was an Air Force recruiter in the town that I lived in. I went up to see him, and I was all frantic. He said, 'Now just settle down. Just relax. We're going to go downtown Cleveland and take some tests.' I said, 'OK.' We did that and went down there and took the Air Force officer qualifying tests and all the aptitude tests that go along with it, and the next thing I know, I got a call back and he said, 'You did really well on them. In fact ... you're under consideration for officer training, we're going to give you a 60-day deferment.' Perfect. That's exactly what I needed. I needed two months to finish my degree.

"I told him I wanted to go into pilot training because I had ... taken some lessons and what not. The problem was is that (the Air Force) filled its quota for the fiscal year for the pilots. (The recruiter said), 'However we do need navigators, but if you accept orders for nav school, then I think we're a sure thing.' Next thing you know, I am in a car driving to San Antonio, Texas, to Lackland Air Force Base for officer training school to become a 90-day wonder, as they called us. Three months of learning how to be an officer and a gentlemen and everything else.

"The really remarkable thing happened toward the end of that program as we were getting ready to be commissioned. We were out qualifying with the .38 revolver at a range and a young lieutenant came up. I had already had orders to ... navigator training school in Sacramento. (He said), 'All the guys with nav school orders, come over here.' There were about 10 of us I guess. He said, 'I have four slots for pilot training. Who wants to go?' So, of course, everybody raises their hand, and as luck would have it, I got one of them."

Helwick went to Craig Air Force Base in Selma, Ala., for 56 weeks of training in three different airplanes — Cessna 172 (T-41), T-37 and T-38. He graduated last in his class, but out of about 50 who started, only half finished.

Gazette: There's a war going on while you're training. But, the training is intense. How much are you thinking about Vietnam?

Helwick: "Pilot training took most of your attention. In fact, there were always these guys — the class of these guys were Air Force Academy graduates, recent — these guys were mostly career people from the get-go. They all wanted to be fighter pilots, but we all can't be. So, there were a lot of guys who were gung-ho and wanted to be there. They wanted to be in combat."

Gazette: You had to have a fight to be a fighter pilot, right?

Helwick: "That's right. ... At the same time, with the program as rigorous as it was, you didn't have a lot of time to think about where you were going to go. It was only toward the end when you're getting ready to put on your wings, and the assignments start coming down, you say, 'OK,' and start thinking about it a little more.

"Since I was numero last ... the first guy, whatever he wants, he gets. Whatever aircraft in inventory if it's available, he gets it. It goes like that down the line. All the fighter, single-seat stuff usually went toward the top, once you get down to the bottom feeders, where I was... my big fear was that I didn't want to go to a bomber or B-52 or anything like that. So when I got the assignment to the EC-47 (the Air Force version of a DC-3), I was thrilled. I thought, 'Great.' As I kid, I always liked that plane. ... Our mission was electronic reconnaissance. It was a thrill. I wasn't disappointed in the least."

Gazette: What's your first impression of the EC-47? It's something you've seen?

Helwick: "There was two training schools (in Louisiana) on the same base. One was for the ... A-37 an attack airplane we had over there (in Vietnam). They turned it into a mini-fighter/bomber sort of thing. Then we had the C-47 school there. Well, the configuration of the airport is kind of unusual. There's ... operations right in the middle of the apex, so you can be on one side of the operations area and there are all the A-37s running around and the jet pilots are over there. And then, you walk around the corner — on the other side of that apex and then all of a sudden you're back in 1943 — you're looking at all these tail-draggers sitting over there, you know? You're like, 'Wow, it's a time warp.' You go from now until yesteryear. Of course, all the goons (the DC-3 was nicknamed 'The Gooney Bird') are sitting there, leaking oil.

"... They make a marvelous sound. There's nothing like listening to a radial engine, listening to it start up and run."

Gazette: What about its start-up is unique?

Helwick: "As the engine starts to take and starts to run on its own, it's just that coughing ...s puttering for a bit until its smooths out. Of course, all the blue smoke blows away that it's been coughing on the start up and then the props kind of emanate a soft beat in the air and it's such a pleasant sound.

"It was World War II technology. ... It had a lot of basic stuff on it. It's got automatic direction finding. We never even touched on it in pilot training because it was so antiquated, but we had those in it. So we had to learn to make those approaches."

Gazette: This was like flight school all over again.

Helwick: "Absolutely. Even though the airplane is hard pressed to do 200 knots. You'd say how hard can it be at that speed? You really found out that it polished your airmanship where you paid attention to a lot of things you never paid attention to before."

Gazette: Was frustrating to be back a generation with regards to flight technology? You'd flown more sophisticated jets.

Helwick: "I wouldn't call it frustrating, but certainly very challenging. Shooting these instrument approaches on these rather primitive instruments, you really went back and studied up on how they should be done and what's the proper technique — maybe something you didn't dwell on as much in pilot training. ... It's just a rudimentary course. It just gets you familiar with the airplane and most of it was under supervision. Then, after that, they say, 'You're qualified to fly the airplane.'"

Gazette: It sounds like you grew to love this plane?

Helwick: "It's amazing and you get on some of the airplane and they still had their manufacturing placard — when you crawled into the cockpit — and it is says "1939." Here I was 30 years removed."

Gazette: When did you get orders to Vietnam?

Helwick: "As soon as I got out of pilot training, my orders indicated that's where I was headed. The next step was the combat training school at Louisiana. Then, after that, you weren't done yet. There was global survival school at Fairchild. And what that trained you to do was how to — in the event that you were shot down — escape and evade. There was a prisoner-of-war scenario that you did for three or four days. Interrogations, putting you in a little box. See if you could stand being claustrophobic. Play music at you all night. It was a cell you couldn't stand up in. They just tried to figure out who was going to fold in these things.

"... Finally after you got out of Fairchild, then you head on over. When that day came, you go over and we still had one more stop to make. ... At Clark Air Force base in the Philippines, they had jungle survival school which was very specific to where you were going to be flying. They would take you out and show you how to live off the land. The interesting part of it was an escape and evasion toward the end — it was about a week school — there were native people around Clark, and they'd pay these people in rice chits, they said, 'We've got six guys out in the jungle. If you find any of them or all of them, you get a chit for every guy you find' — and that's a big bag of rice. So, you're out there trying to escape and evade and avoid these guys trying to learn the skills you learned during this week. Of course, they're out there looking for you."

Helwick flew to Saigon.

Helwick: "One of the most poignant things I remember is after we parked at the ramp in Tan Son Nhut in Saigon, the flight attendants stood at the front and she had this apron on. She had been given all these wings and things from the military, the tears were just streaming down her face. You could tell that it meant that she had probably come home with a lot of these guys who had been through it all; so had seen what it had done to them. Here are all these new guys showing up, walking off the airplane so she was very emotional about it."

Helwick went to Pleiku in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

Helwick: "We were coming into Pleiku and it was dark, night had fallen. We had a flight engineer — usually we had two pilots and a flight engineer and that was common. The flight engineer came back into the cabin where all the seats were because the lights were on. He says, 'Gentlemen, were going to turn the lights off because Pleiku is under rocket attack right now.' So, I said, 'OK.' We held for awhile. We didn't go in right away and then we we could come on in. I guess there was shrapnel on the runway so they had to kind of clean up all the bits of metal that were out there. That was my introduction. We landed there and of course, they picked me up and took me to my quarters.

"It's a wake-up call. You realize, 'Man, this is a war zone, isn't it?' It settles in after awhile.

"... We had two operational units there. Our squadron of electronic reconnaissance and then we had another squadron of what they called Covey-FACs. FAC stands for forward air controller, covey, I'm sure meant covert because all their planes were black. They flew what we called 'over the fence.' They were flying in Cambodia and Laos where they weren't supposed to be flying. ... We had that FAC squadron and ours.

"... Compared to some guys over there, this was Club Med. Every now and then, you'd get a rocket or incoming. Fortunately, it wasn't close to where I lived, but it was pretty much — not easy. It wasn't as intense or dangerous to the guys on the ground. I could not compare what I did with what they did."

Gazette: What was a normal mission for you?

Helwick: "They were of two durations, five hours or eight hours. Generally, we flew eight-hour missions. The crew was comprised of the pilot and co-pilot, flight engineer and navigator. The navigator was in the back of an airplane.

"Then we had five or six guys from the Air Force Security Service, which is the intelligence branch of the service and what these guys would do is that they had a lot of radios and they would listen for code or voice traffic on the ground. They would determine — and since they were all fluent in all the languages, Vietnamese, Laotian and whatever the Cambodians spoke — they knew if they heard voice traffic, they could understand it. They also heard code traffic as well. If they found a unit they were listening to that was maybe a battalion strength or it sounded like a command post — that meant there was a large contingent of troops in the area.

"They would start sending this information over to the navigator's area. He had a doppler computer of some sort. Of course, it's 1968 so it can't be too terribly sophisticated. ... He would fine tune the signal, and then he'd start issuing the cockpit commands: 'Turn left and hold such and such a position,' 'OK, turn left again. Hold it.'

"Well, what he was doing is triangulating their position on the ground. If the signal was strong enough, we could get these guys down to within 500 meters, and then they'd say, 'We've got a hot target and he's here. We need artillery and an air strike — whatever you can provide.' And that was our mission pretty much. And we flew ... between 9,000 and 10,000 feet so we were out of the way as far as small arms fire was concerned. The only thing we had to worry about was anti-aircraft, (surface-to-air missiles) not so much. We had them on our intelligence maps on where they might be located, so we were aware of where not to go." 

Gazette: Did you ever get fired at?

Helwick: "The only time I got fired at was 1970, Thanksgiving Day. Our squadron had already moved to Da Nang from Pleiku, and I took off out of Da Nang and they were having something going on in front of us, off the south end of the runway. There were some Navy or Marine FACs marking some targets and I don't know if they were going to have an airstrike there. We saw the tracer rounds coming up at us, so we made this big turn out the South China Sea to get out of harm's way. We never took a hit. Or anything like that."

Gazette: Does it make Thanksgiving different?

Helwick: "You talk about it a little bit. During my whole year there, we lost one airplane. That was anti-aircraft. It took a hit in the tail area and sheered all the elevator cables so there was no elevator control. The pilot — a young guy named Mike Wall, a lieutenant — maneuvered the airplane in a rice paddy, but since he didn't have any elevator to control the pitch of the airplane, he used the power, he increased the power enough. ... Unfortunately, he sustained a leg laceration and he bled out and died before they could get him out of the airplane. They did rescue a radio operator and a security service guys. One of the guys hit his head on a panel and passed away."

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