It was 1968 and Robert Hartley was on his first combat mission in Vietnam as copilot of a helicopter gunship. As he and his platoon leader flew over the A Shau Valley, a Chinook helicopter engulfed in flames suddenly came into view. Hartley noticed tiny black smoking objects exiting the tail ramp of the aircraft. Seconds later, he realized those objects were men escaping the flames and plunging to their deaths. It was in that moment that he silently wondered, “How the hell did I get here?”
Mr. Hartley was still wet behind the ears when he was tossed into the cauldron of America’s most unpopular war as an attack helicopter gunship pilot. As he shares a gripping, birds-eye view of battles that took him from the Demilitarized Zone in the north to the Mekong Delta in the south, Mr. Hartley compellingly details how he learned to rely on his superior training and equipment to follow through with his mission to kill the enemy and save the lives of his fellow soldiers below.
Gunship Pilot provides an unforgettable glimpse into two combat tours of duty in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot soaring high above rice paddies and jungles attempts to fulfill his duty of protecting America’s warriors on the ground.
How Did I Get Here?
They were just little puffy white clouds. They looked innocent enough, but I had to wonder why they were suddenly appearing at our altitude and directly in front of our aircraft. I was in the right pilot's seat of a UH-1B model Huey helicopter gunship. I was on my first combat mission in Vietnam and we were flying over the A Shau Valley, a place that would soon be known as The Valley of the Shadow of Death. In the left seat, flying the aircraft, was my platoon leader, Captain Dave Whitling. We were looking down into the valley, trying to located a flight of ten Hueys that were carrying troops to be inserted into a nearby landing zone (LZ). We were to join up on their flight and provide gun cover for them as they landed their troops in the LZ. Captain Whitling and I were both trying to find those lift ships, when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye, towards the front of the aircraft. As I looked up I saw a white puffy cloud, just out in front of our aircraft. I thought, “That's odd, that wasn't there a minute ago.”
While I was still looking at the cloud that we were about to pass, I saw a bright orange flash surrounded by black smoke directly in front us and it quickly turned into a white puffy cloud. I could barely contain myself as I fumbled with the button to active my microphone to tell Captain Whitling what I had seen and to assert that we were taking flak. He was somewhat incredulous as he listened to me and as we were discussing it, he also saw a black explosion in front of the aircraft that quickly turned into a white puffy cloud. He immediately began making radio calls, advising everyone on the frequency that we were all being shot at by flak guns. It was surprising to both of us that these flak rounds, once they had exploded, would turn white, unlike all the movies we'd seen of World War II bombing missions over Germany where the flak was invariable black and stayed that way.
We immediately lowered our altitude by 500 feet to avoid the exploding flak and continued to look for the lift ships we were to escort. Suddenly, I noticed that just off our right hand side, and just coming into view from behind us, was a Chinook helicopter that was carrying an artillery howitzer. The thing that caught my attention was the extreme nose down attitude of the Chinook. As he came further into view, I noticed that the entire aft half of the Chinook was engulfed in flames. The aft rotor was the only thing sticking up out of the fireball. Apparently he had been hit in the fuel tank by one of the flak rounds and was diving to get the aircraft onto the ground as quickly as possible. As I watched, I saw little black smoking objects coming out of the tail ramp of the aircraft. After a few seconds I realized that these objects were men running out of the aircraft to get away from the flames, knowing full well, that they would be falling to their deaths. I said to Dave, "Oh my God, look at that." He replied, "Yeah, he doesn't have a tailboom." This seriously puzzled me since the Chinook is not made with a tailboom, so, I turned to see what he was talking about and saw that directly out his window, was a Huey that did not, in fact, have a tailboom and was spinning around in a death spiral on his way to the ground. At that point, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of doom and thought, “How the Hell did I get here?”
The answer to that question starts back with my earliest memories. It must have been around 1950 or 1951 when I was about 4 or 5 years old. My parents had taken us to an airshow and I was totally in awe of the aircraft I saw there. I remember fighters, bombers and even passenger planes. As I grew up, my closest brother, Terry, and I, continued to be fascinated by all aspects of aviation. We built hundreds of plastic and balsa wood models of airplanes. We knew all the designations and nicknames of the various planes, their capabilities, flaws and some of the major battles they had fought in. A strong desire took hold of me at that time and I knew that my ultimate goal in life was to be a pilot. I also knew that to achieve that goal, I would have to do well in school, especially in math and science. I accomplished that part and graduated from Amityville Memorial High School on Long Island with a New York State Regents diploma. Things were going as planned and I was accepted to and attended Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.
It was during the spring semester of my second year there, that the train began to come off the tracks. Money was tight and even though I worked a part time job (full time during the summers), I knew I would have to take a semester off in the fall of 1966 to accumulate enough cash to pay my way through school. In those days, there was no such thing as “Financial Aid” and I would just have to take my chances with the Draft Board.
During this same time, I was becoming more and more disenchanted with college life. Most of the professors I had did not refrain from showing their distaste for the war in Vietnam, and the current administration in Washington. My fellow students would attend “Peace Marches” and anti-war demonstrations, regularly. The thing I found most disturbing was that most of my “friends” were attending the demonstrations to “meet chicks, drink beer and smoke dope.” They really didn't care about whether the war was right or wrong, as long as it didn't affect their ability to have fun. I saw that during most of the demonstrations, there were only a handful of people running the show who were really and truly committed to their message, while all the others were along for the ride and the kicks they got out of civil disobedience and the partying afterward.
One day, as I walked through the student union contemplating my situation, I passed by the unoccupied Armed Forces recruiting booth and noticed a pamphlet there that said, “High School to Flight School!”
I picked it up and learned that the Army was signing up anyone with a high school diploma for training as a helicopter pilot. To get accepted into the program, a candidate would have to pass an aviation physical exam and an aptitude test. The training would last almost a full year and if the candidate flunked out of the course, he would be released from active duty, if he wished, and would return to his previous civilian status to face his draft board's lottery. I decided to hang on to the pamphlet and see what developed over the summer.
That July, I decided to spend some of my money taking flying lessons at Zahn's Airport in Amityville. I wanted to see if, first, I really liked flying and, secondly, to decide if it was something I wanted to pursue. I started out in a Piper J-3 “Cub” and completed my first solo flight after just 8 hours of flight training. I continued the training and was awarded my private pilots license that September. By then, I was not only sure that I liked flying, but that I wanted to pursue it as a career. I contacted the Army recruiters, passed all the tests and was sworn in on January 25th, 1967.
I graduated from flight school and was appointed as a Warrant Officer in the United States Army at the end of January 1968. I had requested and was awarded additional training in a newest aircraft in the Army's inventory, the AH-1G Huey Cobra. In fact, the aircraft was so new that my instructor pilot only had 12 hours of flight time in the aircraft when we climbed in together on my first flight. It proved to be a very exciting time for both the student and the instructor. I still remember my instructor's words of encouragement today. He said, “Don't worry, we'll figure this out.” Talk about the blind leading the blind.
Robert Hartley retired from the United States Army at the rank of CW4 after twenty-two years of service and two combat tours of duty in Vietnam as a decorated attack helicopter pilot. He later flew for Pan Am World Airways and Northwest Airlines. Bob and his wife, Nancy, live near Orlando, Florida.
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