Guncrank Diaries: Perspective

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Sometimes, exiting the helicopter on the ground versus exiting from
a hover can become a really big deal.Image: Army.mil

Nowadays, Army helicopters can pull any mission at midnight that they might at noon. Night vision sensors displace the darkness so beautifully that aircrews can fly nap of the earth, conduct sling-load operations and fire weapons accurately in total darkness. However, it was a rough road getting there.

Night vision goggles back in the day suffered from poor resolution and a limited field of view. You compensated for this by moving your head constantly. Many’s the morning I hit the rack after a long night flying NVGs feeling like someone beat me on the neck with a crowbar.

A Dark & Stormy Night

A friend was on an operational night insertion into Central America back at a time when we weren’t technically doing operational night insertions into Central America. His men wore sterile uniforms and planned to leave no footprint. This was a covert recce, pure and simple. His guys were loaded for bear, but the plan was to return to base, having expended nary a round.

The mission brief had them physically touching down at the LZ (Landing Zone). The pilots of the UH-1H helicopter would be flying under night vision goggles. While this is commonplace today, at the time, it was fairly radical.

The infil was uneventful, and the aircraft came to a stationary hover at the LZ. My buddy, as the team leader, was on comms with the pilots. They had briefed that the aircraft would actually land. The pilots explained the terrain was too uneven to touch down safely. The pilots stated they were at a sub-3′ hover. These guys needed to get out.

A bit of a row ensued. Eventually, the pilots told my buddy to either get out or stay, but they were heading back to base. This was a live operation, and the Bad Guys were both prickly and mean. Every second they sat there at a hover increased their chances of mischief. In frustration, my buddy told me he gave the two pilots the finger, something lyrically ineffective in the dark, and directed his men to debus. My friend’s team dutifully leapt clear of the aircraft and fell 3′ to the top of a triple canopy jungle.

It was just a mistake. Using their crude NVGs, the pilots had somehow mistaken the jungle canopy for the ground. My pal’s team banged around through the treetops before ending up unceremoniously on the jungle floor far below.

Jungle operations are filthy and unforgiving. In this case, just getting there was half the fun. Image: Military.gov

Aftermath

Everybody on the team was hurt. The M60 gunner, however, was hurt bad. My buddy told me they located him by his groans in the darkness.

This turn of events obviously canceled the mission. Nobody was in any shape to move tactically. In desperation, my buddy fired up his red lens flashlight. The sight that greeted him made his blood run cold.

The M60 GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun) was referred to by one and all as the Pig. The big gun weighed 23 lbs. empty and would reliably bring the pain. It was generally wielded by the biggest, meanest guy in the unit.

This big, mean guy was additionally burdened by a generous load of ammunition in his rucksack along with all the requisite kit to keep a small special operations unit running in the field for a week. Most of that mass was located on the guy’s back. When he felt what he thought to have been the ground give way underneath him, he dutifully prepared for a proper parachute landing fall — feet and knees together, knees slightly bent and head tucked forward. He was in that configuration when he subsequently impacted the ground below.

Everything in the universe is physics. When my buddy reached his hapless machine gunner, he found him mashed up into a ball that seemed most unnatural. In the dim light of the red lens torch, my friend could see the distal end of the man’s femur tenting the back of his right shoulder. The man had hit the ground so hard he had sheared his thigh bone and subsequently impaled himself with it.

The medic did not want to try to unravel the poor guy in the dark in the jungle, so they just bound him all together with rappel ropes and called for an immediate medevac. A different aircraft successfully got them out of the jungle and the man miraculously survived. Once they got back to base, there was the issue of the mouthy helicopter pilots who had precipitated all of this in the first place.

My buddy told me he immediately went hunting for these two pilots with murderous intent. The command team wisely removed the two aviators to a different facility for their own protection. In retrospect, that was clearly for the best.

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