Just Following Orders


Never underestimate the capacity of the typical Amy Private to think literally.
(Source: Department of Defense)

My buddy was a medevac helicopter pilot flying UH-1H Hueys in the days prior to night vision goggles. Ours was a large training base with a veritable ocean of basic trainees. The training area upon which these young studs learned their trade was both desolate and dark. In the depth of night, it was a massive black hole devoid of artificial light of any sort.

It had been a more torrid summer than most, and a trainee had died of heat stroke a couple weeks before. Basic military training is arduous by design and this young man had succumbed to the toxic combination of dry arid heat and profligate exercise. The military system rightfully does not tolerate such stuff well, so there was a lot of command pressure to treat heat casualties aggressively. In this case, another basic trainee had fallen out during a night tactical movement. The drill instructors determined that he needed medical evacuation by air.

My buddy called through range control and got the range shut down. He chugged into the darkness trying to navigate by the dim light of a weak moon. The terrain was relatively flat and featureless even in daylight. Finding this field site in the dark in the era before GPS was going to take some serious pilotage.

My friend had radio contact with the unit in question via the range control net. This frequency was monitored by all the myriad training units in the field at the time. He called up the unit in question and asked them to point their flashlights skyward. In such a desolate space he figured this would be an easily identifiable way to locate the landing zone.

Alas, Army basic trainees are a terribly literal mob. The entire training area lit up with hundreds of tiny spots of light. My buddy sighed and then got back on the radio. He asked everybody not in the unit with the heat casualty to extinguish their flashlights. The training area went black again save a single glowing spot in the distance.

Time can be of the essence under circumstances such as these, so my friend called the unit again and asked that they get the casualty stripped down to his underwear and prepped for pickup. He also requested they have their trainees stand in a giant circle with their flashlights pointed upward to designate the landing zone. A few moments passed and a glowing circle appeared in the distance as if by magic. My medevac buddy set up an approach to land in the center of the circle and activated his landing light.

An approach into an unimproved landing zone unaided in the dark is indeed a squirrely thing, but it was something we trained to do regularly. You shoot a vector from where you sit to where you want to be and fly the aircraft along that line until touchdown, keeping your head on a swivel throughout for unexpected obstacles or unplanned eventualities. My friend landed the aircraft without incident.

Once the Huey was safely down my buddy glanced between his feet through the chin bubble and his heart stopped. There, stretched out atop an Army-issue litter underneath his roaring helicopter, was one severely dehydrated Army private. The several million-candlepower landing light burned some six-inches from his face. The long sharp WSPS (Wire Strike Protection System) blade had come to rest within a foot of his chest. The young man just lay there still, blinking in bewilderment. I can only imagine the poor kid’s thoughts as this massive flying machine landed directly on top of him.

In the confusion leading up to the landing the unit on the ground had prepared the young man and inexplicably oriented him in the center of the landing area. As luck would have it, they had landed with the skids parallel to the litter. Had the kid been crosswise the 10,500-pound helicopter would have crushed him to death.

Just about the time my buddy started breathing again his crew chief came over the intercom and said flatly, “Sir, take a look outside.”

Arrayed around the idling aircraft in a gigantic circle was an entire company of confused Army basic trainees dressed solely in their t-shirts and boxer shorts. They each obediently held their GI-issue angle head flashlights pointed at the helicopter. Never let it be said that Army privates have any hesitation doing what they’re told, even when it’s a little bit crazy.

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