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Preparation For War

Training   Squadron Pilot   The Big One


With well over 1000 hours of time in the C-141 and more than a year spent viewing large portions of the surface of the planet from its cockpit, reality came home to roost. I was notified that my name was on the "Palace Cobra" list. In other words, my assignment to Vietnam was imminent. When it finally arrived, I found that I had been assigned to a curious aircraft known as a C-7A, or Caribou. Manufactured by DeHavilland of Canada and powered by two WWII-vintage Pratt & Whitney R2000-7M2 radial engines, the "Bou" was designed for operation from marginal airfields in forward areas. After spending the past two years or so living out the words of the well-known poem, High Flight by John Gillespie MaGee, Jr., The Caribou did not seem like the vehicle John MaGee had in mind. It had those funny fans on the wings and a fuselage with an upward bend behind the wing. All-in-all, it was a pretty ungainly and ugly looking little machine. What it lacked in performance at the top end of the spectrum, however, it made up for with incredible low end numbers. Its cruise speed was 105 knots and its top end was about 120 (if you could tolerate the vibration), but it could fly as slow as 40 knots. With a decent wind, its ground speed at touchdown could be as low as 15 - 20 knots and it could come to a full stop in 200 feet or so. Fully loaded, it could get off the ground in 200 - 300 feet and it was not very particular about its runway surface. Sure I had been demoted to the bottom of the flying elite, I set off for Abilene, Texas and Dyess A.F.B. to train in the C-7A. After the demanding systems course on the C-141, the C-7 was a breeze -- there was nothing to it but an airframe with two antique engines bolted on. It even flew like a normal airplane as long as you didn't extend the flaps. The flaps on the Caribou are a mechanical wonder of the world; full-span, triple-slotted Fowlers, which, at maximum extension, placed the trailing flap segment at just about right angles to the original wing chord. The flaps are also the source of the Caribou's impressive short-field capability and the hardest part of learning to fly it. In my past experience, the landing "flare", or pitch change used to arrest vertical speed just before touchdown, was a subtle thing. In a T-38, the flare was little more than a thought. The C-141 used a more pronounced flare, but only a few degrees. The Caribou, on the other hand, required a pitch change of up to 40 degrees on a short-field landing. The flare had to be started at precisely the right altitude and executed at precisely the right rate to end up with the main gear touching just before the machine ran out of airspeed and dropped on. We started our practice on a 10,000 foot runway suitable for the B-52 squadron at Dyess, moved to a 5,000 foot aluminum plank runway, and finally honed our skills on a 1,000 foot dirt strip.



This training was consisted of two separate courses: Aircrew Survival and POW Training. Aircrew survival made a lot of sense. I was going to Vietnam and I needed to know how to deal with the situation of exiting an aircraft before it was at its intended destination. The fact that Vietnam is an Equatorial jungle and it was Winter at Fairchild A.F.B. in the state of Washington was not relevant. It was also not relevant that a parachute is not part of the equipment issued to a C-7A pilot. Ah well, the Air Force knows best. Although I had done a lot of backpacking in New England, I had never done it in the Winter, so this was an enjoyable training exercise. We divided up into flights of six people. Since I was a Captain by this point, I was the Flight Leader of my group. we were assigned an instructor who, in civilian life had been a "smoke jumper" firefighter in this area. His knowledge of the Pacific Northwest forests was excellent and we managed to survive for four days in sub-zero temperatures with one pound of beef (which we turned into jerky on the first day) and one scrawny snowshoe rabbit we managed to kill, among the six of us.
The second part of this training was dedicated to teaching us how to survive being captured as a POW and how to honor the military Code of Conduct. The historical reason for this training was the result of problems encountered during the Korean war, in which there was no training of this type at all and many POWs violated the Code of Conduct to the detriment of their fellows. Since the detailed nature of this training was classified at the time and I have no way of knowing whether it has been declassified, suffice to say that we were sent out to run a live fire obstacle course, at the end of which we were "captured" and placed in a VERY realistic POW camp. We were kept there for some time so that we would have an idea of what to expect if captured. None of us was very keen on being captured by the time this course was over.

(For obvious reasons, no photography was allowed during this training.)


At least the Air Force, in its infinite wisdom, remembered that Vietnam was a tropical jungle, so my final stop enroute to Cam Ranh was at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Here, the Air Force, in the pre-Mount Pinatubo days, used to maintain its PACAF Jungle Survival School ("The College of Jungle Knowledge - Learn and Return"). But for the fact that this was to be my last experience in the "World" (all places outside of Vietnam), it would have been another enjoyable experience. We spent several days under the tutelage of both Air Force instructors and local "negritos", who live in the jungle.  The first part of the training was conducted at Clark and consisted of a familiarization with the flora and fauna (there was a small zoo containing examples of some of the more important critters), learning how to be picked up by a helicopter, and learning how to get yourself out of the tree tops.  There was also an extensive display of the many types of booby-traps used by the VC or NVA to kill or injure the unsuspecting GI.  The second part of the training was carried out in the jungle in an area accessible only by helicopter or on foot.  Fortunately, we got the helicopter ride.  The jungle portion was instructed by negritos indigenous to the area.  We learned how to vector an incoming helicopter and get it directly overhead from beneath the tree canopy, how to get smoke from signal flares up through the tree canopy, how to use a pen-sized flare gun, the basics of food and water gathering, and some basic principles of escape and evasion (E & E).  It was all very interesting and useful, but the E & E portion was a real eye-opener.  In this segment, we were given an hour to run off into the jungle and hide ourselves.  Each of us had a "chit" which we were to give the negrito who was lucky enough to find any of us.  The chit was worth a bag of rice to its finder.  Feeling pretty smug, I ran off on the signal and worked well up on a hillside and away from any of the obvious paths.  I found a dense stand of bamboo, worked myself into the center of it, and then buried myself in all the debris around the bases of the stems.  The bugs were tough to take, but I remained motionless and silent.  After perhaps 30 minutes, I heard the pitter-patter of bare feet on the trail well below me.  I could see out through one small opening and just make out a negrito boy running along the path about a hundred yards away.  As he passed by, I though I had won easily.  Right at that moment, he froze, turned around and looked directly where I was hiding.  After another moment, he pointed directly at me and came up for his chit with a big smile.  I found out later that he found me by smell.  Accustomed to living in the jungle, his sense of smell was acute.  In fact, the only person in the group who didn't get caught was a Marine (God Bless 'Em) who climbed all the way to top of the ridge I was on and then climbed a large tree for extra measure.  Not only did the negritos not find him, he was too far away to hear the recall signal and it took some time to get him back in.  I guess that says something about Marine training, but I also learned something from it.  I think none of us had any allusions about this training -- it was a familiarization and nothing more.  It simply served to remind us how woefully out of our element we would be if we were separated from out aircraft.

Pictures from Jungle Survival Training
Clark AB Parade Ground Survival School Entrance Cobra
(The snake kind)
Descending from the tree tops Helicopter Pickup
Pickup for Jungle Training Enroute to Jungle Training Dropoff Point Vectoring a Helicopter Helicopter Overhead
Jungle Flora Bamboo Vines Drinking Water Preparing Campsite
Finished Shelter Instructors' Shelter Flare Pengun Flare Signal Smoke
Preparing Dinner Ready to Cook Fire Starting 1 Fire Starting 2 Dinner!
Concealment E & E Preparation Our Instructors Sunset  

Revised: 26 July 1999