In this recollection I will be omitting the names of the airmen who crewed the RAAF 9SQN Bushranger helicopter gunships 71 and 72 who were involved in this incident. Also, as our American friends frequent this web site, I have altered the callsign of the USAF C130A Hercules also which was under the command, and being flown by a ‘bird’ Colonel. The callsign was Boxcar, however the designation will, in this story will be 22. The US Army Warrant Officer Air Traffic Controller of the night at Vung Tau air base also has been given a new name. The reason for this will be obvious as the story unfolds and the reader may ‘Believe it or not’.
The morning of the 30th of April 1970 was three hours old. We were tired; spent brass cluttered the door gunner’s positions and rattled around the cabin floor among the mini-gun ammo bins. To my right and slightly astern Bushranger 72 smoothly rode light thermals in the calm Vietnamese night, the pilots silhouetted in the faint light of the instrument panel. Above, a clear starlight, moonless night stretched out across a placid South China Sea.
“OK everyone,” said the boss quietly over the intercom “make weapons cold”
The dark hump of Radar Hill rose above the lights of Vung Tau as we swung wide of Lon San Island for an approach to the ‘gate’. The ‘gate’ was the piece of airspace allotted to 9 SQN for approach and departure in the tightly controlled system of air traffic of this piece of South Vietnam.
My twin 60s still cocked, I lifted each pawl cover and allowed the belts to fall into the ammo bins then pulled both triggers. The cocking handles slammed forward with resounding clacks.
“Starboard guns cold” I informed the boss.
Our door gunner repeated the litany from the port door, as the co-pilot reached up and pulled several circuit breakers on the overhead DC electrical panel.
“Rockets and miniguns disarmed” he added.
“Roger” responded the boss “all systems are cold.”
I examined the barrels of my 60s, almost pure white from prolonged firing. A SAS patrol had gone hot, killing several VC and wounding a lot more. They had ‘poked the nest’ and bugged out using fire and movement. Vastly outnumbered, they had been unable to shake the enemy off and had called for an extraction. Back at SAS Hill they would still be debriefing.
“Vung Tau, Vung Tau, this is Bushranger 71 flight.”
“Good Morning Bushranger this Vung Tau approach.”
“Bushranger is a flight of two gunships, systems cold, request approach through the gate for Albatross lines.”
“Bushranger lead, roger, approach clear, active runway 32, Q and H 1002, winds light and variable. Only other traffic is Boxcar 22 a ‘130’ joining the circuit from the southwest. Call tower on 122 decimal 2 on final. Confirm systems cold.”
“Vung Tau systems checked cold, no visual on Boxcar 22, will call on long finals.”
“Have a good morning sirs.”
“Bushranger 71, 72 thank you ‘Ski’.”
‘Ski’ would be pouring his umpteenth cup of ‘Java’ for the night in the Vung Tau air traffic control tower. The hulking US army Warrant Officer was a frequent visitor to the squadron boozer and had short pockets and long arms when in the company of “my Aussie mates.” He had developed a taste for Melbourne Bitter.
“Vung Tau, Boxcar 22”
“Boxcar 22 this is VungTau”
“Vung Tau, get the sleep out of your eyes son, I have visual on traffic at flight level 10 about ten clicks on my beam.”
Eight sets of Bushranger crew heads swivelled to the south searching the sky. First of all ‘Ski’ was one of the best ATC,s to draw breath and they didn’t call Radar Hill, Radar Hill for nothing, it literally bristled with detection devices.
“Boxcar I have no plot on other traffic, Sir. Venus is especially bright tonight. That might be your visual.”
“Son, I am a code 6, I have thirteen thousand flying hours in the book don’t tell me I am looking at Venus.”
“Boxcar 22, no disrespect sir, I just don’t have a radar plot on other traffic than yourself and the Australian Light Fire Team to your north.”
“Bushranger Lead this is Boxcar 22.”
“Boxcar this Bushranger go.”
“Roger, I am at your eleven high, d’ya got visual.”
The unmistakable wide spaced flashing navigation lights of a C130 Hercules large transport marked its stately movement through the sky. What the hell was a code 6 (Bird Colonel) doing at the controls? He would have to be either the OC of the wing, or, keeping up on hours to continue to draw flight pay.
“Affirmative Boxcar bright and clear.”
“Roger, look to my 3 slightly high.”
Yep, there it was. Navigation lights flashing and with landing lights ablaze making tight orbits just off the coast, over the South China Sea.
“Roger Boxcar we have him sighted.”
“That looks like Venus to you Aussie?”
“No sir that looks like a fast mover making rings.”
“What about it Vung Tau, do you think we are all moon struck up here?”
“Boxcar, sir you ain’t gonna believe this, I have my glasses on him, but he ain’t on radar!”
The same thought flashed through every head at once. “MIG”.
No enemy MIG’s had ever been sighted in South Vietnamese air space, but that didn’t mean there never would be. Not twenty clicks away, nestled into a coastal cliff sat President Ky’s summer residence. A lovely target for a bomb or two.
What happened next left the radio traffic speechless. The unidentified and radar proof ‘bogey’ came to a total standstill mid-air. With a tremendous burst of speed the thing shot vertically up and disappeared into a crystal clear sky.
Several minutes passed. One can imagine the intercom chatter between all crews, finally;
“Boxcar 22 this is Vung Tau approach, Sir. On landing, would you care to make a report?”
“Vung Tau, this Boxcar 22, Negative son.”
“Bushrangers 71,72, do you wish to make a report?”
“No thanks Ski.”
“Have a nice day air people, Vung Tau approach out”.