BigWindow BackArrow
War Stories

Counter Mortar Tactics - 1966

Robert "Bob" Graham

What to do with the aircraft during a mortar attack?

To begin my tour I was a weapons section/Hogs Light fire team leader.  CPT Tony (Charles A.) Robinson was the other and MAJ George ODay the section leader.

In the Beginning, April 1966, I recall the era as being pre Peterson; the troop had rather different command mind set. We of course were not asked and no one took an aircraft airborne without being a mission assigned by the Operations Officer. This was not universally felt to be the best course of action.

We did not have a set scramble plan of action at that time. We were all expected to basically hide until it was all over. And we suffered with lots of aircraft damage. We also suffered some very close calls due to our state of inadequate defensive bunker and revetment construction.  It was in retrospect truly Flying Circus days at the Centaur Corral.
We were outsourced to gain wisdom.

Mortar attack Scramble 114th AHC:

Here are my notes from that experience of being sent to another unit for training, April/May, 1966.

I was a guest of CPT George O'Grady’s Cobras of the 114th Knights AHC. Vin long Vietnam, on the Delta.
60 UH’s airborne in about 4 minutes. "They did it with vigor and near precision, every last man had his part with plenty of redundancy"
There is considerable variation in the way Army Aviation units operate. This is the logic of responding to the needs of the units being supported and the local flying conditions. The response to a mortar/recoilless rifle attack on the flight lines however pretty cut and dried. The organizational wisdom in the delta was your either prepared and respond with zeal and got their aircraft out or you get creamed by a few cheap mortar rounds.

Other units with more extensive revetments stayed put and depended on artillery fire or a quick reaction fire team to silence the attack. So the drill I experienced at least twice in less than two weeks was to get about 60 UH-1’s into the air without collateral damage and foolish collisions.
The 114th Air Mobile Company methodically had their aircraft set mission ready.  Every crew ended their mission by preparing the aircraft for the next flight before the crew departed. After refuel and rearm the aircraft was preflighted and the cockpit set for an immediate start after throwing the master switch to ON.  The only alternative was un-flyable /down for maintenance condition. All loose equipment was lightly secured. Individual crew armor vest were on the seat. Operations had a scramble crew designated for every flyable aircraft. So the additional INDIVIDUAL obligation was to know what you’re supposed to do. The whole system would work if everyone one performed correctly. My experience was that it did.
Although I had been thoroughly briefed on the procedure and had been run through an actual start sequence the first mortar attack was disarming. Right in the middle of the evening mess there was the crack of the first mortar round and the wail of the siren. Here was the whole unit eating suddenly raising as a body w/o another thought, headed through every exit for their assigned aircraft or other duty station. 200 yards does not seem like a great distance to run but rest assured with a round or two exploding there is enough to raise the heart rate.
We beat the Crew chief and gunner so the CW2 Moorehouse yelled “I’ll get the tie down, you start”. Without my armor vest or strapping in I slid into the left seat, snapped the master switch to on, squeezed the collective start trigger. CW2 Morehouse with the tie down slid into the right seat, vested, and harnessed himself in while the two crewmen made ready. Before I could join the needles for full power he had had the controls and was finishing the run up and contacting the tower. The crewman behind me helped me slid the vest overt my head. By then we were already at a low hover moving to the Take off point. At the far end of the runway we witnessed a mortar round exploding. As we moved through translational lift air speed and about 10 feet above the runway we called for a right break, cleared and turned away from the airfield so that we were clear for another aircraft. Remember we are combat ready at full max gross weight+, so there is no cowboy stuff, this is finesse.

The airfield had about 60 UH-‘s, many of which were empty slicks. These did max take offs from near their parking bunker. This left the “runway” for the heavy burdened. I would say that about four minutes had passed since we were at the dinner table as we accelerated through transitional lift and began our 60 knot climb and braking over the safety of the river. As I recall there were designated teams to immediately search for the mortar, the rest were supposed to get out of the way and not interfere but to look for any clues.
The visual assessment was a helter-skelter buzz of flies around road kill. Actually it was very quick and orderly. Everyone in every aircraft: all using common sense, and knowing the drill. I was thoroughly impressed.
Back at the Centaurs it was NO Change.
When MAJ Peterson took command CPT Delvy and I passed on our Delta experience. His assessment was that we would take cover. The set up and the heliport layout was not designed properly and state of training at a level  that the troop could successfully scramble. I could go into the details but basically the layout was a hover to the TO point one at a time design like back in the US of A. Very inadequate and unrealistic.
As the state side mentality of the pre Peterson Cmd Group (CO, XO & Ops O) were found new homes we began to have a 2 min Alert Fire Team. This was a small successful move but still everyone else took cover. MAJ Peterson never did scramble every flyable aircraft as the bunkers/revetments were not rearranged properly. Much to close together w/o any secondary TO paths for expedited departure. Our best was the 24Hr Alert Fire Team.
Spontaneous individual gunship or fire team takeoffs that were not part of an well trained SOP or preplanned, were not considered seriously by anyone I can recall.  Individual aviators just did not grab a gunship and roar of into the night to kill the nasty dragon when a mortar or RR (106mm Recoilless Rifle) round came whistling in.

I think the underlying wisdom was that it was best to live and fly another day, the birds could be fixed.
Look at how many of the original Centaurs rotated, not totally a bad command decision. 
Cu Chi base artillery had a murderous reaction of preplanned fires. I vividly remember witnessing RR flashes in the woods directly beyond the runway and in seconds the area erupted with counter battery concentrations. It was tricky to be in the air tooling around trying to coordinate salvo azimuth, maximum trajectory and do a night hunt for ground flashes at the same time.
Maybe I didn't have the right app?
Bob Graham
C-3 66/67