Phnom Penh, Saturday January
was classified: Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The airfield had been
attacked a week earlier-- here's
a newspaper article about it
the runway was apparently OK again so we loaded
up 10 tons of class A (explosives) and took to the skies.
As the crow flies, it was just 110 miles from Saigon to Phnom Penh, but
two were restricted areas where bombs fell. To
avoid ground fire, traffic, and artillery we frequently flew "feet
wet"--parallel to the coastline. So from
Saigon we flew south across the Mekong Delta until we reached
South China Sea
, then around the
southern tip of
Vietnam and up the Gulf of
into Cambodia--about an hour's flying time.
that this day's flying might be interesting
and indeed it
was. We flew less than 2 hours but it was the ground time that was
interesting... There's more to the story and if you remind me in
March I'll relate it.
When I landed and turned off the
runway I was amazed at what a scene of destruction the place
out control tower.
Spooky and deserted. The only thing moving was a T-28 taxiing down the
with its crew chiefs taking a ride.
There was no aerial port to talk to, but eventually a guy with a
forklift came out and offloaded our 5 pallets of class A. So far
so good, and we started engines to leave this godforsaken place.
Unfortunately, when we tried to start our #1 engine, its starter shaft
sheared off. Bad.
There were no maintenance facilities so we shut down the other engines
so our flight engineer, Bruno Fronzaglio could climb up and
remove the broken starter. There were no maintenance stands, so
he found an empty pallet and got the forklift driver to lift him and
pallet up to the #1 engine. He still couldn't reach the starter
so he found a ladder and
up from the pallet
. From this rickety perch he removed the
, buttoned up the engine, and climbed back down.
So now what? One of our 4
engines would not start and we were on our own, but
C-130's were uniquely designed to work around such problems in remote
locations. We still
had some good options available:
- Buddy start:
worked fine. But we had no buddy here.
- Windmill taxi
(Aside: At boondock airfields C-130's were considered
"mortar magnets" because they made such a nice target for bad guys with
mortars outside the perimeter fence. GI's liked getting mail
supplies, but did not like the mortar rounds we attracted.)
A windmill taxi start was the best option available to us and I'd done one a few
months ago at Danang
, so I felt ready. We started up our
three good engines, but before we reached the runway another C-130
unexpectedly arrived! This was especially good news because he
could give us a buddy start. So we called him up on the radio and
he agreed to give us a buddy start before offloading his class A.
Getting a buddy start (also called a blow job) is a very sensory
experience, full of sight, sound, and movement. First you
pull up close behind the other C-130--really close--so close that their
duckbutt fills your field of vision
. The flight deck of your bird
needs to be under
the tail of
the other bird if you want it
to work the first time
the other pilot advances his throttles to max, the noise and the
until you're bouncing around like you were in a thunderstorm. Now
you're watching that dead #1 prop waiting for it to turn. Come
turn! Now it begins to slowly rotate--not even enough to register
on the tach, but it is moving. Slowly turning and... WHUMPWHUMP!
the concussion more than hear it--mortar
Talk about a sitting duck--not a good time to be sitting under the
tail of another C-130 carrying 10 tons of class A. The prop was
accelerating imperceptibly--it takes over a minute to come up to speed
this way. Then the tower called telling us to clear the
runway. I was wondering when the next round would hit, but I was
staying put until the engine was
running. So were our buddies.
The prop was slowly accelerating now. Tower called again for us
to clear the runway so they could launch a T-28 to hose down the bad
guys. Eventually the
engine was turning fast enough that it was time to add fuel. Now
was calling frantically--clear for takeoff, clear for takeoff.
Finally the engine was accelerating on its own power, so we thanked our
buddies and said we were on our own. As they released the brakes
I expected them to take off, but instead they turned off at the
I was pretty surprised--I didn't think it was a good idea to hang
around while the field was under attack. But there was no time
for questions or contemplation so I called for the before-takeoff
checklist. Even before they cleared the runway the tower was
calling clear to take off, clear to take off. I released the
brakes, put the power to max, and began rolling
for a downwind takeoff. Longest minute of my life.
We flew feet wet back to Tan Son Nhut expecting to get the starter
replaced and take another load to Phnom Penh. Anticlimax:
no starter was available so we terminated early.
Tan Son Nhut, Sunday January 31, 1971
was feeling sort of low because of the mail situation and then as I
walked out of the chapel I noticed a GI outside who had no legs.
And like the man who had no shoes I silently thanked God for what I do