Helicopter Recovery

I was in the 539th Transportation Company from June 1969 to June 1970; I was stationed at Phu Loi Vietnam which is located 25 miles north of Saigon.  We were part the 520th Transportation Battalion. The Battalion’s mission was the Maintenance and Supply of in excess of 1000 Army Aviation Aircraft throughout III Corps.

Towards the end of my tour, I was transferred to the Battalion’s “glamour boys” “Pipesmoke.”  Pipesmoke’s mission was to perform field extractions of crashed and combat damaged aircraft. When I was assigned to “Pipesmoke” they had already recovered in excess of 2700 aircraft from the field.

Pipesmoke was our call sign.  This name was taken from a previous commander who smoked a pipe. During it’s time of operation Pipesmoke performed thousands of operations for all branches of United States Forces and Free World Forces, to include the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, The Royal Thai Regiment and the Royal Australian Air Force.

Our aircraft were parked in revetments to protect them from the frequent rocket attacks by the V.C.  Tower 4 can be seen on the left where I spent many hours on guard duty.   With the proximity of the tower to the helicopters, you can judge that the aircraft would be vulnerable to incoming fire.

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When we went to an aircraft recovery we usually went as a team of two. Our duo would consist of Huey who, along with its usual crew carried a team that would secure the downed aircraft and rigs it for extraction. The second aircraft of the team was a Chinook that would carry out the extraction itself.  On one of these flights, I took my camera along.

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This is our Chinook. As can be seen from the images on the side she has carried out many extractions.  Her name was “Body Snatcher.”


Sitting on the tailgate

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Here is a young G.I.waiting for the off, and eventually the call comes. An O1 Bird Dog is down and we are to retrieve it.


Our Huey is the first off, followed soon after by the Chinook.  In the background can be seen the bunkers that guarded our perimeter.


We settle down for the flight, usually at an altitude high enough to avoid ground fire.


And pass over this outpost in the boondocks. How those Infantry types managed to survive a year in such a place is beyond my comprehension.


We arrive at our destination and in making a pass we see our Huey is already there and has landed close to the downed aircraft.  This Bird Dog (possibly from the 74th Reconnaissance Company, Phu Loi) was used as an airborne platform for artillery spotting and would have been involved in this role when it came down, due to mechanical problems rather than enemy fire.  The O1 has landed in the area cleared around the base camp and the team in the Huey has already started to dismantle it.  In the background another Huey can be seen, probably on a resupply mission along with an OH6 Loach helicopter.


We put down in a flurry of dust next to the Huey.   At landing time all eyes would be outside the aircraft assisting the pilots. The dust storm created by the downdraught from the aircraft’s rotor blades was a never ending problem in the dry season.  The dust ingested by the engines was a constant maintenance problem and had the effect of sandpaper on the rotor blades.

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The rigging crew had arrived in their Huey.


We arrived in the Chinook.  The Chinook was armed with 3 M60 machine guns, one in the right front door, one in the left front window and one attached to the ramp.  We fired tracer rounds every 5th round.  The M60’s were for self-protection should the aircraft come under fire and were manned for taking off and landings.  You can see that a boundary has been set up by the artillerymen made of spent 105mm round casings.


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Not a pretty aircraft but a working one

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  We enlist the help of some of the guys from the fire-base to pull the wings off the Bird Dog and stow them in the Chinook.  The Officers (pilots) can be seen congregating to the left offering constructive criticism.  The small wheeled vehicle was called a Mule, an Infantry Light Weapons Carrier and general run around.  In military parlance an M274 Truck, Platform, Utility, 1/2 Ton, 4X4.

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The guys with their shirts off will be soldiers from the base camp, we were not allowed to take ours off but you can see we have discarded our flight helmets which are scattered around.

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While we were working a Chinook bought in this 105mm howitzer.  In the background can be seen the effects of a defoliating agent and probably the drums the chemicals were dispensed from.

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 Followed by another Chinook carrying ammunition for the 105.  Note the purple smoke on the right, “popped” to give the pilot the wind direction.

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Everything and everyone loaded the Chinook hovers over the Bird Dog while it is being rigged.  This was the most dangerous part of the mission with the rigging crew working in hurricane force winds from the helicopters downdraught and the helicopter itself a sitting duck as it hovered and commenced the lift.

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We pick her up

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And away we go.  The aircraft would be rigged so it flew nose-first.  We settle in for our flight back to Phu Loi grateful to get away from that base camp and thankful that we will have a hot shower and a meal awaiting us, goodness knows what those fellows left at the base camp had to look forward to.

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In this photograph, we are flying over a rubber plantation that has had a taste of Agent Orange. The entire III Corp area had 4,086,229 gallons of Agent Orange sprayed on it. Phu Loi area had 79,000 of Agent Orange and 83,430 gallons of Agent White from 1965 to the end of the war.

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Final Chinook

This painting by Mark Postlethwaite depicts the recovery of an O1 Bird Dog by the 539th Transportation Company (Pipesmoke.)   The recovering aircraft is a Chinook nicknamed “Body Snatcher.”

Here is another Pipesmoke aircraft.  Nicknamed “The Hearse” and photographed by David Parsley.  I do not remember this aircraft.  We usually stayed with one aircraft throughout it’s flying and maintenance times.  “My” aircraft “Body Snatcher” was turned over to the South Vietnamese and presumably captured by the North Vietnamese.


Here is a Huey being rigged for extraction.1970 April 007

And evacuated.

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This one is a Cobra.

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Here a Chinook can be seen bringing a Cobra to the “Boneyard,” an area where aircraft were taken that were deemed irreparable.  Again the problem of dust can be seen.

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The following day I took this picture.  The Cobra had not yet been stripped of salvageable parts.

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I remember this attempted lift of a Chinook by another Chinook in February 1970.  An early morning lift had been planned to avoid the diminishing effect of the heat on the aircraft’s lifting abilities. The Chinook hovers while the rigging crew prepares the aircraft to be lifted.  Tower 5 at Phu Loi can be seen in the background.

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The lifting straps are attached.  The long containers in the foreground would house the Chinooks Rotor blades.

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The Chinook takes the strain and attempts the lift.

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This particular day I was on the morning Huey courier flight to Saigon and took this picture as I was leaving.

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Eventually getting the load in the air.

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The Chinook is an immensely powerful machine. This Chinook is from the 242nd Helicopter Company and is photographed just down the road from Phu Loi at Cu Chi.

An A.P.C. (Armoured Personnel Carrier) of the 3/4 Cavalry, 25th Infantry Division has got mired down in a rice paddy during operation Muckout II and the Chinook is tasked with pulling them out.

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As I stated earlier our Battalion was responsible for the maintenance and repair of 1000 aircraft. On any given day there were 50 aircraft in our shops undergoing routine maintenance and or battle damage repair. In addition, some units were shipped to the United States for repair.

The shipping of units to the United States for repair ceased with the introduction of the U.S.S. Corpus Christi into the theater.  Cruising up and down the Vietnam coast the Corpus Christi was a floating maintenance facility  The vessel was equipped with a 50’x150′ helicopter landing pad.


Not all recovered aircraft were repairable, many were destined for the Boneyard. This Chinook had a rear blade strike which resulted in tearing the rear transmission and rotor blades from the aircraft.

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This series of pictures was taken in the Company’s Boneyard.  The aircraft have been cannibalized for anything of use.  It will be noted that I am wearing civilian clothes. This was authorized when off duty but not when off base. A strange exception was when we flew into Cambodia during the 1970 invasion. Then we were required to wear civilian clothing although flying in aircraft clearly marked United States Army. Ours is not to reason why!

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One last picture from the boneyard. This helicopter rotor blade has received a direct hit from a mortar round when sitting on the ground. The aircraft would not have survived damage like that if it had been in flight.