My First Landing in Vietnam – General, Did I Do Something Wrong?
By: Steve Pearce
When I completed pilot training in January 1970, I received orders to fly C-130’s out of Clark Air Base in the Philippines. My transition training into the C-130 Hercules was at Little Rock AFB then, I learned the tactical flying we would experience in Viet Nam at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina. The transition training instructor, Major Shelton, was one of the few Black pilots I encountered in the Air Force. He was as good as any C-130 pilot I met during my Air Force service. And because he was good, I had good training.
When we first inspected the “assault strip” at Pope AFB we were surprised. It was very short; less than 4,000-feet of runway on which to land the big, lumbering 4 engine turbo-prop planes. It was preparation for the short landing strips in the war zone.
Sitting next to the runway was a mute testimony to the risks of short field landings. During a hard landing by a recent trainee, both wings had broken off the airplane. Just looking at the short airstrip, I wondered if there were more amputated C-130’s gathered in a junk pile somewhere, or worse – how many of them were scattered throughout Viet Nam!
When we started flying low-level formation training, we had to study the accident report of a recent aircrew that had flown into the North Carolina hillside one night, while flying 500-feet above the trees – just as we’d be expected to do in-country.
All this was to prepare us for the flights that C-130’s routinely made “in country.”
On my first flight into the huge base at Cam Ranh Bay, Viet Nam (our base of operations for the 463rd Tactical Airlift Wing), I was trying desperately to remember Maj. Shelton’s patient words as he taught us how to land the airplane. Since the aircraft commander had declared we would be alternating landings – I was to make the first one!
As we descended out of 10,000-feet, I was working hard to impress my boss. My former instructor, Maj. Shelton, was the best there ever was at landing a C-130. His words were still clear in my mind as I squeezed power off ever so gently. The air was heavy, stable and smooth that day.
As we came in on final approach, my air speed, altitude and rate of descent were the way the good Major would have directed, had he been there. The landing was perfect, I thought. The touchdown was smooth, just the way I’d been taught. I looked at my boss with a slight grin. He just shook his head. “They won’t all be that way, Lieutenant.”
As we taxied to the ramp, two Generals surprised us and burst into the cockpit. “Who made that landing?” they demanded.
Uh, oh, I thought to myself. Had I done something wrong. Trying to protect me from the “not so friendly” encounter, my boss said, “We alternate landings, sir.”
Recognizing a non-answer the General continued, “I get it. But, which one of you made this one?”
I decided to take responsibility so I blurted out “I did sir.”
“Listen, son, you scared us to death! I am the Commander of all transports in Viet Nam, and this is my boss – in charge of all transports in the entire Pacific theater. You scared us both.”
“I am sorry sir, I was doing my best” I replied.
The General demanded more. "Well, we never felt you pull the power off coming out of 10,000-feet, never felt you change flight attitude, and didn’t feel the wheels touch the runway. When you reversed the engines we both thought we were still at 10,000-feet and that you had reversed them in midair. We thought we were going to crash!”
I sat there silently, not knowing what to say.
Then the General said, laughingly, “Son, that was as good a job of flying as we’ve seen here in-country, but you need to be aware of the people in the back and give us some indications when we’re about to land – like noticeable power changes.”
Maj. Shelton would have nodded his approval. He had a respect for authority but he also had a love for flying the C-130, too.