RECOLLECTIONS OF A ‘BOGGIE PILOT’ FLYING WITH
No. 9 SQUADRON RAAF IN SOUTH VIETNAM
MICK HAXELL (HAX)
I have been asked to provide some personal recollections of my time flying helicopters with No 9 Squadron in South Vietnam. These recollections are very much those of a junior officer and pilot of the period.
As background, following graduation from Pilot Course in April 1966, along with three other course members (Peter Davidson, Bob Trease and Al Bridges) I was posted to helicopters. For all of us this came as a surprise as up until this time only experienced pilots, with at least one other operational tour were flying helicopters. The reason given for the posting of “boggies’ directly from pilots’ course, was partly a trial in anticipation of the need for more pilots for Australia’s increasing involvement in Vietnam. Of course, within a relatively short period of time, the demographics of all of the helicopter squadrons and particularly 9 Squadron in Vietnam, changed very much to younger pilots and other aircrew generally.
Following completion of helicopter conversion course with 5 Squadron at RAAF Fairbairn and while on an exercise at Shoalwater Bay, I was posted at short notice to 9 Squadron Vietnam in November 1966. The reason for the short notice was as an urgent replacement for one of two pilots who had been severely injured in a Huey crash in Vietnam. As seemed to be the general case, there was at best, only sketchy information forthcoming from the RAAF on Vietnam and Australia’s increasing involvement. I recall purchasing a book which provided a reasonable insight into the historical and cultural background on the country and its people.
Because of the short notice posting, I travelled to Vietnam by scheduled civil flights rather than on one of the usual Qantas charter flights. Those were the days when officers, even pilot officers, travelled first class and I took every opportunity to avail myself of the fine food and wines of Qantas to Singapore, an overnight in Raffles Hotel then onto Saigon early next morning with Pan Am. After arriving in Saigon, I was taken to a US Officers Club for a few hours before boarding an RAAF Caribou for the flight to Vung Tau. Enroute from the Club to Air Movements, there was considerable military police activity near one of the temples and around what I observed and assumed to be a smoking pile of rubbish. In fact, to my astonishment the Vietnamese driver informed me that a Buddhist monk had a matter of only minutes before our drive by, self immolated in opposition to the increasing expansion of the war. All very thought provoking and before even arriving at Vung Tau!
While I was the first “boggie” pilot to arrive in 9 Squadron, my fellow pilots course colleagues and others arrived in increasing numbers in rapid succession in 1967. On my arrival, 9 Squadron had only been in Vietnam since June 1966 and in some ways was still in the process of finalising operational procedures and tactics. The squadron involvement with the Battle of Long Tan (August 1966) was still topical and I recall the reasonably fresh shell and bomb craters as well as shredded rubber trees, although these faded quickly with the onset of the wet season. It was obvious that Long Tan had been a turning point for improved relationships between 9 Squadron and the Army, although some tensions were still apparent. Frankly even to a junior pilot, I thought the demands placed on the squadron were not matched with any reasonable appreciation of the capabilities of the squadron, by the then Task Force commander and some other senior Army people. This was an early insight for me into the gulf that existed in joint operations at the time, and the lack of appreciation of expectations against capabilities as well as the misunderstandings between Army and Air Force. However, over time and with transfer of personnel this changed to a more harmonious, close relationship and often friendly with the various Army units, not least of course with the SAS. The relationship between 9 Squadron and the various SAS squadrons over the years can be best described as close and unique, with not only a working relationship based on mutual respect, but one where close personal friendships were forged and continue to this day. During this early period, I developed the highest respect for the squadron Commanding Officer (Ray Scott), for both the manner in which he encouraged and ensured the operational development of myself and other junior pilots, as well as how he worked to build the squadron operational efficiency and working relationship with Army despite considerable difficulties, including some from within Air Force.
Soon after my arrival, I was thrown into the deep end and flying a few days after arrival on a large operation in conjunction with US Army helicopters, which was certainly an eye opener. While the most junior pilot in the squadron, all of the other pilots with one exception, were very generous in passing on their experiences and mentoring me during the early stages with the crewmen being similarly great to work with. I learnt a lot about flying generally from these people and particularly the operations of the squadron as the tempo of operations gradually increased with the Task Force pursuing a more aggressive role in taking the fight to the enemy. Certainly by early 1967 the tempo of operations was high which continued throughout my tour.
While social activities were somewhat limited, I recall that some of us managed to socialise with the nurses from the US Army 36th Evacuation Hospital on occasions both in our mess and at their club. Also as many of you know, Bill Sheperd was a great character who had been an instructor at Point Cook during my pilot course time, and he insisted on taking me under his wing and was always trying to sell me off to the bar girls in downtown Vung Tau as a “cherry boy”. Suffice to say it was great fun but the success rate was at best low.
Initially, both 9 and 35 Squadron officers living accommodation was located in Villa Anna and I shared a room with seven other pilots. Later as more junior officers arrived, I moved to a room with three others (John Byrnes, Pete Davidson and Mike Harness the squadron admin officer) for the remainder of our time at Villa Anna. As Villa Anna was rather insecure and overcrowded, well into my tour we moved to the RAAF containment area on the airfield which certainly provided a more comfortable level of accommodation although the area remained a sand pit for the remainder of my tour.
As many of you will recall, the squadron standardisation process was rigorous and I managed to progress through the various phases successfully. Many of the original pilots were being replaced on a staggered basis, and often I was in the position of introducing some of the more recent arrivals to the province and operations, many who were very experienced pilots and had been instructing me previously. At no stage did I feel intimidated by this arrangement and I was impressed with the mature and professional approach displayed by all concerned.
As mentioned, the operational tempo and flying rate for the squadron was very high throughout most of my tour and could not have been sustained without the excellent teamwork from all the support areas of the squadron and Base Support Flight generally. In particular, the maintenance personnel often worked long hours to maintain high airworthiness standards. Often aircraft were serviced or repaired overnight and on line the next morning.
Initially, the squadron operated eight UH-1B helicopters, although with aircraft losses there was a gradual replacement with D model Huey’s. When I was posted out of the squadron in December 1967, there was a mix of B and D model Huey’s, and if I recall correctly a couple of H models had just been acquired as part of the eventual increase in overall aircraft numbers to 16 to support the expansion of the Task Force.
As to flying operations, overall I enjoyed my tour in Vietnam with the general comradeship and found the demanding flying in a tactical environment in support of Australian Army operations to be extremely interesting and satisfying. This also includes working with the South Vietnamese, US Army and other US forces, and particularly the highly professional USAF and RAAF Forward Air Controllers. As others will recall, many of the squadron operations could be termed routine “hash and trash” in nature in support of the Task Force and at times could be relentless although essential to the support of Army. However, the more exciting operations with the insertion and extraction of SAS patrols, Dustoff’s, combat assaults and emergency ammunition resupply of Army units, certainly tended to focus everyone’s attention. Operations were further complicated by the weather conditions, particularly during the monsoon season as well as the sheer number of aircraft operating in a relatively confined airspace leading to a number of near mid air collisions.
Like many of you, I have vivid memories of the more memorable flights involving SAS patrol hot extractions and Dustoff’s, both day and night, which remain with me and occasionally resurface. I have no intention of going into the detail of specific flights but suffice to say that I certainly experienced my fair share and some were included in the citation to my DFC.
My only posting with 9 Squadron was during the squadron deployment to Vietnam and I am proud of the outstanding accomplishments of the squadron during its Vietnam involvement. While I did not serve on another posting in the squadron, I was occasionally attached to and worked closely with the squadron after its return to Australia. In this regard, I feel that the history of 9 Squadron is closely linked to and interrelated with 5 Squadron, both during Vietnam and later. Indeed, most will have served in 5 Squadron, at least for their training, before posting onto 9 Squadron while others served on more extensive postings in both squadrons. Consequently, it is appropriate to include 5 Squadron in these recollections.
During the Vietnam era, and indeed later 5 Squadron was the primary training squadron for both technical and aircrew personnel into the helicopter force generally. In particular, during the Vietnam period the squadron was heavily committed with its training roles and I experienced this as a QFI with the high throughput of pilots. Further, the squadron provided the helicopter support for Army at various levels of training and exercises, throughout Australia and overseas, prior to the redeployment of 9 Squadron to Amberley with the wind down of Australia’s involvement in Vietnam. At one stage at 5 Squadron there was some 70 junior officers, either undergoing training, waiting to proceed to Vietnam or having just returned. My recollection is of “party central” at Fairbairn and one can only speculate what this may have posed for squadron executives at times. Post Vietnam, 5 Squadron continued with its various training roles, albeit at a much less hectic tempo, as well as general operational involvement as part of the RAAF rotary wing force.