A Luoi Airstrip in the A Shau Valley
by Sam McGowan
In aviation history certain events will live forever, or at least as long as there are people around who have heard the tales. Even though most flying, military as well as civilian, falls under the category of "long and boring, "there are times when pilots must call on every ounce of courage and airmanship that is possessed within their frail bodies. Because of the nature of their jobs, it is usually military flight crewmembers who are called on to do things that civilian pilots would believe impossible. Just such an event took place in late April, 1968 in the A Shau Valley of South Vietnam.
The A Shau Valley was the one part of Vietnam that clearly belonged to the Communists. An intense battle in the valley in 1966 saw them capture the A Shau Special Forces Camp. It was during that mission that USAF Captain Bernie Fisher earned the first Medal of Honor of the Vietnam War when he landed his A-1E outside the camp to pick up a fellow pilot who had crash landed his own airplane on the unsecured runway. Shortly after the battle of Khe Sanh the Allies decided to go back into the A Shau. The American First Cavalry Division had the honors of implementing Operation DELAWARE, a full-scale invasion of the A Shau. On April 19, 1968 elements of the cavalry division entered the northwest end of the valley, where they encountered severe ground fire that shot down 11 helicopters the first day and severely damaged a dozen more. The weather in the valley was atrocious, with solid overcast ceilings as low as 300 feet. But the American cavalrymen persevered, and by April 24they were ready to launch the main attack to capture and set up a base at the A Luoi airstrip. The next day, in spite of the terrible weather, the 1stBrigade (the 1st of the First) landed and secured the airstrip. Air Force C-130s were to begin air dropping supplies the next day.
Early on the morning of April 26 a USAF airlift control team made up of a combat control team and a C-130 mission commander, flew into A Luoi aboard Army CH-47s. The combat control team had been forced to leave the equipment that would have allowed blind airdrops behind at Da Nang. Ground fire in the valley was terrible and the Army was running short on helicopter space. Under the supervision of Major Don Strobaugh, a veteran combat control officer, the team set up drop zones adjacent to the runway at the old airfield. TwelveC-130 missions had been set up to begin the drops at A Luoi, with five C-130Aand four C-130Es loading at Cam Rhan and four C-130Bs coming out of Bien Hoa. Fighter escort was supposed to be provided by the F-4 wing at Da Nang.
Let me provide a little background on the terrain at A Luoi, because this is where a rather dangerous military mission becomes downright exciting! A Luoi airstrip lies at 1,900 feet elevation on the northwest end of the A Shau Valley. Within five miles to the south are 6,800 foot peaks while the terrain to the north rises to 5,800 feet. Immediately northwest of the drop zone the terrain starts rising to 4,000 feet. And on the day the airdrops began, the entire valley was filled with clouds that were solid from 8,000 feet all the way down to the valley floor! There was no form of ground guidance into the valley, though the combat control team had a light-weight radar beacon to help the C-130 navigators pinpoint the drop zone. The airplanes were to approach from the northwest, fly down the center of the valley to the drop zone, then depart with a climbing right hand turn. The only form of course guidance available to the crews was each airplane's Doppler. While waiting for their turn to drop, the C-130s orbited in a holding pattern off of the Hue TACAN. When cleared for the drop, the navigator hacked his Doppler when they were at a specified TACAN fix, and gave directions to the pilot to keep the airplane on course as they let down through the cloud decks. The navigator used the airplane's onboard APN-59 radar to find the peaks and ensure that they were clear of them as they descended - completely blind and with no outside nav aids - into the fog-filled valley.
That was getting into the valley. While the approach was scary enough, it was what was waiting below the clouds that represented the real danger. For the North Vietnamese around A Luoi were very well-armed with antiaircraft guns, including some as large as 37-MM, not to mention scores of 50-caliber automatic weapons. Each NVA soldier carried an AK-47 and had instructions to do everything possible to shoot down the airdrop planes that the North Vietnamese knew were sure to come.
There is some question as to just who was first to drop. The Office of Air Force history assigns the role to a C-130E crew, but a 315th Air Division "AIRLIFTER" article written at the time gave credit to a B-model crew. Either way, the first airplane over the drop zone descended into the valley to breakout of the overcast only 500 feet above the valley floor and less than two miles from where the drop zone was outlined with day-glo orange panels. TheC-130 flew through scattered clouds during the run-in; over the drop zone the pilot released the load and began the standard Container Delivery System pull-up. The airplane reentered the clouds, and a few second later the combat control team watched as a rain of parachutes began spilling out of the clouds, a sight those on the ground described as "fantastic." The pilot was overheard advising the waiting C-130s that things had been "kind of sticky, but you can press right on through. "After the first drops, a routine developed. A crew would enter the holding pattern near Hue at a specific altitude. As soon as an airplane made its drop and cleared the valley, another was cleared in for its pass. Rain showers and low ceilings continued over the valley and the pilots were entirely dependent upon their navigators for guidance. The third airplane over the drop zone broke out of the overcast too late to drop - they circled beneath the clouds and came around for another pass. The crew could hear antiaircraft fire exploding all around them, and felt shrapnel hitting their airplane. The fourth C-130 broke out on course and made a successful drop. When they got back to Cam Rhan to pick up a second load, they found 10 bullet holes in their airplane.
As the preceding C-130s made their drops, the crews in the holding pattern listened carefully for reports of ground fire. The big question of the day was "Where are the fighters?" Fighter escorts had been assigned to support the drop planes, but they never appeared over the valley. But even though they knew they were going into a valley where ground fire was on the increase and their assigned fighter escort was nowhere to be seen, the crews of theC-130s did as tactical airlifters had been doing since 1942, and continued to do until the end of the Vietnam War - they flew the missions and held their course until they had either dropped their loads or their airplanes were so shot-up they had to break off and try to get to a friendly field. By noon, each of the twelve C-130s had dropped while some had made second drops and others were on the ground at Da Nang refueling and reloading for second missions. By 2:00 PM six more drops had been made. One crew, commanded by Major Billy Gipson, found that the weather had gotten worse then when theyhad had to make a second pass in the morning. On their second mission they dropped from 300 feet. Twenty missions had dropped more than half a million pounds of cargo, mostly ammunition, to the Cav'. Seven airplanes had been hit by ground fire. LtCol Bill Coleman, commander of the 29th TAS at Clark, took multiple hits through the wing fuel tanks but dropped anyway. Along with theC-130s, US Army helicopters brought in supplies. The intensity of the fighting in and around the valley was using up artillery ammunition at a high rate. At mid-morning worsening weather put a halt to the helicopter missions- but the C-130s continued to drop! Not only was the Army using up ammunition, they were running low on rations as well. An emergency request for rations brought them in during the afternoon missions. At about three in the afternoon a crew from the 29th TAS at Clark, commanded by Major Lilburn R. Stow, a popular pilot in the 463rd wing, approached the drop zone. They broke out a little further down the valley than most of the airplanes had, and were exposed to enemy fire for a much longer period. No fighter had made an appearance in the valley. The men on the ground at A Luoi watched as the C-130B began taking hits from 37-MM and 50-caliber fire. All radio transmissions were silenced as the enemy shells knocked out the radios. As the airplane came over the drop zone, the crew could be seen trying to jettison the load, but it would not release. As the C-130 passed over the drop zone, the combat control team could see holes in both wings while one engine was streaming either smoke or fuel and smoke flowed from the open cargo doors. Apparently, the load of ammunition had been set fire. Major Stow attempted to make an emergency landing, but as the airplane made a descending turn toward the runway it struck trees and exploded. All six crewmembers and two USAF combat photographers who were aboard to record the mission were killed. After the loss of the C-130, the remaining drops for the day were halted.
Major Don Strobaugh witnessed the crash of the C-130. The veteran combat controller, who had been on the ground at Stanleyville during DRAGON ROUGE, ignored an "order" from a Army lieutenant to stay away from the crash and ran to the burning airplane after hearing reports that someone had been seen alive beside it. He ran around the airplane but found no survivors. Major Strobaugh was awarded the Airman's Medal for his attempted rescue. The weather the next day was as bad as it had been on the first day of drops. Helicopter resupply was ruled out and the fighter pilots were still refusing to fly into the valley. Drops by C-130s resumed at 0900: by the end of the day seventeen drops had been completed. Each crew started a descent from6,000 feet at ten miles out, then leveled-off at drop altitude of 500 feet about four miles out and slowed to 130 knots for the drop. Enemy fire was just as intense as the day before. But though several airplanes were hit by ground fire and some were severely damaged, none were shot down and all airplanes completed their drops. The crews depended primarily on the navigator's radar to keep them on course and clear of the peaks on the south side of the valley. The missions were an exercise in crew coordination years before the term "Cockpit Resource Management'" became a buzzword in aviation circles. But TAC C-130 pilots were taught to depend on their crewmembers to get the job done.
Even though the low clouds made navigation difficult, they also provided a cloak which concealed the airplanes from the eyes of the enemy gunners. Until the airplanes broke out below the clouds, the NVA gunners were firing entirely by guesswork, which kept the number of hits down. But on the fourth day of drops the weather began to clear. But even though the fighters were over the valley, they still refused to come down to fly the fire suppression missions they had been assigned. Captain Ross Kramer was AC of a TAC crew from Langley AFB, Virginia who were part of a squadron that had been sent to reinforce the PACAF C-130 force as a result of the Tet Offensive of a few weeks before. Captain Kramer's C-130E was six miles from the drop zone when they saw "a hail of tracers." They took evasive action but continued their run-in. Five miles out they were hit by 37-MM fire, then at three miles by.50-cailiber. When they were three miles out a shell exploded beneath the cockpit. When they were two miles out an engine was shot out. Then a SECOND engine lost oil pressure and had to be shut down, leaving the C-130 with two good engines. ONLY THEN did Captain Kramer decide to jettison the load, which was later recovered by a South Vietnamese unit. The crew somehow managed to restart one of the dead engines and began a spiraling climb out of the valley. When they landed at Da Nang, the crew discovered that seven feet of horizontal stabilizer had been shot away. The airplane remained at Da Nang for months awaiting repairs, and became an attraction for sight-seers.
(If I am not mistaken, my best buddy a year later at Clark, Brock Chapman, was Kramer's loadmaster. Brock never gave me any details about the mission. All he ever said was that he was on airplane that was shot-up over the A Shau Valley while he was TDY from Langley. Though I had heard about the drops, and was in the 29th when Col. Coleman was promoted to Full Colonel, it was not until the Office of Air Force History published their volume on Tactical Airlift in Vietnam that I understood the real significance of what had taken place there.)There is an interesting legend concerning what happened after Captain Kramer's crew was almost shot down. During their approach to the drop zone, as they were being shot to pieces, the C-130 crew could see the fighters that were supposed to be escorting them high overhead, where they were well out of danger. By this time the tops of the ridges were visible from the air, and there was no excuse for the fighters not to come into the valley to suppress the Communist fire. Several people who were there at the time have said that Seventh Air Force Commander Lt. General William H. Momyer, who was not only a fighter pilot but who had also had a long association with TAC C-130s, flew to Da Nang and gave the F-4 crews a personal chewing out. In any event, the fighter pilots suddenly took on a new aggressiveness and began working with the C-130 crews for the duration of the drops.
With the improving weather, Army helicopter resupply missions resumed while the C-130 crews began using new tactics. Now that the valley itself was nearly clear of clouds, the C-130 crews were able to descend from directly overhead, either by taking advantage of breaks in the overcast or descending blind until they broke out beneath the clouds. This technique kept the airplanes over friendly personnel and away from the Communist gunners. Still, several airplanes broke out off of the valley centerline and had to maneuver to line up for their drops. The navigator's radar was useless during this kind of approach as the terrain would blank it out during turns, so the doppler equipment was of crucial importance. The fighters were now doing their jobs, so enemy fire was reduced significantly. Twenty-two drops were made on April 29th.
The following day the missions resumed, with 27 drops made. Ground controlled approach radar had been installed by the combat control team, but the crews still made the drops visually after the radar helped them line up with the drop zone. The drops continued over the next few days. On May 2 a single C-7 Caribou landed before noon on the airstrip that had been reconditioned by US Army engineers. More C-7s and C-123s arrived for landings in the afternoon, but a thunderstorm rolled into the valley and brought chaos as the smaller transports mixed in with the drop C-130s. Two days later, on May 4, the first C-130 landed at A Luoi and the airdrops ceased as they were no longer needed.
The USAF C-130 drop missions to A Luoi were witnessed by the First Cavalry Division commander, Major General John J. Tolson, III, who was an experienced US Army aviator. General Tolson praised the efforts of the C-130 crews in a letter in which he referred to the missions as "one of the most magnificent displays of courage and airmanship that I have ever seen. Tolson recommended that each of the men who flew over A Luoi should be decorated, but ironically, later recommendations for Silver Stars for some of the men involved were not approved.
Operation DELAWARE was very costly for the Cavalry Division in terms of helicopter losses. The proliferation of antiaircraft guns in the valley is profusely illustrated by the 93 crew-served guns that were captured by the cavalrymen. Twelve of those were heavy caliber 37-MM, guns that had only rarely been seen in South Vietnam prior to that time. Most of the anti-aircraft guns were found in the vicinity of A Luoi. That more C-130s were not shot down can only be attributed to the tremendous amount of punishment the four-engine transports are able to take and still fly.
Last updated January 19, 2009
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