Friendly Fire - John Messerly

It had been an “uneventful” mission, no one had shot at me and I shot at no one, accounting for the 14 “Willie Petes” (white phosphorus marking rockets) still snug in their 7-tube rocket launchers slung under each wing.  I had just finished my four-hour reconnaissance mission over our “AO”, the “evening patrol” I called it, since it started in daylight but now was full darkness.  I suppressed the latest in a long string of yawns, shook my head to shake off the tiredness which was creeping up on me at the end of the flight and strained to see the lights of Pleiku, which should be coming into view any moment.  The flight was not a total loss. I found fresh evidence of road repair and possible truck tracks at a bombed-out ford at the “Dog’s Head” and was pretty sure there was a faint coating of dust leading away from the trail to what might be a truck park under the jungle canopy.

            The yellowish light of the town of Pleiku was just visible now and I finally picked out the rotating white and green beacon at the airfield.  With a little luck, there might still be something to eat at the club; I didn’t particularly want to put myself at the mercy of the chow hall cooks.  Ok, time to get back to the business at hand:  “Pleiku tower, Covey 535 is three north for landing”.  “Covey 535, Pleiku landing runway 27, winds 260 degrees at five knots, altimeter 30.05, report final with gear”.  I ran through the Before Landing Checklist and visually checked for the left main landing gear out my side window.  In the darkness, I could just see the outline of the spring steel strut and tire.  This was a necessary “safety” check in the O2 as the landing gear sometimes possessed a mind of its own.  On more than one occasion, a pilot put the gear handle down, listened to the noises as the gear “extended”, checked the green lights in the gear indicator panel only to look out the window and find the gear had reversed and was tucked back into the gear well!  In such an event, the gear could be manually overridden and pumped down with a hand-operated hydraulic pump located between the front seats.  With the gear confirmed down, I tuned up the ILS frequency and set up my instruments for the approach, no sense going strictly visual on a pitch-black night when my instruments could back up my tired senses.  Rolling out on final, I received my landing clearance from the tower, made a small adjustment to the power to stay on glideslope, rechecked gear and flaps and tried to focus on the shimmering runway lights ahead.

            I had just succumbed to a great jaw-stretching yawn when there was a sudden “pop” and a blinding light flooding the cockpit!  “What the…, Oh Shit!”  I racked the little O2 into a steep bank and pulled back on the yoke until the stall warning began to chirp.  When I was sure I was still flying and not in immediate danger, I eased the bank and back pressure and began to breathe again.  I checked over my shoulder and saw the light was from a parachute flare!  Some (expletive-deleted) person of dubious ancestry had launched a parachute flare at me right on final!  How the flare missed the front prop and windshield, I don’t know.  What I did know was I was pissed.  I armed my rockets while screaming at tower I had just been shot at, had the target in sight and was rolling in “hot” for a rocket pass at the bastards!  Tower responded instantly, “Negative, Negative, Negative.  Covey 535, do not fire!  That flare was launched from a “friendly” position.  I repeat, do not fire!”  I hesitated answering while I considered the situation, which only made the radio transmissions from the tower even more frantic.  Of course it made sense since there was a large ammo dump just to the south of the final approach.  It was owned and guarded by the South Vietnamese Army and they were known to occasionally amuse themselves by launching parachute flares when planes were on final.  My heart was pounding and I was still so mad I could hardly speak, but managed to growl out a ”Roger” to tower to relieve their anxiety.  By the time I taxied into the revetment and shut down, tower was aware that I was “reeealy” upset and intended to file every report known to man and expected the perpetrators to be drawn and quartered at dawn.

            As it turns out, justice was done, in a manner of speaking, several months later.  Probably the same cretins who fired a flare at me, launched a flare into a strong north wind.  The flare drifted back into the ammo storage area they were guarding and started a grass fire in one of the bunkers.  Before the fire could be put out, bombs and artillery rounds began cooking off.  Sympathetic explosions and hot shrapnel fires spread the carnage from bunker to bunker and the dump exploded continuously for the next two days!  It wasn’t perfect, but it would do.