"Summer time, and the living is easy..."
Well, not exactly. Early summer 1971, Chu Lai, RVN, and when you're in the gunship platoon of an AHC (Assault Helicopter Company) and you're on 5-minute standby, about all you can do is find some shade and pant. It's not actually all that bad if you have something to _do_, but just sitting around gets really old.
So it was something of a relief to have SP4 Seymour ask me for a hand. Seymour was a volunteer transfer from a grunt unit (oh, the siren call of flying above it all AND getting flight pay!). He'd been with us for about 3 months and was upped to Crew Chief and given a ship (UH-1C, the variety with miniguns and rockets, one of 2 in the platoon of 8 birds). His was something of an epic struggle, since his ship had become a hangar queen. This meant that it had been in maintenance for the best part of a month. Every time somebody else's ship needed a part fast, it got taken from one of the birds already down. This meant that the same ship was fair game for other "borrowings", and it could be a real problem getting the ship completely fixed. Basically, Seymour had to camp out in his ship for 3 or 4 days and run off poachers. Then, when it was ready, the ship had been grounded so long that not everything really worked properly. So it took two test flights (with more camping out in between) to get certified. Then came test fire, and of course there were weapons problems.
Specifically, the miniguns weren't working well. So Seymour grabbed a couple of exterior wiring harnesses (and me) and we headed out to his ship. All the way there he was cussing the miniguns, and he wasn't the first to do so - prior to the Dillon M134D, they had reliability problems. So we arrived at his ship, parked in a revetment alongside the active, and we started replacing harnesses. He finished first, then got in the pilot's seat, and started pushing in armament circuit breakers. He looked over at me (the pilot's seat is on the right, and I was working on the left side) and asked, "Have you pulled the plug?" "Roger that!" I respond. "Are you SURE?" he asks. Just to show him (He's being careful, right? Don't want any accidents, right? Oh, you're way ahead of me.) I hold up the connector to the minigun so he can SEE than it's not connected. Satisfied, he says, "OK, now watch the stepper switch for me."
Now I need to interrupt this gripping narrative flow to describe just how farked we were. Here's a picture of a UH-1C with the same armament http://www.174ahc.org/easy-1.htm
Now, keep in mind that he'd been bitching all the way out about the miniguns, and I was working on a minigun cable (which I had showed him). When he asked about the stepper switch, alarm bells should have sounded in my head so loud as to give me tinittus. The stepper switch is part of the "f**king ROCKET system". It selects which tube actually fires. When the pilot or AC (Aircraft Commander) pulls the trigger, the stepper routes an ignition pulse to the rocket, then automatically steps to the next position. It has nothing to do with miniguns. So there's not much excuse for me holding up a minigun connector, now is there? Just as bad, the connection to the rockets is made by a stubby little cable and a pullaway connector which allows the rocket pod to be dropped in an emergency. So in order for me to hold up the rocket connector for him to see would have required me to lift the whole effin' side of the ship up. And trust me, I'm not nearly strong enough. So it's not like there was much excuse for him to miss it, either. But like the old saying goes, "It's hard to make things foolproof, since fools can be so very clever.
Did I mention it was really hot?
So I lean over the hole in the pylon that lets you look at the stepper position and say, "Go ahead". He pulls the trigger. There's a "click", and the stepper advances. "Did it work?" he asks. "Yup". "How about now" Click. "Works like a charm." He frowns. Obviously (in hindsight) during test fire a number of rockets did not fire. That means, for those of you who are slow on the uptake, that there are some unfired rockets in their tubes, just waiting for a chance to redeem themselves if called upon a second time. These were, I might add, 2.75 in FFAR (Folding Fin Aerial Rocket) with 17 pound warheads. Roughly the equivalent of a 105 mm howitzer round. Wait for it.
"Well, I'm going to try some more. Keep an eye on it, OK?"
Now, about this time a small portion of my brain actually started to function. If you look at the picture, you'll notice that the rockets are inboard on the pylon, so getting an angle to look directly down on top of the pod was most convenient if you stood directly in front of the tubes. Which was what I was doing. But I thought to myself, "You know, it's never a good idea to stand directly in front of a weapon. Nothing's going to happen, but it's best to develop good habits when you don't need them." Words to live by. So I moved over to the side where I had to lean quite inconveniently far over to see the switch.
With a roar and a hiss, the rocket took off at a slight upward angle. 6 feet in front of the nose it encountered the revetment, which was a wooden frame containing 55 gallon drums full of water. The nose punched through both walls of the drum (thank God for setback delay arming), but when the fins tried to exit the drum the lower one hung up for a split second on the metal, which caused the nose to drop. It also sprayed hot water on yours truly, who was not entirely certain what was going on, but who was fairly certain it wasn't happening on the other side of the ship, and was in the process of low-crawling in that direction.
When the fin tore free, the rocket ran along the sand, parallel to the runway, until it was just about even with the gunship parked in front of us. At this point it hit a chunk of concrete and bounced the nose 90 degrees to the left. There was a shoulder about 2 feet high running along the side of the active, and this acted like a ramp. When last seen, the rocket was headed at about a 45 degree angle and disappeared over the South China Sea.
Having set a land speed record for the low crawl, I emerged about the same time Seymour got out of the seat. The ship ahead was pretty much invisible in the dust cloud, and I wondered just how in the Hell I was going to pay for it. It took us bout 10 seconds to realize just how we'd fooled each other (and ourselves).
Did I mention the roar and the hiss? Well, trust me - it was loud. This was not what you call a discreet failure. In the space of about 2 seconds we put the Brigade Headquarters, Brigade TOC, Battalion Headquarters, and 3 companies worth of maintenance personnel down on their bellies, thinking it was incoming. And, of course, as soon as anybody looked up, there was this big-assed cloud of dust with a rocket exhaust trail pointing out exactly where all the trouble had started.
So, the next half hour was spent making acquaintance with various officers up to bird colonel, and explaining yet again what had happened. Since no one was hurt, it slid by, especially when we laid out just how careful we'd been, but I'm not at all certain what was said at the O-Club that night. Nothing, good, I'm sure.
Oh, and for all you Elton John fans out there, I gained brief fame as "Rocket Man".