Both birds were flying down low following the river north back to Nha Be. We were doing a "flyby" on this ship in the Saigon Channel. That’s where the lead bird goes by the boat on one side and the trail bird goes by on the other side, both low level and fairly close to it.
As we (the lead bird) were going by on the left side, Mr ‘Ski was telling co-pilot some details about the ship and as we reached the bow, Mr ‘Ski turned right to come around the front of the boat. As he did this he was glancing at co-pilot as he continued to talk.
Then Wakeland yelled "Look Out!" and 'Ski looked out his right door window and he saw the trail bird. 'Ski dropped collective (the seat just fell out from under my ass) and he pitched the nose over into a dive and we dropped like a rock. But only for about 30 feet then he jerked full power full collective full stick rudder lots of rudder and then that part was over.
In the middle of our dive, I looked up from my left side seat and saw the bottom of the trail bird flying through our rotor blades. Why nothing touched I'll never know. As we were falling off and down to the right, I watched as the trail bird stalled and crashed into the water just short of the beach water line.
I hit the radio button and said "They've crashed Mr 'Ski, they're in the water!"
"They've crashed Mr 'Ski, they're in the water!"
We came hard right over the ship in the channel. I watched the trail bird as the rotor blades hit the water and caused the plane to roll onto its left side with the right side almost showing out of the water. The pilot came out, as did Taylor. Taylor was hurt, but I can't remember if pilot (LTJG Brakeall?) helped him to the rivers edge. Then I lost sight and heard the ship's sirens on the ship in the river as their alarms sounded when we flew over. We circled again along the left side of the boat, headed more or less northbound, just like we were when this shit started, and we continued to circle until we faced south and sat down along the edge of the river.
Mr 'Ski told me to get out and see if I could help. He wanted Wakeland to remain with the helo in case of ground fire. That way they could take off and fight back while I remained on the ground with the other crew.
I shed body armor and helmet and ran over to the river bank. Pilot seemed unhurt but pissed off scared about what had just happened. Co-pilot was on the ground holding both legs and rocking back and forth, almost like doing one of those stomach tightening exercises, and his flight suit was tattered along both shins and blood was plentiful. Taylor was putting out the most blood from his leg wounds.
Johnson was nowhere to be seen. There was a sampan that was “right there.” All of this had to have been happening right over top of him. I waved”La Di” to him and he came over and I got into the sampan. There was a life vest floating down the river and I pointed for Papa San and he went over to it. When I grabbed the back straps of the vest, I really expected some resistance, but it was empty and I jerked it high above my head. I remember looking back at the rivers edge at the other guys. Then I pointed and Papa San drove he sampan up to the chopper. I got out and dove into the crew cabin a couple of times. I thought maybe he was hung up in his monkey belt. Some of those latched could be a bitch. I grabbed a handful of what I thought was his flight suit, but when I came up for air, it was padding from the back wall.
About that time, the first of the small boats from the ship came on the scene, and on the shore they started yelling at me to get back to my bird. So I got back into the sampan and back to the rivers edge . We were not far from Nha Be, so it didn’t take but a few minutes to get back to the base. When we got back, Wakeland was big time muddy. He had been out of the chopper and the river mud was over a foot deep. Trying to move around in that stuff was challenging. I looked the same way, only wet.
It was later determined that when the trail bird rolled onto it’s left side that somehow Johnson had become pinned between the river bottom and the left side of the bird just above the pylon. That damned mud was soft enough to swallow the outboard guns but still stiff enough to hold tight against the bird. And that’s where they found him. I have always assumed that the guys in the small boats found him. Something was said about “when they righted the bird,” so I always thought the boats had tied lines to the skids and pulled the damned thing over to get him.
The trail bird co-pilot was on stick when the incident happened. When the lead bird appeared out of nowhere right in front of him at the bow of the ship, he pulled hard back on the stick, much like a pop-up maneuver, only he didn’t drop the collective at the same time, so the blades stalled and quickly lost power. Pilot grabbed control. His comments on the ground, “I almost got it back.” But what he did get back was some degree of control so that the bird didn’t fall upside down, which looked like what was going to happen at one time. If that happened, Johnson wouldn’t be the only name on the list. He had flared it enough to really lessen the impact.
I remember some time later sitting in the ready room talking to Mr ‘Ski about what happened. He was trying to make sense of it and wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again. I said it was a comedy of errors, almost like a Shakespeare play. Always sad in the end.