"Sharing can be a way of healing. Grief and loss can isolate,
anger even alienate. Shared with others, emotions unite
as we see we aren't alone. We realize others weep with us."
~Susan Wittig Albert

Through our writing, we walk out of the darkness into the light
together, one small step at a time, recording history, educating
America, and we are healing.
~CJ/Todd Dierdorff

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Right Seat is the Wrong Seat

Byron Edgington

by Byron Edgington

The SkyWriter

CJ:  It's been a while since I sent you a war story for the blog.  This is from Chapter 10 of The Sky Behind Me, a Memoir of Flying and Life, my aviation memoir.

It's a tale from my time as a brand new aviator in the unit. I'd been with the Comancheros one month, and was still learning the ropes. This particular story shows me learning what can happen, unless I paid strict attention while flying over dark, moonless Vietnam.

Tom Kearsley was two weeks away from going home. Tom Mattingly had received a Dear John from his wife the day before he was killed. Here's the story:

May 4th 1970. I’d been a Comanchero for just over a month. I’d flown all day—in the right seat once again. At five p.m. I was tired, hot, and hungry. My logbook showed 140 hours of combat time. I needed 300 hours to qualify for Aircraft Commander orders. 

After putting the helicopter to bed, I checked the Mission Board for the next day’s activity. Then I went to my hootch, tossed my helmet and chicken plate on the bed, and slipped into the club where there was a lot of buzz about four dead college kids back in Ohio.
At seven o’clock, I wandered back to my hootch, lit a few candles—the generator was out again—and picked up a paperback. 

At eight-thirty, and just fully dark, a Huey cranked up on the flight line. The helicopter soon blasted into the moonless night. “Kearsley,” I said. “Flareship mission. Glad it’s not my night for flares. It’s dark as perdition’s back yard in those mountains.” 

At nine o’clock I closed my book, blew out the candles and dropped onto my cot. I don’t remember hitting the pillow.

At ten o’clock I woke to muffled shouts and scuffling feet in the company compound. They weren’t the usual voices and grunts of inebriated pilots staggering to their bunks, laughing, playing grab ass, throwing up; these were sober, incredulous voices. Something was wrong.

It was Tom Kearsley. He was dead. Two weeks to the day before his return home to Utah he’d been killed, along with six other crewmen, in a midair collision with a Cobra gunship. 

The investigation was inconclusive. Troops on the ground saw two aircraft pass overhead, then a bone-chilling whump. Flaming aircraft parts rained from the sky, then two fires lit up the jungle, then only silence.
The loss of Kearsley’s crew marked the first company fatalities during my tour in Vietnam. That accident was a chilling reminder to me that the enemy was not the only peril. Indeed, the enemy was a minor factor in the number of casualties. 

While I was with the Comancheros, the company lost more troops from friendly fire, aircraft accidents, mission errors, and pure stupidity, than from enemy activity. A man was crushed in our hangar one night when a helicopter he was working under slid off its jack; another man broke his neck diving into shallow water and died; a captain on a night perimeter patrol was shot by his own troops. 

Kearsley’s midair killed seven men. If I had any doubt about the vagaries of war before that night, I didn’t the next morning. But I learned how war turns things around as well.
One outcome of Kearsley’s death was the creation of two AC slots in the company roster -- and Tom Kearsley was no longer there to reject my orders. 

UH-1H Huey
By the end of May 1970, I’d logged 180 hours in combat. Due to the pressing need for pilots at that time, and because I was earning high marks from the veterans, I was issued Aircraft Commander orders. The company CO, the very same Major Snider, assigned me—despite my fresh mustache—to UH-1H Huey tail number 69-16252. 

In June of 1970, I flew #252 a total of 180 hours, spending six hours a day on average in the cockpit. There were even a few ten and twelve-hour days in the saddle. I didn’t shut down the engine. There was a war on. I’d land at the refuel point, keep the blades turning and fuel hot. June 1970 was a very long month.

[Excerpt from From Chapter 10 of "The Sky Behind Me, A Memoir of Flying and Life" ©2012 by Byron Edgington]

“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do, and by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale

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  1. I was with Delta RECON (lrp) 7th Cavalry, 1St Cavalry Div. (Airmobile) We went everywhere by chopper. I've seen pilots do some crazy things....and I've seen them do some heroic things. Ed Freemen was on of the pilots that flew us around. He was awarded the MOH for his flights in and out of the IS Drang Valley in 65. GOD Bless the Chopper Pilots.

  2. YES BYRON-----june 1970 was a very hot one for the
    101st ABN, in the ASHU VALLEY, I CORPS!!!!
    VIETNAM 70-71

  3. Was in C-Highlands ,you guys saved our ass !
    Later Dee


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