Francis Meyrick

Untold Stories from Vietnam (1) “ATC Etiquette “

Posted on September 28, 2009

Untold Stories of the Vietnam War

Ch.1: ATC Etiquette

(by Roger, as told to Francis Meyrick)

I was working as an ATC controller at a forward air base, called Quinhon.
We aimed to please, and ATC etiquette ranked high on our list of priorities.
It was 1965, and before all the later airfield improvements were to come about. We only had one active runway. No parallel taxi ways, and 700 movements a day. Our customers included a ragged mix of OV-10’s, A1E’s, C130’s, C123’s, Cessna Bird Dog O1A’s, and,just for fun, regular commercial Air Vietnam DC3’s. All thrown into the melting pot of a fairly primitive field, with no approach lights. Our runway lights worked occasionally, but mostly we relied on old fashioned kerosene flare pots. We did have an NDB approach procedure, and this frequently was put to nerve wracking use in appalling weather conditions.

Accidents and incidents were common, and one 45 day period included an accident or incident every day. It was small wonder that these alarming statistics attracted the attention of the high brass. One day, I received a landing call from an arriving A1E. The manner of the pilot indicated to me that he was not a regular front line jock. Our usual guys just performed a 360 overhead, and came right on in. This pilot however, formally requested a pattern approach. We granted it to him, eager to oblige, and we watched a shiny, remarkably clean A1E perform a text book traffic pattern approach, right out of the manual. It was an impressive machine. Gleaming white, polished and obviously well taken care off, it stood out from the usual beaten up, patched up old war birds, which were normally flown raw and ragged. We watched him perform a solemn and steady by-the-book approach, and execute a nice touchdown and landing. All was going well, until the brakes locked on, a common problem with the type.
There was a sudden screeching of tires and brakes, and the machine lurched drunkenly. All eyes on the air field turned to watch the debacle. With smoke rising, the nose leg finally succumbed to the unequal task, and collapsed, showering the runway with sparks, and reducing the hitherto unblemished, classic flight school approach to a slithering, uncoordinated, trail of debris. We watched as fire trucks raced to the scene. The pilot exited quickly, and we could see him move well clear with considerable enthusiasm. He stood there quietly for a while, contemplating the scene, shrugged wearily, and then hopped a ride over to the Tower. Our guest turned out to be a full bird Colonel, in a well pressed, immaculate uniform.
A somewhat quiet, pensive, full bird colonel.
“Can you guys do me a favor? ” he asked.
“Yessir! What can we do for you? “
“Err…well, see if you can organize me a ride back to Bien Hoa? “
We jumped on the request, and started making the phone calls.
He gazed sadly out the window at the crumpled wreckage on the runway, now being doused with foam. An ominous looking tow truck was on the way.
Half speaking to us, and half to himself, he mused:
“Well, this is going to look great on paper… “
“Why is that, Sir? “
“Well…. I’m from Accident Investigation. I’m supposed to be here to give everybody hell about all these accidents you’ve been having… “

I was fortunate to have two Vietnamese Tower assistants, Mr Tran and Mr Cho.
They were very serious and very conscienteous. This made them a somewhat tempting target for asinine American practical jokes. Our runway was only 5,000 feet long. This was way below what was needed to handle jet fighters, including the Phantom F-4. One day we had an A1E call for landing, requesting priority. Mr Tran heard the call, and the priority request, but missed the type.
“What type please, Mister Roger? “, he asked.
“Phantom F-4 “, I replied, with a straight face.
His eyes opened wide.
“No,no, no possible! ” He was very alarmed.
Feigning indifference, I shrugged my shoulders and turned away, still holding the only microphone.
“No can land! No can land! ” Mr Tran was seriously upset now.
I pretended not to notice, and not to care.
Frantically, he dashed over to the ATC signal/light gun. Aiming at the approaching aircraft, he started urgently flashing red ‘wave off’ light signals. Quietly, I keyed the mike, and told the incoming machine to ignore all light signals from the tower. I also quickly hid the flare gun. A few seconds later, a now highly agitated Mr Tran came running back, and started hastily searching for the missing flare gun. Acting all nonchalant, I pretended not to remotely understand his actions.
Unable to find the flare gun, Mr Tran spotted a dark red blanket on a makeshift cot in the corner.
It took me a second to realize what he was doing, but there he was, standing outside on the catwalk, frantically waving and flapping the red blanket at the aircraft on finals. I really wonder what the pilot made of it all.
Soon the A1E was close enough for Mr Tran to recognize that he had been ‘had’. He threw me a disgusted look.
“Mister Roger! Not funny! “

Tragedy struck all the time in Vietnam, and we got used to it. It wasn’t that people didn’t care, or grew completely callous. It was just that we had to continue to do our jobs. Keep our sanity. And live.
One day I was on a detail collecting body parts. A helicopter had crashed, and we thought we had found all the body pieces, and sent them on to the morgue. We did one more final sweep of the area, and I found an arm, from the elbow on down, with the victim’s watch still attached. I couldn’t help but notice that it was a Timex. The ads at the time promoted Timex watches with a catchy phrase:
“Timex….takes a licking, keeps on ticking… “
I carefully placed it all in a plastic bag. Now I had to go back to the morgue. I arrived, and found the morticians having a lively game of poker. The cards and bets were spread out on a mortuary slab. I handed over the arm, with the watch still attached, and a mortician accepted it casually. Still checking his playing cards with one eye, and closely following the game, he ran the other eye over the arm. Then he held it up to his ear, listened to the watch, and calmly murmured:
“Hm. Still ticking… “
With that he reached up behind him, slid open a drawer, dropped the arm in, over his head, and went back to the card game.
The last words I heard, as I walked out, were:
“Dammit Jack, I’ll see that and raise you twenty bucks…. “

Even in those days, Air Traffic procedures were becoming increasingly well formulated. There was a certain etiquette, and standard terminology, and I was often forced to correct my two Vietnamese Tower assistants. I always told them to be professional. They tried very hard, and were very conscientious, but English was still their second language.
One day, a commercial DC3 was coming in, ‘Air Vietnam’, but the runway had become blocked with another aircraft. The ‘Air Vietnam’ pilots were all Vietnamese. Most spoke passable English, but the odd one most certainly did not.
“Air Vietnam, go around “, I instructed.
To my surprise, the answer, in heavily accented English, was:
“Negative, landing! “
“Air Vietnam, I say again, go around! “
“Negative, landing! “
In an admitted break from standard phraseology, I raised my voice.
They went around.
I lowered the mike, and turned around to meet the accusing stares of Mr Tran and Mr Cho…

One day, early in the morning, yet another A1E suffered a right brake malfunction, and slewed akwardly off the runway. It came to an undignified and abrupt stop in the mud. In accordance with standard procedure, the pilot, a smart young flight lieutenant, in his crisp uniform, was sent to the Medic for a check up. He was declared fit for duty, and a few hours later he returned, just in time to be told his aircraft had been repaired, and was once again ready for service. The young man obeyed orders, and soon he was accelerating down the same runway, in the same aircraft. Half way down, the left brake malfunctioned, and once again the aircraft slewed messily off the runway. It ran through a drainage ditch, did some damage, and finally came to an abrupt stop, once again in the mud. In accordance with standard procedures, the lieutenant was once again dispatched to the same Medic. A few hours later, he was back. Perhaps a little pale, but still very self controlled, crisp and perfectly military in his demeanor. One again his aircraft was repaired, and once again he was dispatched on a mission. This time his aircraft rolled straight and true down the runway, and soon he was out of sight over the horizon, on a strike mission.
Towards the evening, he returned, and performed a normal approach and landing. During the landing roll, another gremlin revealed itself. The A1E landing gear had an unfortunate tendency to cycle itself at the most importune moments. That occurred at this moment, and now the aircraft was heading off the runway, with one wing digging up the dirt. The crash alarm sounded, and we watched helplessly as the young military man’s machine plowed across the field, self destructing itself as it went. It stopped just short of an old Buddhist pagoda. Fire engines were racing to the scene.
I watched the aircraft come to a complete halt, and despite the serious damage, I guessed our intrepid aviator would be shaken but not seriously hurt. I turned my attention to the next arriving aircraft.
It was while I was watching that machine through my binoculars, that I heard Mr Cho’s alarmed voice.
“Oh, oh, Mister Roger! No good, no good….! “
I looked around in surprise. Mr Cho was pointing out the window in horror.
There stood our dapper young friend, previously so military and so correct, on the steps outside the ruined pagoda, furiously hurling rocks at his aircraft…

On another occasion, I had a Bird Dog O1A (L-19) call for “Scramble One ” priority taxi and departure. It was a “hot ” call, indicating he had an urgent mission. An infantry platoon was pinned down up in the high country, and getting chopped up by enemy mortar fire. They were requesting urgent aerial support. Still, our friend made it sound as if he was going for a picnic.
The pilot was one of our regulars, a laid back, unflappable, veteran combat pilot. I cleared him to taxi, and instructed him to ‘advise when ready’. Moments later, he advised:
“Eagle One is ready for take-off “.
I replied instantly, eager to perform my ATC covenant, and speed our urgently needed warrior on his way.
“Eagle One, you are cleared for take-off! “
There was a pause. The O1A failed to move an inch.
His voice came over the loudspeaker again, calm and unruffled.
“Tower, Eagle One is ready to roll! “
Almost in a panic now, I quickly reiterated:
“Eagle One, you are cleared for take-off!! “
There was a pause. The O1A failed to move.
For a third time, we heard his voice:
“Tower, Eagle One is ready to roll! “
Realizing my carbon microphone was probably the culprit, I smacked the blasted thing hard against the palm of my other hand, simultaneously relieving my frustrations with a growl at the errant device.
“Work, you motherfucker! “
Outside, the engine revved up to full RPM, and the same unflappable voice could be heard clearly over the loudspeakers:

“Tower, Motherfucker is on the go…. “

“Roger “

(as told to Francis Meyrick)

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on April 13, 2010, 8:23 pm

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