Flying solo in 1966 with a thousand missions to come
By BOB FORD | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: November 10, 2016
The day I graduated from the University of Oklahoma, I wrote a note to my father saying, “Dad, thanks a million. Looks like you’ve done all you can. Now it’s up to me!”
While President John F. Kennedy was sending more military advisers to Vietnam, I was attending the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps classes in the armory at the University of Oklahoma. After enrolling in the fall of 1962, I had no idea that within five years I would serve my country in Vietnam, which to me was only a name on the map at that time. By the end of 1966, my senior year, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was a fact, and Vietnam was no longer strictly for the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam.
When I received my diploma June 5, 1966, I also received my commission as a transportation officer in the United States Army. Out of about 2,000 graduating students in the class of 1966, I was the only one in military uniform sitting in the north end of the football stadium.
I began active duty July 16, attending the officer basic course at Fort Eustis, near Newport News, Va. Mottos from the other Army divisions conjured images of bravery, such as the infantry’s “Follow Me” and the artillery’s “King of Battle,” while the transportation motto was “Spearhead of Logistics.” I joked that the motto should have been “Beats Walking.”
For me, it was just a layover before flight school. During the nine-week course, I was the first transportation officer to make a perfect score on the Army physical fitness test in more than two years. Twice during my time at Fort Eustis, I obtained some “stick time” in a Bell H-13 Sioux, a two-bladed, single-engine light helicopter, at a nearby Army airfield. I was allowed to handle the cyclic control and pedals, but not the collective. In a short time, I was able to handle all the controls smoothly, and the experience made my first attempts at flying easier.
By October 1966, I was stationed at Fort Wolters, near Mineral Wells in Texas, home of the U.S. Army Primary Helicopter School. All 105 officers in my class were looking forward to their first flight with our instructor. There were two posters by the preflight briefing room door that opened to the tarmac where the helicopters were parked on the flight line.
One warned to bend over when approaching or exiting a Hiller OH-23-D Raven on the ground when the rotor blades were spinning. It read, “The OH-23-D main rotor can flex down to four feet. How tall are you?” The other poster stated, “You will not run on the tarmac. However, there is no speed limit on walking.”
The day of my first solo flight, we were about to leave the Da Nang Stage Field, about seven miles north of the main heliport in Mineral Wells. I had just completed a practice autorotation without any assistance from my instructor pilot. The flight lasted about 15 minutes. When I was back on the ground, he got into the aircraft and said, “Congratulations, Ford. How did you like it?”
With a feeling of accomplishment, I answered that it felt good to be the only one in the cockpit. He told me I was one of the best he’s had. But as I accepted his praise, he stopped abruptly, pointed his finger within six inches of my nose and said, “Now don’t get cocky!”
His advice stayed with me.
After completing my first solo flight, my classmates carried out a military tradition by throwing me into the closest water available. It was a half-full drainage ditch they found during the bus ride back to the main heliport. Since it was November, the cold water chilled me to the bone. The rest of my classmates were thrown into the nice, clean hotel pool at the Mineral Wells Holiday Inn after their solos.
I was pleased to be the first in my class to solo. After debriefing at the operations building at the main heliport, I hurried to take my yellow cap -- used to identify my flight class -- to a seamstress to have my solo wings turned right-side up!
Bob Ford, shown here with children in Vietnam, flew more than 1,000 missions there. Courtesy of Bob Ford
Several weeks later, I was one of three officers taken out of our flight-training course to train with the warrant officer candidates in the Hughes TH-55 Osage. Transitioning to another helicopter after only two months of student training was not easy.
All of the flight characteristics of the TH-55, especially emergency procedures, were quite different from the Hiller H-23. But I soloed after two hours and caught up with the training requirement. To my knowledge, the transition to another aircraft this early in training was never attempted again with student pilots.
I respected the warrant officer candidates for their seriousness as pilots, eagerness to learn, patriotism and terrific attitudes. I had a strong feeling that when I flew in combat, these were the type of guys I wanted with me. Not only did I like getting to know these guys, but I also had the most fun flying. Soloing in confined areas, landing on pinnacles and going on cross-country flights day and night made me feel as if I were experiencing flying at its best.
At 22, with flight school complete, I was ready for my next steps. As 1966 came to a close, my longtime girlfriend, Diane, had agreed to become my bride. We married Feb. 24, 1967.
Within five months, I was in Vietnam to begin flying what would be more than a thousand missions.