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Snake Pilot Flying the Cobra Attack Helicopter in Vietnam
By Randy R. Zahn
Brassey's, Inc. Copyright © 2003 Brassey's, Inc.
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Chapter One A Man Named Larry
The autumn of 1955 was like the other autumns that I could remember in my short life. So were the things we did as a family. Standing on the front seat of my mother's 1946 Pontiac, we drove to the Valley Plaza to do our weekly shopping. It had become a ritual to go to the Plaza. One would have thought there was no place else to do your grocery shopping on a Saturday afternoon.
As we passed one of the runways at the then-Lockheed Airport, a small aircraft took off and flew almost directly over the car. I excitedly asked my mother, "What is that?"
Her response was an exasperated, "It's an airplane," as if I was supposed to know that at five years of age. For several months I went on believing that these hunks of metal called "airplanes" soared through the skies unaided and alone, like birds.
In the summer of 1956, my aunt came to visit from New York. We went to the airport to pick her up, and I was astonished to see her alight from the bowels of an airplane. Till now, I had not understood that airplanes carried people! I asked, "Daddy, how did the airplane know how to get here from New York?" He explained that an airplane was sort of like a bus in the sky. As a bus had a driver, an airplane had a pilot. A smile appeared on my face as I proudly announced to my parents that I, too, would be a pilot when I grew up.
As the years passed, I was preoccupied with all of the things that preoccupy most adolescent boys: school, sports, cars, and girls. I had always done well at school, and my junior year was no exception. Life was wonderful and I thought this would be the perfect time to ask my parents if I could begin to take flying lessons. As we sat down to dinner one evening, I thought about how I was going to ask them.
"Mom, Dad, what do you think about me taking flying lessons?"
I wasn't prepared for their reaction.
"Are you out of your goddamned mind?" my father asked.
Mom was a little subtler. "Oh, honey, it must be awfully expensive and it's so dangerous."
"So is crossing the street or driving to work every day," I retorted.
I spent the rest of the meal listening to various lectures. It ended with Mom's final question of the evening, "Besides, why would you want to take flying lessons? You're going to be a doctor!"
I thought, "Right! And tomorrow the sun is going to rise in the west."
Several days passed before I brought it up again. This time Dad had the last word. "We've already discussed it and I don't want to hear about it again. EVER."
It took a few days to formulate a new plan. While working at Tona's Mobil station, I met lots of customers. One guy was a sport parachutist, and I had queried him about learning to skydive. I thought that if I learned how to skydive, I could use that as a bargaining chip to get my parents to let me fly. I would simply give up skydiving for flying lessons!
He suggested that I call his jumpmaster, Larry Perlman, who would be able to answer all my questions. I called that evening and the jumpmaster patiently, and enthusiastically, explained all about the sport and invited me to go through a three-day ground school.
Upon completion of the ground school he handed me a piece of paper. As I began to read it, he said, "Since you're under eighteen, you'll have to have your parent's signature before I can allow you to make your first jump." My heart sank. If they wouldn't approve of my learning to fly an airplane, they damn sure weren't going to sign a piece of paper giving me their blessing to jump out of one!
The next morning I told my mother that I needed a note for school, making up some reason. When she wrote it out I simply placed the document over it and forged her signature. It was a little drastic, but it was, I hoped, the means to an end.
When I returned the signed form, the jumpmaster told me to be at Taft Airport at 7:00 A.M. Saturday morning for my first static line jumps. I don't recall the story I told to get out of the house at 5:00 A.M. that morning, but it worked.
One of the beauties of growing up in Southern California was its natural geography. From my house I could drive ten minutes to the east and be in the San Gabriel Mountains. An hour west was the Pacific Ocean and the beach, and an hour north would put me in the San Joaquin Valley; arid and desert-like in the south; rich and fertile to the north.
As I motored my way the hundred-plus miles toward Taft, I began to question the rationality of this move. After all, it would be awful difficult to learn to fly wearing a body cast!
Larry greeted me as I pulled into the parking lot that morning. The sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon far to our east. Walking toward the ready room I noticed an airplane, with a large section of fuselage ripped out just behind the passenger door, sitting very close to the building. It appeared that something had exploded in it.
I asked Larry, "What in the hell happened to that?"
He rather nonchalantly replied, "Oh, last week one of the guys was getting ready to jump and his chute opened prematurely."
"Okay, continue," I requested.
"Well, it was real premature," he continued, "the chute actually opened inside the airplane. He caught the ripcord on the seat and deployed the chute."
"And the wind caught the chute. He tried to get to the door, but wasn't quick enough."
"And?" I asked.
"And it pulled him through the side of the aircraft!"
I stopped dead in my tracks. "You must be joking?" I asked.
He wasn't. I reluctantly asked what had happened to the guy. I wasn't sure I wanted to know, but my curiosity got the best of me.
Larry said, "It wasn't too serious considering what might have happened. It just ripped off his right foot."
"JUST ripped off his foot!" I gulped.
Here I was trying to get my folks to let me fly, getting ready to go up in an airplane for the very first time in my life, a perfectly good airplane, and I, in my infinite wisdom was about to make it a one-way ride!
As I donned my parachute and began to buckle it Larry warned, "Make sure you don't get your nuts caught in the crotch straps. It would be a real uncomfortable ride once the chute opened."
As we boarded the airplane, the controls and instrumentation of the aircraft amazed me. It was a Cessna 172, a rather simple airplane I later found out, but now it was just a maze of buttons, instruments, switches, and other unfamiliar controls.
Once we were cleared onto the runway and given clearance to take off, my face lit up with a smile. Through the space where the door had been removed, the wind began to rush past us, and before I knew it, for the first time in my life, I was flying.
We ascended over the drop zone and I was amazed at how small everything appeared. Cars seemed like toys; houses like little matchboxes far below as we continued our spiraling ascent. With all the new and wonderful things I was experiencing, I still had the presence of mind to check my crotch straps!
We leveled off at ninety-five hundred feet above sea level and I heard Larry yell, "Go!" Jolted back from my wonder, I watched as one of my fellow students plunged toward the earth.
Larry said, "Okay tiger, your turn."
I looked around to see whom he was talking to. Certainly not me! I mean, hey, he didn't really want me to fling myself out of this airplane, did he?
I maneuvered my way to the door, one hand covering my ripcord, and the other furiously checking the crotch straps. As I sat in the doorway, the wind blowing my legs toward the back of the airplane, Larry leaned down and yelled so he could be heard above the roar of the wind.
"When I tap you on the helmet and say go, you jump out as far away from the airplane as you can, okay?"
I looked at Larry and meekly replied, "You're shitting me, right? You don't really want me to jump?"
He laughed. "You've come this far, you may as well go the rest of the way. Besides, you didn't buy a round-trip ticket!" His sense of humor evaded me.
I sensed the airplane slowing, I felt a tap, heard a "Go," felt a shove, and a massive blast of air caught my whole body. I looked up to see the airplane getting smaller and smaller and thought to myself, Shit!
I felt a jolt when the chute opened as I reached the end of the static line. As the parachute blossomed above me, I remember thinking, "Oh thank God!" I had cleared the airplane ... and my nuts were clear of the crotch straps.
The descent was incredible. Everything was quiet except for the wind, and I was floating; floating on a big cushion of air. First I laughed, and then I began to talk to myself as I watched the hustle and bustle of activity as the world awoke beneath my feet. I didn't want it to end.
"Okay, I'm getting close to the ground now. Don't look down. Whatever you do, don't look down." I had no idea whether or not this was going to hurt, but the sudden stop at the end of this ride was not one I was looking forward to. My instructions were to keep my eyes on the horizon, and as it moved up, reach up real high on the risers. Next, point my toes downward and as soon as I felt them touch, pull the risers down as hard as I could to absorb the shock.
Touch. Pull! Tumble. All of a sudden all movement had ceased, and I lay motionless on the desert floor. After Larry landed, he ran over when he noticed that I hadn't budged. As he approached, I heard him yell, "Are you alright?"
"I don't know," I answered. "Am I bleeding anywhere?" I asked.
"Not that I can see," said Larry.
"Any bones sticking out anywhere?"
Another negative response.
"Good," I said, "I was afraid to look for myself."
"You asshole! Get off your ass and on your feet," he said.
I gathered up my chute and on the way back to the recovery van Larry queried, "Well, tiger, what do you think?"
I smiled and replied, "Let's go do that again."
After several days I once again worked up enough nerve to bring up the subject of flying lessons at the dinner table. The timing had to be perfect and both Mom and Dad had to be in good moods.
One evening everyone seemed to be in a pretty jovial mood and I thought, It's now or never. I looked at my father, then at my mother, "Uh, Mom, Dad, I'd like to discuss flying lessons with you again."
My dad didn't miss a bite. He finished what he had in his mouth and smiled. "Your mother and I discussed it after our last conversation. We've changed our minds. If this is something that you really want to do, it's okay with us."
Mom followed, "It'll be expensive and since it's not really something we're thrilled about, don't come to us for money if you haven't got enough for a lesson."
I was ecstatic, but couldn't help thinking, "Right! I forged your signature on a legal document to learn to skydive; I broke the law to coerce you to let me fly. I could go to jail for forgery; I might have been killed jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, had a foot ripped off, or worse yet, I could have got my nuts caught in the crotch straps. And now you change your minds! Shit! Parents!"
Larry was right. I was an asshole.
Twenty-four hours later I presented myself at San Fernando Airport with all of the money I had saved up from working at Tona's Mobil station. I was there for my five dollar Cessna "Ticket to Adventure"-Cessna Aircraft was sponsoring a program that for five dollars you could get your first flying lesson. Once they had the hook in, they waited till you were back on the ground before they set it.
"Well, what do you think? For five hundred dollars you can get your private pilot's license and then you'll be up and flying," said my instructor.
Actually, I wouldn't have cared if it cost five million dollars. I was going to be a pilot.
San Fernando Airport was a small airport at the north end of the San Fernando Valley hugging the San Gabriel Mountains. The single runway was 2,700 feet long and about 40 feet wide. You could just about get a DC3 in, but once it landed it would be there to stay. Los Angeles International, it was not!
It wasn't the closest airport to our house at the northeast corner of the vast San Fernando Valley, but it had a lot of positive things going for it. It was small, had no control tower, and had a flight school with a very good reputation. A former naval aviator owned Glendale School of Aeronautics. Tom Ryan had been a captain when he had retired, but I suppose his biggest claim to fame was the fact that he was the brother-in-law of one of the then-presidential candidates, a man by the name of Richard Nixon.
My instructor was a tall, lanky fellow from Oklahoma. His name was Bill Nye, and Bill was a gentleman in every sense of the word.
I had reported at the agreed upon time for my first lesson, which included an introduction to aerodynamics, a review of the aircraft operator's manual, an explanation about airport traffic patterns, and filling out all the necessary documents before and after the flight.
After what seemed like hours, but was actually only thirty minutes, we walked out to the aircraft, a shiny little blue and white Cessna 150. Bill proceeded to take me through an extensive pre-flight inspection. Once completed, we proceeded to strap ourselves into the tiny aircraft. We progressed through the checklist, and soon it was time to start the engine. I turned on the master switch, switched on the magnetos, pushed in the throttle, and turned the key. The little engine sputtered to life. Bill explained the flight controls and instructed me in how to taxi the aircraft. Much to my surprise the control wheel does very little on the ground; taxiing is all done with throttle and the feet.
He went on, "To get the aircraft to move forward, we add throttle. Once the airplane begins to move, you can back off on the throttle a bit. To turn right, press the right pedal. To turn left, press the left pedal. To stop, pull back the throttle and press on the top of the rudder pedals, that's where the brakes are, okay?"
I nodded in acknowledgment.
Bill taxied the aircraft onto the taxiway from the tie-down where it had been parked, and asked me if I wanted to try it.
"Sure," I responded, realizing that my dream was about to come true. I was at the controls of one of those flying masses of metal.
I made a few uncommanded jaunts on the way to the run-up area, but by and large it wasn't too bad. Arriving at the run-up area, Bill took the controls back and began to explain the run-up checks: run the engine up to full throttle and check the magnetos. It is prudent to find a problem, if one exists, prior to getting airborne. At this point, I had regained control of my adrenaline flow, and my bladder, and listened intently as he went through the run-up.
Excerpted from Snake Pilot by Randy R. Zahn Copyright © 2003 by Brassey's, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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