Recollections of Vietnam

The Lesson at Ham Tan

I was once given instruction by an honest-to-by-God two star General. The incident started innocently enough. We were flying a routine sortie into Ham Tan, which, although the runway was laterite (euphemism for dirt), it was agreeably long at 3400'. It was a nice sunny morning as I recall and we landed, shut down, and unloaded without incident. When we jumped in and started to crank up for the next sortie, it became almost immediately apparent that the Number 1 (left) engine was not going to start. I am more than a little mechanically inclined have have enough rapport (if that is what you call it) with the machinery I operate to know when something is wrong. After two attempts to light off the engine failed, I decided that we had better use the remaining energy in the battery to radio for some maintenance assistance. A Caribou, although it has two 2000 cubic inch engines, has an ordinary lead-acid battery of about the size you would find in a passenger car. You don't get a lot of cranking time from one.

My copilot and flight mechanic concurred with me that we probably had a bad magneto or high tension cable and that the radio was the most prudent use of the battery. We fired up the HF and called the command post in Saigon to arrange for some assistance and then went out to enjoy the fine weather. Shortly, another Caribou landed and taxied up in a great cloud of dust. Out of the dust cloud walked the General. It seems the commander of the 834th Air Division was out punching his flight pay ticket that day and wanted to know why we were sitting around doing nothing. I informed him of our plight and he stomped off in the direction of my aircraft muttering something about these youngsters and what do they know about getting Pratt & Whitney radials started? He stormed into the left seat, saying "I'll show you how to start an R2000!". After he had run the battery dead flat, leaving us without communications, he allowed, with a red face, that we must have a problem with the engine and proceeded back to his own aircraft, promising to radio for assistance.

That was not the end of the lesson. The General cranked up his own Caribou and pushed up the throttles to taxi, but nothing happened. He pushed up the throttles some more, raising a great cloud of dust, but, still, nothing happened. At about the time his engines reached METO power, his aircraft jumped the chocks he had neglected to remove (Generals usually do not have to worry about such things as removing the chocks). Having jumped the chocks at a very high power setting, the aircraft now was headed for the weeds at an alarming rate. The General (or perhaps the IP in the right seat) managed to get the power off and the brakes on before any tin was bent. After bringing the machine to a stop and dispatching the flight mechanic to recover the chocks, the General was on his way. Yes, sir, thank you very much, sir. Divine justice seldom is meted out before one's very eyes, but I do believe this incident was such a case.

Revised: 24 March 1999