Courtesy of John Freiberger



John Freiberger III

"Hello Phan Rang Tower this is Blue Star 851. I'm 5 miles from your airfield and my fuel is almost gone. My engine she's a coughing and my tack needles have split. You better call your crash crew out this damn thing's gonna quit."

Those are words from "Phan Rang Tower". Before 851's end Don Kelsey, Dan Delius, and Ron Damron sang this song to the ballad of the "Wabash Cannonball". Was 851's fate a coincidence or prophecy? I'll let you be the judge.

Look at the photograph posted by John-Al Skimbo. It shows the after effects of a fight near Ninh Hoa. The caption caught my attention as something inside me said, "take a closer look." I spotted the number 851 and to my astonishment our mythical pilot wasn't a myth after all.

Army records reveal two incidents for this aircraft. The first happened September 8, 1966. Thereafter, 851 underwent in-country repairs and flew again until the second was a total loss on October 13, 1967. I never witnessed the second incident, but I can give you a synopsis about the first.

At the time the 48th left Dak To the unit designation changed from Light Airmobile to Assault Helicopter Company. We landed again on the beaches of Tuy Hoa ready for Operation John Paul Jones. This operation destroyed enemy units over the next two weeks to secure a large area for the development of a major airfield and logistical base. Work began July 21 with a clandestine insertion of patrols and blocking forces into the mountains around Vung Ro Bay. The following morning a battalion of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division flew into combat across the harbor beaches. Large-scale search and destroy missions placed heavy demands on the 48th where by now, end-of-tour rotations of personnel caused aviator shortages. It was not uncommon then to fill these empty slots with flyers from the 10th Combat Aviation Battalion's Headquarters and Headquarters Company. Their assistance helped the 48th achieve its objectives. Heavy construction at Vung Ro Bay and Tuy Hoa started before the operation ended on September 4. Two days later the 48th was in Operation Seward.

Conducted in the mountains northwest of Tuy Hoa and north along the coast of the South China Sea, Operation Seward blocked infiltration routes and destroyed enemy units in this area, too. As the operation progressed, major elements of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division again employed search and destroy missions in an area now approximately 30 nautical miles northwest of our camp. It was during one of these troop lifts that 851 took 10 rounds of enemy fire before leaving the landing zone. The hits damaged the engine, main rotor, hydraulics, and flight controls causing 851's take-off to be diverted. Call it a hard landing or a crash for 851 never completed its tactical objective.

After more than a total of 1,000 hours airtime with the 48th a year later, 851 became a bucket of bolts. Notations from the second incident simply say the gunner asked the pilot to watch the tail rotor. A noise sounded making the aircraft commander take over on the controls. He applied full down pitch. The helicopter spun to the left landing hard on its side without any loss of life. Thus, it's this finale to which we humbly hoist an overdue windsock to half-mast.

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