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May 23, 2005

TINS! You picked it…

6. “Sir? The world’s biggest tracer just came offa Nui Coto an’ -- geez, it’s following us!” -- my introduction to the game of helicopter vs. heat-seeking missile. I won. Barely.

Might’ve guessed you guys would pick one of the longer ones…

We were playing the usual Nighthawk game of lone Huey annoying the neighbors and had just finished beating up some infiltrators with more guts than brains. We’d picked them up while they were still in Cambodia, then lazed around at 1,500 feet until they crossed the border and made the particularly foolish mistake of skirting a patch of woods rather than seeking cover in it when we flew over.

It was dark, but not so dark that we couldn’t see them -- the other mistake they made was not extinguishing their lanterns. They didn’t need them, once we dropped to 500 feet and turned on the million-candlepower xenon light…

Afterwards, I decided to break early for fuel and re-arm and I headed south, still at 500 feet, sweeping the canals with the xenon for a while, then ordered it turned off as we approached Nui Coto. The usual situation on the mountains in the Delta was that we owned the bottom and (sometimes) the top, and the bad guys (a mixed bag of VC and NVA) owned everything in between. Nui Coto was different -- the bad guys owned the whole thing.

As we drew abeam the eastern slope, my crewchief hollered, “Sir? The world’s biggest tracer just came offa Nui Coto an’ -- geez, it’s following us!” Now, tracers will drift as you’re watching them, but they don’t make curving turns to follow you. One thing which will, though, is a heat-seeker. In this case, an SA-7. A Strela.

Continued in Flash Traffic.

A bit of background: since we had no pilots with actual experience dodging missiles in my outfit, we’d only talked about our options in the event that we were engaged. We decided that the same tactics we used against radar-directed guns would work; either break the lock by putting something solid between the incoming present and the helicopter or make a 90° turn accompanied by a radical change in altitude, invariably a dive. A Huey can’t outclimb a 37mm shell, but with a scared pilot at the controls, Hubert will out-dive a greased dump truck.

Back to the moment, frozen in time, when my crewchief hollered. I was faced with two clear-cut choices:

a. stay at altitude and definitely die when the missile hit or
b. go for the ground and possibly die when the bad guys down there opened fire.

A no-brainer. Less than a second after the crewchief yelled, I lowered the collective (i.e., entered a power-on autorotation) and dumped the nose.

We left a hole in the air at 500 feet.

“Full suppression left and right. Shoot at the treelines and anything else you see down there -- I want whoever’s below us to think we’ve spotted them and we’re coming down to bust ‘em!” Thought I’d hedge the bets for option b.

An SA-7 travels at mach 1.4, roughly 1,600 feet per second.

A falling Huey drops in excess of 3,000 feet per minute, roughly 50 feet per second.

Since we were about four klicks from Nui Coto, that meant the missile now had to to travel less than 10 seconds to reach us.

And, since I had been at 500 feet and the trees were roughly forty feet high, that meant that I, too, had less than 10 seconds to reach treetop altitude.

The problem was, if we arrived at terra firma still descending at 3,000 feet per minute -- can you say, “Squashed flat on impact?” I had to turn the dive into level flight at some point or I’d do the missile’s job for it.

By the way, did I mention it was dark?

My attention was glued to the outside world and my Peter Pilot’s eyes were glued to the altimeter, calling out our altitude in 50-foot increments. I saw the treeline below me just as he said, “Two-hundred feet, still descending.” I jinked left to get on the far side of it and increased collective, adding pitch to the rotor system.

A couple of seonds later, two things occurred simultaneously:

a. we were in level flight again, screaming below the treetops to our right and
b. the missile impacted on the other side of the treeline.

I keyed the intercom and said, “Cease fire. I think we’ve had enough fun for tonight. We’re going home.”

Nobody argued.

I turned the controls over to my Peter Pilot and just sat back in my seat, wondering how the Strela shooter had gotten a lock on us. We were blacked out -- he shouldn’t have even seen us. Uh, oh -- the xenon light. We’d been using it, and only turned it off as we were approaching Nui Coto.

The xenon light got so hot, it glows for about a minute. It must have looked like the noonday sun to the IR tracker…

Oh, yeah. The SA-7 slant range is a bit over four klicks, and we were roughly four klicks from the mountain when it impacted. So, did my anti-missile maneuver trick it into the treeline, or did it just run out of steam and crash?

Heh. Can you say, “The answer is irrelevant?”