Don Budlong
Engine Shop  2/68-1/70
Hampstead, NC


Working in maintenance, we normally didn’t see the combat action that the flight crews saw.  Being shot at was the exception rather than rule of the day for us.  However, that didn’t mean wrench bending was completely free from danger.  After all, you never know when some other mechanic, not paying attention to what he is doing, was going to drop a wrench on your head.  And believe me, standing in the “hell hole” adjusting the engine flight idle stop with the rotors turning is no fun, especially when you know that one small nudge on the cyclic stick could be a disaster for you in the hole.

Our test flights usually only had one test pilot which meant someone from maintenance had to fly up front in the open seat.  Our maintenance test pilots were absolutely the best, and they made sure that whomever was flying up front with them, knew enough about handling the aircraft so that if anything happened to them in flight, we at least had some chance of making it to the ground safely.  They also liked having an engine man on board during test flights; not that we could do a damn thing if the engine died in flight.  As a result, I got quite a bit of flying time and a fair amount of stick time too.

With that said, here are a few stories about some close calls and interesting happenings that I had during my 23 months with the 281st.

(Click on the title to go to the story.)
On the Beach
Tent Maids and Buddhist Crosses
Wet & Wild
Best Helicopter Ride Since Leaving the 281st

Red Bar Line

On the Beach

It was around April 1969, the 281st had closed out a field operation in Phu Bai and most of the company had returned to Nha Trang.  Our next operation was just southeast of Da Nang, and although most of the company had returned to Nha Trang, quite a few of the aircraft were left behind in Da Nang.  We stayed at SF C-Team and took advantage of the down time to work on the aircraft.

There was a parts depot at Red Beach just north of us along the South China Sea coast that we had been to on a number of occasions.  One morning we left on what we assumed would be a routine 15-minute parts run and headed to Red Beach.  If you remember the pad at C-Team, there was a line of trees along one side that once you cleared them, you could come back down and you’d be right on the beach.

We left that day in one of the Wolf Pack’s “C” Models.  I believe Bobbi Stanfill was flying but can’t remember the name of the other pilot.  I was alone in the back.

We couldn’t have been airborne for more than 30 seconds and started to experience a very severe vertical vibration.  The vibration was so bad that the seat belt left welts on my legs.  Mr. Stanfill immediately dropped collective and put the ship safely down on the beach.  I jumped out on the South China Sea side (and we were only feet from the water) and looked up and saw smoke coming from the mast area.  As the three of us stood outside of the aircraft, another UH-1 landed on the beach.  I swear he landed before our rotors stopped turning.  Out from the other aircraft came a crusty old CW-4 who was known as the “Cat Doctor”.  He was a Maintenance Office with the 282nd Black Cats in Da Nang.  He must have heard Bobbi’s distress call and came out immediately.

The Cat Doctor strolled over wearing shorts and no shirt, looked up at the mast which was still smoking, and informed us that it would have only been a matter of seconds and we could have lost the mast, main rotor blades and probably our lives. Apparently the scissors and sleeve assembly was chaffing on the mast.  I thanked God that Bobbi got us down safely.  I’m sure at that point we blew off the parts run and went back to C-Team for an ice cold beer.

  Red Bar Line

Tent Maids and Buddhist Crosses

Remember the hooch maids we had in Nha Trang?  For $10.00 a month they washed clothes, shined shoes, cleaned the bathrooms, swept up inside and laid around on the bed and watched TV.  In all the time I spent out in the field though, I can only remember hooch maids (I guess they would be called “tent maids”) on one field operation – An Hoa in May-June 1969. 

I think they were mostly younger girls from the local village that did less work for less money.  I guess they got paid less because there was no TV.

We had been having a problem with rockets and mortars sporadically shot at us but no casualties and suspected that they were coming from the local village.  One morning my “tent maid” gave me a gold Buddhist cross on a chain and said “this so VC no kill you”.  I wasn’t much for wearing jewelry back then and still don’t today but if it would keep me from being killed by the VC, why not wear it.

Later that day around lunchtime, I was standing in the chow line with Bobbi Stanfill telling him about the necklace.  I told him that even when the rockets started coming in today, I would still be safe because of the cross.  I had no sooner finished telling him about it and the rocket attack started.  The two of us ran as fast as we could across the flight field to fox holes for safety.  Again, no injuries that I know of.  I think they probably were aiming more for aircraft than people.  They didn’t get any of those either.  However, as we sat in the foxhole, Bobbi looked down and realized that shrapnel hit him in the boot and ripped a hole in it.  Jokingly I said it hit him and not me because I was wearing my good luck Buddhist cross.

Shortly after the “all-clear”, the SF S-2, who apparently overheard us talking about the cross in the mess tent, came over and wanted to know where the tent maid was that gave me the cross.  He had some questions for her.  As it turns out, all of the tent maids left the area about 30 minutes before the attack and returned when it was over.  That was the last day we had tent maids on that operation.


Red Bar Line

Wet & Wild

I had just returned to the 281st from 30-day special leave after spending nearly 17 months as an intruder.  It was August 12, 1969 and in my first full day back, I had a test flight to perform an engine vibration test on a 21st Signal Company UH-1.  Another engine man, Howie (I can’t remember his last name although I believe he was from Syracuse, NY) had performed a “hot end inspection” for the 21st which had no engine people.  Part of the routine test flight after a “hot end” was the vibe test.

For the longest time, whenever a vibration test was needed, we had to fly to Dong Ba Thin to borrow the 10th CAB vibration test equipment.  Attach the equipment while the engine was hot, test fly it at altitude, return to DBT, remove the equipment (again while the engine was hot), then return to Nha Trang.  That got old in a hurry.  We needed our own equipment and I tried to get it for over a year.  Finally in the summer of ‘69, they sent us our own vibration test equipment.

Howie and I hooked up the vibration sensors and we were ready to go.  Much to our surprise, so were quite a few of the 21st Signal guys ready to go.  I guess they didn’t get to fly much and test flights were their only opportunities.  All in all, there were 9 on board for the test flight, which included an E-6 in the right seat that knew nothing about flying.

After an uneventful run-up, we test flew the aircraft and conducted the required vibration test.  I advised the pilot when we were done and told him everything was fine with the engine.  At that point, we came down from altitude and began entertainment portion of the flight for the 6 non-essential 21st Signal guys who came along just for the ride.  We were flying at tree top level in rice paddies between our flight field and the mountains doing 100 knots.  I was just a “little” concerned because I didn’t know the pilot, didn’t know the maintenance people from the 21st who worked on the aircraft and knew no one in their right mind would be flying NOE on a test flight.

The joy ride lasted about 10 minutes and we headed back to the ranch.  We were coming in on the zero-five approach less than a mile out at probably 300-400 feet when the tower waved us off for some reason.  We made a right turn and headed back out.  While still heading outbound, we heard loud “thud”, then quiet.  I knew immediately we had lost the engine.  Without enough altitude to auto-rotate, the pilot decided to make a running landing into what I called the Nha Trang River.  I can’t remember much about the actual water landing except that it was abrupt enough to snap one of the main rotor blades off about 12 feet from the hub and as far as I was concerned, the water landing was executed superbly.

The aircraft settled in close to the riverbank and began to sink.  As long as I had waited for our own vibration test equipment, I was not about to leave it behind.  I disconnected it and jumped into the water with my yellow vibration box in hand.  Unfortunately, one dip in the water was enough to kill it.  Fortunately, there were no serious injuries.

There was a 281st aircraft in the sky and they immediately landed on the riverbank near by.  I started toward our rescue ship and out of it jumped Alan Johnson.  He knew it was a 21st Signal aircraft in the water and his first words to me were “What the hell are you doing out here?”  They flew us to the 8th Field Hospital for a quick check up and release.  Although I’m sure I saw Alan again after that in the company area or the club, my last memory of him will always be on that riverbank when they picked us up.

Upon returning to the company area, I had to report to the maintenance CO (I can’t remember his name) that we were once again without engine vibration testing equipment.  He was not very happy about that.  He was even more upset when he found out that the cause of the engine failure was the ingestion of a 9/16 wrench into the engine inlet that one of the 21st Signal maintenance guys had left behind.

I’m sure Howie and I spent a fair amount of time at the NCO club that night thanking our lucky stars that we didn’t suck up that wrench when we were low-leveling at 100 knots.

Red Bar Line

Best Helicopter Ride Since Leaving the 281st 

After leaving the 281st and the Army, I drove across country to the land of opportunity – California.  I became a licensed aircraft mechanic, went to engineering school and got a job as a design engineer with Hughes Helicopters.  I was on the design team for the TH-55A trainer (model 300) and the OH-6A (model 500).  I only flew once while I was with Hughes and that was a joy ride up the Malibu coast with a sales pilot.

After a few years as a product safety engineer with Ford Motor Company, I took a position as a Blackhawk flight safety engineer with Sikorsky Aircraft.  Soon thereafter I moved into the legal department at Sikorsky where I managed product liability cases.  Again, flying on company aircraft was very rare, however, I did have one very memorable flight.

It was in the mid-80’s and we had a trial approaching for which I needed to travel with our director of safety to Johnson & Johnson in Princeton, New Jersey.  The trial was not in NJ, but Johnson & Johnson still operated S-62’s and we needed to see an operational version of the aircraft and talk to their S-62 pilots.  Driving from Stratford Connecticut to Princeton in traffic could take forever, but due to the urgency of the trial, our sales pilots were going to give us a ride down there and pick us up at the end of the day.

The sales aircraft that we flew down on was “mocked up” military version of the S-76 that Sikorsky was attempting to sell to the Koreans.  It was complete with rocket launchers, min-guns, a mast mounted scope and a camouflage paint scheme.  On the way to Princeton, we flew by the southern tip of Manhattan and made a couple of 360’s around the Statute of Liberty.  The view was incredible.  What a rush!  I will never forget flight.

The ride back to Stratford that evening was much less memorable.  It was an executive configuration S-76 with plush swivel seats and was very quiet.  Nothing like our gunship ride in the morning.

Prior to that, the last time I could recall flying on a gunship, other than on a test flight, was June 1969.  Paul Hull asked me to fly as his DG on a mission to prep an LZ.  I remember my M-60 jammed almost immediately and Paul had to fix it. That was the last time I flew on a real gunship, with a real mission.

The return flight to Stratford on the S-76 was the last time I flew on a helicopter.


Red Bar Line