The C-141, Lockheed's High Speed Flying Truck
by Harold H. Martin
The Long Flight Home
EVEN TO the MAC crews who have flown them many times before, an air-evac mission is something to be carried out with a special care and pride. "The first thing you have to remember is that what they tell you at the 22nd Air Force briefing is true," said Captain Lloyd E. Shier of Travis, strapping himself into the AC's seat on a StarLifter loaded with wounded he was to fly from Clark to Hickam. "Patients aren't cargo. Patients aren't passengers. Patients are patients. So you gear everything you do to what the nurses want. If they tell you they have patients back there with respiratory problems, guys with chest wounds maybe, then you know you can't fly above five thousand feet cabin-pressure altitude. That means you shouldn't actually take the plane above twenty-eight thousand feet. And that in turn means that you'll have to load on extra fuel, for you will burn more at that altitude than at the high altitudes where this plane is designed to fly. You also have to be prepared to fly many miles off your course to avoid rough air. You've always got people back there with tubes in their throats or noses, and needles in their arms, and you can't let them be jostled about. Lots of times we are carrying men whose broken jaws have been wired together. You don't want to go through even mild turbulence with them aboard, for an airsick man with his jaws wired shut could choke to death before the nurse could cut him free. A bad weather radar that isn't functioning is a no-go when you are flying air-evac. And if you hit clear air turbulence, which won't show on your radar, you have to get on the horn and start calling everybody in the sky around you, trying to find smooth air."
Block times also are of great importance. The whole complex air-evac network, from the battlefield to the stateside hospital to which the patient eventually will be delivered, is geared to these on-time arrivals. Throughout the air-evac pipeline, the pilot tries to make his block time to the minute. At every way station where the air-evac planes put down, the Casualty Staging Facilities must know to the minute when a plane is expected to arrive, for they must move on-going patients out of the beds that arriving patients will take over. The movement of the support vehicles and support personnel, the helicopters, the firemen, and the rescue teams, are all timed to coincide with the air-evac arrivals.
Knowing that the vagaries of wind and weather make it difficult to hit a block time exactly on the nose after a flight of 3000 miles or more, a foresighted navigator pads his flight plan a little, giving himself a few minutes' leeway. All the way across, he watches the clock, and at every checkpoint, he will give the pilot speeds to fly that will keep his little cushion of time intact. The trick, of course, is not to get so far ahead of schedule, nor so far behind, that the pilot cannot make up the difference by some deft throttle-handling while taxiing to the ramp. Any pilot, navigator, or flight engineer who has spent years betting a six-pack on block times on the cargo flights can repeat the taxi-speed formula in his sleep: "To taxi a mile at fifteen knots takes three minutes and twenty-eight seconds; at ten knots, five minutes, twelve seconds; at five knots, ten minutes, twenty-five seconds." It is best, of course, to be a little early because it is easier to dawdle than to make up time, and it would obviously cause talk if an air-evac, running late, should come roaring down the taxiway at near to takeoff speed.
This obsession with making block times to the second supposedly began in Hawaii early in the Vietnam War, and its origin was only indirectly connected with the comfort and the convenience of the patients. According to a story the MAC crews tell, a marine general stationed at Honolulu felt it would hasten the healing process if he met each incoming air-evac, and personally greeted each wounded Marine and awarded him his Purple Heart. Getting the ETA from the ACP, he would show up at the flight line and the plane would arrive an hour late. Or he would arrive to find that the plane had come in early and the patients had already dispersed to the snack bar or the Casualty Staging Facility. He then wrote a letter to the MAC commander, asking him why the hell his pilots couldn't make their ETA's, The word then came down from above- "Make those block times or else"-and it has now become a matter of professional pride.
In the dimly lit cabin, as the plane out of Clark climbed to its cruising altitude, the men in the rumpled hospital pajamas read, dozed, or stared into space with empty eyes. The first impression one gets of them is of great apathy, of overwhelming weariness, of bewilderment. Many of them are only a few hours away from battle, and they have not yet grasped what is happening to them. Their minds are not here, in this orderly disarray of poles and straps, this flying hospital ward in which nurses and medical technicians, busy as chipmunks, scurry about making them comfortable. They are thinking back to the nightmare moment of their wounding, or forward to a future they cannot quite foresee.
Yet they are young, and under the wonder and the numbness and the pain, there is a somber gaiety. Those who are not too heavily sedated are willing, even eager to talk to anyone who asks them about their memories and their hopes. Their point of view is wryly humorous. The tag on the litter of the chunky warrant officer said "Gunshot wounds, shoulder and abdomen," and he winced when he moved. But his words were light. "I'm doing a little research into air-evac," he said. "I flew dust-off choppers in Nam. We'd go in during a fire-fight and pick up the wounded and take them back to a field hospital where they'd get cleaned up and have their wounds sewed up. I used to wonder what happened to them after that. Now I'm finding out. I got shot going in for a pickup and my copilot had to bring me out to the hospital. We had a big Red Cross on the chopper. I think Charley appreciated that. It gave him a bull's-eye to shoot at." He looked around him. The medication nurse, a little blond major with a chrysanthemum haircut, was giving a painkilling pill to a man with a tube in his nose. A chubby
nurse with dark Spanish eyes, a captain, was smoothing the pillow for a man with a bloodstained bandage around his head.
"Easy cake," the chopper pilot said. He picked up the book he had been reading. It was Bruce Canon's Never Call Retreat.
Up on the flight deck there was a stir of action. "Weather ahead," the AC said, "and right on our track. Look at those overhangs. You try to go under one of those things arid the hammers of hell will start pounding on you-hail as big as golf balls. We've got to get over that stuff."
He told the copilot to ask ground control for permission to go to twenty-nine thousand. If twenty-nine would not put us on top, we would have to go around. "We've got guys on suction back there," the AC said. "We can't take them too high."
He peered at his radar and squinted to the north. "Looks like an alley opening up up there," he said. "Let's take a look." Gently, he swung the big plane north and found the hole. Later, to the copilot: "Tell them we are twenty miles north of track at twenty-nine thousand. Estimating ten more minutes before we can turn back on course. What'll that do to our time, Nav?"
"It's costing us eight minutes," the navigator said.
"No problem," the AC said. He eased the throttles forward a fraction. The StarLifter was designed to fly at .74 Mach. The Air Force consistently pushes it to .767. "Seven-four," the AC said, "is the economy cruise. Seven-six-seven is hurry up with the load."
Back in the cabin, the medical crew was passing out TV dinners, heated by the loadmaster on the comfort pallet. It was a special air-evac meal-steak, crilly potatoes, green peas, milk, two rolls, and an apple. The loadmaster went on the intercom. Anybody who eats his apple must turn in the core, he said. The agriculture man will pick them up when we get to Hickam. The steak was cut to bite size, so that a one-armed man could spear it with his fork. Not all could eat. A young Hawaiian, his right hand wrapped in a bandage the size of a beehive, poked listlessly at his food. The blond nurse fed him a few bites, to get his taste buds started, and then moved on to teach a man, too weak to sit up, how to sip his milk through a crooked straw.
A big, blond, handsome soldier, naked to the waist, pushed
his tray away and looked down at the livid streak, still showing black spiky sutures, which ran from his breast bone to his navel. "Booby trap got me," he explained. "Not there," he said, touching the raw unbandaged scar. "That's where the doctor cut me. He went in from the front, hunting for the fragments that had come in from the back. That's what they always do when you get a bellyful of fragments-cut you wide open and go in and look around."
He had been on patrol when he was hit, moving along a jungle trail. Both the man in front and in back of him had been killed. Now, on the plane, he looked around him. In the litter across the aisle lay a man with a bandage on his head that covered an empty eyesocket. The one good eye stared fixedly at nothing. On the floor lay a giant black man, stripped to his shorts, clasped back and front in a padded metal frame. He had been shot in the spine and, paralyzed from the waist down, was unable to turn himself or move. Every two hours the medics would come and turn him, held fast in his metal sandwich. The blond youngster looked at him and then down at the healing scar in his belly.
"I sure as hell am lucky," he said.
A tall man, barefoot, his striped hospital robe loose and flapping, came lunging down the narrow aisle, hurrying toward the latrine. One arm and shoulder were in a sling. In the other arm was a needle and behind him, almost trotting to keep up, came a little medic, holding high the bottle of saline solution to which the needle was connected by a tube.
Down the aisle a young Marine lieutenant lay on his side, poking with little success with one hand at his food. He was a gunship pilot, flying attack helicopters, and his left hand had been smashed by an unheard-of accident. He and his crew were going in on a gun run and the door gunner, hanging in his straps, was firing out the door when the gun suddenly broke free of its brackets and turned, firing through the cockpit.
His fingers looked purplish under the bandage. It would be six months, the young pilot said, before he could use the hand again. Whether he'd ever fly a chopper again for the Marine Corps he didn't know. But he knew he'd keep on flying them.
They'd proved themselves In Korea, he said, and now again in Vietnam. They had a great future, he thought, as air taxis, short-haul aerial trucks, air ambulances, quick couriers running goods and money bags back and forth from downtown stores and banks to suburban branches. The big ones would make ideal cranes, lifting heavy materials to the top floors of buildings under construction. Not that he particularly wanted to fly on jobs like these. But he had read somewhere that good helicopter pilot-instructors pulled down $75 an hour.
Among the walking wounded sat a gaunt major, a chaplain, a dark man with a troubled, somber face, dozing and waking, to read awhile and doze again. He had had chest surgery, to take care of a spot on his lung the doctors didn't like the looks of, and now he was going home for a long siege in the hospital. He was worried about his health, of course. But something else was troubling him as well. He'd been reading that some of the people who opposed the war in Vietnam thought that chaplains should refuse assignments there. Their presence, the author said, meant they were giving the blessing of the church to a bloody, unchristian war. He had searched his conscience about this and he did not agree. Our Saviour did not approve of war, he said. The church did not approve of war. But the church was concerned with people, and if young Americans had to go into battle, it was' the chaplain's place to be there with them. He had made his mind up on that.
The little soft-faced youngster hardly out of his teens had been in Vietnam only three months when he got his wound. It was a bullet in the leg that went down into his ankle, and he couldn't really explain how it happened or when it happened or anything about it. All he knew was, it wasn't Charley who shot him, thank God. He was in a rear area, an R&R area where people came to get out of the fighting awhile, and he was the clerk that assigned them to their billets. It wasn't bad duty. But he missed being home and above all, he missed his girl. As for his wound, he just didn't remember. Maybe he'd done it himself, accidentally. Or a friend had shot him, or sombody just passing by. "They kept asking me how it happened and I couldn't tell them," he said. "It is all just up in the air. . . ."
Inches away, separated only by the sheet that divides the litters stacked in the center of the plane, a big man lay staring at the ceiling. Two red-stained bandages wrapped the stumps where his feet had been. If he had heard what the youngster had been saying, he gave no sign.
The trooper from the 101 st Airborne remembered exactly how he got his wound. "We were going down this jungle trail and we saw these gooks and tried to fire them up a little, but we missed and that's bad news when you start missing gooks. So we went on a little further, and they fired us up and didn't miss. They fired us up but good and I've got this"-he held up a bandaged hand-"to show for it."
The loadmaster came on the intercom, hoarsely announcing our arrival in Guam, and the plane began to stir. The nurses and the medics moved swiftly through the cabin, strapping down the litter patients, securing the bottles hanging on the stanchions, tidying up for the landing.
Guam is always a busy stop for MAC crews, for, like Pago Pago on the Antarctic run, it is a booze stop where spirits may be purchased and taken into the States tax and duty free. Even crew members who do not drink take advantage of this opportunity- Bourbon at two dollars a fifth and exotic liqueurs at a dollar fifty they look upon as an investment, which can only grow in value between Guam and the States.
It takes seven hours and twelve minutes for the StarLifter to fly from Guam to Hickam, most of it in darkness. The weather is good, the flight smooth; the wounded are quiet. The painkillers have done their work, and they sleep without stirring, the white bottoms of their big, bare feet showing in the darkness like small ghosts. Finally, soft gray light shines through the portholes. The loadmaster starts taking the hot breakfasts from the ovens-ham, this time, cut bite size, and the smell of coffee fills the cabin. The nurses in their lean-back seats stir drowsily under their blankets and sit up, groping for their shoes. They rub the kinks out of cramped back and neck muscles, stand, stretch, and go to work. They move quickly down the aisles, handing out little disposable toothbrushes, slim sticks with sponges on them that are soaked with a solution that in contact
with saliva makes a foam that is fresh and clean and pleasant tasting. The nurses do the brushing if the man can't move his arms.
In the flower-scented mildness of a Hawaiian morning, the StarLifter flows smoothly onto the runway at Hickam, On the flight deck, the AC hums a little tune. Breakfast on the lanai at the Hickam Officers' Club, hard by the channel where the big ships pass into the inner harbor, is one of the small joys of flying in the Pacific. The navigator looks happy. His figures have been good. They will hit the blocks on time.
The plane will go on, the crews will rest. Aft in the cabin, the nurses stop by the litters, saying good-by to each patient, wishing him good luck. The customs man comes aboard to check for contraband; the agricultural man arrives to look for bugs and collect the apple cores. A priest comes on with his missal, and the Red Cross volunteers with their books and cookies and writing paper.
The walking patients rise, stretch, and stumble out into the bright morning. They look across the ramp toward the terminal. They see big American automobiles, bright and shiny new, a girl in a miniskirt, a man in shorts and sports shirt, riding a motor scooter. . . . For the first time it begins to dawn on them what has happened. They are back in the world again. They have come home.