Story 36 - Gunship Explodes on Kangaroo Pad

By Denis Hare

Bandit Huey Gunship from 118 AHCOn the morning of the 12 August 1968, two US Army "Bandit" Huey gunships from the US Army, 118 Assault Helicopter Company (AHC), 145 Combat Aviation Battalion (CAB), located at the Bien Hoa Airbase "Bird Cage" arrived at Nui Dat.  The aircraft were to be located at Nui Dat on standby during daylight hours to support our operations - which was a normal practice. 

As we watched from the 104 Sig Sqn area (nothing else to do), the first Huey touched down at the refuelling point.  Within a few seconds, fuel started to burn in and around the aircraft and the four man crew abandon the aircraft with the engine still running.  One of the crew may have suffered burns to an arm.  The other gunship did a near vertical climb to get out of trouble.   No sure what happen, maybe failure to initially attach the static earth line or another crew member climbed out before the lead was connected or ....

As the burning aircraft was on the other side of the pad from our location with our defence wire between, we all waited for the big bang.  Ammo and rockets started exploding from the burning aircraft and some travelled into our wire and one passed into 547 Sig Tp area - into their Boozer area causing a minor wound to one of the guys having a heart starter (or that was the story at the time).  The rockets did not arm as they have to rotate 40 times and four were located in our defence wire after the explosion.

After a while the aircraft blew-up into just bits - with only the engine about 100m from the aircraft's original location as the largest remaining piece. 

Huey exploding on Kanagroo Pad
Above - Exploding Huey on Kangaroo Pad
Photo supplied by Neil (Zac) Campbell, 104 Sig Sqn

Film strip of the burning Huey and just after the explosionAbove - Film strip showing the Huey burning on Kangaroo Pad and just after the explosion.
Photos supplied by Tom Williams, 547 Sig Tp.

Huey burning bits on Kangaroo Pad, just after the explosionAbove - Burning Huey bits on Kangaroo Pad just after the explosion.
Note: the soldier still taking cover in the right foreground.

Photo supplied by Tom Williams, 547 Sig Tp.

Burning Bandit Huey on Kangaroo Pad from the air.Above - The burning Huey from the air just before the explosion.
Photo supplied by Peter Potocnik, 161 Recce Flt.

The PDF file below is from the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association (VHPA) recording the lost of the Huey UH-1C Bandit Gunship (65-09551) at Nui Dat on the 12 Aug 1968.  The Aircraft Commander, Loel Letts and Pilot, Nicolas Alexander were both Warrant Officers.  No details have yet been located on the other two crew members, the Crew Chief and the Gunner.  Sadly CWO Nicolas Alexander was KIA near the Cambodian border on the 27 Nov 1968 when the Bandit gunship (66-15015) he commanded was shot down.

Click VHPA - Detailing lost of UH-1C 65-09551 (PDF)


Details from the "other bandit gunship"

By the Aircraft Commander CWO Garrett Ronning (US Army)

I am Garrett Ronning, I was a Chief Warrant Officer (CWO), US Army, at that time and the aircraft commander of the "other bandit gunship" on the day.   My memory may be faulty in thinking back 35 years to that day but this is how I remember it.

As we flew in to Nui Dat, it was routine to refuel immediately since we were there on standby in case an Aussie Field Team needed us for close air support.   We landed in the refuelling area and rolled the throttle back to idle, unbuckled seat belts and opened up our flack jackets for air.  The door gunner and crew chief got out to begin refuelling while the engines and blade were at idle.

I remember that Nick Alexander was my pilot that day.   I do not remember who was with Lowell Letts, the aircraft commander of the ship that burned.

 The first indication I had that we had a problem was a shout, and someone stepping in my lap to go out my door.  I remember us laughing about this later, because I had a size 12 foot print across my lap.  We could not figure out how Alexander, being 6’2" tall, could step in my lap and make it out what opening was left of my door - but he did it.

Anyway, when I looked at Lowell’s aircraft, it seemed to be on fire everywhere, and pilots and crew were running like mad.   I started to get out of my aircraft, then decided to roll the throttle back and fly out.   As was stated above, I came out of the refuelling area straight up and fast.  I moved about 100 yards away, set the aircraft down, and got out of the ship in time to hear the first explosions.  I watched a rocket go shooting across the runway into the Aussie Camp.  After several bullets whined overhead, I moved the gunship farther down the runway.

I remember thinking that the Aussie Fire Fighters were crazy, very brave, or both, because they ran right up to the burning ship with little fire extinguishers.  The ship was full of at least 12,000 rounds of 7.62 bullets, a case of hand grenades, 14 or more 2.75 rockets, and God only knows what other standard or non standard weaponry.

I don’t remember that any of the crew were injured.  It was amazing that we did not blow up any of our Aussie friends.  In the following weeks and months when we came to Nui Dat, we took quite a razzing from everyone there - from the tower operators to refuelling crews - for causing the worst attack on Nui Dat in years.  I still have the cyclic handle from that burned aircraft.

Garrett Ronning stepping from a Huey in Vietnam
Above - Garrett Ronning stepping out of a Huey in Vietnam
Photo supplied by Garrett Ronning, 118 AHC (US Army)

Aircraft and members of 118 AHC (US Army) - Garrett Ronning second from left.
Above - Aircraft and members of 118 AHC in Vietnam.
Garrett Ronning is second from the left.  Others unknown.
Photo supplied by Garrett  Ronning, 118 AHC (US Army)


The 161 Possum Firefighters

By Firefighter Tony Welbourn (Air Crash Crew)

161 Independent Reconnaissance  Flight (161 Recce Flt) had half a dozen Bell 47 Sioux, three or four Cessna 180’s plus a US Army loan Cessna O-1 Bird Dog at Luscombe Airfield, Nui Dat in August 1968.   Kangaroo Pad, the main Nui Dat helipad also had a steady stream of aircraft movements throughout the day and a number of missions carried out during the night on a regular basis.

The area of responsibility for the 161 Recce Flt under manned and equipped fire and rescue section at Nui Dat was extensive.  The size and volume of aircraft movements on a daily basis was far beyond the resources of the 161 possum firefighters.

 In addition to our own 161 Recce Flt aircraft there were many Iroquois (Huey) flights plus C130 Hercules, both Australian and US, plus C-123 Provider, CH-47 Chinook, CH-54 Tarhe “Skycrane” and of course daily visits by DHC-4 Caribou aircraft. 

Sappers Rob Pearce and Tony Welbourn, were members of the Royal Australian Engineers (RAE) posted to the air crash rescue team at 16 Recce Flt.  On the morning of the 12 August 1968, the two national service soldiers were at their normal work area near Luscombe Field at Nui Dat.

The work day was just kicking off and the firefighting gear was being checked.  The team was dramatically under manned and under equipped, for the daily movements at the airfield, having one Landrover, with a few fire extinguishers, which included only one large dry powder suitable for a fuel fire.  Rob, the senior, was a civilian firefighter having been called up from the Adelaide Metro Fire Service and had complained a number of times about the lack of firefighting equipment for the team.

While Kangaroo Pad was not really the 161 Recce Flt responsibly, it appears the air crash rescue team was the only dedicated fire service personnel at Nui Dat in Aug 1968.   At about 0800 hours the team got an urgent call from the Air Control Tower located on Nui Hill (also known as SAS Hill) that a Helicopter was on fire at Kangaroo Pad.  Rob and Tony could not see any smoke from the Luscombe side of Nui Dat Hill but immediately responded, via the Luscombe Bowl end to the pad refueling point. 

On arriving, the Gunship was well alight and it was clear fuel had not been isolated from the main pad supply.  The few others in the area watching did not understand that if the fuel was not isolated, we would end up with a much bigger problem.  They managed to get close in near the burning Helicopter to the fuel taps and isolated the main fuel storage from the burning Gunship.   All they could do then, because of their limited equipment, plus ammo and rockets had started to explode in the fire was cleared the area and backed off.   After approx 10 minutes the Gunship exploded into a fire ball and bits of the aircraft were all over Kangaroo Pad.    After  the explosion it was just a matter of putting out the remaining spot fires and making the area safe from the bits and pieces of the aircraft all over Kangaroo Pad.

Gunship explosion

Gunship ExplosionAbove - 118 AHC Gunship Explosion at Kangaroo Pad
Photos supplied by Tony Welbourn (161 Recce Flt)

Looking back on the fire years later, Tony commented “How either of us was not killed or injured, when we were out near the burning chopper, amazes me!” 

The US Army Pilot, Garrett Ronning, in the Gunship that managed to fly out of harm’s way wrote “I remember thinking that the Aussie Fire Fighters were crazy, very brave, or both, because they ran right up to the burning ship with little fire extinguishers.”

Rob gave the OC, 161 Recce Flt a severe “dressing down” over the incident and distinct lack of firefighting gear, etc.   It would appear that the brass was a little embarrassed but in the wash up Kangaroo Pad was not really 161 Recce Flt problem - the team was only helping out!  That was the attitude on the day!   After this incident we were advised that a specialist air crash fire tender was on the way from Australia.   In fact, this vehicle was on its way in Aug 1968 but was “hijacked” by the RAAF for their use at Butterworth, Malaysia.  

The US Army offered 161 Recce Flt a crash tender from Vung Tau which was promptly ‘knocked back” by the brass for some unknown reason.  161 Possum Fire-fighters had to live with what they had until a very poor upgrading occurred later down the track.


Detachment 8 Petroleum Platoon


By Ray Hutchinson (RAASC)

Kangaroo Pad was operated by Members of Detachment 8 Petroleum Platoon (8 Pet Pl), Royal Australian Army Service Corps (RAASC).  Normally operated by four operators (a basic fire fighting team), this number was reduced from time to time to meet other operating requirements.  All Petroleum Operators, at this time, were trained specifically in all aspects of Petroleum Fuel Fires and on this day they isolated the fuel immediately and then proceeded to attempt to extinguish the fire using a large 150lb wheeled extinguisher.  The extinguster was used because of the lack of personnel, to operate the full fire fighting equipment installed, at the Kangaroo Pad.

On site that morning, were only two Petroleum Operators, Private Michael Scales and Private  John Ward.    As a result of their actions both soldiers received a letter of commendation from the Commander 1ATF (Brig. R.L. Hughes).  Investigation of the incident indicated that the cause of the fire was not attributable to the operation of the refuelling point in any way.

At the time, the detachment of 8 Pet Pl based at Nui Dat comprises eleven other ranks commanded by WO2 E.J. Rowsell.   It was responsible for:

  1. Holding and issuing packaged POL products.
  2. Operating a MOGAS and DIESO refuelling point for 1ATF vehicles and plant.
  3. Providing bulk AVGAS for refuelling fixed and rotary wing aircraft.
  4. Operating a JP4 (AVTUR) point for refuelling helicopters. (*)

(*)  This JP4 point could refuel up to ten aircraft simultaneously and had the capacity for storing 50,000 gals (US) in fabric tanks with provision for expansion to 70,000 gals (US). It was designed and built by 8 Pet Pl with Engineer assistance in site preparation. The point could cope with all types of helicopters up to CH54A (Sky Crane).


While the above details are etched in the minds of the many witnesses from the Task Force at the time, it does not appear in the Official 1ATF records.  

Acknowledgement

Peter Murray (OC, 547 Sig Tp) for researching the incident to help a fellow veteran, located photos and confirmed the details recorded above. 

Many thanks also to Garrett Ronning (US Army Pilot) and Tony Welbourn (161 Recce Flt Firefighter) for sharing there memory of the incident.

Footnote:  Peter Murray was the OC of 547 Sig Tp during most of 1968.  547 Sig Tp was separated for disciplinary purposes and its principal task of SIGINT but was located in the 104 Sig Sqn area.  Peter has stated that 547 Sig Tp owed a debt of gratitude to 104 Sig Sqn for its support over the 5 years both units were deployed to South Vietnam. 


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