I missed an anniversary yesterday. I didn’t mean to. After my children, of all the important days of my life this is the one I most like to remember. But this time I did not. Having kept this anniversary mostly private through the years there is no one to remind me. Was it a time when someone said, “I will love you forever?” No—it was a day I performed my highest calling. I lived my strongest and best character. There are others who lived through that day with me who do not know how close they came to dying. I was the aircraft commander in a Huey in Vietnam one January 20 when I had my second engine failure in four days. The first was simple—this one was not.
There were ten of us on board, two pilots, a crew chief, a door gunner, and six combat infantrymen. The pilot flying the helicopter froze and did not initiate the emergency procedures he should have when the engine loudly announced its failure and ceased providing power for our rotor blades. He died in a helicopter crash five months later. So possibly there are nine of us left. I doubt all nine are still alive, but maybe, maybe they are. I hope so. No doubt they still remember that wild ride to the ground that so nearly took ten lives that January day.
In my helicopter company it was business as usual among the others. “Oh, Clark just broke another one.” It was number four of five I took to the ground. Would there be formal recognition for saving ten lives and the aircraft? No—no mention of any such thing. The comments I heard were two. A gun ship pilot who watched said, “You just fell out of the formation, turned left 180 degrees and put it right in that clearing. Smooth as silk.” It looked so simple from his vantage point. The crew chief said, “Well, sir, when you went into the turn, I knew you had it.” I wish he had told me. Survival was doubtful until the final seconds. We were so close to the ground and falling so fast. No one else said anything to me except the major from Battalion who told me I would be charged with a major accident. There was a dent in the bottom of the tail boom. I had landed over a hard-ground rice paddy dike surrounded by trees as the blades coasted to a stop.
One need not explain in detail what has happened in such an emergency. Most will not believe the number of decisions made, the difficulty, the split-second precision required under the pressure of dying violently in the next few seconds. You know you will die if you do not do everything correctly and exactly on time. Even that may not be enough. But you don’t think that aloud to yourself. You simply continue doing what needs to be done.
I know what I did that day. I know how difficult it was. No one else ever will. My hope is that somewhere in America there are little boys and girls running around dreaming of being cheerleaders and learning to play baseball. Little boys and girls who almost never were.
Ray Kenneth Clark