First Hand Account:
I had just returned to Vietnam after a one-month extension leave. This was my first night back in the air. It was another night TAOR hop over Da Nang. There had been incoming from the southwest that night.
Our two aircraft launched at about 0100. My aircraft was VS-18, flying wing to the lead bird at about 3000 ft. over by Hill 327 when the med-evac H-34 came out of our 10 o'clock level. It had no running lights illuminated. My pilot, Capt. Ted Cieplik, instinctively yanked the bird up and to the right just in time for the H-34 to crash into our belly and skids, knocking off our skids, the right rocket pod, and the shrapnel from his blades knocking out our tail rotor servo, the radios, the fuel cell, the gunner's M-60, severely damaging his hand. We had to have taken off his rotor head. The Master Caution panel lit up like a Christmas tree and the RPM warning lite & alarm came on. For approximately 15 - 20 seconds the bird flopped around the sky like a fish out of water before Capt. Cieplik regained some control. He immediately started a long, slow, left-hand, reduced-power descent to try to get us back to Marble Mountain airbase but we knew the bird wouldn't stay up that long.
Da Nang airbase was closer but it was closed at night. With no radios, he instructed the co-pilot to lower the landing light and by clicking the button on and off transmit a visual S-O-S to the tower in Morse code. We came over the end of the runway in a slight yaw but as soon as my pilot pulled pitch, the bird began to spin. He dumped the collective at about 20 feet from the ground and we "augured in" at about 60-80 kts. It was a "hard landing" to say the least as we spun around and around finally coming to a stop on a taxiway. We shut down all electrical power and bailed. I got the co-pilot out and Capt. Cieplik helped out my wounded gunner. I jettisoned the left hand rocket pod and rolled it away from the bird. There was a rapidly growing puddle of hydraulic fluid and fuel coming from under the bird. I was really worried about a fire but the Da Nang Crash Crew was on us "most riki-tik" and foamed everything.
It wasn't until we got back to Marble that we learned of the loss of the 34 crew. We were really lucky and the other crew was not. Our hearts were heavy, numb. I still feel for them - to this day. My heart goes out to their families for their loss. This mission is burned into my memory. I re-live it every once in a while without humor. I had other "bad" missions but none like this.
It was my one and only mission with Capt. Cieplik. I wanted to put him in for a DFC for his incredible skills, cool head, and airmanship but I got dinged the next day and shipped back to the States. I was told that he had been a 34 driver and just recently trained to be a Huey driver. No matter what, he saved us all.
KIA from HMM-363 MAG-1634:
Capt Johnnie Garner;
1stLt William Elmore Jr;
Cpl Clarence Gunther Jr;
LCpl William McGee IV.
Semper Fi, Brothers. Submitted by Ed Hart, UH-1E crew chief involved in mid-air crash