Anyone who has been to Vietnam, or any war for that matter, does not need to be told that war and combat is a serious business that wears and grinds on both the body and the mind. However, I suppose like everything else, it has its moments of humor, relief and counterpoint which can be sorely needed moments.
One of those such moments was The Great Helicopter Race, held while Lieutenant Colonel Jack Cranford, a master Army aviator, was commanding the 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion. The race happened in mid-March of 1966.
During the pre-Cobra days of combat assault in the Vietnam War, the UH-1 Huey filled the role of gunship escort, fitted with rocket pods and front-firing 7.62 mm machineguns. As an escort gunship the Huey had only one drawback; it could not fly any faster than the Huey slicks it was escorting and could therefore make only one or two gun passes on the LZ as the troop-carrying Hueys went in for the dust off.
To boost the Huey gunships' speed, the Army had the ships fitted with new, extra-width rotor blades designed to take a bigger bite out of the air and add speed without changing the engine power. The change worked well and the gunship Hueys were significantly faster than before.
It was said that LTC Cranford was so pleased with his high-speed Hueys, that he offered a challenge to Lieutenant Colonel Max Clark, who was the commander of the 228th Assault Support Helicopter Battalion, the Cav's fleet of CH-47 Chinook helicopter. The Chinooks (known then as Max's Mobile Homes), were big ungainly looking aircraft, that gave the unfair appearance of burly buses in the sky. LTC Clark, proud of his ships and his pilots, accepted the gauntlet from Cranford.
The race was set over a 10-mile course, a straight flight between Mang Yang Pass in the mountains west of An Khe and the flight control tower at the An Khe airstrip. It would be a race against the stop watch with on of LTC Cranford's modified, speedy Hueys getting first crack at the course. Men were stationed at the mountain pass, including an Army radio reporter who gave play by play coverage through the radio station at An Khe.
As with any bet, there was a lot more at stake than a just a contest between aircraft. Unit pride was on the line, and rumor had it that the two commanders had also made a side wager; the loser was to buy a round of beer for the winner's battalion. Yes sir, there was a lot of beer to be had by the winning battalion.
Both colonels were at the An Khe tower, and each monitored a stopwatch. A third clock was kept by Colonel Al Burdett, 11th Group commander. As the Huey lifted off from the pass and nosed over into a high-speed profile toward An Khe, the clocks were started by word from an RTO atop the pass. The unseen Huey became a speck in the distance, grew quickly and then flashed by the tower. The three colonels hit the stopwatches and marked the time. It ended up being a good time, a very fast time, and a classified time. You know how the military works, everything is classified, even if it involves a wager.
At Mang Yang Pass it was time for the Chinook to crank up and take off. The Huey hare had run and now it was the tortoise's turn. The pilot pointed the Chinook's nose for An Khe and opened up with everything the Chinook had. As he barreled down on what he thought was An Khe, the Chinook pilot knew his time would be good, might even be just good enough. The colonels sat immobile, watching the approaching Chinook speck grow larger. At first, no one noticed it, but it was soon apparent that the distant dot of the Chinook was not getting any bigger at all. It was, in fact getting smaller. It turns out, the pilot was lost, he was not headed anywhere near An Khe.
After a few long seconds, most likely spent frantically checking his map against terrain features, the pilot quickly discovered his navigational error and swung the Chinook back toward An Khe and the awaiting colonels. The Chinook lumbered on, got closer and finally thundered past the tower. When the stopwatches where check it had been found that the Chinook had bettered the Huey's time by "a significant number of seconds," even though the pilot had lost time in wandering off course. And with that the Great Helicopter Race was over and the beer began to flow.