I always rode in the first helicopter when it was my platoon’s turn to lead a Charlie Alpha (Combat Assault). I would sit or kneel behind and between the pilot and co-pilot and look out the front windscreen. Sometimes there was a headset I could put on and talk with the co-pilot as they led the birds on the assault. Otherwise, I would have to yell at the co-pilot to ask questions as to how far out we were before landing. I wanted my men to test-fire their weapons to make sure there were no jams. About five minutes out the co-pilot would give the word and each man would fire a short burst out the door, myself included.
I always made sure to “go heavy” on the first bird. This meant taking two machine gunners, my grenadier, squad leader, RTO and ammo bearers. The VC and NVA had a knack of surviving the five minute artillery bombardment that was part of the assault. They would hole up and wait for the second ship to come in and then fire an RPG, destroying the bird and causing it to crash. When this happened the LZ was compromised and the additional helicopters following in line would be diverted to an alternate LZ. The survivors and men on the ground would have to fight it out on their own until relief could arrive. This possibility was always on my mind. The landing of the first helicopter would be uncontested and there would be a great feeling of relief until the second chopper came in and was blasted.
The firing of a white phosphorus artillery round signaled the end of the artillery barrage and two Cobra helicopters would then fly ahead and blast the perimeter surrounding the LZ with rockets and minigun fire. How anyone could survive that devastating suppressive fire I will never know, but somehow they did and a firefight would often ensue.
The men on the first helicopter wanted off the bird as quickly as possible and would ride the skids as the chopper came in for a landing. Men would sometimes jump from 10-15 feet off the ground in order to run for cover. These men had been through contested landings before and knew how vulnerable they were. They would jump and lean forward causing their packs to ride up on their backs and dump them into a forward roll. I tried to caution my men to wait until the skids touched down, but self-preservation was foremost on everyone’s mind. My RTO followed me where ever I went, keeping that life-saving handset at arm’s reach in case I had to call for fire support from the Cobras circling overhead or another artillery barrage.
A Charlie Alpha was always a harrowing experience. Tension was over the top and everyone alert and watching for any sign of bad guys. The door gunners loved to blast away at the perimeter as we came in for a landing and I was afraid they would not stop firing in time as my men hit the dirt, but somehow they always knew where to fire and when to stop. They too were lifesavers.
Play the video below to get a better idea for what a Charlie Alpha was like.