by Alan Barbour
At 06:00 on the morning of 29 April 1975, YT-14 prepared to launch as the overwater SAR bird from the carrier USS Hancock (CVA-19) for Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of personnel from Saigon and the Saigon Embassy. Normally, a fixed wing carrier such as the Hancock executing helicopter operations would not launch a helicopter SAR aircraft as any helicopter could perform SAR duties as necessary. However for an operation of this size, a designated rescue helicopter provided the task force with the capability of responding instantly to any emergency.
This was a special day however, because of the air traffic potential. Emergency USMC helicopter operations were planned all day as necessary for the evacuation. Much of the air traffic would be of Vietnamese origin, as was witnessed the previous day. All types of Vietnamese helicopters and fixed wing were expected to arrive at any time. Some Vietnamese pilots, with their families and friends attempting to escape South Vietnam, ditched adjacent to the ship, while others attempted to land on the deck. There were many times during the day that the decks of various ships were fouled with aircraft, including both helicopters and fixed wing. YT-14 had been designated the Angel Flight (overwater Search and Rescue) for operation Frequent Wind, to be used for any eventuality.
Cpl. Stephen R. Wills was the Crew Chief/Right Gunner of YT-14. Cpl. Richard L. Scott was his 1st Mechanic/Left Gunner for this early-morning SAR mission. The two remained with their aircraft in orbit over the South China Sea through the entire day and into the night, for 17 hours, without shutting down.
According to Steve Wills, throughout the day during several hot refueling on the deck of the USS Hancock, Vietnamese aircraft were “trying to land on top of us.” “Conversations during the day between crew members aboard YT-14 were strictly that of Marines carrying out their routine duties, and wishing they were someplace else.”
Later in the day, at approximately 13:00 during a hot refueling, Capt. William C. Nystul and 1stLt. Michael J. Shea relieved the originally assigned pilot and copilot. Bill Nystul was a recent WestPac arrival to Okinawa when HMM-164 deployed with the remaining H-46’s and UH-1E’s from MCAS Futenma, Okinawa. He had just completed schooling, and had re-fammed in the H-46.
Bill Nystul had been a fixed wing instructor in the Naval Aviation Training Command at Pensacola, with approximately 20 hours of refamiliarization time on the CH-46. Mike Shea had approximately 25 CH-46 hours in Futenma before deploying, and was a designated CH-53 pilot (7564).
Capt. Chic Schoener, who also flew 13 hours during the operation from the USS Hancock, had been flying during the mishap and did not learn of the loss of his friends until he made a late night refueling stop. Chic was assigned to H&MS-36 as a pilot in Okinawa and did his CH-46 flying with both HMM-164 and HMM-165. He remembers giving Bill Nystul an Okinawa island Fam hop before they embarked aboard the USS Midway for cross decking to the USS Hancock and had known both he and Mike Shea before and while embarked.
CH-46D carried 2400 lbs. of jet fuel (1200 in each stub wing) and had a routine flight endurance of 2 hours. Under certain flight conditions that time could be stretched to 2+15 hours. However, NATOPS and safety dictated refueling when the fuel quantity was no lower than 200 lbs per side (approximately 20 minutes fuel remaining). The fuel “low caution lights” usually came on with 340 lbs of fuel remaining. This operation was not routine (by any standards) with many aircraft and crewmembers’ limitations being stretched well beyond stated limits. However, extraordinary times call for extraordinary efforts.
to Steve Wills:
“I would just be guessing as to the number of times that we refueled that day. But it would have to have been six or seven times, maybe even more. On one of our landings to refuel, we were loaded with about twenty or so refugees that were to be transferred to the USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19).”
“Twice we had to dump fuel because of our weight. After we departed the USS Hancock we where losing altitude due to our weight and the heat of the day. Capt. Nystul told me that he was going to dump fuel. I informed him that there should be no problem with the system, as I had personally checked it out a few days before. “That’s what we heard” was the comeback from Capt. Nystul.”
The story regarding that comment by Bill Nystul follows:
“Several days before the evac, I pre-flighted YT-14 for a test flight after replacing the rotor pitch-change link bearings. The flight was to take place later in the afternoon. After going down to the maintenance office, I was told that the test flight would take place in about 20 minutes. I was told to have YT-14 spotted and to unfold the blades.”
“We had the deck crew spot her on the #1 spot. I got in and fired up the aircraft APP [Auxiliary Power Plant] and when I brought the electrical power on line, I switched it from DC current to AC current. Right then the ships deck came alive with people trying to get me to shut down the aircraft. My 1st Mech, Cpl. Scott came in yelling that we were dumping fuel on the flight deck. I reached up and hit the APP switch to shut it off. Still we were dumping fuel. I told Cpl. Scott to go back and put his hand over one of the dump pipes and to have one of the other mechanics out side do the same to the other side. I guess you could imagine the double hand gestures I received.”
“I looked up and saw that the fuel jettison switch was in the open position. I fired the APP back up, reached up and moved it back to the closed position, flipped the APP off. Still, we were dumping fuel. Then it came to me that I didn’t bring the electrical system on line with the AC current.”
“Again I fired the APP up, only this time when she lit off – there was a ball of flame that shot out the back at least ten or fifteen feet from the APP. I could see people running everywhere away from the A/C. I switched the system to AC and toggled the switch, shut down the APP, and vacated the A/C.”
“By then, the crash crew was there. Needless to say, I was asked to go visit the CO and the ships Captain. That’s why I told Capt. Nystul I knew that the system worked.”
The second time they had to dump fuel was when a Marine CH-53 was losing altitude. It had over 30 people in it and they feared that is was going to go in.
“We were vectored to its location and could see that she was dropping and at the same time dumping fuel. We dropped half or more of our fuel as we knew that there was no way we could maintain altitude while trying to hover if we were to try and rescue any survivors. The H-53 couldn’t have been more than a hundred feet off the deck. This was during the hottest part of the day. Thankfully it started to gain its altitude back and we were not needed.”
It was dark and it was late. Twice in the final hour of their flight they were on final approach to the USS Hancock when they were sent back out to their orbit point for another possible SAR mission. They were to report when they were at 30 minutes fuel on board. The fatigued pilots on the flight crew had been flying continuously for ten hours and the aircrew had been working continuously for seventeen hours when, in Steve Wills’ own words, the following happened:
“We were at our orbit point when Capt. Nystul radioed for clearance for a landing approach back to the USS Hancock. We were down to about 30 minutes of fuel. We were given the OK to return, refuel and then go back out.”
“On our inbound approach, I looked out the rear of the ship and saw a light at our 6 o’clock position coming in on us. I made it out to be another aircraft. I told the Captain and I then cleared him for a hard right turn. That other aircraft missed hitting us by less than 100 ft.”
“For the next 15 minutes there was no conversation in our aircraft, except for a comment made by Captain Nystul that “Some one is going to die up here tonight.”
“On returning to the ship I was asked if we were clear for a left turn. I gave the OK and no sooner than that, I heard “Pick it up, Pick it up, Pick it up.” I did not hear “Pull-up” as was stated in the KIA incident report. I braced myself, thinking that we were about to be in a mid-air with another aircraft. That day we must have had five or six close calls with other aircraft; not those of the Marines but of the Vietnamese.”
“I don’t remember any sudden descent or that of pulling in power. The only thing I remember was that of the hard landing lights coming on. That’s when every thing went black.”
Concurrently Sgt. Chris Woods, Crew Chief of Swift 22 aboard the USS Hancock witnessed the following:
“The traffic pattern around the Hancock was very congested with aircraft landing, dropping off passengers, refueling, etc. Helicopters were continuously landing and taking off. Swift 22 had been refueled and stashed behind the island to free up landing spots.”
“I can’t remember if I was doing a turnaround inspection or trying to get some rest. ” PULL UP, PULL UP, PULL UP” the air boss said over the 5MC (flight deck) speakers. The air boss kept yelling “PULL UP” until the aircraft impacted the water. I ran out in front of my aircraft to see a left running light (red) angling towards the water, it continued until there was “flash” caused by the aircraft impacting the water. I remember hearing several helicopters hovering trying to pick up survivors. Pandemonium was everywhere.”
There had been an immediate response from the personnel aware of the distressing situation. There were at least four different helicopters that made attempts to get the survivors out; two Navy rescue SH-3’s, one Marine CH-53 and finally another CH-46. Cpl. Wills related:
“I came to under water. That’s when the Water Survival Training took over. I was only able to inflate one side of my LPA. The right side of it was torn. When I hit the surface I found that my radio was gone, along with my pistol. I found my pen flares and fired two of them. I started yelling to see if any one else got out. Cpl. Scott yelled back. He was about fifty yards from me.”
“The first two Navy SH-3’s tried to get us out with their hoist, but we couldn’t hook up. The rotor wash from the CH-53 that came over us just kept pushing us under the water. The two SH-3’s and the H-53 tried to drown me and then backed off.”
“After firing my pen flares, I was able to light up my strobe light. I do remember that Scotty fired his pen flare at the first or second helicopter almost hitting it. I yelled to him to get his strobe out and light it up. That would have been the only way that he could be seen.”
Another CH-46D, call sign Swift 07, from HMM-164 was on the deck of the USS Hancock undergoing hot refueling, piloted by Capt. Steve Haley and 1stLt. Dean Koontz. They launched immediately, and picked up Cpl. Richard Scott by hoist. They completed a water-landing at night near the crash scene in pitch-black conditions, and water-taxied up to the struggling and seriously injured Cpl. Wills. He was unable to get into the rescue harness due to his injuries.
“In all of our training we were told that PHROGS don’t float. But I can sure tell you of the one that can swim.”
“There was seawater in the cabin section when they [the rescue helicopter crew] pulled me by hand thru the cabin door of the CH-46. I heard the emergency throttle’s come up and remember the whine of the engines and the slapping of the blades … I still can look up and see the rotor blades and thinking that H-46 was crashing on top of me.”
“The hand that reached out to me was that of the rescue aircraft Crewchief, Sgt. Lon Chaney … we spent approximately 45 minutes in the water before they got us out.”
Continuing the account of the rescue by Chris Woods on the deck of the USS Hancock:
“Then all of a sudden I watched as the bottom anti-collision light on a Phrog [H-46] went underwater. I thought, GOD, not another crash. I watched as I realized that the aircraft was in the water to pick up survivors. Moments later Swift 07 was on the flight deck with Cpl Stephen R. Wills, and Cpl Richard L. Scott. Capt. Nystul and Lt. Shea went down with the aircraft. The mood was not good. Everyone was exhausted and now we had to accept the deaths of two squadron mates.”
The rescue was completed at about 23:30 on 29 Apr 1975. The bodies of Capt. Nystul and Lt. Shea were never recovered. The only things that were found were the four flight crew helmets and the front landing strut with the tires on it.
Twilight on 30 Apr 1975, a Burial at Sea for Capt. Bill Nystul and 1stLt Mike Shea was conducted aboard the USS Hancock. As they escorted one of the surviving crew members, Cpl. Richard Scott, across the deck for the Memorial Service, Cpl. Steve Wills was resting in double traction of both left & right legs on the 03 level of the ship and could not be moved. He was later very appreciative of the aircrew members for dropping in on him during his recovery.
“If it were up to me, Capt. Haley and Lt Koontz would have received the CMH. But in saying that, please don’t forget the hand that reached out, with seawater flowing in the cabin section, pulling me in … not with the hoist but by their hand. The aircrew of that ship will always live in my heart and mind as my guardian angel, even though I was flying the Angel Flight.”
Operation Frequent Wind ended on the morning of the 30th of April with the extraction of Ambassador Graham Martin, followed by the extraction of the Marine Security Detachment, as did all U.S. involvement in the Republic of Vietnam.
YT-14 (BuNo 154042) of HMM-164 was the last Marine helicopter lost in Vietnam, and still sits at the bottom of the South China Sea in 65 – 100 feet of water at coordinates N09o 55’ 32″ E107 o 20’ 06″, or approximately 30 nautical miles on the 150 o radial of the Vung Tau NDB.