The date was Feb. 22, 1969. I was flying on the wing of Wayne Pearson. Wayne’s backseater was Mike Heenan. Ron Hintze was, as usual, in my backseat. We were flying fighter aircraft out of Udorn Air Base in Thailand. Our target was in Laos, a country to the east of Thailand.
When Wayne rolled in on the target, he established a dive angle of about 45 degree (nose down). A few seconds later, Ron shouted to me on the intercom, “Holy smoke, lead is on fire!”
All I could see was a ball of fire and lots of smoke headed rapidly toward the ground. I shouted on the radio, “Lead, you are on fire! Eject, eject, eject!” Receiving no response, I kept shouting: “Eject, eject, eject!”
Just before the aircraft impacted the ground we saw one parachute. Our hearts sank – this meant that it was very likely that one of the two had not been able to successfully eject.
Using the emergency channel on my radio, I made this call: “Crown, Crown, we have an aircraft down in the Plain of Jars. Please initiate a rescue mission.”
Crown, an airborne C-130 aircraft, had the important role of supervising rescue operations for anyone down in Laos or in North Vietnam. Crown asked me how many crew members were on the downed aircraft, how long could I remain in the vicinity of the crash, would I need tanker support, etc.
I kept calling on Guard channel, trying to make contact with the downed crewman. After about 15 minutes, Mike Heenan called on his small survival radio.
Mike sounded quite shaken; he said he was “afraid of the tigers.” Mike had been reading a book on the tigers in northern Laos.
I called Mike on the radio and told him that there were no tigers in his area. He then said that he was bleeding badly. I told him to take off his T-shirt, twist it tightly and use it as a tourniquet.
Mike quickly replied, “I can’t do that. It is my head that is bleeding.” When Mike ejected, his helmet flew off. With his parachute partially open, he crashed into a tree and his head split open. I told him to roll it into a tight ball and press it hard against his head.
About an hour later, the large Jolly Green helicopters arrived. One flew in low and the other held high. From the low-flying helicopter a sergeant was winched down on a steel cable. He found Mike, carried him to the cable and placed him on the three-pronged seat at the bottom on the cable. They were winched up to the helicopter together.
Knowing the rescue was a success was a moment of great joy and of great sadness for Ron and me. Mike was safe but Wayne Pearson was lost. We flew back to Udorn Air Base quickly. When I climbed down from the cockpit, I debriefed a number of people.
A poignant moment came when the crew chief of Wayne’s aircraft asked me if his plane was really gone. He loved his aircraft and worried that it was his fault that it was lost. Emphatically, I told the young airman the shoot-down was not his fault. However, his sadness was profound. Try as I might, I was unable to console him.
Ron and I then raced down to where the Jolly Green was landing. Mike was hustled off and I had no chance to talk to him. He was airlifted to Clark Air Base in the Philippines for surgical repair of his head.
I did have a chance to talk to the muscular sergeant who had rescued Mike. He told me, “Sir, I almost dropped him on the way up.” He explained that Mike was so covered in his blood that he was like a greased pig – very slippery.
On that memorable day, the high respect I had for these helicopter crews increased. I had just watched firsthand how dedicated these brave men were to saving the lives of downed airmen.
During Mike Heenan’s convalescence in the Philippines, he taught in the survival school that Air Force aircrews attended on their way to combat. With a long purple scar from the top of his head to the bridge of his nose, he was a very credible instructor.
Important lesson: When someone is in real trouble in combat or in peacetime, act quickly to assist. A first step is calling in professional rescuers. When the emergency is over, be sure to thank those who came to your aid, both orally and with hand-written notes.
The writer – a retired U.S. Air Force major general – flew 180 combat missions over North Vietnam and Laos. He flew F-4D aircraft with the renowned Triple Nickel Fighter Squadron. His website is genpsmith.com.