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Vietnam helicopter pilots weigh in on war (english)
by Timothy Hurley
09 Apr 2003
Like many Americans, Curt Lofstedt has been watching a lot of television lately trying to keep up with the hostilities in Iraq.
But nothing in the war coverage draws his attention more than the helicopter action.
"It gets me thinking. It takes me back," said Lofstedt, a Vietnam War pilot who now flies his missions over Kaua'i for Island
Helicopters, an air tour company he started in 1980.
Lofstedt is one of a handful of Vietnam combat pilots who found their way to Hawai'i to help pioneer the state's helicopter tour
industry. These pilots from "the helicopter war" — the first extensive tactical deployment of helicopters in an armed conflict —
have been monitoring the early going of the war in Iraq with more than casual interest.
Lofstedt and others said that while they still see some old workhorses from the Vietnam era — Chinooks and Cobras — much of
the technology has changed, and so has the terrain, from jungle to desert.
But there is at least one constant: getting shot at. In Vietnam, 2,208 helicopter pilots and 2,698 nonpilot crew members were
killed in action. Nearly 5,000 choppers were downed by enemy ground fire.
Lofstedt, 52, served one tour in Vietnam, during the last big offensive in 1972. He flew a Huey, searching out helicopters that
were shot down, transporting troops and working in tandem with other choppers in combat maneuvers.
He enlisted for duty in Vietnam to build up flight hours for a career as a commercial pilot. He was shot down once and survived
several engine failures. One time he spent three hours in the jungle with friendly Vietnamese before he was picked up by
another American chopper.
Lofstedt said that while Vietnam helicopter pilots coped with monsoon rains, today's pilots are dealing with a more potent
hazard: dirt and sand. He said the disorientation caused by the dusty conditions could be a factor in helicopter losses.
Ross Scott, president of Maui-based Sunshine Helicopters, served a tour in Vietnam starting in 1966, flying a Huey gunship. He
was shot down twice, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart.
What's it like to fly into a hail of gunfire?
"You don't think about the danger," he said. "We were all young and invincible, anyway. You couldn't get hurt. My biggest fear
was being shot down and captured."
Scott, 60, said sometimes he wonders what it's like to fly the new helicopters. "We're all dinosaurs. It's probably all different
Today's military pilots have the advantage of being able to fly under the cover of darkness. On the other hand, he said, they
risk heat-seeking missiles and other advanced anti-aircraft fire. They also have to worry about biological and chemical
As for the helicopter tactics in the opening days of the war in Iraq, "It's easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, but it seems
like some of (the helicopters) are getting in harm's way that doesn't make sense."
Scott said the Apache attack helicopters are taking a lot of damage from intense anti-aircraft fire in missions designed to seek
out and destroy the enemy. "I'm not sure they have been proven as a combat machine," he said.
Preston Myers, president of Safari Helicopters, flew fixed-wing aircraft in Vietnam in 1968 and later returned to Southeast Asia
as a civilian to fly for the quasi-governmental company known as Air America. He was based in Udorn, Thailand, and flew
secret missions throughout Laos. He also was part of a major battle for control of a town called Saravane, near the Ho Chi
Minh Trail, described as one of the fiercest battles in Southeast Asia.
Myers, 59, said Vietnam and Iraq are two different worlds. The most dramatic difference, he said, are the intentions of the
"In Vietnam, we didn't go in there to win the war. It was a battle of containment," said Myers, who retired from the Navy
Reserves as a commander and was last attached to the central command in Honolulu during the Gulf War, filling in for officers
sent to the battle zone.
Other factors for helicopter setbacks include inexperience with combat, equipment and terrain, according to the Vietnam
"The Apache is a sophisticated machine," Scott said. "Sometimes the more sophisticated machine, the more sophisticated the
Lofstedt said the perils of flying helicopters in both eras are comparable. Today's pilots may confront more firepower, but in
Vietnam the enemy was often hidden in the jungle.
"A lot of helicopters were shot down in Vietnam. Now there is more technology and knowledge in the field about where the