Jim Wolfe's mishap
Jim Wolfe has died, after 51.5 years of living in a wheelchair due to a crash on Dec 17, 1968, in UH-1H 67-17342. He put up a long and painful fight, always with the best of attitude. I saw him in person only once in all that time, at the DC reunion in 2018. It was a very emotional reunion for me, first time I had seen him since the crash. We only flew for about 2 weeks together, I was a new CE just moved up from gunning on 342 for CE Gary Hallman who went home, and Jim came from working in maintenance for several months. Had we not crashed, he would have become the CE and taken over the ship when I left in a few months. Here is the story of the crash.
We had just refueled in Da Lat and loaded up some VN civilian passengers and steel engineer stakes at a nearby A Camp to transport to another A Camp farther out. It was about 4PM on a hot day, so between the actual altitude and air temperature, the density altitude was very high. Due to the high density altitude, our fuel load, and our cargo load, we were overloaded. Turned out later, in the accident investigation, that the SF sergeant who loaded the stakes lied to us about their weight. The following is what I wrote some time ago about the events:
"Upon lifting, the nose immediately dropped and we were on the go. The PSP pad ended about 6 to 8 feet in front of the aircraft and as we cleared it the rotor immediately bled off and we were not yet through translation. So the nose went down to gain airspeed, but the valley floor was not that far down, and we got to it before we got into translation or recovered RPM. During the descent, it was a very violent one-to-one vibration, and we began throwing stakes out on command from the AC in order to lighten the load. When we hit, the PP and his seat went out through the front of the aircraft instrument panel and were lying on the ground. He was unconscious for awhile.
Neither Jim or I were seat belted in when we hit, although we both had our monkey straps on. He was flung out of the aircraft and snapped at the end of the monkey strap but was facing the ship and it broke his back. I think the ship in rolling is what broke his leg in several places. I survived because I was confined by the seat tube on the top of the passenger seat, the transmission well, the aircraft ceiling, and the outer vertical seat post. Apparently I was perfectly balanced leaning over the seat and bounced around in that confined square and saved from internal damage by the front and back chicken plates I was wearing. So, the difference in what happened to us was that Jim went outside the ship and I did not. The reason is simple, Jim heard the call that we were going to hit and went back down on his seat and tried to fasten his seat belt but did not make it when we hit. I did not hear the call and was still leaning over throwing out stakes. The reason? My helmet mike cord was shorter than Jims and my helmet unplugged as I leaned over the seat, Jims did not. He was able to hear the crash call and I was not. So, the difference between what happened to us boils down to the small difference in the length of helmet mike cords. Almost unbelievable.
In addition to the skids, main rotor, and tail boom coming off, so did the gun mounts. The accident report says we rolled at least once. (I can definitely state, when you are crashing, you don't know how many times you rolled or flipped or slid, it's all too violent and fast, you are truly just a passenger along for the ride.) When I slid out, I was too dazed to realize that the ground was almost level with the floor and the gun mount was gone, but I do remember sitting there, on the ground and trying to figure out how to unfasten my monkey strap. I couldn't walk because of torn muscles in my back, but I crawled around to Jim and saw what he looked like, and with the help of the two pilots, we unfastened his monkey strap. He was either unconscious or badly dazed at the time and didn't speak to us. Amazingly, the engine was still running, even though it was smashed down to the engine deck, so I attempted to drag Jim away from the ship by crawling backward and dragging him by his collar as I thought it might explode any second. I have always wondered if I made his back injuries worse by doing that, but at the time I was just trying to get him away from the ship which I thought was going to explode. I didn't get very far when I saw Vietnamese soldiers running towards us. Confused as I was, I only thought "enemy soldiers", so I looked around for my carbine but couldn't find it before they got to us and we were "captured". Only then did I realize they were friendly. Some of them owe their lives to the fact that I couldn't find a weapon."
So Jim lived a long time after he probably shouldn't have. He did well, very well in business, and became sort of a real estate tycoon, owning several apartment complexes. He was also a very good person. What was most impressive is that his attitude was always great. When we talked, he didn't have any animosity towards anything, what happened, happened, and that was life. The 281st association and I will miss him.