Song Be Vietnam, Allen Cates

The Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porter jump plane of Sk...

Song Be Vietnam

In the spring of 1969 I was operating the Pilatus Porter in Saigon for Air America. I was heading to Laos in a few weeks to fly helicopters and was looking forward to the adventure, but remorse because I really liked the Porter and didn’t like helicopters even though I had a lot of experience in them when I was a Marine. 

The Flying activity in Vietnam had decreased and I couldn’t hold my captain’s position and I would be reduced to first officer if I stayed. Going back to the H-34 I swore I would never fly again was not appealing, but neither was flying as copilot.  Laos was heating up and I could hold my captain’s position in helicopters and with time I might be able to upgrade to the Bell helicopter Air America also operated. 

The Porter was one hell of an aircraft in my opinion even sitting still it looked supersonic, at least to me. A closer look showed a huge wingspan of 48 feet, big ailerons and larger flaps. The aircraft was made for short field take off and landing pure and simple and definitely not supersonic. 

Yet if you squint your eyes, the nose was long and slender coming to a point with a large propeller, and well, it just had that look. It had a turbine engine with a 575 shaft horsepower and would lift off after 1150 feet fully loaded and in a head wind with no load it had phenomenal performance. The landing distance was equally outstanding, so from a pilot’s standpoint I still think it was one a hell of an aircraft. 

I discovered it wouldn’t run on water however. A few days earlier I had landed on an airfield just north of Saigon that was different than most in the delta. The field was elevated and the runway came to an abrupt stop overlooking a small valley with green hills and running streams. Compared to many airfields in 111 Corps area this one was void of the carnage of war and when I landed and shut down I could hear birds singing and a pleasant feeling about the place made me want to stretch out and relax before hitting it again.   

I was ready for something more relaxing because the week before I had been accosted by a local soldier pointing his rifle at me demanding a ride to Danang.  I was tired and this had been my thirty-second landing for the day and I was in no mood for bullshit. I looked at him and thought perhaps he just wanted a day off like me and started to just let him on board, but he could have politely asked instead of hijacking me so I decided to decline and pointed my gun at him and told him to back off. He could see I was serious and he couldn’t fly the aircraft anyway if he shot and incapacitated me so he smiled and lowered his gun while backing up slowly. I turned the aircraft abruptly knocking him down and quickly added full power. The dust blinded him and before he could get his bearings I was gone. 

So I was real pleased with this quiet airfield, the pleasant surroundings and no one in sight. I needed fuel and pulled up to the fuel dump where the jet fuel pump was located. The fuel filler cap on the Porter is on top of the wing and you have to step up on a ledge to fuel. I pulled up on the lever and could feel the cold fuel pulsing through the nozzle. All of a sudden I could feel the temperature change from cold to warm. I should have caught on immediately, but it was not a sensation I had experienced before and I wondered about it but kept on fueling.   

When finished I knew I couldn’t dilly dally and needed to get on down the road. Starting the Porter was easy enough as long as you had adequate battery power, but while it is electrically actuated the starting procedure required manually flipping the switches for ignition that could be heard as a snapping noise. The engine quickly spins up and in the Garrett AIResearch engine the prop speed goes to max RPM immediately. Pushing the throttle forward increases the pitch and the thrust moves the aircraft forward. I lined up knowing the end of the runway dropped off to the canyon at the end, but not to worry because the Porter would have me five hundred feet above the runway before I got to the end. 

I added full power and felt the thrust push me backwards, something I always enjoyed and the engine quit abruptly. I was thinking what the hell is this? I tried a restart but it wouldn’t light off.  I needed to clear the runway in case another aircraft came in and fortunately I wasn’t too far from the take off position. Also fortunately the engine hadn’t quit after airborne because it was the canyon for me if that had happened.  I pushed the Porter off to the side and called Saigon requesting maintenance. The warm nozzle came to mind. The Porter has a valve to check the fuel for water and when I opened it there was a white opaque liquid coming out indicating water mixed with oil and thus my problem. I now realized someone had removed jet fuel and replaced the volume with water and all of a sudden this pleasant airport was not as pleasant. 

It took a couple of hours for the maintenance crew to arrive and they cleaned the system and assured me we were good to go. I guess as a show of faith they elected to fly back to Saigon with me. Of course, I was the only aircraft around and by this time it was getting dark. Sitting around a dark airfield at night was not wise in Vietnam unless you lived there. We didn’t. 

“You’re sure you got all the water right?” I said to the maintenance crew. 

“Absolutely!” They said. 

Take off was uneventful and before long I could see the lights of Saigon on the horizon. I checked in with the tower and obtained clearance to land when a huge compressor stall, which sounded like an elephant belch, got everybody’s attention. I quickly hit the igniters and the engine restarted and sounded OK. 

I turned around slowly with a big grin and stared at three unsmiling faces. “Absolutely huh?” 

We landed unscathed and I learned a good lesson without getting hurt in the process.

Allen Cates. former Air America Pilot

JR Hafer’s  Sun ‘n Fun Radio Interview

with Allen Cates of Air America

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