01 November, 2021

The Aero Scouts of Vietnam - Reading the Sign

At 100mph and 100 feet altitude, it’s amazing what you can see.

It’s also amazing what you can SMELL.

Have a look above.  It’s an unusual graphic for this blog because it shows three of my drawings with a suite of logos.

I will explain.

* break break *

This past weekend, I was able to participate in an event produced by the American Flight Museum (AFM) in Topeka.  The AFM is unique in that while most museums have doors and windows, theirs coughs smoke, makes noise and flies.  

We’ll get to that in another post, probably early-ish next year.   But suffice it to say the AFM is keenly interested in ensuring that the historical record is underlined with the preservation of personal accounts and the machines that helped make them.

This'd be the AFM's AC-47 Gunship, "Spooky" dolled up in Medal of Honor recipient John Levitow's historic decor.  More on this later.  ©Me.

Earlier this year, I was commissioned to draw a particular Vietnam War helicopter - a Hughes OH-6A Cayuse (or more popularly referred to as “Loach”) flown by veteran Hugh Mills.  Hugh is an extraordinary individual in that he’s been awarded just about every medal the military and law enforcement community can offer.  Adding to it, the man can write. He’s the author of the seminal book on U.S. Army “Aero Scout” operations, “Low Level Hell.”*

Hugh Mills signs prints of my drawing - the AFM will use these as a fundraising tool for their Museum.  The title of the print, "You can't make history sitting in the office" is a quote Hugh gave me while talking to him about his history.  Great one, eh? ©Me.  And if you want to buy a print, contact the AFM.   

However, these kind of moments are like when my neighbor starts up his 800hp Camaro; within minutes, every gear-head within a four-block radius is drawn to the noise like wasps to an open can of Mt. Dew…

… and suddenly, we’ve got Vietnam-vet Loach pilots taking turns at the controls of their old war mount, a hangar full of food, new friends and a hastily cobbled Live Stream featuring three extraordinary Aero Scout pilots (and me with a microphone).

Was it awesome?

Uh… you decide. (Be advised.  The audio at the beginning starts out "not awesome."  But, after about three minutes, it cleans up).

Ok, back to the SMELL.

It needs to be stated that the mission of the Aero Scout pilot was to find the enemy and direct operations to engage.  Of course, 'the Scouts' were part of a complicated package that included Cobra gunships, troops on foot, directing tactical air support (i.e. jets with bombs)... but, the Aero Scout was often (by design) the first to make contact.  And by making contact, it could include “I see some North Vietnamese way over there about a mile away.”

But most of the time, “…make contact” meant “Holy shite!” And right below, no further than twenty feet away are the angry enemy, blasting upwards with their AK-47s. 

“So how close did you get (to the enemy)?” I asked Aero Scout, Gary Worthy.

Gary waited a few moments, processing the question, then calmly nodded towards a clump of people in quiet conversation, standing no more than twenty feet away.  “Closer than that.”

To put a fine point on his statement, on 16 October of 1968 near Lai Khe, Gary took a brace of fire that riddled his Loach with nearly eighty bullet holes and left a 7.62mm bullet lodged permanently in his head.  And he managed to fly his crew, riddled helicopter and bleeding self back to base (South Vietnam) where he waited to be lifted to a hospital.

Let that sink in.  Gary’s survival story is miraculous.

It's a crummy picture of a far-crummier occasion that ended up pretty beautiful. Gary, recovering in the hospital, was visited by Col George Patton IV - yes, THAT Patton's son. Gary was impressed by the man and grateful for the visit.  Photo courtesy of Gary Worthy.

But Gary’s engagement story was common; remember that the Scout's role meant essentially meant poking a wasp nest with a stick and hollering, “They’re HERE!”

Uh... wow.

At any rate, in Hugh’s book, he wrote about how a Loach crew*** would need to be extraordinarily observant for all kinds of “Sign” of the enemy.   Hence the word, “Scout” that harkens back to the days of the Wild West when trackers were used to find outlaws hiding in the wild country.   That Sign could include, odor.  Cooking odor, human waste odor and simply normal, routine body odor.  

As someone who grew up in the country, the concept of looking for observable Sign was somewhat easy to grasp.  But SMELL??  How on earth can people be ‘sniffed out’ from a helicopter zipping over trees at 80 miles an hour?!


Wait.  Before I get to the smell-thing, let's get back to the moment.  Remember that it started with a lowly art commissioning.  But by now, there were flying warbirds involved and a host of Vietnam War vets (and their friends, families and a slew of History Geeks).   

History Geeks + History Maker - L-R, Me, Gary Worthy and AFM President, Robert Rice. (note to world, Robert hosted the gathering, backed by a beautiful team of other History Geeks that showed up, cleaned up, poured up, laughed up, shook hands and shared in the awesomeness of the moment).

Gary had obviously survived the war and in time, established a successful business as a crop sprayer.  Over time, he'd accumulated the resources to do something he felt needed to be done — tell the story of his service in such a way that people could touch, hear, see (and ironically, smell).  To Gary, that meant buying a vintage, brilliantly restored OH-6A helicopter and fly it.

Obviously, you know where this is going. 

First flight of the day, I'm with Bruce Huffman, another highly decorated Aero Scout preflighting for a sortie over the Kansas countryside. 

I had no idea that, “Fly a re-enacted combat mission with a combat pilot who flew said mission in combat” was on my bucket list.  It should be on yours, too.

"Aero Scouts, crank engines!"  from Old Guys and Their Airplanes on Vimeo.


We’re buzzing along, maybe 100mph, right over a narrow river, lower than the tree line and I wondered, "So what's this reading Sign all about?" 

If there ever was a class in understanding the term, Situational Awareness, it should surely involve flying in a Loach!

I took this at about 80kts — notice we're below the tops of the trees. I know what I thought I saw...did YOU see anything?! ;) ©Me.

The tiny helicopter is not only fast, the bubble canopy and open doors provide an exceptional view of the world around.  Though we were racing, low-level, I could identify various sizes of submerged tires, distinguished between a 2 x 4 piece of lumber and a 4 x 4 post, spotted an old chair left to rot in a bush and could follow the weave of game trails throughout the copses and clearings.  The amount of information that I could glean was astounding. 

LOOKING FOR SIGN at 80kts from Old Guys and Their Airplanes on Vimeo.

But, the Loach was also suprisingly quiet.  Twice, we surprised animals — one was a buzzard picking at a dead raccoon; ever see a big bird flinch?!  It didn’t react until we were just overhead and even then it quite literally scared the sh*t out of it. 

Suffice it to state, I was blown away by how much information could be obtained from buzzing around in these little Loaches. I was also blown away by how little time there was to process it.

An Aero Scout at the stick (Bruce Huffman)  from Old Guys and Their Airplanes on Vimeo.

Years ago, Bruce explained to me that a Loach crew had to function on a high level to do the job.  Every set of eyes had to be working.  Every mind alert.  Unlike a Hollywood movie, there were no lazy minutes leaning on the door gun thinking of ‘back home.’  There was no time to reflect on life as the scenery scrolled below.

Nope — from start to finish, the Aero Scout mission was all about acutely tuned, astutely sensed and accurately interpreted inputs from the world outside.

Smell was one of those inputs.

Ok.  So we were heading back to base, 500’ altitude, whopping-along at about 100mph when suddenly, I get this sharp scent of a barbecue — hickory smoke, ribs, to be precise.  I look down (straight down) and one, two, three… there he was, a highly surprised Backyard BBQ Master, eyes upward, mouth agape, spatula frozen in mid-flip of the juicy rack.

And poof!  We were gone.

A few more moments passed and sniff!  Burning leaves!  Sure enough, there they were, a small pile of Fall leaves, smoldering away, and another surprised soul, stunned as our green tadpole shot over his yard.

And poof!  We were gone.

Then, up ahead I saw a column of white smoke from a much larger fire — the kind of controlled burn that a farmer would have after clearing out half an acre of old growth.   A few moments later, the smell hit me and I realized how these Aero Scouts used all of their senses to play their extraordinary role in combat operations.

Kansas?  Khe Sanh?  Doesn't matter.  Where there's smoke, there's fire.  ©Me.

Sight, Surprise, Smell… 

Later on I was sharing my experiences with Hugh, Bruce and Gary; they nodded in sober response to my musings.  But I knew that THEY knew there was way more to learn about being an Aero Scout than one flight above rural Kansas.  Nevertheless, they were pleased to teach.

Rear view, turbine heat from Old Guys and Their Airplanes on Vimeo.

“Now you can appreciate why I wanted to be off the pad before sunrise and be over our AO (Area of Operations) so early in the morning.  To catch the last wisps of smoke from cooking fires.  To smell their food.  War is about getting and using information.”  Bruce smiled, gave me a firm pat on the shoulder.

There's no better way to learn History than to actually look at the eyes, hear the voice and make the mental connection with someone who was actually there.  No. Better. Way. 

And poof!  The night was over, handshakes, smiles, good cheer... and a whole lot to think about.

L-R Aero Scouts Gary Worthy, Hugh Mills and Bruce Huffman in front of Gary's Loach, hangared and loved-up for the night.  

(deep breath, exhale)

These are tough days.  

We have a crisis in this country and it’s greater than COVID, gas prices, trigger warnings or canceled flights at the airport.  It’s the crisis that occurs when the lessons and examples of one distinguished generation fade away before the generation before can read the Sign.

(deep breath, exhale)

This is why I put “When an old man dies, a library burns” on my personal challenge coin.  Crisis, threat, terror, trouble - those things happen and they always will.   But they’re so much easier to manage when we - as a team -  stay humble, stay aware and stay vigilant in learning from the experiences of others.   

More stuff to come… I can smell it. 

Thank you to Vaerus Aviation for letting us have our little party in their "little hangar." God Bless America, Amen and Good Night. ©Me


** (pilot, observer and door gunner/crew chief) 

Hugh Mills (R) and "Roddy" Dill (L) - our prime pilot for the day.  Among History Geeks, Roddy is totally ONE OF US — on behalf of HG's everywhere, we're proud to call you one of our own. ©Me

Ah heck.  One more photo.  And thanks again, Roddy.  btw - Mills and Huffman said you're one fine pilot.   ©Me.