Army helicopter school (I)...
by John DeWalt
Flight school was one of the very best times of my life. Besides the sheer fun and challenge of learning to fly choppers, flight school was wonderful by contrast with wretched experiences before and after.
I'd recently finished college, where I'd spent four years as a very poor student, undirected, lazy, always behind in my work, on the cusp of flunking out, never happy, never satisfied. I'd devoted more time and energy to ROTC training than to my academic courses. (If that seems unbelievable, remember that it was the late '60s and the Vietnam war was in progress.) When I went on active duty, the first four months were no better. My first active duty assignment, in November, 1969, at Fort Benning, Georgia ("Home of the United States Infantry"), was to attend the Infantry Officers Basic Course (IOBC).
It was three months of hazing, freezing, regimentation, aggravation, and humiliation...
It was intended to convince us that a new second lieutenant is about the most useless item in the army inventory. It was made worse by the fact that half my class were graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point...
We ROTC boys were beneath their notice. They already knew a lot about the army—mostly useless stuff, but in four years they couldn't help but learn some useful stuff too. The first thing most of them did when they arrived at Fort Benning was buy Corvettes—made no sense, but it was a tradition.
I bought a used BMW (“Beamer”) 250 cc. motorcycle, then emulated the West Pointers by getting authorization to live off-post instead of in bachelor officers quarters (BOQs) on post. I’d never ridden a motorcycle, let alone operated one, so it was an exciting new experience. When I bought the cycle, a few minutes of instruction were enough to teach me the basics, then I gradually developed some skill as I drove the fifteen miles each way to and from my off-post apartment. The commute included a stretch on an interstate, so I learned how bitterly cold it is to ride a cycle at 70 mph in December, even in southern Georgia, especially in the rain. But I was having fun, right?
I bought the cycle from an old man named Johnny Suggs. Motorcycles were his life. He was crippled from an accident he’d suffered in his racing days, but motorcycles were all he knew. I took the cycle to his shop for maintenance. Once he told me my cycle had the worst ignition points he’d ever seen on a motorcycle (pronounced “motor-sickle”) that was still running. I was flattered by the superlative, as if I were being praised for keeping a motorcycle running with worn points. It took me a while to realize it was a gross insult, especially from him, and that he was thoroughly disgusted by someone who couldn’t change the very accessible points on a simple little 250 cc. engine. After I got the message, I began to learn the rudiments of maintenance, and that added enjoyment to owning the Beamer.
There was an undercurrent of fear in IOBC. Almost everyone in my class at Fort Benning had orders to Vietnam immediately afterward. Each one of these second lieutenants would command an infantry platoon of about thirty privates, technical specialists, and sergeants who all had more experience and knew more about the army than the lieutenant, but the lieutenant would be in command in combat, where men were dying every day. Under these circumstances, the ineffective, impractical, illogical training in IOBC seemed illogical, impractical, and ineffective, and this did nothing to build confidence in the lieutenants.
Unlike most of my class, I was on orders to flight school, not Vietnam. But because my flight school class was not to begin until late March, 1970, I had about a month on my hands after IOBC. I was warned that a second lieutenant with time on his hands would be subjected to the most abject temporary duties, so I enrolled in "jump school" at Fort Benning to become qualified as a parachutist. Jump school was worse than infantry officers basic.
The army takes three weeks to teach a parachutist. The first week is nothing more than conditioning and strengthening: running and calisthenics. The second week is practice jumping off teeny little things, then little things, then things three feet high, then jumping out of doorways ten feet high, then jumping with a full load of combat gear, always learning how to hit the ground without injuring oneself. The second week ends with a grand drop from the 250-foot tower (which is high enough to be exciting). The third week is occupied with making the five actual jumps from aircraft necessary to qualify for a parachutist badge. This all seemed a reasonable alternative to being at the mercy of every Tom, Dick, and Harry who outranks a second lieutenant (believe me, Fort Benning had about a million officers above a second lieutenant) and wants a gopher to perform any dumb task. It was reasonable in theory, but I didn’t realize that U.S. Army Paratroopers are a pseudo-elite in the army—that is, they are legends in their own mind—and to maintain their elite self-image, they don't go anywhere without being in formation, without running in step, without "counting cadence"—in other words, chanting stupid ditties at the top of their lungs. Every question addressed to a jump school student must be answered with a shout, and the answer is always affirmative. "I don't know, sir" is not in the glossary—the answer is "I'll find out, sir." I had thought IOBC was regimented, aggravating, and humiliating, but jump school was worse.
So my flight training followed four bad years of college and four months of quite obnoxious schooling at Fort Benning. It also preceded a couple more years of unpleasant duty at Fort Benning after flight school. By contrast, the training in flight school was easy, flying helicopters was downright fun, the weather was excellent, and the country was pleasantly novel. I was young and healthy and thought I was sky king. Of course it seemed like the best eight months of my life.
It began auspiciously: after four months of belittlement at Fort Benning, one day they cut me loose and expected me to report for duty in Texas four or five days later on my own, you know, sort of like an adult. I managed to find Fort Wolters, Texas in the allotted time, and arrived in beautiful, temperate, sunny weather in early spring. When I left Fort Benning, I rented a U-Haul and towed the cycle to Fort Wolters, where riding it was pure pleasure. No more freezing temperatures. I also bought a used Pontiac Catalina with a huge 350 cubic inch engine so I wouldn’t have to ride the cycle in the rain.
Everything about the school was to my liking. I was in a class of commissioned officers, and we were treated like officers. The other half of the school was composed of WOCs—warrant officer candidates—with the emphasis on "candidates." They were treated like maggots. If they failed the course, they returned to oblivion. Their instructors made sure that if they were to complete the course successfully and receive the rank of warrant officer, they paid the price for that privilege during flight school.