From the jungles of Vietnam to the desert of Arizona, Dave Baker’s remarkable flying career spanned over 50 years and encompassed combat, instruction, commercial, test pilot and warbird flying.
Having met nearly 10 years ago when he took me for my first tail wheel flight, I am grateful that he was prepared to recount his experiences from front line combat to classic warbirds.
Dave’s story begins in 1967 with the Vietnam War in full swing. At age 19, aware that he was to be drafted he instead chose to enlist “to have a choice to fly and not run around in the jungle!” From “receiving wings and bars” he comments that the commitment was for 3 years of service over the two years for drafted recruits.
Dave was send to Fort Walters where he undertook his initial training on the Bell OH-13 Sioux. “Part of the program was becoming a warrant officer, the first 6 weeks of training were academics, (navigational and mechanical theory etc), and in all primary training took 7 months” which he finished with a total of 110 flight hours. “From there we were shipped off to Fort Rucker in Alabama. There he flew the OH-13 for navigation training before converting to the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, the “Huey”, that was to be his mount in Vietnam. His total training course lasted approximately a year and he finished with 210 hours after which he had 30 days leave and then was posted to Vietnam with a rank of Warrant Officer-1 in January 1969.
“In country” Dave was assigned to the 170th assault helicopter company, 52nd aviation battalion based at Camp Holloway near Pleiku in central Vietnam. Intending to leave the army as soon as he could and gain a civilian career he recalls, “I flew the UH-1 “the slick” troop transport that had better transmission and a stronger engine for flying in the central highlands.” This was all about gaining flight hours as “the slicks” flew regular troop deployment missions while the heavier armoured gunships remained on standby in case they were called into action. Dave did however fly gunships for 3 weeks to fill in, “which I really enjoyed, but I wasn’t going to get the flight time I was going to get staying in ‘slicks,’” which ultimately meant he would return from Vietnam with 1260 hours under his belt.
Flying the “slicks,” “the majority of what we did was inserting troops for combat assaults, supplying them with ammunition and extracting the wounded. Additional missions included convoy escorts from Pleiku to Qui Nhơn on the coast.”
Dave was shot down twice during his tour in Vietnam, the first time it was late in the day and a firebase, (an artillery fire support base), was to be supplied with hot containers of food and Dave and his crew took their Huey to the supply base in order to pick up the containers. With no reported enemy activity he performed a standard approach and landed, however, “judging by the sudden expressions and retreat of the party approaching us we quickly realised we were taking fire!” Lifting up immediately Dave gained little altitude as warning lights lit up before managing to pirouette the aircraft and return to the pad in a “controlled crash” just as the engine failed, quickly joining the troops in a fox hole until things settled down.
Checking over the aircraft he could find no damage until finally finding a single 30. Calibre round had penetrated the engine cowling. Only afterwards was he told that a regular Viet Cong would climb a tree close to the base and take pot shots at helicopters, “we had been his lucky shot, apparently he had never hit one before.” The helicopter itself was secured and collected by Chinook the next morning.
It was his second shoot down however that is one of his most vivid memories of the conflict.
“They used to refer to it as an 8-5 war, you would be assigned a mission the night before.” He recalls that routinely they would launch at 0730 reaching the operations area at around 8 before carrying out the tasks of resupply, medevac, tactical insertion and extraction until at 17:00 hours, “if all was well you were released”
Usually the operations area was about 40 minutes away from Pleiku and on this particular occasion he was assigned to resupply another fire base, picking up a Duty Coordinator Officer, a Lieutenant, at An Khê, (a large base between Pleiku and the coastal Qui Nhơn), on the way.
In the vicinity of Phù Cát Air Base Dave remembers the weather deteriorated, “normally to stay out of small arms range you stay above 2,000ft, either that or right down on the trees. Cloud was coming over and I started descending into a valley.” At this point over the edge of a vast deep valley to the east of An Khê, at about 600ft, they flew over a firebase. “The U.S. ‘strategically’ withdrew from these bases and they were quickly occupied by the Viet Cong” he adds. “We crossed a base that looked like an ant farm, suddenly realising they were not friendly troops I thought, that’s a huge number of bad guys and they started opening up on us.” Seeing the muzzle flashes Dave banked the helicopter hard left and right trying to avoid being hit but “We could hear the small arms fire going into the aircraft and my crew chief and gunner returned fire. We got off 20-30 seconds of fire from the M-60 while we were in range but the dash lit up and transmission temperature was rising.”
Dave put out a Mayday in the blind on an emergency frequency and it was responded to by 2 F-4 Phantoms that had taken off from Phù Cát moments earlier. “I landed with power near the side of a road and got a call from another couple of Hueys that had troops on board and they went ahead with the F-4’s and suppressed where the bad guys were. They were pretty well taken care of, they dropped bombs and rockets on the area.”
The troops then secured a perimeter around the downed Huey whist Dave removed the discrete radio to prevent it falling into the Viet Cong’s hands. “A case of beer that we were taking in to the troops we were supporting was also taken off the aircraft!” Essential indeed! Dave and his crew then evacuated in the Hueys that had come to their aid “as we took off listening to the F-4’s that had gone ahead and bombed the enemy element, they flew past the helicopter and did victory rolls, one on each side and the vortex nearly caused the Huey to lose control.” This moment remains etched in his memory “it’s a comforting feeling to have a couple of F-4’s covering you when you’re going down” he reflects. All this happened before 8am and by 11 the Huey had been salvaged by a Chinook and a maintenance team. Others though were less fortunate. “It’s difficult to talk about those we lost, we lost a guy who is still listed MIA. The entire battalion, 4 helicopter companies, looked for him for 2 days.” “They, a gunship, had been forced down and with heavy fire aimed at the rescue helicopter it was unable to land so it hovered over the downed machine whilst the pilot helped 3 of his crew into the aircraft, the pilot, Allen Hansen was hanging on the skid as the aircraft climbed away and he was seen to fall from the aircraft at around 200ft.”
“A difficult day” Dave recalls and one he still feels.
Another interesting chapter in his Vietnam service was working with special operations.
“For four and a half weeks I was involved in a special ops group that comprised of mostly special forces with MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group). Operating from Dak To near Kon Tum Dave flew into Laos and Cambodia to insert troops on missions to disrupt the supplies on the Ho Chi Min Trail, which he adds were, “classified for years after.” He describes the operations as “very demanding flying, deep jungle insertions, frequent rope extractions, enemy everywhere and you were shocked if you didn’t take fire in a day!” He fondly recalls a particular photo of him in the Huey during this time. Pilots always carried a side arm for protection, in this photo Dave carries an M-72 grenade launcher beside him in the cockpit, “unusual but it was my weapon of choice that week!” “ I fired the M-79 maybe eight times total, three times against enemy,” he continues, “twice while in an LZ, (Landing Zone), firing into tree line at muzzle flashes approximately 100 yards away while waiting for troops to get in the aircraft while my crew chief covered with M60 machine gun fire.” “The other time was while waiting for troops to board…into tree line for cover at suspected enemy.” “I like the initial idea (of the weapon) but it was only accepted during SOG Ops.” It was hard to fly and shoot out the window at the same time,” he laughs!
Dave also remembers his three to four weeks on gunships. There was a lot of standby waiting for something to happen at an airfield near the operational area “I maybe flew 12 missions in the four weeks” “but I enjoyed firing the weapons systems.” “We had a crew of four,” he describes “with an M60 machine gun and the built-in two flex mini guns,
they could fire 4000 rounds a minute and when you slew them left or right they had a stop to prevent you shooting the nose off.” “You really put out a lot of fire power from that mini gun” he fondly recalls. The aircraft also had two rocket pods with 14 rockets in each, these were fired by the aircraft commander, something Dave wanted to do but never got the chance.
Recalling a usual operation in the gunship; “Normally a group of “slicks” would be extracting troops or taking troops in.” “Usually two or sometimes three gunships would cover the troop carriers, intel’ indicates if you prep the area before the slicks go in or not. If someone takes fire you go in “hot” and cover. The norm, (to “prep” an area), is rockets then suppress with mini gun.” One incident he remembers was “covering Slicks inbound to an LZ, 50Cal. tracers looked like basketballs coming at me….at least I was pulling a trigger and returning fire that was effective!”
Dave’s closest brush with danger in Vietnam came perhaps not from the enemy but from a tail rotor failure that destroyed his own aircraft. He recalls; “When I first recognised the malfunction it was above 2000ft, I felt a sudden yaw and my crew chief spotted the tail rotor was the issue. I set up for an emergency landing, keeping up speed to prevent a spin. I was in a shallow approach to Dak To and saw wires ahead of me so I brought the nose up, the speed dropped and we lost streamlined effect so the aircraft started spinning. We dropped in very hard and some of my crew went home with compressed vertebrate. I hit my head on the bulkhead and was laid up for a few days with back injuries.” Dave’s damaged helmet from the bulkhead impact was deemed unserviceable which allowed him to take it home afterwards and it is now on display in the Commemorative Air Force’s Arizona Wings’ museum.
Dave also recalls three occasions when his aircraft was “shot up”. Once hovering at 200ft during a rope extraction, he had 8 small rounds arms enter the fuselage and tail boom. On Another occasion going into an LZ he had five small arms impacts, one hitting the co-pilot armour plate below door window and on a third incident his helicopter received two rounds through the main rotor blades as well as two through the tail boom.
Spending 1969 in Vietnam Dave didn’t miss out on man’s greatest achievement, the moon landing in July. “We had a 9 inch black and white television,” he recollects, “we were trying to figure out how were going to get reception and were walking around with the antenna trying to find the best signal! It was snowy ,(the picture), but we got it, we had pizza and beer, about half a dozen of us sat around and watched it.”
Dave returned from Vietnam to the same town that this next duty station was adjacent to, Ft. Wolters, the town where he had graduated high school. After 30 days leave he took up his posting as a flight instructor, where he spent a year and a half flying the Hiller OH-23 Raven and Hughes TH-55 light helicopters. The base had a staggering level of helicopter activity with three heliports and 25 stage fields. “If you can only imagine at each heliport there was anywhere between 400 to 550 helicopters, you have that many students going in and out of each heliport and as far as you could see there would be helicopters in line. Amazingly to my knowledge there was only one mid-air collision there during the entire Vietnam era.”
He did four classes in total, one on OH-23’s and three on Hughes TH-55, these were 16 week primary training courses, on day one most had never been in an aircraft before! The 16 week course included “Emergency procedures, (required minimum two touchdown autorotations per training period!), cross country, confined area and pinnacle landing training. They acquired 110 flight hours in this phase and then went to Ft. Rucker in Alabama for Advanced Training for another 20 weeks and 100hrs of flight.”
During this time Republic of Vietnam military pilots were also being trained there. “I was glad I didn’t have to do the Vietnamese classes as there was a language barrier and that caused real difficulties.” He remembers that ; “There was a tradition for Army and Air Force, when you soloed the buses would come to a Holiday Inn, (in Mineral wells), the class would file in, 4 flights, 50 in each flight. The guys would then be thrown into the pool in full uniform, it was standard practice. Then in about 1972 they threw a Vietnamese student in after he soloed, he couldn’t swim and drowned. So that heritage ended there. To my knowledge the hotel has been refurbished but the set of rotor blades are still there.”
Dave was discharged from the Army in as a Chief Warrant Officer 2 and he had already had his sights on a civilian career in flying.
His civilian career saw him flying as a production test pilot for Hughes helicopters before he eventually became involved as a test pilot for the Apache Program. He describes the Apache as a “fabulous aircraft to fly” and one of the personal highlights of the program for him was being re qualified on the Huey that was used as the chase and crash rescue aircraft, flying it again for the first time in 23 years.
The end of Dave’s commercial career however would help open up a whole new chapter of warbird flying with the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force. Two years prior to his retirement in 2008; “My wife Jane knew my passion for the Greatest Generation, that it was something very special to me, so she gave me a ride in the B-17 and I was just hooked! I got out the aircraft, walked into the operation office and said ‘what will it take for me to get involved and fly with you’!”
The Commemorative Air Force or CAF is a charitable organization that owns over 100 warbirds in the United States spread across various “wings” and including airworthy examples of B-17, B-29 and B-24 bombers. Among the aircraft maintained and operated by the Arizona Wing at Falcon Field that Dave joined are B-17 “Sentimental Journey” and B-25 “Maid in the Shade”. The aircraft participate in annual nationwide tours to airports and air shows offering tours of and rides in, the aircraft as well as flying displays to both educate the public and help keep the aircraft in the air.
Dave who had passed his commercial fixed wing license in 1972 started with the wing’s Aeronca L-16 and worked on the B-25 which at the time, during the winter months, had not been completed. “Summer tours involved the B-17 with which I started as load master.” “I got really involved with the B-25 and decided I wanted to fly it. I was one of the initial 3 pilots qualified on it and I flew in the left seat on the summer tours.” The B-25 returned to the air in 2009 at which time Dave had been flying an Aeronca Champ and the L-16 for 6 months he recalls there was 3 days of ground school on the aircraft, its performance and systems, by a CAF type instructor before flight training culminating in his sign off on the type.
“The B-25 flies a bit like a truck, especially from my perspective coming from about 75 hours on King Airs multiengine fixed wing experience. But when you get used to it it’s a phenomenal airplane from the noise, vibration and the sense of fly!” “I have flown the B17 too, it’s a bus compared to the B-25’s Sedan, the 25 wants to get up and go!”
Of his time in flying with CAF he remarks; “The memories of flying with the CAF are really so numerous that it’s hard to name one. It was an honor and privilege to fly these glorious pieces of history and help educate people what the “Greatest Generation” did for the United States of America and the Allied Nations with these tools of War. Giving Living History Flights to the public was a great experience, but meeting the heroes of the era that came out to see the aircraft they flew, crewed, worked on or built, was a tremendous joy! I’ve met and talked to Doolittle Raider crew members, WASP members, Rosie the Riveter mechanics and more, that have made me appreciate what could be done for freedom.”
Among his numerous memories however are his involvement in both the 68th and 70th Doolittle Raider reunions, annual events at which the surviving members of the daring carrier launched raid in April 1941 against Tokyo would gather:
“For the 68th Doolittle we flew Maid in the Shade, single ship to Urbana, Ohio to join 16 other B-25s to honour the remaining Raiders. The effort was funded by CAF Arizona Wing as it was determined that the flight time of 50 hours was a good break-in period on the aircraft after restoration before flying passengers. It also gave the three newly qualified pilots, myself and two others, time on the aircraft. The flight was slightly over 9 hours one way broken up over two days. The first full day there we were briefed on the area and the schedule of activities. We met the other crews and the thousands of people during our stay that were there for the celebration. We flew one fly-over with two other aircraft the first day. The second day we joined the other 16 aircraft at dawn , taxied out for a take-off every 60 seconds with a launch signal from a flag waving staff member as if we were taking off from the Hornet! We flew in loose formation to Wright/Patterson Air Museum, (Dayton, Ohio), where the ceremony to honour the gentlemen was. The aircraft were parked wingtip to wingtip and the Raiders came out to meet the crews and see the aircraft. They were Dick Cole, David Thatcher, Ed Saylor, Robert Hite, Thomas Griffin and we also honoured them at a reception in the museum later that day. The next day we took off in sequence from the small restricted airstrip at the Museum, formed up in a loose formation of 17 B-25s for a fly over for the Raiders and back to Urbana. We spent the night and left for Falcon Field, Mesa, Arizona, with a night layover in Springfield, Montana. It was a memorable experience to meet these humble heroes and be part of this event with these great flying machines!”
“The 70th Doolittle Raider Reunion was as memorable, but in a different way. When spring of 2012 was approaching I prompted the 70th Reunion to the Unit Staff and the trip was approved but had to be funded by outside means. Many individual members and outside businesses and companies stepped up and we were able to go again. This time another B-25 (Ole Glory) from Modesto, CA came to Mesa and we departed a flight of two! We made it in two comfortable days and joined 20 other B-25s in Urbana, OH (the largest collection of B-25s in one place since the war) , but this time we were able to give History Flight Experience rides to the public the2 days prior to the celebration. There were numerous other warbirds there too, P-51s, a Japanese Zero, P-40 , and a Corsair, to name a few. The remaining Raider numbers had sadly dropped somewhat, but it was still a ceremony of several thousand people honoring these remaining heroes. The crews were able to socialize with these men a bit more this year in Urbana after the flyover of 22 B-25s …. it was a joy!”
It was in 2012 that the author first visited the Falcon Field museum and took a flight in the L-16 in which Dave Baker introduced him to vintage tail wheel flying and we have kept in regular contact ever since. Unfortunately the summer season of 2018 was to be Dave’s last flying the B25 as he stopped flying at the end of that year due to medical issues. He finished his career with 13,800 rotary hours and 700 on fixed wing, some 320 in warbirds. These days whilst Dave continues to frequent the CAF Wing as a volunteer, in his retirement form flying he has turned his attention to his classic cars!
I encourage everybody to visit the wonderful CAF museum at Falcon Field or to catch up with one of their aircraft during the summer tours and most importantly to have a chat to the volunteers who may have stories of their own!
My sincerest thanks to Dave Baker for letting me interview him for this article.
BY HENRY SIMPSON
PHOTOS COURTESY OF DAVE BAKER