The Apocalypse – The Helicopter and the Vietnam War
It is impossible to avoid the Vietnam War in respect of the history of military helicopters. As already mentioned, there was not much that was completely new. Armed helicopters had already been used in battle, both as troop transports with machine guns for self defence, and as purely attack helicopters carrying machine guns and rockets, for example by the French in Algeria.
The major difference was however the scale of the helicopter’s efforts. The US Army had built up large units of helicopter-borne infantry that could be flown in and put down wherever necessary. The transport helicopters had been equipped with machine guns in their doorways to be able to provide fire support for the soldiers when exiting or boarding. This turned out to be insufficient, as the machine gunners’ field of view was limited, and the lower they flew, the harder it was for them to provide fire support or to defend against fire aimed at the helicopters. If any helicopters remained airborne to get a better view, this meant that the landing took a longer time.
By 1962 a number of units had started to modify their helicopters with fixed machine guns that faced forward and were controlled by the pilots. Some were also armed with rockets, to provide even more firepower. These helicopters with extra armament were called ”Frogs” or ”Hogs” while the transport helicopters were called ”Slicks”.
These heavily armed helicopters carried out both preparatory attacks and provided supporting fire, while guarding the transport helicopters as they landed soldiers and then departed. Both the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong guerillas learned to fear the charcteristic sound of the rotor blades. Unlike aircraft, which were usually limited to a single attack before returning to base to rearm and refuel, helicopters could stay above the target area and and search for new targets.
Although the Hueys that had been converted into attack helicopters did the job, they had some limitations. Carrying the armament meant that they could not carry any other load, and the weapons introduced more air resistance. This made the ”Hogs” slower compared to the ”Slicks” they were supposed to protect. In addition, they thremselves were virtually unprotected and vulnerable, even to well-aimed fire from hand-held weapons.
Despite all their limitations, the Hueys were very tough and even though many were damaged, and their crews hit by ground fire, it took a lot to actually shoot them down. Bullets would go straight through the helicopter without hitting vital systems, and as long as the pilot stayed alive and could control his machine, the helicopter could often survive being badly damaged.
Experience led to the speeded up development of helicopters specifically designed for attack missions, which were brought into action later in the war. But just as a formation of ”Hogs” and ”Slicks” with a dull throbbing approach their target evokes the Vietnam War, the first televised war, they created a legend that to this day persists.
Probably the film ”Apocalypse Now” from 1979 helped to shape the legend. In the film there is a long sequence in which an airborne cavalry unit under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore attacks and conquers a Vietnameses village just because the adjacent beach is perfect for surfing, which he is keen on. The approach of the helicopter formation takes place to the fateful music of the ”Ride of the Valkyries” by Richard Wagner, which helps to create the sensation of threat and fear among the fleeing Vietnamese.