In trying to nail down former USMC Capt. Bill Collier’s intention behind writing The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot: Flying the H-34 Helicopter in Vietnam for the United States Marine Corps (Keokee/Wandering Star Press, 234 pp, $19.00 paper), I decided his goals were to explain why he suffered from PTSD, what it felt like to fear for one’s life constantly for a year, how flying H-34 helicopters provided an adrenaline rush, and the way helicopters worked. He succeeded in every category
In 1966, as a “nugget, a brand new gold-bar second lieutenant” flying copilot on his first night Medevac mission, Collier was so traumatized that he psychologically suppressed the event until 1994. As if that experience weren’t enough, four weeks later his wing man got hit by a friendly artillery shell.
“What I saw was burned into my memory forever, and will never leave me, ” he writes. “YR-3 had exploded and was burning up in an intense sun-bright fireball right there off my wing, not 200 feet away.” These incidents triggered the onset of his PTSD, which doctors finally diagnosed in 1993.
Fear was Collier’s constant sidekick. His imagination compounded what he saw during his tour in I Corps: For example, watching a SAM zoom across the DMZ and destroy a low-flying, fast-moving A-4 in “maybe 15 seconds.” Premonitions of doom led him to volunteer for a two-week stint as a forward air controller rather than fly support missions for a sea assault.
On the ground, he encountered more danger than he anticipated. That included shrapnel dropping from the sky and a “short round” mortar dud (again, friendly fire) that nearly landed in his lap. By then he was a captain and ended up in command of a patrol, a duty he was unprepared for.
Collier had gone directly to flight school as a MARCAD and now thought, “I had never been to boot camp. I never attended officer training school at Quantico.” He had “minimal knowledge about grunt things.” Near panic, he instantly learned the value of an XO’s advice.
Collier’s stories exemplify the adrenalin rush inherent in combat flying. In eight months as a copilot, he watched aircraft commanders take risks and perform aerial feats that filled him with excitement, fear, and admiration.
After checking out as an AC, he thought: “I could now live or die by my own bad decisions.” He knew he was hooked. “To do one of those hairy, high-speed, high danger approaches, and then come out of a hot LZ with bullets flying and both machine guns blazing was an extreme adrenaline rush, ” he writes.
Fear sharpened Collier’s awareness, thinking, and feelings throughout his entire body. As he puts it: “I became addicted to this adrenaline rush, craving it, seeking it out time after time.” Collier calculated that he “personally carried approximately 375 Medevacs aboard [his] machine while in Vietnam.”
Collier devotes several pages to explaining “How a Helicopter Flies, ” “Autorotations, ” “The Collective Control and Throttle, ” and a “General Description of the H-34D Helicopter.” The science in these sections seems contradicted by what occurred in reality.
Overall, his book convinced me that helicopters are unforgiving of even the slightest mistake. All you have to do is consider the large number of Marine deaths by aircraft accidents—during and following the war—that Collier recounts. Additionally, if the H-34 caught fire, its magnesium-aluminum-alloy air frame consumed itself and its crew in fifteen seconds, as Collier repeatedly reminds the reader.
Regarding his personal behavior, Collier pulls no punches. He confesses to “falling asleep on final approach.” He admits that “our main form of recreation was drinking alcohol. We simply got drunk almost every night. We were a bunch of drunken hellions.”
Of course, the drinking didn’t begin until the night missions ended. And Collier graciously remembers to thank “an attractive, charming lady a bit older than I” for a “great send-off to the war” by seducing him the night before he departed for Vietnam.
Apparently written mainly from memory, the book is jumpy at times, skipping from topic to topic like conversation in a bar. Nevertheless, its many stories are highly readable.
The book’s one hundred-plus photographs—most from Collier’s files—add to the narrative. Collier says this book set the stage for at least two more. Following thirteen months in Vietnam, he flew combat missions for thirty months in Laos with Air America, a tour more exciting than Vietnam. He then flew helicopters commercially for twenty-seven years all around the world.