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Snake Pilot

Flying the Cobra Attack Helicopter in Vietnam

Zahn, Randy R.

Publication Year: 2003

Based on audiotapes he recorded during the war and sent home to his family, Randy ZahnÆs Snake Pilot recounts his experiences flying AH-1 Cobra helicopters during the Vietnam War. First deployed in Vietnam in 1967 and loaded with a formidable arsenal of weaponry, the Cobra was the first helicopter designed from inception as an attack aircraft. It dramatically changed the nature of the war in Vietnam by offering the Army, for the first time, its own powerful and highly accurate weapons platform for close-air-support missions.

Randy Zahn arrived in Vietnam shortly before the 1970 U.S. invasion of Cambodia, one of the most impressive demonstrations by the Cobra in the war. He describes his stunning transformation from a naive, middle-class teenager from southern California to a hardened killer during his tour in Vietnam. Unlike the pilots who flew the fast-moving strike jets, Zahn experienced the war ôup close and personal,ö witnessing the grisly effects of the CobraÆs firepower on enemy soldiers. The author does not glorify killing but rather explains in sharp relief the kaleidoscope of emotions associated with combat: fear, revenge, hate, remorse, pity, and even ecstasy. He captures many of the ironies and nuances inherent in Vietnam, especially during the final years of the conflict. Zahn displays a sensitivity rarely found in memoirs written by battle-hardened warriors. This human element, combined with the vast amount of archival research and interviews with members of his former unit, ensures that Snake Pilot will become the definitive account of the role helicopters played in Vietnam.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v

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pp. vii-viii

This story is mainly about my experiences while serving in the United States Army in the Republic of Vietnam. It is only through my parents’ foresight that I am able to reconstruct what happened that year. Communication from servicemen to loved ones in the States was accomplished not only by written communication, but by voice, made possible through cassette tapes. Not only was Vietnam the “first helicopter war,” it was also the “first cassette war.” My parents saved...

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pp. ix-x

I had known from an early age that I would serve in the military. Not that it was expected of me, but it was a tradition in my family that I wanted to follow. My grandfather, born in Hungary, immigrated to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. He showed his gratitude for the opportunity to live in a free country, by exercising his “privilege” to serve in the military and became a decorated member of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. My father served...

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Chapter 1 A Man Named Larry

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pp. 1-6

The autumn of 1955 was like the other autumns that I could remember in my short life. So were the things we did as a family. Standing on the front seat of my mother’s 1946 Pontiac, we drove to the Valley Plaza to do our weekly shopping. It had become a ritual to go to the Plaza. One would have thought there was no place else to do your grocery shopping on a Saturday afternoon. As we passed one of the runways at the then–Lockheed Airport, a small aircraft took off and...

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Chapter 2 “Welcome to the Army”

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pp. 7-14

My actual date of enlistment was November 24, 1968. I had enlisted in the delayed entry program so I could attend my brother’s December wedding in Newport News, Virginia. On January 7, 1969, I reported to the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Los Angeles. My parents took the day off to drive me down and spend what time they could with me. The day was spent filling out forms, getting identification cards, and various and sundry other things that only the military...

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Chapter 3 Sir Candidate

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pp. 15-18

Greyhound provided military transportation for the trip to Fort Wolters. The buses departed Polk early on Monday, March 18, for the six-hour drive across western Louisiana and eastern Texas. We stopped somewhere east of Dallas and were provided a contract lunch at a Holiday Inn. It was a vast improvement over what we had become used to at Polk. Two hours after lunch, we turned off U.S. Highway 180 under the arch that marked our entrance to Fort Wolters, Texas, and the U.S. Army Primary Helicopter Center in Mineral Wells. Wolters began life...

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Chapter 4 “You Want to Kill Yourself?”

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pp. 19-24

Primary flight training was broken into two phases, Primary One and Primary Two. Primary One was a basic introduction to the helicopter. It lasted for eight weeks and included fifty hours of actual flight time. During these fifty hours we were expected to learn how to hover, fly a traffic pattern, and learn all of the basic maneuvers and emergency procedures. I was assigned to a TH-55A flight. The Aircraft Division of Hughes Tool Company designed the TH-55. Known as the Hughes 269 in the civilian market, it was a small, almost...

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Chapter 5 “Where Are You Going?”

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pp. 25-30

After six days I arrived at Hunter and signed in on Thursday morning, August 21. Hunter is a very picturesque installation with large trees full of Spanish moss. Apart from the airfield itself, the post reminded me of a college campus. Hunter began as an unimproved “flying field” in 1928. In 1940, it was named after a young World War I ace, Lt. Col. Frank O’D Hunter, a native of Savannah. The field was acquired by the Army in 1941 and was the final staging ground for B-17 crews on their deployment...

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Chapter 6 Deadeye Dickhead

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pp. 31-34

Having graduated in the top ten percent of my flight school class, I was offered advanced training . . . for a price. Depending on the number of allocations I could select from Chinooks, Medevac, or Cobras. All I had to do was sign a contract agreeing to change my status to Voluntary Indefinite (Vol Indef) in exchange for the additional training. I flew in a Chinook...

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Chapter 7 Anybody but the First of the Ninth

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pp. 35-42

It was 1:30 A.M. when the intercom crackled to life in the American Airlines 707. “Gentlemen, I hate to wake you but I thought you might be interested to know that you’re now over the Republic of South Vietnam. We should be landing at Bién Hoa Air Force Base in about thirty minutes’ time. The approach angle will be steeper than most of you are accustomed to, but rest assured that it’s normal procedure for landing in theater. May I take this opportunity to wish you all God’s speed...

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Chapter 8 Know Your Enemy

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pp. 43-56

The squadron TOC was across what looked like a parade field with the crossed sabers of the Cavalry painted on a perforated steel planked (PSP) outer wall. To the right was another yellow stuccoed building with a large screened-in veranda and continuing on to the right a non-descript building. I walked to the middle of the parade ground, looking in all directions for a red hooch but there was none to be found. Confused, I left my gear by the closest building and returned to the orderly room to ask directions. “Can I help, sir?”.

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Chapter 9 Going after Them

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pp. 57-66

I began my first full month in-country with a 5:00 A.M. wake-up and a six o’clock takeoff. The normal routine was to fly up to Song Be and this morning would be no different. Our missions were many and varied that first day of April. Being tasked to cover two different medevacs proved that nobody was fooling around. Steve had just been promoted to aircraft commander and I was flying with him on my first bomb damage assessment (BDA). Very often the Air Force would put in air strikes using any number or assortment of fast jets or bombers up to and including the Boeing...

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Chapter 10 Death at the Border

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pp. 67-84

“I ain’t going to fucking Cambodia,” said double-ace Tommy Whiddon. “Come on, Tom, for fuck sake. This is our chance to hit them where they sleep,” we told him. “No, goddamn it, I don’t want to die in Cambodia,” Tom protested. “I came here to fight in Vietnam. Not fucking Cambodia. I am not going to die in Cambodia!” “Who the hell said anything about dying?” I asked him. Cambodia had remained neutral in the eyes of its government. By allowing the North to continue to use its length for the Ho Chi Minh Trail and its border regions as sanctuaries...

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Chapter 11 Snake Pilot

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pp. 85-102

On the first of June 1970 I was off duty and in the morning I went down to collect the platoon’s mail. The content of my mail had shifted in sentiment from everyone telling me they knew what I was going through to telling me they hoped I would come home soon. They didn’t understand the implication of what they were saying. The only way I would come home before March 15, 1971, would be in either a box or a black bag. The thought...

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Chapter 12 Kevin Opens Up

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pp. 103-106

Not having to wake up and head northeast to Cambodia was odd . . . and depressing. The Cambodian incursion had been the best flying I had done since I arrived in-country. It was the first time I felt as if we had a real purpose and we fulfilled that purpose. We hurt the enemy and we hurt them bad. Our mission had reverted to general support of the Second Brigade in the largest portion of Phuoc Long Province. We were happy because for the first time since I arrived...

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Chapter 13 Looking for the General

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pp. 107-118

The stand-down never materialized. Division wanted us out in the AO VRing. Intelligence had reported a lot of activity in the area and we didn’t want to get caught with our pants down. In the morning the weather was really bad. We made several weather checks and found a herd of deer. On the morning of the sixth, Ed McDerby, our platoon instructor pilot, told me I would be flying backseat once the weather broke. I was apprehensive at first but then I realized that...

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Chapter 14 Kevin Goes Home

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pp. 119-126

On the twenty-seventh I had to fly with Double-deuce, my least favorite AC to fly with. I just never felt comfortable flying with him and we engaged in some heated words that day. I got back to the room and Kevin could tell I was pissed off. “Whoa! What the hell happened out there today?” he asked. “Nothing really,” I said. “I am just tired, and I fucking hate having to fly with that guy.” “I know what you mean,” Kevin said. At the meeting...

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Chapter 15 The Red Towel Boogie

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pp. 127-148

The landline rang in the TOC. It was the 227th Assault Helicopter Company operations officer asking if we would assist them in searching for one of their aircraft. He got a report that one of their aircraft had gone down and decided to organize a search since they hadn’t heard from the crew for twenty hours. Twenty hours! We were dumbfounded. When we had a bird go down we launched every aircraft we had that was flyable . . . and some that weren’t. It didn’t matter where we were...

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Chapter 16 “You’re Just a Kid!”

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pp. 149-162

The next morning I awoke late. I was scheduled for a night-training sortie that night, so the day was free. I reviewed my paperwork for R&R. I wanted everything to be ready when the time came. I had only two more weeks until I had to report to Bién Hoa. I also spent some time bringing my logbook up-to-date. I had been grounded off and on for the past two weeks and now I could see why. My total time was now...

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Chapter 17 Down Bird! Down Bird!

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pp. 163-174

After stopping at Guam for an hour to refuel, at 5:30 in the afternoon on October 2, I was back in Saigon. It was too late to get back to Phuoc Vinh that night, but I called the Troop and asked them to send a Huey down for me the following day. I was confused, annoyed with myself, and a bit conscience stricken that I had been such poor company in Hawaii. I was also feeling guilty that I actually wanted to come back to Vietnam; I was feeling anxious, as this really was the beginning of the end of my tour of...

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Chapter 18 Steak Out

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pp. 175-182

Echo Troop moved over to support the brigade since we were tied up with the COSVN thing. On the morning of the twentieth, one of their hunter-killer teams was reconning a river northeast of Phuoc Vinh when they spotted nineteen individuals in an open area—all had packs and weapons. The Cobra rolled in and killed ten of them. At 2:10 that afternoon they inserted their Blues and immediately captured an NVA officer. It was almost as if he were waiting at the LZ. About 4:00 P.M. the Blues made contact with...

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Chapter 19 Major Disagreements

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pp. 183-192

On Friday, November 6, we began a new mission. We were tasked by division to conduct Eagle Flights. The province chief had put all of the roads off limits to the locals after 6:00 P.M. The incentive he used to gain compliance was us. At six o’clock a Cobra, a LOH, and an H-model full of ARVNs took off to patrol the roads surrounding Phuoc Vinh. It was kind of like playing highway patrol. The idea was that...

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Chapter 20 Keeping Your Head

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pp. 193-212

Later that evening somebody set off a tear gas grenade and as the cloud of gas drifted through the area, it permeated the hooches, the bunkers, the O Club, everything. A gas attack was usually somebody’s way of saying, “You guys pissed me off!” Tear gas stings the eyes and the throat. Once the direction of the wind carrying the gas is ascertained, the best thing to do is go back through the cloud upwind until finding uncontaminated...

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Chapter 21 On Christmas Day

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pp. 213-220

“Good evening, men!” Major Ball greeted us as he entered the bunker during our meeting. It was Wednesday, December 23. We were having the meeting early because it was Hail and Farewell night. “I’d like to get your opinion on something,” he began. “We’re having a tough time giving division the number of Pink teams they want each day. Spare parts are getting hard to come by. We’ve just inherited a minigun kit for a LOH. What do you think about...

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Chapter 22 To Tay Ninh

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pp. 221-236

More “good news” was delivered on the twenty-sixth of December. Captain Rainwater, who was still the acting Red, was the messenger. “Gentlemen, I’ve just come from the daily briefing. On the twenty-eighth we’re moving to Tay Ninh,” he told us. The response came in the form of everybody talking at once with a tirade of profanity. “At ease!” Ross commanded. “I don’t like it any more than you do, but the bottom line is, like it or not, we’re moving. I suggest you pack your stuff and have it ready tomorrow...

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Chapter 23 Routine, Rancor, Resolve

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pp. 237-242

Our week in Bangkok went far quicker than either of us would have liked, but on January 28 we arrived back in-country and back in Phuoc Vinh. The troop was still up at Tay Ninh. The bunker was quiet compared with what it had been before we moved. Larry had been back and left me a note before going on R&R. He was off to Hawaii to see Trish again. I unpacked my gear and cleaned up the place a bit before going to the club for dinner. Doc Kaplan was there, “Hey Randy, welcome back. How’s...

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Chapter 24 Good-bye to a Good Friend

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pp. 243-250

In the morning we were on the first flight back to Tay Ninh. We checked in with ops to let them know that we were back. I was scheduled to fly as soon as my aircraft came out of maintenance. Mail was waiting on my bed when I got back to the tent and the first one I read made me angry. My brother had taken exception to a statement I had made in a tape to my parents. I had commented how close I was to Larry and Harvey and said that I loved them like brothers. He had taken offense and commented...

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Epilogue “Hi Kiddo, I’m Home!”

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pp. 251-256

The chartered MAC flight lifted from Bién Hoa on time, March 13, 1971. I had been in Vietnam two days shy of a year. As the wheels of the aircraft lifted from the runway, the roar and cheers from within the aircraft were deafening. People were patting one another on the back and giving high-fives. I participated in the cheers and after the noise died out I sat in reflection. An infantry sergeant sitting next to me noticed my Cav hat. “Excuse...


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pp. 257-266


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pp. 267-268


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pp. 269-282

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About the Author

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p. 283-283

Randy R. Zahn is chief pilot, Alaska Rotor Wing Division, for Era Helicopters in Anchorage, Alaska. He learned to fly helicopters while serving in the U.S. Army from 1968–1971. He served a tour of duty in Vietnam (1970–1971), earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Bronze Star, two Air Medals for valor, and two Army Comm..

E-ISBN-13: 9781597973243
E-ISBN-10: 1597973246
Print-ISBN-13: 9781574885651
Print-ISBN-10: 1574885650

Page Count: 302
Publication Year: 2003

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Subject Headings

  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Aerial operations, American.
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Personal narratives, American.
  • Military helicopters -- Vietnam.
  • Zahn, Randy R.
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