Thursday, 11 October 2012

A Field of Poppy Plants

Turbine thrush.

The mid 1980s
Spraying to wipe out the poppy crops.

I'm just landing onto a forward operational strip which will allow me to get within striking distance of a large field of poppy plants it's twice the normal size.
It's just on dawn and the sun is sitting on the horizon Red like a round ball of molten iron, beautiful.
I just love flying in this sort of country,over jungle, steep hills, with dead trees that stick up high above the canopy, giving you the occasional fright but  keeping your mind on the job.
And I do believe in the job, one of my basic requirements before I under take a job that may cause harm or death to others, is I have to believe it's right
Drugs are a scourge on our way of life, this drug is particularly addictive, causing loss of pride and death, mostly amongst the younger members of our society, so I have no problems destroying it.

I of course have feelings for the poor people who grow this crop they are victims of their society and I would not be here if the drugs stayed within their boundaries.
I ended up here this season due to a Marine Officer recruiting me in Vietnam, he said they were in need of Turbine pilots with jungle and hilly country experience, plus the money was cool, so here I am.

I land and pull up to the loading bay, and leaving the turbine running I climb out and go and check the contents in the mixing container, its fine, so I tell them to load me up.
Which is done by pumping the chemical into the aircraft tank and  the whole unit is flushed with clean water up into the aircraft. The chemical is no more than a broad leaf systemic herbicide similar to what gardeners use on their gardens, we use a bit more surfactant "water softener" with the aircraft to help the chemical increase its covering ability and stick to the plant.
Poison you say! No, not unless you drink it a lot, the chemical suffers a lot of bad press it's in the drug dealers interest to create this lie.
As I was briefed back at base, and nobody here knows where  I'm going to spray, I do not engage the ground crew in conversation the whole operation is done under the armed and watchful eyes of a special unit of the local Army with an US adviser who nods at me as I climb back into the aircraft, I complete my pre-take off checks, as I run up to full power I can feel the aircraft pull it's nose straight facing down the strip, it's now just about daylight and I can see the trees at the end of the strip as I race towards them.
Take off is routine and I turn back to fly over the strip, I see that the ground crew are already driving away, must be a bad area.
I take up a GPS heading for my target field , it's 80 miles away, nearly or close to the operational range of the Thrush, so I must stick on my heading as I climb up into the mountains,
The field is in a valley on the side of the mountain range difficult to see, I will spray it up and down its longest length, first run being close to the top end so I can look back and judge the drift, also it will be my closest run to the growers! allowing them to run and hopefully  remove their families.
I will also have to spray it high (15 feet) to get the cover required, problem there is I can be seen by anybody standing on the side of the crop and if they have weapons! Well ! I may not like that but most of these guys are untrained "point and fire" if they fire on me they will be engaged by a helicopter gun ship, believe me nobody will survive that.
As I approach the valley I call base and tell them "I am just turning on to my first run and all looks quiet on the ground with a trail of smoke rising at the top end of the field", I was instructed to continue, then the gun ship called saying "he has me visual and is on station out!" these operations are carried out with the minimum of radio chatter and secretly, due to the informant's who seem to abound down here.
I'm just turning onto my 5th run staying close to the trees as I straighten to begin my run, I turn on the spray and I feel a judder within the airframe, then a rather large bullet entered the cockpit  striking and smashing the the main wing joint below me, the joint caps and brackets smashed flying all over the cockpit, a bit went out through the roof leaving a large hole, my instruments went dead and my windscreen was cracked the noise was unbelievable.
I waited for the next shot that never came! I must be out of his line of sight, I called the gun ship to say "I was fired on and may have to ditch over the jungle" the radio was dead.
I slowly jettisoned my load as I saw the gun ship move in and spray the area with mini Gatling guns he must have seen the shooter? my wings seemed to be waving up and down (not a good feeling)
I turned towards the coast setting up a descent that my lady would accept and not wave her wings about so much, it was a juggle between power and rudder so far so good, I'm down to 100 knots and still in some sort of control. I fished out my emergency kit from its pack and as if by a miracle the one frequency radio was undamaged (my lucks changing) I plugged  into my crash hat and called base with my mayday and filled them in on the situation I told them " I was going to remain airborne for as long as I can, as the jungle below me was thick with no roads, so I will hopefully ditch on the beach" just then my port wing began to twist alarmingly, I reduced the power and speed and it seemed to settle, (This is not good) I'm going to have to dip a wing into the trees at the slowest speed I can and take my chances! before they (the wings) come off.
Base called me to say "they can't get to the beach but there is an aircraft carrier 12 miles off shore, you should be able to see it, they are scrambling a helicopter as we speak and the carrier is steaming towards you" I said "I have the carrier in sight and will head in its direction  and see what happens"
As I went over the beach the carrier  looked really close but it was at least 6 miles out, the helicopter  had joined me and was relaying a damage report back to the ship, he called me asking "for my intentions?" I asked him "what were the chances of putting her on the deck please!" "standby" "Agman you are cleared to approach, flight will call you with instructions" "amen to that".
Flight came on the radio giving me all this info I could never use, their missed approach procedure,"if you are waved off you will pull up to 2000 feet and go around for another try".
Oh Yer! I'm going in on the first approach! that's all my little lady has left in her.
I saw the flagman frantically waving me up! as I was descending below the bow but my plan was to descend and as I got close, to apply power and hop forward and as I rise up level with the bow my inertia should continue to carry me up as I shut down the turbine and  as luck would have it, as I got level I stopped rising and the carrier scooped me from the sky I landed 300 yards along the deck the port wing strut broke and the under carriage wheel departed the scene, and she just stopped with the wing facing backwoods.
I was elated, of course I had to submit to the deck crew spraying me with foam and carrying me off on a stretcher with what looked like hundreds of sailors clapping and shouting. I was taken to sick bay and a young doctor had a look at me and said "I should get into the shower and he would come back," the doc came back and asked me "how I felt now" I said "OK" he sat me on the table and gave me a through going over then he told me to "get dressed and I was one lucky guy", as I dried my chest I felt a slight tug on the towel and I started to bleed the doctor noticed it and said "he would have been amazed if I hadn't a least one scratch", he sat me down on a dentist type bench and proceeded to pull a slither of metal no bigger than a small nail from my chest one wee stitch and I was as good as new, so then I was invited to a hot breakfast. ( you beauty) Two days later I was returned to my base with the PT6 turbine engine the only piece worth recovering.
I had to take another run up that hill and respray the rest of the field before it could be harvested, it was just a routine run really, (well just a little nervous?)

Life is just one big adventure.


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