Soldiers of the Vietnam Sky
An Oklahoma Vietnam War aircraft commander flew thousands of missions in a foreign land, all for the love of his country and his crew.
Captain Bob Ford holds the photo of the November 1967 members of the 282nd Assault Helicopter Black Cats. Back row, left to right: Bob Ford, Dwight Dedtrick (KIA), Mark Skulborstad (WIA), and Tom Pullen (WIA). Front row, left to right: John Aye (WIA), Al Toews, Jerry McKinsey (KIA) and Dick Messer. Photo by Hayley Leatherwood
On an olive drab green aircraft with a nose black as night, the yellow moon silhouetted with a red-eyed cat stands out like a beacon. The sound, a distinct “pop, pop,” of two main rotor blades, represents the sound of salvation for men on the ground.
During the Vietnam War, 2,197 helicopter pilots and 2,717 crewmembers were killed. Time and time again, helicopter crews flew into seemingly impossible conditions in a display of sheer determination. For this reason, the image of the Huey UH-1 helicopter is one that will live on forever as a defining symbol of the war.
Lt. Bob Ford can remember every detail about the Huey in vivid color. The aircraft commander can visualize missions and recall the altitude his crew cleared the jungle. He knows the groundspeed right before they landed and the exact direction enemy gunfire attempted to bring down his crew.
Ford served in the northernmost helicopter unit in Vietnam during some of the longest and most intense battles of the war, including the Tet Offensive, the Battle of Khe Sanh, and a three-day ground attack while stationed at Hue, Vietnam.
He feels he survived to tell the story about the honorable men he served with—of their skill, their bravery, and their sense of duty to their country.
“I often think of the third verse of ‘America the Beautiful,’” Ford says. “‘O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved.’ And boy, did we love our country.”
Captain Bob Ford, aircraft commander of the 282nd Assault Helicopter Company Black Cats in Vietnam, says the crew’s motto was, “We fly above the best.”Photo by Hayley Leatherwood
As a little boy in Shawnee, Oklahoma, Ford was always curious—and wanting to test his limits. Much to his mother’s chagrin, he once rescued and raised a litter of raccoons. On the rare occasion he was not outside, he would see movies like “Twelve O’Clock High” and “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” only to leave the theater wondering if he could be as brave as his heroes in combat.
Ford, a Cimarron Electric Cooperative member, always knew he wanted to serve his country in some way, and as he grew that feeling also grew stronger. This thought continued like an unscratchable itch, leading up to a life-altering decision his senior year at the University of Oklahoma.
“I thought to myself, all I’ve done is go to school and work in the summertime,” Ford says. “I’ve got to go do something I’ll be proud of the rest of my life.”
The year was 1966. The Vietnam War was flaring up, American involvement becoming more intense. Ford chose to volunteer to serve as opposed to waiting for the draft.
Ford asked his ROTC instructor what the best way would be, no matter the danger, to serve his country. The captain responded without hesitation: “Be a helicopter pilot.”
Ford was actively being recruited for Aircraft Maintenance Officer Course training, but each time the call came, he responded with a simple, but respectful, “No, thank you sir. That is not for me, sir.”
The rankings of the callers escalated, up until a brigadier general took Ford for his word and slammed down the receiver.
Twenty-one days later, Ford was in Vietnam.
Ford on Christmas Day 1967 at an orphanage east of Phu Tu. Photo courtesy of Bob Ford
To become an aircraft commander took no less than five months, on average seven, and some never made it. Ford felt he only had one chance to command the detachment at Hue; he earned his aircraft commander orders and took over that unit in six weeks.
The Huey helicopter had a turbine engine that was smooth and powerful. Ford knew he was “in the best America could offer” with intuitive controls that never needed to move more than the diameter of a quarter.
“I felt like I was strapping myself into a Corvette that could fly,” Ford says.
Lt. Col. Chuck Ward, commanding officer of the 282nd Assault Helicopter Company, remembers, “When Lt. Ford joined the company, he rapidly became an aircraft commander. Bob exemplified the best qualities of an Army aviator. He never let me down. I am proud of him.”
Ford volunteered to join the 282nd Assault Helicopter Company, the northernmost helicopter unit in Vietnam. The crew knew they had a one in five chance of either getting killed or wounded.
“We were all cut the same,” Ford says. “We shared the same risk every second of every mission.”
The pilots also shared the same call sign “Black Cat” in honor of the black cat emblazoned on the full yellow moon of the nose of the helicopter. Ford inherited “Black Cat 2-1.” His men included Warrant Officers Dwight Dedrick, Mark Skulborstad, Tom Pullen, John Aye, Al Toews, Dick Messer and Jerry McKinsey.
Ford had been in the Demilitarized Zone that separated South Vietnam from North Vietnam for ten days when senior pilot Jerry McKinsey approached Ford with a special request.
“McKinsey told me, ‘From now on, we’ve all decided we’re not going to call you ‘sir’ or ‘lieutenant.’ It’s going to be ‘boss.’”
Ford felt his men saw him not only as a combat pilot, but also a leader. It was a moment he would never forget. He knew then he was exactly where he belonged.
Based just south of the DMZ, Ford’s crew covered 2,000 square miles of battlezone. Photo courtesy of Bob Ford
The crew served as enemy suppressive fire, resupplied troops, conducted medical evacuations and extracted reconnaissance teams out of harm’s way. They even brought hot food to men on the ground on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The Huey was in demand all the time. They flew three to five missions every hour of the day. Ford turned 23 on a night mission and didn’t realize it was his birthday until he saw the date on the flight log.
He remembers one mission extracting Marines on the side of a mountain. The Huey could not land safely, so Ford stretched out his arm for each Marine to reach the cabin.
“At 5 feet, 10 inches and 140 pounds, I by no means have brute strength, but my arm was going to have to come off before I would let them loose,” Ford remembers.
Each Marine returned safely to go out on another mission that day. Upon returning to the base, the Marines walked a short distance, turned to face the crew and saluted. Ford and his crew chose this honor over a medal every time.
History recorded January 21, 1968, as the beginning of the siege of Khe Sanh that lasted 70 days. It was also the day Jerry McKinsey gave his life staying behind at a crash site to protect survivors. He was just 14 days from going home.
Ten days later, a rocket struck Ford’s compound in the middle of the night with a deafening crack. What followed was a 72-hour ground attack. Over the course of the three days, Ford fought alongside his men with a concussion and no more than four hours of sleep.
“At some point I decided to make a deal with God,” Ford says. “I promised if I made it through, I would stay in shape. I knew it had better be a promise I could keep.”
He did survive and lived to finish his year of active duty in Vietnam with honor. By the end of the war, five out of the eight men had been wounded or killed in action. Ford thinks of them every day.
“I’d do it all again with those guys,” Ford says. “And I’d do it for free.”
A Huey helicopter after the Tet Offensive. Photo courtesy of Bob Ford
The first time Ford went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., he brought the group photo of his fellow pilots with him. A park ranger walked by, and Ford managed to say, “Sir, would you help me find…”
He couldn’t say McKinsey’s name. In fact, that sentence was the last thing he said for two hours. He didn’t want to look up, because a small part of him hoped McKinsey’s name wasn’t there, that somehow he had returned home.
He stood in front of McKinsey’s name, saluting. He could feel people come up on either side of him, but no one walked in front. One man walked up to him in a Marine uniform and quietly said, “Welcome home, captain.”
“I knew then I had come full circle, and I knew Mac was home too,” Ford says.
Every soldier has many people their lives affect. Ford asserts if he had been in McKinsey’s helicopter that day, his name would have been the one on the wall.
Ford returned home to have three children, Amy, Allison and Tyler, and to run the Shawnee Milling Company flour mill in Okeene, Oklahoma. He organizes the town’s Veterans Day program, and staying true to his promise to stay in shape, he has competed in more than 250 races from 5Ks to marathons. On November 3, 2018, Ford will be inducted into the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame.
Ford holds his firstborn, Amy. “I’d seen so much death and dying in Vietnam,” Ford says. “Having a baby turned the focus to life and living.”Photo courtesy of Bob Ford
“I know my men are watching me; I feel it every night. I look up and I know they are saying, ‘Hey, you did okay boss.’”
“Doing things for other people is an easy call,” Ford says. “‘Who more than self their country loved,’ and that includes everyone in it.”
Ford and his crew flew thousands of missions over his year of active duty in Vietnam. Many of those missions are detailed in his book, “Black Cat 2-1: The True Story of a Vietnam Helicopter Pilot and His Crew.”
The book took Ford six years to write. He places the reader in the co-pilot seat to aviation history with an eye for detail and a touch of humor.
Ford says, “I feel certain that when Hue detachment warrant officer pilots, crew chiefs, and door gunners read this, they’ll say, ‘Well, Boss, you did it. You did a good job—for a lieutenant.’”
Both the print and audiobook versions are available on amazon.com.
Experience the Huey
Right: Ford sponsored the Huey Helicopter that will be a permanent fixture at the Oklahoma History Center. Ford joined Vietnam veterans and former crew chiefs Mike Peterson and Jerry Staggs to build the Huey from original helicopter parts. Photo by Hayley Leatherwood
“I just flew to North Carolina!”
A little boy with blonde hair and bright blue eyes could not believe his discovery at the Oklahoma History Center. Within the “Welcome Home: Oklahomans and the War in Vietnam” exhibit, attendees can view an actual Huey and experience it in virtual reality.
The display is a product of the combined vision of Bob Ford and Dr. Bob Blackburn, the executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. The goal of the Huey helicopter serves as both a mood enhancer and educational tool.
“Freedom and democracy are not easily won,” Blackburn says. “People give their lives for that protection and it’s worth fighting for. People like Bob Ford provide the stories that allow us to tell it clearly.”
“If I were going to craft all of the qualities that make Oklahoma a special place to live, they would all fit in Bob Ford,” Blackburn says.
The exhibit does not address the politics, protests or purpose of the Vietnam War, but instead focuses on the people whose lives were affected. The enthusiasm from the veteran community has been incredible, and has been described as a healing experience from many attendees.
“We shouldn’t wait until it’s too late to recognize the service of Oklahomans. Whether you say the war was right or wrong, still they contributed. They did their duty. They provided a service. And we need to respect service to the community,” Blackburn says.
The exhibit will be available to the public until November 29, 2020. The helicopter, however, will remain and the story will continue to be told as a permanent fixture in the military gallery. For more information, visit http://www.okhistory.org/.