Story 35 - Possum Down
I was detached to 161 Independent Reconnaissance Flight (161 Recce Flt) on 6 February 1969 from Radio Troop 104 Sig Sqn. Our task at 161 Recce Flt was to provide local and Task Force (TF) switchboard facilities (Endeavor), Voice radio on the TF Command and Admin Nets and, on occasions voice radio on the Possum (chopper) Command Net. This was considered to be a pretty good detachment because as long as we were on the job when rostered, we were pretty much left to ourselves. Good detachments of course invariably are made with good detachment commanders and members and I guess we were lucky in that we had Cpl Geoff Sullivan as our Det Commander. Another reason I was enjoying my time at 161 Recce Flt was that I was getting the opportunity to fly as an observer on the Visual Reconnaissance (VR) missions being flown by the Flt.
Our detachment area contained three tents, the four detachment members occupied two, and the other was used as a recreation area and had facilities such as a dartboard, esky, table, and other games.
19 Feb 1969 dawned much the same as any other day. I completed my midnight to dawn shift, had breakfast, and headed for my tent to get a few hours rest before meeting Capt Ted Brooker who was today going to pilot a Sioux Helicopter (A1-639), Callsign Possum 21 on a VR mission in the Courtney Rubber area. I had been able to hitch a ride with him as his observer and was looking forward to another few hours in the air. Capt Ted Brooker was a KIWI pilot attached to 161 Recce and had a reputation as a good pilot who did his job well. Today was different only because instead of working with another Possum, and alternating between low recognisance and high cover we were going to work with a USAF Cessna fixed wing as high cover.
Take off time arrived to low cloud cover and high humidity, soon after arriving at the recce site we realised that this meant that the Cessna had us in visual sight only about 50% of the time. I remember on more than one occasion he had difficulty in finding us as we circled at about 50 feet above ground in what was the accepted VR flight pattern.
At about the half way point of the mission we were circling above a small creek line on the edge of the plantation, there was clear ground between the rubber and the creek and some tree and scrub cover along the creek bank. Capt Brooker was nearer the creek, he passed a comment about seeing, something? I leaned forward to look around him just as he said something like: ”lets get out of here” and put the chopper into a steep right hand turn to place the engine between us and the creek. Too late, I heard the unmistakable bark of an AK47, felt the chopper shudder and I can tell you it doesn’t take long to fall 50 feet!
We crashed some 25 metres away from the creek line, my right foot jammed under the floor; Capt Brooker was immediately on his feet and looking towards the creek from around the engine, which was giving us some protection from any small arms fire. Meanwhile I took some time to clear my ankle from under the chopper floor undo my harness and untangle myself. A check revealed that Capt Brookers M16 had been damaged beyond use, and that my weapons, an M79 and a couple of bags of assorted rounds had been thrown about 3 meters from the chopper, with some encouragement from Capt Brooker I made a quick dash to retrieve it while covered by the Capt and his 9MM pistol and we had time to take stock. Damage? Capt Brooker had been wounded and had a couple of fingers hanging loose, the chopper was going nowhere and we weren’t even sure that the high cover Cessna had seen us go down.
Some distance away we could see a small dip in the ground; at least it was away from the chopper, which may yet draw more fire so we decided to make for it. Once there it was bandage Capt Brookers left hand with a field dressing while trying to keep an eye on the creek line, and attempt to get some help. In the vest worn by pilots was a small pencil very pistol and an emergency beacon, the beacon was switched on and the pistol loaded ready for use.
Did the high cover Cessna see us go down? No but fortunately it took him only minutes to realise that he had lost us and to come down low for a look, seeing the chopper wreck he was able to call in an emergency and fly low enough to look for us. Once he had us visual he was able to call a more accurate location and we were quickly had a RAAF chopper overhead.
While all this was taking place we were checking our surroundings in case Charlie was closing to us from some other area so it was with some surprise that I realised a chopper was dropping in among the rubber and hovering some 20 meters away. A quick dash to the Iroquois and thirty minutes later we were dropped off at the Nui Dat Hospital. Capt Brooker immediately medivac by Dust Off to Vung Tau for surgery and a trip back to NZ. A quick look at my foot proved that there was some bruising, but no broken bones.
I returned to 161 Recce Flt late in the afternoon for a debriefing by the Ops Officer, and the conversation went something like this “Did you leave anything of value on the ground?” I replied “No!”
Next day Possum was recovered and returned to Nui Dat under an Iroquois. I was again before the Ops Officer this time to be told that “next time this happened I should make sure that we don’t leave the pilots helmet behind”. Subsequent inspection by ground crew found numerous holes in the backrest of both seats.
The chopper was eventually written off. The results of the enquiry 17 March 1969! Sioux A1-639 was damaged and written off when the pilot crashed after sustaining bullet wounds from AA fire.
The 104 Sig Sqn Radio Det members at 161 Recon Sqn at the time were:
Cpl Geoff Sullivan,
prior Feb 69 to 5 Mar 69
Robert (Bob) Vallance