In Russia, the improved RPG-7 replaced the RPG-2 in 1961, but it took years for the improved antitank weapons to filter to the Soviet Union’s client states and it took even longer to get to Soviet-supported terrorists and insurgents, even the ones that the USSR recognized militarily, like North Vietnam. When the new AT weapon emerged, it was immediately a threat to American and Republic of Vietnam aircraft, especially low- and slow-flying helicopters.
Here’s the story of a Air Force special operations helicopter gunship pilot’s nerve-wracking experience, while covering a South Vietnamese Air Force recovery of a Vietnamese reconnaissance team. The RT came from TF3AE, the command that replaced Command and Control South in Vietnam. We draw the story from Fred Lindsey’s fantastic doorstop, Secret Green Beret Commandos in Cambodia. (We’ve mentioned the book before). You can find it on page 670-671, and it’s worth reading for the adventure of it, before we start discussing dry RPG facts.
03/26/71 Recon, TF3AE ARVN RT Rescued With Air Support by 219″ VNAF Kingbees and
20th SOS Gunships: AC CPT Charles D. Svoboda DFC (2OLC) with co-pilot LTC Harmon
Brotnov; AC CPT Jim Schuman SS.
The only details of this event are from the remembrance of CPT Svoboda’s and [his] DFC citation. In his written recollection he notes:
It was on my first week on the mission as an aircraft commander. My copilot was my brand new squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Brotnov, who was on the mission for the first time, and my gunners were this new “student” gunner and a highly experienced instructor gunner. Jim Schuman was flying lead, and I was flying on his wing. We were called out for
a team taking extremely heavy fire. We arrived at the location, and were briefed by the FAC on where the team was (we certainly don’t want to hit our own troops). We saw a very unfriendly situation, with a rather large landing zone, with the team on the south, and Charlie on the north. Unfortunately. Charlie was ensconced on a long, low ridge, overlooking the LZ and the team. We hated going below the enemy, as we could not fire upward through our own rotor blades. If we flew high, we were sitting ducks. If we flew low, with Charlie on a ridge, above us, we could only make short bursts of gunfire in his direction by banking the aircraft in the opposite direction, and raising the rotors above the path of our own minigun bullets.
Jim (Gunship lead) directed that we make an ‘aggressive’ entry, meaning that we would dive toward the LZ, and toward the enemy, firing rockets and miniguns at maximum rate of speed (4.000 rounds per minute). Jim was checking out a new pilot, allowing him to fly, and the new pilot lost the target, forcing his bird to cease-fire. He told me of this, and I told him that I still had the target, and would assume flight lead, so that he could then roll in on my rockets and become my wingman.
We made an aggressive dive, after which the FAC radioed “Cease Fire, you’re hitting the team.” We always feared this! Guns firing 4,000 rounds per minute each, along with rockets, can tear up a group of soldiers ferociously. And my new commander was my copilot!
I ordered both birds to cease firing, and we began flying “cold” passes over the LZ, between Charlie and the team. We did this several times, and I could see what appeared to be cigarette lighters flashing in the shadows on the ridge. I could also hear static on the radio, which we had learned was caused by the static field of many closely passing bullets. But we continued to hear explosions, with the FAC yelling for us to hold our fire. Damn it, we WERE holding our fire, and we were hanging ourselves out doing it. I spoke to Jim, and said we had better silence the ridge or it would silence us. He agreed, and despite the directives from the FAC, we shot the hell out of the ridge. But they were everywhere. As I cleared the LZ on one pass, below many of the trees, I fired a couple of rockets. One does not usually fire rockets so low, because there is no time to achieve stabilized flight, allowing one to aim. Therefore, they frequently zoom off into oblivion. But we had learned to “lob” rockets by pulling up on the collective just before firing. This would cause the rocket stabilizing fins to hit the air with an upward load, causing causing them to fly upward initially, then to arc downward because of the aerodynamic load on the fins.
My copilot appeared to be mesmerized by his first combat action, about as hectic as one could be. I called for him to flip the weapon selector switch from guns to rockets (they could not fire simultaneously, because the one trigger activated whichever weapon was selected for firing). He was frozen, so I had to take my eyes off the horizon for a millisecond and change the setting. This was hazardous because we were flying through the trees, dodging around the higher ones, trying to keep from being shot down. One minor mistake would be fatal for all. We tried to avoid passing over the same spot on succeeding passes, to keep Charlie from drawing a bead on us, but because of the ridgeline, we were forced to repeat ground tracks. We passed around one taller tree a couple of times, and I cursed the tree. On the following pass I fired a rocket to keep the bad guys’ heads down, and it knocked the tree down. Colonel Brotnov was flabbergasted, as was I. To this day I wonder if he really believes that I did that intentionally!
It turns out that the rockets into the team which were blamed on us were actually new shoulder-mounted Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG’S) being fired at us as we passed over the LZ between the team. The original RPG’s were designed for light armor and infantry, and had contact fuses. This new version was designed for helicopters, and had contact AND proximity fuses. Luckily, none must have passed close enough to us to detonate, but many passed by us, exploding among the team we were protecting. A few also exploded in the LZ, causing the tall elephant grass to catch fire. The flames were about as high as we were flying, and were spreading out in ever increasing circles. On one pass over the LZ, when I passed through the smoke, the other chopper was coming directly at us, only about 50-100 feet away, with closure speed of over 200 mph. Luckily we both broke quickly and in opposite directions, and the gunner said he thought he could reach out and touch the belly of the other chopper. Finally, the firing from Charlie cut down, and we called the slicks to come in for a pickup.
We said they would have to wait awhile because of the fires in the LZ. All of a sudden the team ran THROUGH these very high flames, leaping into the smoking ash left by the expanding fire. The slicks came in, one at a time, landed in the smoking ash, raising a huge, black ashen cloud, and picked up the team. We escorted them out of the area. Then, as the slicks headed for home, Jim and I returned to the site, expending the remainder of our rockets and ammo on the ridge line.
CPT Svoboda was an Air Force officer, a gunship pilot in the 20th Special Operations Squadron. The “slicks” were Sikorsky UH-34s, obsolete piston-powered helicopters flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force’s 219th Squadron, “King Bees.”
A gathering of SF RT guys and their air support guys is always interesting, because the aircrews think the recon teams were nuts to do what they did, but the RT guys know the copter crews were nuts to come get them.
Now, this is a very stirring story of action and audacity. You can almost smell the shellbursts of the RPGs. Thing is: RPGs don’t have proximity fuzes. (There is a Chinese “airburst” round for use against infantry, but it bounces off the ground before it detonates, and it postdates the war). So why did Captain Svoboda think they did? It goes back to a fundamental difference between the RPG-2, or B-40 as it was known to most during the Vietnam War (from the Chinese export stencil on the ammo), and the improved RPG-7. The RPG has become one of the most universal systems in war; there’s even a US-made, Westernized version we provide to allies under MAP.
But the initial mass-produced version, the Ruchnoi Protitankoviy Granatomyot-2 (“Hand AT Grenade Launcher”), was a reusable improvement of the German Panzerfaust and like its disposable ancestor, its designers’ watchword was simplicity. Indeed, US Army intelligence manuals on the Soviet Army at the time described it only as an “antitank weapon of the improved Panzerfaust type,” and lacked any photo or sketch of it.
It had no optical sights, just a flip-up pair with a front bead and rear ladder. It was a straight tube with sights and a grip piece, no shoulder rest, blast shield or cone. The RPG-2 was made in Russia from about 1948 to 1961, and in China from about 1956 to about 1970. And — important from our point of view — the warhead, which showed its later Panzerfaust ancestry, had a simple contact fuze and no self-destruct mechanism.
The RPG-7 was introduced to the Soviet Army in 1961 and into the Vietnam War sometime in 1967 or 68, although it remained outnumbered by RPG-2s until the last, 1975, offensive. It had iron and optical sights and considerably improved range (we’ve hit stationary tank-size targets on the range at 800m; practical combat range on moving armor is probably half that). Most interesting for our present purposes, the PG-7 warhead has not one, but three means of initiation:
- Piezoelectric contact fuze in the warhead nose (“1″ in the illustration);
- electric contact fuze between inner (“2″) and outer (“3″) cones of the warhead;
- pyrotechnic timed self-destruct mechanism (“8″).
All three fire the charge (“6″) from its base, creating a Munro Effect jet made up of hot gases and the molten copper alloy charge liner (“4″). The self-destruct mechanism detonates the round if it hasn’t hit anything in five seconds, by which time the round has covered 900-920m.
That’s what was happening to CPT Charles Svovoda, his copilot LTC Harmon Brotnov, and his wingmen and the other US and RVN airmen on this mission. Airbursts of RPGs around them certainly seemed like the proximity fuzes they knew from enemy 37mm and 57mm anti-aircraft artillery.
It is possible that the airbursts’ threat to the rotorcraft was coincidental, but it is also possible that the NVA were deliberately using the self-destruct mechanism for its airburst effect; this is something Islamic terrorists would develop into a fine art in the nineties and the oughts, but it would certainly be consistent with what we know of the leadership and initiative of the North Vietnamese forces that they could have been doing this 20 years earlier, over Cambodia.
We can’t blame them for thinking they were facing “a new version, made for helicopters.” In any event, we concur with Fred Lindsey, who wraps up this post by quoting the citation for Svoboda’s Distinguished Flying Cross from this flight:
He was participating in aerial flight as a UH-1N helicopter Gunship Commander near Due Lap, RVN …CPT Svoboda made repeated firing passes at low level in support of a long range reconnaissance patrol which was under heavy opposing automatic weapons fire deep in hostile territory. The extremely accurate and devastating firepower from CPT Svoboda’s helicopter allowed the rescue of the entire patrol…
per Hqs 7th Air Force Orders dtd 09/24/71.
Captain Svoboda survived the war; along with the DFC, he received 10 Air Medals for combat missions in 1970 and 1971.
For more information on the RPG, look at this previous Weaponsman post, or this quite excellent history by Dan Shea in Small Arms Defense Journal. We cannot overstate the quality of the Shea article; it’s really good and accurate.