Black Virgin Mountain (Nui Ba Den)
The Black Virgin Mountain (Nui Ba Den) rose from the rice paddies just a few miles from Tay Ninh. Tay Ninh airfield elevation was about 200 feet above sea level and Nui Ba Den rose to around 4000 feet. It was as if someone had just placed this mountain out in the middle of the delta.
It was great for returning pilots, because if you had any visibility, just fly toward the only mountain for miles around and you’d get home. Of course, during bad weather and no or limited visibility, it could really cause your “puker factor” to increase, since you knew it was out there and couldn’t see it.
Tay Ninh and the airfield were located a few miles from the base, a Special Forces radio relay site on top, guarded by Mong CIDG forces, and lots of VC in between. The mountain was riddled with caves to hide the bad guys.
The Mountain and I had a few run-ins. Early in my career as a new Aircraft Commander (AC) I was running some single ship re-supply missions for the Special Forces out of Tay Ninh City. We had been resupplying SF camps all around the Tay Ninh area and had made a couple of runs into Nui Ba Den already that day. As the day wore on, we had a couple of loads to complete. I eyeballed the remaining supplies to the mountain and decided we could haul it all in one trip rather than divide it between two. My desire to get finished with a long day of flying and save maybe an hour, was an error that was costly. We loaded about 70-80 cases of soda and beer on board, along with a few other supplies and headed for the mountain. My crew that day was CW2 Frank Kurinec, pilot, SP4 Hudec, gunner, and SP5 Jorgensen, CE. I had made all the runs up to the mountain that day, so Kurinec wanted a shot at this one. I should have known I was in trouble during the take off, we used a lot of runway and bumped our skids once. I reasoned that we would burn off enough fuel en-route to lighten the landing gross weight. Unfortunately, I forgot to compute in the increased altitude of the landing site in my mental computations.
The flight to the mountain was uneventful and on approach, Frank decided to demonstrate how they did mountain landings in Puerto Rico where he had flown prior to Vietnam. That sounded fine to me, Frank was a CW2 with more non-combat experience than me, so I was up for learning something.
Unfortunately what I would learn would be expensive. Frank came into the landing pad shallow, a no-no for mountain flying and with the already overloaded aircraft, as they say, we ran out of “pitch, power, and ideas” all at the same time. As the aircraft lost power, we settled behind a conex between us and the landing pad. Knowing we weren’t going to make it, I took the controls and tried to abort the landing to the left, down the mountain slope. I lowered the cyclic to reduce the pitch and attempt to get rotor rpm back, but before we could completely recover, the blades contact the upslope of the mountain. The aircraft rolled over to the left and made a couple of complete revolutions, coming to rest upright, just a few feet from a 200-300 foot shear drop off. Sodas and beer were scattered everywhere. So were the CIDG troops stationed on the mountain, not trying to rescue us, but to retrieve the sodas and beer.
I knew I was alive when I saw Frank’s butt headed up the side of the mountain, scrambling on all fours. After a few feet, he stopped and came back to assist the rest of the crew in getting out. Hudec was thrown clear, I was still strapped in, and Jorgie was hanging out the left side by his monkey harness. He was the only one with any injury, a sprained ankle from being thrown around during the roll-over.
The SF and radio guys came out to help us, make sure we were alright, and to make sure they secured their share of the soda and beer. We pulled out the radios and sensitive equipment and sit down to wait on someone to pick us up. The aircraft was totally destroyed. One of our sister ships came in about an hour later and evacuated us from the top of the mountain. The aircraft hulk was retrieved the next day and brought back to Tay Ninh for salvage.
This is a photograph of the aftermath of some bad decision making that day. Aircraft 829 was a great aircraft. Originally named “Gook Spook”, I had renamed it “Super Huey” when I was made Aircraft Commander (AC). It was also the aircraft I was flying on August 7, 1967, when we lost a large number of aircraft shot down.