So you want to be an Aircraft Commander? by Jim Masencup

An Army aviation unit is strange, or at least it was 30 years ago. A normal Army unit had an officer to enlisted man ratio of about one to twelve. An aviation unit was about three to one. Rank was also strange. On the ground it was one thing, in an aircraft it was something all together different. The Aircraft Commander ruled, regardless of rank.

In Vietnam all of my Platoon Leaders were RLOs and thus out ranked me. I was just a Warrant. I didn’t care, I was even glad of my position, I was only there to fly. The gentleman who became what I remember as my third Platoon Leader was a Captain. He was not Regular Army but a career National Guard Officer who volunteered for his tour to gain the experience. I gave him a lot of credit, he didn’t have to be there but from almost the beginning you could see something bothered him with the system.

One day as we flew together he voiced his opinion. Our system was contrary to everything he had learned from the Army. It was hard for him to accept that he was not in command, even in the aircraft he should out rank me. I tried to reason the necessity of our way with him to no avail.

The bottom line of our conversation that day, in hopes of appeasing him, was that I would fly with him again very soon. As being an IP I had the authority to wave the minimum requirements of time and endorsement and would do so if he could prove to me he had both the skills and knowledge necessary to be an Aircraft Commander. I would pick the mission.

An AC ride was not difficult. By the time you came to it you had already been signed off by every AC you had flown with as being ready. All you had to do was go and do your thing, but to do your thing you needed time in the seat. This good Captain did not have the time or the signatures but thought he was ready because of rank.

A week or so later I picked the mission. Nothing that was out of the ordinary, just a little ash and trash for the 22nd ARVN and a little trip to an operation in the Phu Cat Mountains so a Colonel could do an inspection. This was his day. I was only along as his Peter Pilot.

Things started off well enough. We got where we were supposed to go. I was even impressed. When it came time to put the Colonel in the mountains we were joined by another ship, they were to carry in the cadre. We went in first, dropped off the Colonel and were pulling pitch when the shit hit the fan. Bodies went flying everywhere. We were committed to takeoff and had no recourse. The good Captain looked over and asked, “What do I do?” I said, “I’ve got it!” I told the second ship who was on short final to get the Colonel out “NOW” and I was coming back in behind him. The Ground Commander was screaming for a Medevac.

It is written in General Orders Number 11553 dated 23 November 1970 “… distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous actions while serving as aircraft commander of a helicopter involved in an operation to evacuate the numerous wounded from an Allied regiment in close enemy contact. During the operation ….. made repeated trips into a heavily mined and booby trapped landing zone to medevac the severely injured troops. Although the Allied ground commander warned him of the grave danger involved, he volunteered to evacuate the company size unit and completed the mission in a highly professional manner. Later that evening, while moving a company of reinforcements to secure a landing zone, comprehending the imminent danger to a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol which had exposed its position by ambushing three enemy troops and again volunteered his aircraft for the extraction and the troop movement. Through his…”

As far as I remember the good Captain never became an Aircraft Commander. I think his tour was cut short by a medical problem while I was on R&R. He would have made a good one, after his time in the seat was up.


Some weeks after this happened I was stumbling out of the O Club when I was met by our EXO. He asked “Cups you’re 13, aren’t you?” I told him “Yes, Sir!” He then asked what I had done on such and such a day and how much time my mission sheet called for.

Standing was difficult at this point but I did recall the day and told him who we flew for and the mission sheet had called for 5 hours. When asked how long I flew that day I became defensive thinking I knew where this conversation was going. I told him “Sir, they needed me. I tried to call Operations but couldn’t raise them. I took it upon myself, within my authority to extend my mission, Sir!” The EXO smiled, shook my hand and said “Relax, I just wanted to tell you they put you in for a DFC.”

We flew 13 hours that day without shutting down, just another day at the office.

I still have an aversion to a time clock. I still feel respect is something you command, not demand and I know experience is something that must be gained, not learned.

That’s “Mr. Cups” to you.

Copyright © 2001 by Jim Masencup, All Rights Reserved