On Active Service

The Loss of Albatross 03 – Bell UH-1H Iroquois A2-769 - 26 October 1969

By: Roger Lambert, Platoon Commander, 9 Platoon, C Company, 1969/70

Screenshot 2024-01-19 at 12.42.01 pm

Remains of Bell UH-1H Iroquois A2-769 (Image by Terry Fitzgerald)

One of my 9 Platoon diggers, PTE Terry “Fitzy” Fitzgerald, recently sent me a copy of a photograph he had taken of a destroyed Iroquois helicopter. The tail fin of the aircraft was still intact and the RAAF red, white and blue fin flash and serial number, A2-769, were clearly visible. The memories came flooding back to that time some 50 years ago that we came across the wreckage while patrolling during an operation in the last quarter of 1969.

By way of background, at the time of A2-769's loss, we (5 RAR) were conducting Operation 'Kings Cross' (October to November 1969) in an area known to the VC as the Hat Dich Secret Zone. This was an area that had been an enemy haven since the days of the Viet Minh war. It was an important logistic support area for the enemy as it was situated between Route 15 (Saigon to Vung Tau), Route 2 (Baria to Xuyen Moc and Route 1 (of 'Street Without Joy' fame.

These roads were vital to the VC as it was along these routes that their supplies were transported to the villages of Thai Tien, Tham Tien, Phuos My and tham Phous on Route 15 and Binh Ba, Ngai Giao and Xa Bang on Route 2. Terry’s image got me thinking about what caused the loss of the Iroqouis and what was the fate of the crew.

A little delving on the Internet soon produced the information that I was looking for, not only in relation to the loss of the helicopter but also the fate of the aircrew. Somewhat eerily, in almost a foreboding of what was to come, A2-769 was involved in a forced landing in October 1968. The engine failure was the cause of the forced landing six kilometres West of Ap Suoi Nghe.

The 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF) base at Nui Dat can be seen, to the south east, in the background of the photograph.

The US Army Chinook successfully transported the stricken Iroquois as a slung load back to Vung Tau where 9 Squadron were based.

Screenshot 2024-01-19 at 12.44.09 pm

This Australian War Memorial image, taken October 1968, shows the purple smoke thrown by the aircrew of A2-769 to indicate to the recovery aircraft, a Boeing-Vertol CH-47 Chinook of the United States Army, that the downed aircraft was still in allied hands.

The Iroquois was initially assessed as having sustained Category 4 damage. In layman’s terms, that assessment was that the Iroquois was a write-off.

However, following negotiations that commenced on 5 December 1968, rather than being written off as a result of that initial assessment, A2-769 was given a reprieve. Following approval from Australia, the airframe was passed to the local US Army aircraft maintenance facility at Vung Tau. Here, the airframe underwent repairs to bring it back to airworthiness. These repairs were subsequently successfully undertaken and the helicopter was returned to 9 Squadron on 20 January 1969 to continue its operational career in theatre.

Screenshot 2024-01-19 at 12.49.22 pm

This AWM image shows A2-769 at Vung Tau undergoing inspection following its recovery to the 9 Squadron maintenance area

One only needs to look at the skids of the helicopter to gain an understanding of the force of what must have been quite a heavy landing. Those airmen in the vicinity are probably air frame fitters noting the repairs that would be required to make the Iroquios airworthy again.

Fast forward to 26 October 1969 and A2-769 was again forced to make an emergency landing. However, this time the cause was the result of enemy fire. As may be seen from the following extract, the helicopter was flying in support of 9 RAR. A2-769, operating with the Callsign “Albatross 03”, flew some twenty-six sorties on 26 October 1969. The Iroquois had the usual crew of two pilots and two crewmen acting as door gunners.

But who were the crew and what was their fate? The National Archives of Australia (NAA) provided the names of the aircrew which were recorded in the 9 Squadron Operations Log. The crew comprised of Woolf, Knights, Parker and Price. So, at this stage, I had names but not what caused the loss of the helicopter nor the fate of these men. Further delving into the NAA records finally provided the answers I was seeking some 50 years after the event.

Screenshot 2024-01-19 at 12.50.48 pm

Extract from the 9 Squadron RAAF Operations Log for 26 October 1968 (NAA).

The Unit History Sheet for 9 Squadron not only revealed the ranks of the aircrew but also their responsibilities aboard “Albatross 03”. Pilot: Flight Lieutenant M.K. Woolf – Aircraft Captain Co-Pilot: Flying Officer D.V. Knights Crewman: Sergeant Parker F.J. Parker Gunner: Aircraftsman A.J. Price The following extract from the Unit History Sheet succinctly records what happened that fateful day on 26 October 1969. Although not recorded as such, A2-769 was very obviously hit by enemy ground fire and crash landed as a result. What was pleasing to read was that the aircrew were successfully winched out of the crash site and taken to Vampire Pad at 2 Field Hospital, Vung Tau. Although injured to varying degrees, I finally had my answer as to their fate. I also learnt that what we came across during our patrol were the remains of the helicopter after it had been assessed as Category 5 by the 9 Squadron Engineering Officer and destroyed in situ by explosives. Apparently, the demolition team came from our SASR and it was Standing Operational Procedure to destroy any aircraft assessed as Category 5 so that nothing useful could fall into enemy hands.

The Iroquois was initially assessed as having sustained Category 4 damage. In layman’s terms, that assessment was that the Iroquois was a write-off.

However, following negotiations that commenced on 5 December 1968, rather than being written off as a result of that initial assessment, A2-769 was given a reprieve. Following approval from Australia, the airframe was passed to the local US Army aircraft maintenance facility at Vung Tau. Here, the airframe underwent repairs to bring it back to airworthiness. These repairs were subsequently successfully undertaken and the helicopter was returned to 9 Squadron on 20 January 1969 to continue its operational career in theatre.

Screenshot 2024-01-19 at 12.51.57 pm

Extract from the 9 Squadron Unit History Sheet of 26 October 1969 (NAA)

After some 50 years, it was very pleasing to learn that the crew of A2-769 were safely winched out after the helicopter was brought down and that the aircrew, although injured to varying degrees, survived the incident. However, there is a sad corollary to the story of the loss of A2-769 involving one of the crew. Tragically, Derek Knights would lose his life in the crash of Bell UH-1B Iroquois A2-1023 near RAAF Williamtown, NSW on 19 August 1981.

A2-1023 was on a test flight because several days earlier it had pitched violently forward during a normal sortie. Many eyewitnesses observed the aircraft approaching the airfield in straight and level flight at 1500 feet altitude when, without warning, it broke up in the air. Both the main rotor and tail rotor were observed to separate from the aircraft and the consensus among eyewitness opinions was that tail rotor separation preceded main rotor separation. The main body of the aircraft fell inverted into a swamp which effectively prevented any outbreak of fire. There were no survivors from the three crew aboard.

The cause of the crash was attributed to tail rotor drive failure. One of the tail rotor pitch control cables fouled the tail rotor drive shaft. This caused the failure of the tail rotor drive then the main rotor blades separated.

Those killed were:
Pilot: Squadron Leader Derek John Knights
Co- Pilot: Flight Lieutenant Adrian Bryant
Observer: Sergeant Brian Wilson.

This article is dedicated to all the 9 Squadron air and ground crew that supported us so well during our tour of duty in 1969/70.

Screenshot 2024-01-19 at 12.52.34 pm

Bell UH-1B Iroquois A2-1023 (RAAF Image)

r-lambert

© Roger Lambert
Platoon Commander
9 Platoon, C Company,
2nd Tour

Scroll to Top