Tuesday, November 26, 2013

C-GTNQ, Rubbing Shoulders With A Legend.

   In September 1966 a 204B helicopter rolled off the assembly line at the Bell factory in Texas, it was assigned the registration/serial number N8514F. This particular aircraft had been earmarked for delivery to Air America and shipped overseas, arriving in Vietnam in November and began an interesting career, as recorded in its flight log.
Screen shot of  N8514F in Air America colors, Vietnam, late 60's.
   Air America was a covert CIA transportation cover organization engaged in a wide array of activities during the Vietnam war. Some of these activities were the type they don't file flight plans on if you know what I mean. On Nov 24 after a week in country, N8514F received several rounds of ground fire in the butt and made a forced landing near Bon Son.
Not long after a nervous passenger fired his weapon off inside the aircraft. The ill placed round went out the top of the fuselage and damaged the main rotor, causing an emergency landing near the village of Qui Nohn. In January 1972, at an undisclosed jungle airbase it caught fire during refueling while running. Extensive repairs were carried out, and during a later test flight the engine developed a problem and made what the log described as, '...a hard landing from 35 feet'. 
In June of '72 during a routine take off in Saigon it lost power and had another bad day.
   On April 29 1975, as the North Vietnamese army overran Saigon an order was given to evacuate, and the biggest helicopter evacuation in history, called Frequent Wind began. Most are familiar with the iconic war time photos of the helicopter picking up people from a roof top during the final hours of the evacuation, and of helicopters being ditched into the water off aircraft carriers to make room for more. Often thought to be an army helicopter picking friendlies from the roof of the US Embassy, they are actually Air America helicopters removing CIA staff and operatives from the roof of the Pittman Building. Helicopter N8514F was one of a handful of B models involved in Frequent Wind, the model had the advantage of a larger fuel tank which enabled it to do more than its share in moving evacuees from Saigon roof tops to aircraft carriers sitting out in the South China Sea. The flights ended as communist troops over ran the city, with bullets from ground fire following the last machine out to sea. Running on fumes, N8514F found one of the last remaining spots on deck of the USS Midway and off loaded in Guam before being shipped stateside.
  In November '75 it was de-registered in the US and sold to an outfit that flew the fjords and glaciers of Greenland as CY-HBU.  In early 1980, it was sold to Trans North, an operator based in Whitehorse Yukon. It received the Canadian registration C-GTNQ, the airframe was stripped and given a glossy coat of the companies red and yellow paint scheme.
C-GTNQ, with the big Q on the nose. Dawson YT 1981

My partners and I had been drill testing several drainage's and had intended to look into some old gravels located over the hills towards the Yukon River. With a small bulldozer and tracked drill carrier, I needed to make use of a glacier at the narrow headwaters to get into the area, but by the time we got around to it in late May, the ice had melted into a trough and we could not negotiate the initial narrow, rocky canyon with the equipment. Despite a good try and scouting out an alternate route, we were forced to retreat over the dome and follow our tracks all the way back to our Bismark Ck. base camp to figure out a plan B. We worked with a variety of smaller helicopters, but to move our drill over the divide was going to take a special machine capable of a heavy lift.

On July 26 1981 TNQ arrived to disassemble and move our drill over the hills, bringing with it fuel and supplies. We could hear it coming long before it got close.

The track machine the drill rode on was to stay behind so a skid frame had been fabricated and was flown out first, the idea being to assemble the machine on the skids on the subsequent trips.
TNQ lifts off with the skid frame. Bismark Ck YT.

The boom was removed and flown into Rosebute Creek and set beside the skid frame.

Q shuddered under the load and disappeared over the distant ridge to the south west.

We jumped in the last trip to Rosebute and organized ourselves to reassemble the drill rig.
A much younger me in blue, and a hired hand take a moment as the big machine cranks up.
TNQ hovered while we worked underneath in a 100 mph down-wash, hooking up slings to lift machinery, lining up bolt holes and attaching the large extending derrick.

  We carried on with our gold exploration until it got too cold, dragging the drill around the the area with the aid of large gasoline driven winch. We never saw the TNQ or her crew again my time up there, we didn't require a heavy lifter again. I made a trek out there on the snow with the bulldozer the following Spring to retrieve the drill on the skid, taking several days each direction.
I learned Q had been sold a few seasons later, re-registered back in the states as N109CH where it fought fires and flew rescues until 1994 when it crashed for the final time,  sparing the pilot, but meeting her demise while fighting a brush fire near Alamogordo New Mexico.
The accident report simply concluded, "...damaged beyond repair".

 I was during researching this story I was surprised to find out N8514F (GTNQ) had been recognized for its role in Operation Frequent Wind by being available on ebay and hobby shops in the form of a die cast model.
Although I didn't know the helicopter's history at the time, I feel proud to have rubbed shoulders with the old veteran.

And now you know...the rest of the story.

1 comment:

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