“Smoking may be hazardous to your health, smoking may be hazardous to your health.”
Those words continued to echo in my head which was near the floor, under my ejection seat in the cockpit of my Grumman OV-1D Mohawk at 10,000 feet 40 miles west of Tuy Hoa.
It was February something, 1972 and I had agreed to take an admin (non-combat) run to Saigon, now affectionately named Ho Chi Min City.I was based in Marble Mountain, South Viet Nam just east of DaNang and flew Infrared (IR) or Side-looking-Airborn-Radar (SLAR) missions most every day or night. But not today.
Today, I’m flying an admin mission to Saigon. Alone. To pick-up or deliver something that I don’t recall. But something important enough for the Army to spend several thousand dollars on the jet fuel I was burning.
Actually, it was on my return leg when I found myself lying across the cockpit with my head under the seat.
The flight down to Saigon had been pretty quiet except I did happen to hear my good friend Ken Boyer on the radio. Ken was my best friend in flight school. A University of Indiana graduate and rugby player, Ken was and I guess still is, a cool guy, a chill dude. Which was a good thing because in Vietnam he was assigned to fly the Dehavilland Beaver. The Beaver is a great airplane to haul things in and out of short fields, but is quite slow. I was excited when I heard his voice that day. I immediately recognized it was Ken. Although frowned upon, I broke in on the frequency to say hi and told him I was just passing by on my way to Saigon. He told me he was heading to Buon Ma Thuot (We/I pronounced it ‘Bam me to it’).
On my return leg, I was surprised to hear Ken’s voice again. Once again, I broke in to give him a shout and tell him I was on my back north. As I recall Ken laughingly said he was still enroute to his destination, and I remember him signing off with, “Just building time, Man.”
Right after my exchange with Ken I reached in to the zippered pocket on my left sleeve to get a cigarette. Upon retrieving a Marlboro I realized my zippo was missing. I had failed to zip the pocket closed after my last cigarette and the zippo had fallen out.
Without my zippo, I had no way to light my cigarette. Although Grumman was kind enough to provide an ashtray they forgot to include a lighter. I remember thinking I could wait. After all I’d be on the ground in less than an hour.
Well, as most smokers have experienced, knowing you can’t have a cigarette heightens the desire or need to have a cigarette; so, I started trying to find my zippo. With little success however since the shoulder harness, the lap belt and leg restraints didn’t allow for much movement.
Finally, I thought, “Screw it! I can get it.”
I put the aircraft on autopilot. Flipped the safety on both ejection seat handles and began to unstrap. After unclipping my leg restraints, the shoulder harness and lap belt I slowly climbed out of my seat. Being very careful not to flip any switches or change radio frequencies, I rose up and over the center console and in to the right seat.
Once in the right seat, I was able to stretch across the center console and lower my head to the floor and search for the lighter under my seat. Still wearing my helmet which was connected to the radio, I received a call from air traffic control advising me I had closing traffic at 12 o’clock, five miles, altitude unknown. Feeling like a secretive addict, I reached up to the top of the control stick, activated the mic (microphone) button and replied “No Joy” to the traffic controller. I remember thinking how unbelievably crazy it would be if I experienced a mid-air collision simply because I couldn't wait an hour to have a cigarette.
“Smoking May be hazardous to your health," in more ways than one.
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