Thursday, April 21, 2011

Roll Out The Barrels

I received the plaque below from my fellow aviators in the 1st Platoon of the 175th Assault Helicopter Company in February 1972. It was a tradition to issue plaques to all departing members of the unit that were tongue in cheek in nature with inscribed narratives relating some of the humorous and dumb events that transpired during our tours.  The plaques were always awarded in the Officers Club in a semi-official ceremony that resembled a roast more than anything else. It also gave us a good excuse to drink too much and brag about how we were the best pilots Vietnam. Our motto was OUTLAWS RULE THE DELTA!  Included in the list of my heroic accomplishments as an Outlaw pilot was one of the last lines on the inscription which read,  "THE ONLY "P" TO USE A BARREL TO PRE-FLIGHT THE 42."
The "P" stands for "Peter-Pilot," a title assigned to all newly assigned pilots in the platoon. When I was a "P" one of my assignments on each aircraft pre-flight inspection was to check out the tail rotor gear assembly on the UH-1D helicopter (known as the "Huey"). The tail rotor gear shaft assembly was situated at the end of a drive shaft and was configured at a 42 degree angle from the horizontal shaft. In our lingo, that was simply, "the 42."

The 42 was situated about 8 feet or so above the ground and could best be inspected by standing on the "stinger" which was a metal rod extending out underneath the aircraft tail, designed to prevent the tail rotor from striking the ground if the ship approached the ground with too severe a "tail-down" attitude. When you have short legs like I do, standing on the stinger is not a problem. Getting up onto the stinger is another story. My solution was to grab the nearest empty 55 gallon drum, drums in plentiful supply around the revetments where our Hueys were parked, roll it over and under the stinger, climb up and stand on the drum and use it as a stepping stone to then stand on the stinger and perform the inspection.  I thought it was a brilliant solution. My platoon members thought it was humorous. I kind of agreed and got a kick out of their mentioning it on the plaque but in general I just thought it was an expedient solution to perform a task and that was that.

That may be true. Then again, maybe not. I never knew what was originally inside those empty 55 gallon drums.  Never gave it a second thought. Until the other day when I had my annual physical at the VA.  The VA physician was informed about my MDS diagnosis and had done extensive blood tests with results similar to the recent results my hematologist/oncologist had obtained. Knowing I was a Vietnam vet, the physician asked me if I had signed up for the Agent Orange Registry. It's possible my MDS was caused by agent orange. And here's an interesting note: agent orange got it's name from the fact that it was stored and transported in 55 gallon drums with an orange stripe painted on them. I don't remember seeing orange stripes on the drums I used for my 42 inspections but that was 40 years ago! You never know. I'm set up to go back to the VA next month for an exam for the Agent Orange Registry. It will not determine if agent orange caused my MDS. But it might help define my qualification for disability benefits.  We'll see what happens. In the meantime rest assured if I have reason to climb up on any 55 gallon drums I will make sure I know what was inside them before they became empty.