Feature - U-10A Flight to Panama

Chuck Ross is a retired airline captain and airline ground school instructor. He flew fixed wing and rotor wing aircraft in the US Army. He and his wife now reside in Nevada.

Coming to the end of my tour of duty in Vietnam I wrote to “Branch” meaning the Pentagon office that managed my Army career field. I requested an assignment other than being an instructor back at Fort Rucker. I argued that because of the classified nature of my present assignment, I could not share much in the way of personal experience with students. Weak argument but at least it sounded like I had the “good of the service” in mind.

They wrote back with an offer of flying U-10A Helio Courier and O-1 Birddog in Panama. I jumped on it. So after a short leave at home, it was off to Fort Bragg North Carolina. The Army, at the time had more aircraft than the Air Force and more boats than the Navy, just not quite the tonnage in either category. In the whole Army inventory only Special Forces, the “green berets” used the U-10A and these aircraft born no military markings at all. I had three IPs at Fort Bragg that I can recall, one civilian, one CW2 recently back from Vietnam as I was, and CWO Laird Osburn, whose fame was still ahead of him then. The Army had three U-10s that had Rajay turbochargers, the rest were non turbo. As we were to take two of the turbo versions to Panama they tried to arrange for me to fly the third turbo aircraft as much as practical. The two I was to take were in heavy maintenance before the transfer. As it happened I only got to fly the remaining turbo aircraft (63-13176) a couple of times. I flew all of these airplanes:

Then they sent me to Panama without an airplane.

I soon learned there were no Birddogs and were not going to be any. I was told on arrival that there was no flight detachment, I had to build it. As an additional duty they made me S-3 (Air) or air operations officer under the real S-3 Major John D. Waghelstein. Mostly I coordinated Air Force support for group jumps and other activities. Those duties left me plenty of time to get ready for the airplanes. I had to “lease” an abandoned seaplane hangar from the Navy at Coco Solo, get about a dozen men assigned to my little outfit and begin preparing for the arrival of the airplanes. My guys painted and cleaned my side of the hangar, set up bunks and lockers. We got office furniture and set up our spaces. All this time I guess I should have been flying too – there were U-21s over on the Pacific side but I was busy.

In November I was informed that the second pilot had arrived and been qualified so I gave him a call. Turned out he outranked me so he would take over the unit on arrival. He was a major with two tours of duty in Vietnam, the first in Caribous and the second in Hueys. I had been spending my evenings doing flight planning for the trip south with the airplanes. I planned several versions down to the last gallon of gas.

  • 1st Option Remain over land the whole way – down the east coast of Mexico to cross over El Salvador then down the Pacific Coast to the Canal zone. 2834 nautical miles but all over land. Some wild, remote terrain but still dry enough.

  • 2nd Option To Key West, then across to Yucatán then down Central America. 2160nm with 388 nautical miles over water as planned.

  • 3rd Option To Florida, then across Cuba to Grand Cayman then either right turn to eastern Honduras or a left turn to Jamaica. At 1488 nautical miles, by far the shortest route but Jamaica to Panama was 545 nautical miles – the longest over water leg contemplated. Also we were not sure if our Air Force escort would be allowed transit over Cuba. Or, for that matter, if we would. Turned out to be a “no.”

  • 4th Option To Fort Lauderdale, then the Bahamas, then clockwise all the way around the Caribbean, down the Antilles Chain to Venezuela then Colombia and across the Gulf of Uraba to Panama. At 3226 nautical miles, this was by far the longest. While two thirds of it was over water it was all very short overwater legs. It was actually the leg from Cartagena to Panama that we considered the most hazardous.

When I got back to Fort Bragg the major and I decided on Key West to Cozumel, option 2, as the best compromise. Sixty gallon aux fuel tanks were installed in place of the rear seats and plumbed into the aircraft fuel system. The rear seats were placed aboard the accompanying C-45 with our spare parts. To use the aux tank fuel I had to stick a flexible tube out the air vent window, facing forward so ram air would pressurize that tank. Then open the valve between it and the aircraft fuel system and, finally, turn off the wing tanks. This had to be done and undone quite a ways out to sea. I couldn’t help but think about the old saying: “A minute’s flight out is a day’s swim back.”

We departed Fort Bragg on the morning of 4 December 1968, expecting to be in the Canal Zone in three days. It turned out to be nine legs, nine days of flying, spread over eleven days. It took a painful 27.3 hours of flying time for a ground speed of 71 knots. There were three enroute emergencies for my plane alone. We had to replace, enroute, three magnetos with only two installed, 12 spark plugs, 12 plug wires, one ignition switch, one carburetor and intake plenum, one propeller governor and four brake shoes. Andy, my crewchief, wrought miracles keeping us going and we developed great confidence in each other along the way. We limped into Albrook AFB on the Pacific side, with one magneto held in place by a big fender washer, ground off on one side. One of us had to hold the flange pieces in place while the nut was tightened. I don’t even want to talk about mag drop.

It started going wrong when Cuba, claiming airspace over the Gulf as far as 25⁰ North, denied us use of the airway across to Cozumel. With the aid of the Air Force navigator above us we flew north to 25⁰ North then west to 87⁰ West, then south until receiving the Isla Mujeres NDB. Our little 388nm overwater leg grew to 590nm and just over three hours expanded to five hours and twenty minutes out of sight of land. I’ve never had an Atlantic crossing that took that long.

For many years I blamed Navy Key West for not forwarding our flight plan to Mérida control because Mexico never knew we were coming. I finally realized that they forwarded it to the next sector, which was Havana. It was probably Cuba that didn’t bother to forward it. I suspect they knew who we were. The unit I was delivering the plane to, the 8th Special Forces Group had participated in the capture of Che Guevara the year before. It was not a well-kept secret. Anyway, four Mexican armed T-28s intercepted us and decided we were harmless. Years later I made many transits of Cuba with the airlines, and found the controllers to be very cooperative and capable of better English than anyone else in the Caribbean, including English-speaking countries.

Some memories from the stopovers:

Cozumel, site of so much repair work on the airplane. There were no luxury tourist high rises along the shore back then. Our hotel was about three dollars a night. It was on a little plaza downtown kittycorner from the juzgado. Seafood was cheap. Cerveza was cheap. I could have stayed a lot longer.

Belize, British Honduras and a Lockheed Hudson bomber lying off on the edge of the jungle, blown there by a hurricane. The Very pistol was still mounted inside the fuselage. As many times as I’ve been back to Belize I’ve never again had such a meal. The Brits knew how to train serving staff.

San Pedro Sula Honduras and dinner with the American consul. Then a takeoff into mountain scud and thundershowers followed by a progressive loss of engine power and an hour and forty minute emergency before we could get back to an airport. When I got back to operations I tore a length of paper off the teletype and hand-drew a copy of the NDB approach into LaLima. We did not have any instrument charts for some reason. The VFR charts we did have confessed to a frightening ignorance of topography. On the next attempt at that leg, in much better weather, we had a prop governor failure. Normally these come in one of two types; high side with increasing RPM or low side with the opposite. This was both. We sat there with a constant power setting while the RPM surged 400 above and below where it was supposed to be. High and low side failures each have their own corrective action, in this case we could do nothing but hope the darn engine didn’t fall off.

Tegucigalpa Honduras, a long stop. We removed the temporary aux tanks and replaced our rear seats. The tanks went into the C-45 and all our spares got stuffed into our planes. Then the Beech headed back to Fort Bragg. The four of us remaining went our separate ways that night. I went to the “O Henry Bar” at the Gran Hotel Lincoln. The next day as we are fueling up, a tall, gray-haired, blue eyed man of perhaps fifty years, came out to look at the Helio. He pushed at the leading edge slats and said: “Zis remints me of ouwer Feiseler Storch.” I would love to have had the chance to pursue that conversation. They gassed us up with a very enthusiastic fuel meter. My crewchief made the entry in the aircraft log” “Fuel added 67 gallons. Total in tanks 60 gallons.”

Managua Nicaragua and the constant, terrible turbulence getting there. We parked on the Fuerza Aerea de Nicaragua ramp next to one of their Cessna 180s. A Nicaraguan captain and I discussed the notion of trading a quick checkout in each other’s airplane then an exchange of pilot wings. We ended up doing nothing about it. This was to be our last night on the road. We rose early and headed south along the western shores of Lake Nicaragua with its population of freshwater sharks.

San Jose Costa Rica, just a quick fuel and lunch stop, memorable only because only the right side of the runway was open and there was paving machinery on the other side. There was a howling crosswind. Then on “south, along the Pacific shore, past high waterfalls and jungle covered mountains. Eventually southerly progress involved turning east and eventually northeast until finally, six hours and fifty minutes brought us to Albrook Air Force Base next to the Pacific terminus of the Panama Canal.

After arrival in the Canal Zone the two planes went in the shop. It was 19 days before 63-13180 was repaired and a full month for 63-13178. After that we began to incorporate the planes’ capabilities into Group activities. Sadly only six weeks later 63-13180 was destroyed and one life lost. We were down to one airplane and the death may have had a chilling effect on our little user and our one customer. Most of the good memories of the next year involved things other than the work I did with the U-10A.