The air crew went through their preflight checks. I crammed into the extra seat behind the navigator just as I heard the co-pilot shout, “Clear Prop Port,” and hit the starter on the port engine. In a riot of screaming gears and mechanical noise, first one cylinder and then another shot black smoke from the unmuffled stack as it ignited and the prop became a blur as the big radial engine settled into a loping idle.
“Clear Prop Starboard,” he shouted as the process repeated itself. The navigator handed me headphones, saying, “Put these on. You won’t be able to hear anything otherwise.”
Through the intercom the pilot and copilot discussed cylinder head temperatures, prop pitch and how long they could hold maximum manifold pressure at this ambient. After a few minutes, the pilot signaled the ground grew who pulled the wheel chocks and stood back, stepping into my view through the tiny window next to my seat.
The pilot revved one engine and spun the plane around to head down the apron toward the runway. We bounced down he apron past other planes being loaded, some were C-47s like ours, others were regular airliners and still others were light, single-engine jobs and one biplane. As we taxied along I listened to the radio chatter between pilots and the tower. As we turned onto the runway, the tower said, “AAUI, radio ID please.” The pilot responded with a list of letters and numbers none of which meant anything to me except the radio frequency.
“AAUI you’re number three for takeoff. Proceed two niner north,” said the tower.
We bumped along the taxiway past yellow pylons with numbers stenciled in black then finally one marked 29N. The pilot swung the plane onto that runway and stopped. “AAUI two-niner north,” said the pilot.
“Sit tight for that black DC3 landing on two-niner S,” then a few seconds later, “AAUI Correction. Move onto two-niner North immediately. DC3’s coming in hot and heavy.”
I couldn’t see what was happening but shortly the pilot said, “Request clearance for immediate takeoff.”
“Granted,” said the tower. “Get your ass in the air now.”
The pilot pushed both throttle handles forward against the instrument panel and said to the co-pilot, “Hold 14 inches as long as she’ll take it. Watch the exhaust temps. I got to outrun that ARVN bastard, he’s way overloaded and missed the taxiway. Hope he doesn’t rear-end us before he gets stopped.”
Even through the headphones the roar of two supercharged 14-cylinder radial engines on full song was deafening. I later learned that many of AA C-47s had been retrofitted with larger engines totaling 2800 horsepower. This apparently was one of them.
“Jesus, but I’m glad the shop got the R-2000s installed, we’re almost off the ground.”
“That’s good cause the starbord exhaust temp just topped 1300,” shouted the co-pilot.
“We’re off. Damn, by the 900 foot mark fully loaded. Not bad. Back her off to 8 inches and hold the mix till they cool off.”
“Roger that,” said the co-pilot. “Wouldn’t want to do that every day. Make short work of these new engines.”
The bumping of the wheels on the runway stopped and we were airborne. The co-pilot pulled another lever and more motors and gears whined as the landing gear retracted into the wings. Suddenly it was much smoother and almost quiet.
Ton Son Nhut and Saigon began to fall away as the intercom chatter went into cruise-mode checklist. We flew to the northwest. Cultivated fields of rice doted with small villages faded into rubber plantations and then the hills and jungle of the southern highlands. Half an hour later as we approached a high ridge, the pilot cut back the engines and got on the radio for landing instructions. Where? I wondered. I saw no field only jungle. Then as we crossed the ridge, a broad bench running along the ridge came into view and with that an airfield surrounded by banana trees. The trees at either end of the runway had been felled helter skelter.