By Cpt. Joe Davis, Task Force Eagle AssaultJuly 13, 2010
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Walter "Walt" R. Jones III is one of the few Vietnam Veterans on active duty service today.
His career spans across four decades and includes 30 years of active duty Army service. He witnessed the transformation of Army Aviation from the first air assaults in Vietnam to those of the Global War on Terror and has significantly contributed to the reshaping of aviation tactics.
In addition to his qualifications on four other helicopter designs, Jones has become a superior technical expert on the UH-60A and L model Blackhawk helicopters having flown and maintained them since their introduction into the Army. He attended the very first UH-60A Aircraft Qualification Course 79-01 and now, 31 years later, is serving in Afghanistan in the same unit he was first assigned in the 1970s and the first to field the UH-60A Blackhawk helicopter -- the "Ghostriders," now D/5th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment.
Jones was born in Idaho at Mountain Home Air Force Base, a Strategic Air Command base, where his father was stationed. In 1970, Walt left home and joined the Army. In September, he was assigned to the 162nd Assault Helicopter Company - the Vultures, in Can Tu, Vietnam. His first job was a door gunner on the UH-1H, commonly recognized as the "Huey" Night Hawk. As a door gunner, Walt spent a lot of time with his fellow crew members maintaining the aircraft and preparing for missions, and he soon became a crew chief. He logged 324 combat hours during his six month tour and accumulated almost as many stories.
Jones recalls a number of missions when his crew was assigned to transport the elite members of the U.S. Navy SEALs. One of those memories involve waiting in a Pick-up Zone as the SEALs would walk out of the jungle mist to load the helicopters wearing T-shirts, black Keds tennis shoes and ball caps instead of regular uniforms.
"It was just like a scene out of Apocalypse Now," he said.
Walt's aircraft was part of a five-ship mission to insert the SEALs into a known Viet Cong village. The SEALs were carrying the XM16 with a 250 round ammunition belt.
"Something we had never seen before," said Jones.
Walt also remembers several occasions where his crew inserted troops into landing zones covered with tall elephant grass. As the Soldiers jumped from the Huey, they would simply disappear into the elephant grass. It was impossible to know how far they fell or what happened to them.
On one occasion, this particular type of mission nearly proved to be fatal for Jones. As his aircraft approached the LZ, the pilots were instructed to execute a 180 degree turn and hover 200 yards away to position troops in a more ideal location. This made him instantly nervous - someone was asking for his crew to loiter on an LZ, and that made them a big, slow-moving, noisy target. Sure enough, as soon as the pilots completed the reposition, they were attacked from multiple directions by small arms fire. As Jones and his fellow door gunner returned fire while the Soldiers were exiting the Huey, an armor-piercing round hit his aircraft from the rear and lodged in his machine gun barely missing him by inches. Another round impacted the front of the Huey and just missed his head. He would later pull the one out of his weapon as a souvenir.
We all learned a valuable lesson that day, never loiter over a potentially hot LZ, said Jones
One of the jobs Jones enjoyed the most during his time in Vietnam was crewing what he calls the "Smoke Bird." This particular Huey had a circular ring mounted just aft of the straight engine exhaust. Oil was fed into the ring, and nozzles ejected it into the hot exhaust, causing the oil to burn, creating a thick smoke screen behind the helicopter. Part of the reason he enjoyed crewing this aircraft was because the crew manned a .50 caliber machine gun, twin 60mm machine guns, a grenade launcher, and the crewchief and two door gunners kept their "free 60s"close to them. As Jones says "it was armed to the teeth," but it had to be because in order to lay the smoke screen effectively, they had to slow down to a mere 40 knots - which once again made the aircraft incredibly vulnerable.
In March, he received word of an upcoming mission to go into a known "hot zone." A fellow crewchief, by the name of Pinkleton, or "Pinky" for short, asked Jones to come along and gun for him in place of his new "cherry gunner" who was too inexperienced for such a dangerous mission. Walt and Pinky were on the lead aircraft of five, along with two pilots and 11 South Vietnamese soldiers from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. At about 800 feet above the LZ, they began to receive small arms fire. Some of the enemy fire consisted of incendiary rounds from a .51 caliber machine gun.
"The VC would use a .51 caliber gun so that they could utilize our .50 caliber rounds, but we couldn't use theirs," said Jones.
These particular rounds "looked like orange basketballs" flying past the helicopter. Unfortunately for Jones, one of those rounds struck the helicopter's fuel cell, and the aircraft immediately caught fire. Had the fuel cell been less full, the fuel cell would have likely exploded, killing all on board. But instead, the pilots of the burning helicopter continued the descent, and Walt and Pinky fired as long as they could before the flames forced everyone to cram together near the front of the cabin.
As the flames got closer, the aircraft suddenly entered a violent spin. Chalk 2 would later state that they witnessed the tail boom of Jones' helicopter "melt off" from the intense heat. Without a tail rotor to counteract the main rotor torque, the helicopter began to spin about 200 feet above the ground. Walt recalls hanging onto a seat leg with half his body flailing outside the helicopter, watching the spinning Huey toss ARVN troops into the rice patty below. Pinky was ejected just before the Huey impacted, and Jones said Pinky "skipped across the wet rice patty like a stone - not a scratch on him!" Walt, however, hung on until impact when the skids buckled and bent upwards, catching him on his left thigh. He was knocked unconscious, his femur was broken, and his hand was bleeding from an AK-47 round. He later learned that it was Pinky who ran back to the burning aircraft and drug Walt to another helicopter for evacuation. There they met with the crew from Chalk 5, taken down by the same .51 caliber gunner, which had just exploded behind the fleeing crew.
After being treated for his injuries, Jones was sent to Fitzsimmons Army General Hospital located in Denver, Colo. Before he arrived, he wrote a letter to his parents with his bandaged hand - they thought he had written it drunk because the handwriting was so bad. They met him at Fitzsimmons where he spent time in a body cast before having his leg put into traction. He took eight months to recover. Fitzsimmons was a top orthopedic hospital and therefore, received a number of injured Vietnam Veterans like Jones. There, he recalls meeting a few characters with even wilder Vietnam stories than he could imagine.
Once he was well enough to take leave, he picked up his Mustang Mach 1 which he purchased while in Vietnam through the Army Air Force Exchange Service. When Jones went to pick up the car, he had to tie a clothes hanger to the walker on the bottom of his cast so that he could work the clutch with his hinged-knee cast.
Enjoying his new roadster, Jones took a road trip north to Rapid City, S.D. then to Mountain Home, Idaho and back to Rapid City before he returned to the hospital. It was quite a long trip and on the way back to Denver - he fell asleep at the wheel. He recalls waking up to a "floating sensation" - he was in mid air after driving off the side of a bridge. The car landed in a dry creek bed and without a seatbelt on, he was thrown into the steering wheel - breaking his femur again. He remembers hanging out of the car and looking up at the boulder his car missed by inches. An unknown motorist saw his car and notified an ambulance. Jones was sent back to Fitzsimmons where he underwent surgery to have a metal bar with eight screws holding it against the bone to keep it from breaking again.
Jones' own Vietnam experience left him ready to get out of the Army. However, during his end of service physical, his range of motion had improved so much that the doctor told him he was rehabilitated enough to stay in.
Soon after getting out of the hospital, he met his wife, Diane, through his sister back in Rapid City, S.D. Diane's father was also in the Air Force and they were married when Walt was 19 and Diane was 18. Because Walt was underage at the time in South Dakota, his mother had to sign the marriage license.
Diane recalls her first memories of Walt: "I was in High School when I first met him. His sister and I were friends, but I didn't meet him until after he was shot down in Vietnam and recuperating at Fitzsimmons in Denver. He would come home to Rapid City whenever he could. On one of those visits, he picked his sister up from school and offered to give me a ride home also. I thought he was very cute and I was thrilled when a few weeks later he asked me out to dinner and a movie. He wasn't sure my parents would let me go out with him since he was a little older and a 'GI.' My parents liked him from the moment they met him."
After 11 months of total recovery, Jones returned to the Army at Fort Bragg, N.C. in the 82nd Airborne Division. Although his previous job was in aviation, the Army reassigned him as a telephone line repairman with the XVIIIth Airborne Corps. He was willing to do anything else to get out of that job. Luckily someone noticed his crew chief experience and sent him to B Company of the General Support Battalion that was in need of Huey crewchiefs. There, he flew VIP missions on the Huey assigned to the Assistant Division Commander, then Brigadier General Warner, who later became the commander of Special Operations Command.
While at Bragg, the Yom Kippur War erupted when Syria and Egypt attacked Israel. Jones recalls sitting on the tarmac at Pope Air Force Base next to Fort Bragg with the entire division - waiting to deploy in case the Israeli's needed American help. After the first two days, the tide turned in favor of the Israelis and the 82nd stood down.
In December of 1974, Jones arrived at Fort Rucker, Ala. for Warrant Officer Candidate School and Flight School. At that time, aspiring aviators in Initial Entry Rotary Wing flew the Hughes TH-55 Osage, a reciprocal engine helicopter that weighed only 1,500 pounds. New pilots then graduated to the Huey simulator for their initial instrument training before getting in the actual helicopter for instrument flying and eventually tactical flight.
When it came time for aircraft selection, in addition to the Huey, three other aircraft were available to Jones and his classmates. He was not interested in the tandem-rotor CH-47 Chinook - "I didn't want anything to do with two rotors that meshed together." The AH-1 Cobra also made him nervous because of its horrible center of gravity. He had seen too many Cobra crashes in Vietnam and remembered the rotor blades having a tendency to decapitate pilots on hard landings. The OH-58 Kiowa Warrior was also available, but Walt was an air assault pilot at heart and would fly nothing but the Huey. He loved the assault mission - getting troops on the ground and then getting them out when they needed it - no matter what. Walt's philosophy was simple: "No PZ is too hot - you get in there and get 'em out."
In December of 1975, his first assignment as Chief Warrant Officer 1 Jones was to the Ghostriders of D Company, 158th Aviation Battalion at Fort Campbell, Ky. The unit was suffering from the post-Vietnam force drawdown and had few commissioned officers, and senior warrant officers were scarce at the time, it was primarily WO1s and Chief Warrant Officer 2s. But the unit cohesion was strong, and he and his fellow aviators began the critical work of developing and refining aviation tactics from the lessons learned in Vietnam - the first test for Army Aviation Air Assault tactics in combat. They spent long hours training tactics, such as scattered formation flight, formation landings and techniques for countering the dreaded Soviet ZSU-23 anti-aircraft weapons. Cooperation with the infantry was essential, and the Ghostriders worked diligently trying to learn how best to insert them. This was the birth of modern Army Aviation tactics.
But the training did not always go smoothly. During an emergency training exercise at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Walt's commander decided to try a new tactic of landing all 45 of his Hueys simultaneously in a single dusty LZ - filling it full of helicopters to keep the opposing force from being able to land there at all. Walt was one of the first to land and luckily, he was proficient at dust landings. Unfortunately, many of his fellow pilots were not as proficient, and the sky was soon full of dust and about 40 helicopters trying to escape the cloud without colliding. For hours he sat watching the other helicopters circle dangerously close to one another and attempt to land in the severely congested LZ. He almost resigned on the spot.
In 1978 the 158th was selected to conduct Operation "Snow Blow" to provide humanitarian aid to the American cities in the north being shut down by winter storms. Many of the towns were without power. Jones and his copilot were informed that a hospitalized child needed to be picked up in Dayton, Ohio and returned back to Columbus, Ohio so she could be put on a kidney dialysis machine. He took off in a blizzard at night and headed west, trying to maintain visual contact with the ground. He contacted air traffic control and was surprised to hear an excited voice on the other side of the radio. Apparently his air traffic controller was bored to death with no aircraft to talk to in the winter storm. The controller eagerly directed him to the part of the town where the hospital was supposed to be. After passing over the city on that heading, however, there was no hospital in sight. Concerned for the little girls' health, Jones looked for an alternative. Below he noticed a lone man in a snow plow clearing a parking lot. Walt decided to land and ask for directions. With the helicopter rotors spinning behind him, he ran up to the plow and asked the gentleman operating it how to get to the hospital.
As if this happened every night, the man nonchalantly instructed Walt to take a right at the traffic light up the street, and the hospital was three lights down on the left. Jones returned to his helicopter, flew down the road, turned right at the light, then flew three lights and landed at the hospital on the left. That night they saved the little girl's life.
Soon after that, the Ghostriders were informed that they would be the first unit to receive the new UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. Jones attended the first UH-60 AQC - Class 79-01. Once again, het and the Ghostriders had ground breaking work ahead of them. UH-60 manuals were brand new and they had not been field tested. As the unit movement officer, Jones was tasked with loading the first Blackhawks into Air Force transport planes, the C-5A, C-141, and the C-130. When he opened up the manual to figure out how to "kneel" the aircraft to load the transport planes, he noticed that the manuals were written for helicopters with skids - Blackhawks have wheels. Walt spent the next few months rewriting the manuals and flew about 50 hours until the Department of the Army decided to assign him elsewhere. Although against his wishes, he was sent to Korea after attending the Huey maintenance course to become a maintenance test pilot.
The next few years were a whirlwind of travel. Upon arriving at 4th Squadron, 7th Cavalry in South Korea, he met his executive officer who was excited to meet his new AH-1 Cobra and OH-58 Kiowa MTP - of course he was less than pleased to discover that Walt was just a UH-1 MTP. Jones quickly became OH-58 qualified and then an MTP in the Kiowa as well. Later, Walt requested an intra-theater transfer from Korea to Hawaii and was approved, but the Army had different plans. Six months into his tour in Korea he was advised by DA that CONUS was critically short Blackhawk pilots and he would have to go back to a CONUS unit that had Blackhawks after completing the Warrant Officer Advanced Course.
After completing the Advanced Course, he was requested to become a UH-60 maintenance instructor at Fort Eustis, Va. The MTP course was in need of Blackhawk MTP instructors and he accepted the job - with all 50 of his UH-60 hours. There he became extremely proficient in his knowledge of aircraft systems. He was an Electrical, Hydraulic, Auxiliary Power Unit, and Start System instructor for four years. There, he also worked on his Associate Degree in Professional Aeronautics from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.
Walt and Diane loved their time in Virginia and enjoyed a steady schedule with their two young daughters, Heather and Jenny. Diane recalls, "Probably the first duty station that the girls remember was Fort Eustis, and that was not the Army that they were to experience later! Walt was an instructor there so he pretty well had set hours and weekends free. So the girls were used to him being around."
"I remember when we were stationed in Virginia, he would be home at or close to the same time everyday and my sister and I would wait for him in the front yard. He was always in his uniform and we thought he was pretty cool," said Heather.
The next move was to Hawaii in December of 1984. Jones was hoping to be assigned to the Blackhawk unit, but his test pilot experience was needed in a Huey unit. The unit he was assigned to was in rough shape. The Operational Readiness rating was around 38% - hardly a combat capable unit. His Brigade Commander made a deal with him - increase the OR rating back to acceptable levels and he would be moved to the Blackhawk unit. While Diane waited patiently - Walt spent long days making sure the unit maintenance was done to standard.
"The girls were 3 and 7 years old," says Diane. "We got to Hawaii and things were different. [Walt] was never home from when we first got there. One day Jenny who was 3 at the time said, 'I like the other Army better!' Of course kids adapt and they got used to the 'new Army'."
But the family loved Hawaii. After about six months, the unit OR rating improved dramatically and the brigade commander made good on his promise. Although he was still very busy, Walt and his family enjoyed the time they had together.
Jenny recalls one example of Walt's approach to parenting, "In Hawaii, I was in the Girl Scouts. Whenever I had to sell cookies he would let me come into work with him. He would set me up a little table outside of his office and help me set up my cookies. Then he would go in his office and let me sell my cookies on my own. I loved going there to do that. I thought it was so cool to see how much everyone liked my Daddy, and how important he was. He always said he wasn't going to take the cookies in and sell them for me. It was important for me to have that experience and do it myself."
Heather also remembers how cool her father was to her, "When we were stationed in Hawaii, I remember we would go to the beach and he would surf, how many fathers surfed'!"
While in Hawaii, Walt participated in three separate rotations to Korea and two to Australia to demonstrate the capabilities of the Blackhawk. He worked closely with artillery units moving 105mm Howitzer cannons around the main island.
He recalls his first experience with night vision goggles. During his initial goggle qualification check ride he was sling-loading a Howitzer beneath the helicopter and the selected landing zone turned out to be pure lava rock. The closer he got to the LZ, the grainier the goggle lenses got. He could look out to the side of the aircraft and see through the goggles fine, so he knew it wasn't a goggle failure. But once they got over the LZ, both Jones and the IP experienced white outs. As he increased power to begin the climb out from the LZ, he ran into high winds coming off the volcanoes and clouds. The combination of slow airspeed and high winds caused the cannon hanging below to start swinging from front to rear. He was ready to punch the load off but his IP told him to wait. Eventually, with both of them on the controls, they got the oscillation under control and returned back to the airfield safely.
His next unit was 1st Squadron, 6th Combat Aviation Brigade at Fort Hood, Texas. During his tour there, he spent three months as the D Troop commander and several months as a maintenance platoon leader in D Troop. When the 6th CAB was told they would not be part of Desert Storm, he called DA and asked to serve in Operation Desert Storm but was denied.
Heather remembers that day: "We were on vacation in South Dakota, visiting my dad's family when the first gulf war started. We rushed home so that dad could get ready to leave with his group. I was about 10 or 11 and remember feeling scared. When we got back, he found out that he wouldn't be going and they needed him to stay state side. I was relieved as was my mother and sister I am sure, but my dad was really disappointed and upset. When I asked him why, he said that he signed up to defend and protect our country and that was his job to go over there. I didn't fully understand that until he got back in and deployed to Iraq. My dad doesn't complain. I know that he doesn't want to leave us, but he is a true hero and he enjoys serving his country. I hope that he knows the pride he instills in all of us."
Jones later volunteered to be the company commander of a maintenance company and was charged with moving D Company, 2nd Battalion, 101st Aviation Brigade from Fort Hood to Fort Campbell. He volunteered for this assignment so he could return to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell. In July of 1993, Walt was informed his Fort Campbell stabilization would be dissolved and he now had the choice to serve either in Honduras or Panama. Jones retired July, 31 1993.
During his farewell ceremony, his battalion commander told a crowd of Soldiers and their families that "trying to keep Walt from retiring was like pulling teeth" - to which Walt replied "you can have my teeth sir, but I'm still retiring!" and handed the commander his set of false teeth. Jones thought it was one last good laugh for his great career.
After retiring from the Army, Walt's first job was with Sikorsky, and this job took him to Saudi Arabia to test fly Blackhawks at King Khalid Military City with the Royal Saudi Land Forces Army Aviation Command. He spent five and a half years in and out of Saudi Arabia. He trained the Saudi MTPs on the Sikorsky Alpha, Lima and Victor model S70s and the Bell 406 Combat Scout - similar to the OH-58. Eventually the contract with Sikorsky was coming to an end in Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis did not believe that Sikorsky would simply redeploy all of the Sikorsky employees from the country in one day. Walt remembers the dumbfounded looks on their faces when they all left.
After several months, McDonnell Douglas was awarded the contract and Walt returned with many of the same former Sikorsky employees to find that not a single hour of flight time was logged while they were gone. The Saudi pilots apparently had absolutely no trust in their own mechanics to maintain the aircraft and had refused to fly. While the contractor continued to change, including Boeing and the Al Salam Aircraft Company, Jones remained. Eventually, it was time to find something closer to home in Clarksville, Tenn. So Walt was hired by DynCorp to work in their Technical Supply division and later as an inspector for their Airframe Condition Evaluation Team in the region that included both Fort Rucker and Fort Campbell.
These jobs kept Jones close to home but something was missing. In 2005 he came to Diane with a proposal - the Army was looking for MTPs and if he returned to active duty, the retirement pay would improve - so it would be a good deal. She knew what he was thinking immediately, "You want to fly again," she said. He did. "Well you could have just said that," she replied.
Diane was doubtful and said, "Well, when he first started considering returning to the Army, I really didn't think that they would take him back. ha!"
Walt's mother agreed, "He's too old, they'll never take him back." But both were surprised as he returned to Army service. Walt's family was nervous about this move, but they knew how much he missed flying.
"He had sacrificed a lot during the years he had been retired so that we could stay here in Clarksville. He knew it was important to me and the kids that they got to stay in one place for High School," says Diane. "I wanted him to be happy doing a job that he enjoys and so, here we are. I'm happy for him."
Jenny, while serving in law enforcement in the United States Air Force, said, "I was so proud and happy for him. I thought it was neat that we would be serving at the same time."
As Walt arrived at his new unit at Fort Campbell, he immediately recognized the unit patch. He was assigned to D Company, 5th Battalion, 101st Aviation - "Ghostriders." It was the very same patch from his first unit in 1975, the same unit that first received Blackhawks. Walt was home.
Today, Jones is the officer in charge of the quality control section of D Company that supervises the quality assurance of every aircraft in the battalion.
When he is not hard at work flying or managing his section, he is probably watching a Titan's game with Diane, Heather, and her family, or on the lake in the off season. He now has two grandchildren by each daughter. All his ladies are very proud of him and the great family they made together.
Jenny says, "I'm so glad [our parents] raised us like they did, because it made me a better person. I love my dad so much, and I am more proud than I can even express. He's my hero, but not just because he's a Soldier. He is a great father. He's made so many sacrifices that I didn't really understand till now."
Heather agrees, "I don't even know that my dad knows how I feel about him getting back in, but I am very proud of my dad. He is a perfectionist and has an eye for detail."
Diane concludes, "His work is important to him and he's always given 100 percent. That's the type of person he is and has been all the years I've known him. He's happy being back in the Army and doing a job that he loves, and I'm happy for him. We were lucky and raised two great daughters. How it happened, I don't know."
As a commissioned warrant officer, Jones has the privilege of reenlisting young Soldiers. When he is asked to do so, he always makes a point to say what an honor and privilege it is to give the Oath of Enlistment. It means a lot to him to be able to give the oath to someone at the beginning of their career, 40 years after he began his own journey.
"As I get older - my eyes get wetter," he says.
In his many years of service, Walt has enlisted and cared for countless Soldiers, fixed countless aircraft, flown over 3,800 hours, witnessed a complete changeover from analog to digital aviation technology, and ushered in an entirely new era of Army Aviation. His ventures have taken him around the planet to places like Vietnam, Germany, Korea, Texas, Hawaii, Australia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and recently Afghanistan. It has, no doubt, been quite an adventure so far. Those of us who have had the privilege to serve alongside Walt are unanimous in our opinion: Walt is perhaps one of the most humble, hard working, caring, and experienced Soldiers flying America's sons and daughters today - and it has been a privilege.