August 1970, I’m the pilot in command of an Army Huey in Vietnam. The mission that day was a simple ‘ash & trash’ cargo lift. I was flying beans and bullets to troops in the field for USARV—US Army Vietnam. They were good people to fly for, and I had an easy day.
Until I didn’t. At four pm I got word that a powerful storm was coming in off the South China Sea, so the commanding General had ordered all aviation assets, planes and helicopters, to be on the ground by 5 o’clock. No exceptions.
It was just after four, and a ten-minute flight home to Camp Eagle, so I had plenty of time. I finished up the USARV mission, glanced at the fuel gauge which showed forty minutes of fuel, and took off for home. I looked forward to a night in the club, killing a few beers, and swapping lies with my colleagues. Out at sea I saw the blackening sky, jagged lightning, and a cascade of rain on the ocean. I felt a temperature drop, the chill air that precedes a thunderstorm. In that moment the radio chattered with a call that changed my life.
It was USARV calling back. “There’s a woman down the coast at Tan My,” the fellow said. “She’s in labor, and her baby is breech. If she doesn’t get to a hospital tonight, she’s going to die. Can you fly down there and get her?” The radio fell silent. Another mission? I saw the decisions I had to make: Fly down there, save the woman’s life? Navigate the storm back to base? Disobey a direct order from the Commanding General? Or refuse the mission, head for home, comply with the general’s order, and…
And what? And always wonder if trusting my gut is the better choice? And prove what a hero I am? And know I could have saved a life, but didn’t?
My finger rested on the mic switch. I weighed all the pluses, all the minuses. My crew had heard the call as well, and they stared at me, waiting for my decision. I checked the clock: 4:50. The fuel gauge: 500 pounds, enough for 40 minutes of flight. I did the math: fifteen minutes down, fifteen back, ten more to home base… Then I’d face the general…
My intuition told me the call from USARV was the most important mission I might ever face as a pilot. I looked at my crew. Every one of those brave, solid men nodded their heads yes. I keyed the mic “We’re on our way.” I turned the helicopter toward Tan My.
We put the wet, terrified woman on board, and I took off in driving rain. Lightning guided me back. The wind was on its hind legs. At 5:20 I landed at the 85th Evac, the American military facility at Phu Bai. Shortly, the woman was put on a gurney and carried inside. I took off, fuel nearly gone, and landed at 5:30. As I walked into operations the sergeant handed me the phone. “It’s HQ,” he said. “They heard you fly in late.”
I took the field phone, and a Major spoke. “Mr. Edgington, you had a direct order to be on the ground by five. I have one question for you: Was your mission life or death?”
“Yessir, it was,” I said.
“That’s all I need to know,” he said, and he hung up.
I went to the club, killed several beers, and slept better than I remembered. The next morning the storm had blown out, and I returned to routine flying.
In September 1971 I was posted with the Ohio National Guard in Columbus. It was a Friday evening, and I was on ‘Medicopter’ duty, a helicopter rescue mission the Guard had set up before commercial air medical helicopters started doing business. In the ready room that night I was sitting around, chomping pizza, swapping lies with the crew, waiting for an emergency call to put us in the air. The doctor assigned to our mission that night was a surgeon from Ohio State University Hospital named Stu Roberts.
As always happens when a bunch of pilots and aircrews gather, we were telling war stories, trying to outdo each other in our exploits, and the aviation tales that drive hangar talk everywhere. When it was my turn, I started telling the story of the pregnant woman from Tan My. I mentioned the general’s orders, the decision I had to make, and my crew’s agreement to make the flight.
Halfway into the story, Doc Roberts stopped eating pizza, and leaned forward. He’d done a short sabbatical in Vietnam, but I didn’t know where or when. Something in his demeanor stopped me, and made me pay attention. “Was that in August of ‘70?” he asked.
“Yes, August of…”
“Girl from Tan My? Down the coast?”
“Yeah, doc, that’s where she…”
“Big storm that day?”
I nodded, wondering where he was headed, and why all the questions. “Big storm, I said. “In fact, I…”
“I delivered that kid,” Roberts said.
Stunned, I couldn’t respond. The room fell silent. My colleagues looked at Doc Roberts, and then at me.
“I gotta know,” I said.
Roberts smiled. “They did fine,” he said. “Baby boy. We made him a crib from an empty rocket box, and they went home to Tan My the next morning.”
Sometimes knowing you followed your gut and things worked takes a long time.
I went back to that tense afternoon, the mission, the storm, the terrified woman. The call from USARV begging me to help. I went back to the Major’s question: “Was it life or death?”
I had my answer. Yes, it was.