Naval Aviator


BIO & Photos submitted by
James Oden

I was one of the first Army CH-54A “Skycrane” pilots and deployed to Vietnam as part of the 1st Cavalry Division in 1965. I served with the Crane Company for one year and was one of a small group of pilots and enlisted men who helped pioneer the combat support role for this huge helicopter.

Colonel Smucker ordered me to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico to further research a means of bombing with a helicopter. Finally the Kirtland tem came up with a series of modifications so we could use drop tactics:

  • First, a “cradle” was attached to the fuselage to hold the bomb secure horizontally under the Skycrane.
  • Second, a harness attached the bomb to the Crane’s cargo hook and winch cable, enabling the bomb to be held tightly against the cradle.
  • Third, we installed a three foot piece of pipe with an arming mechanism to the fuse in the nose of the bomb. A pin kept a small propeller from turning and the pin was pulled as the bomb fell away, which allowed the propeller to spin, arming the fuse.
  • Fourth, the Air Force designed a parachute to stabilize and retard the bomb’s descent, necessary because it had no fins.
  • Fifth, we obtained a WWII drift meter, a navigation instrument that presents a grid on the landscape below so that drift could be determined and corrections made.

This was our crude but workable bomb sight and we mounted it in the aft pilot’s station, who would now become the bombardier. Two Crane pilots from Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, CWO Handley and Wilson, joined the team and we began to develop bombing tactics with deactivated bombs. After determining that a safe altitude of 6,000 ft above the terrain and 60 knots on a specific heading gave us the best chance of success, our bombardier, Wilson, would view the target through the drift meter. On his command the crew chief would hand drop a target missile with a smoke grenade in it.

Wilson observed this through the drift meter and once it hit he would pass on the necessary corrections to the pilot. For example, if the smoke grenade landed 3 grids to the left of target and 4 grids below the target, we would make a 360 turn. With these corrections in mind, Wilson would direct us for another run, sort of a Kentucky windage for Crane and a 10,000 pound bomb. Three smoke passes were made and on the fourth we dropped the bomb. We all assembled at Red Beach just north of Da Nang, Vietnam in September of 1968 and after briefing local commanders, we modified a Skycrane from the 478th Avn Company to become the first helicopter “bomber”.

Our first drop was west of Hue. The Commander wanted it place on top of a junle covered hill. We went through our procedure and when Wilson yelled “bombs away”, we pulled full power. We wanted all the altitude we could get as we were unsure of just how far the shrapnel from the bomb would travel, we certainly didn’t want to shoot ourselves down. We circled back and observed our work, feeling pretty confident that any Vietcong in the area would have a bad headache and rigging in their ears.

Accuracy was and continued to be the problem. I believe we missed that hilltop by 120 meters. You can imagine trying to drop a marble into a can from three stories up. Eventually, we dropped three more bombs, all near the western side of the DMZ, in late September or early October.

Only one, and it fell on a hillside, was usable as an LZ. I went into this LZ to retrieve a downed helicopter a few days later and can vouch that the bomb worked as advertised. With the smart bombs of today, clearing an LZ should be much simpler.

A week or so after dropping the bombs, Hanoi Hanna (the VC’s Tokyo Rose) labeled us as was criminals for introducing a new weapon into the war and read our names over the Hanoi radio. There was a security leak somewhere. Anyway, that finished the Army phase of the project. The Air Force continued to test drop 10,000 pound bombs from the back of C-130s. I am not sure of their degree of success.

Wilson and I stayed to finish our year in Vietnam with the 478th Aviation Company. Handley returned to Ft Sill, Oklahoma. As for the CH-54 Skycrane bomber, it was returned to standard operational configuration and the bomb sight and cradle was crated up and left in the supply room, never used again, to the best of my knowledge.

After spending 28 years in the Army, Jim Oden retired in 1973. He served in the enlisted, commissioned, and Warrant Officer corps, retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star of Valor, Purple Heart (Korea), and air medals. He and his wife Rae, reside in Rogers, Arkansas. This article is reprinted with the permission of James Oden, 23 June, 2012, Charter Member of VHPASMO.

James Oden

Air America

South Missouri Chapter of VHPA

Air Force Aviator

Coast Guard Aviator

In 1968, I was home preparing for my second tour to Vietnam when I was directed to return to Ft. Rucker, Alabama for a mission that could not be discussed over the phone.

Arriving at Ft. Rucker, CW3 “Bo” Brown and I were assigned to a CH-54 and crew and told to fly to Ft. Benning, Georgia for further instructions. At Ft. Benning, we learned that we were the Army part of a joint Army-Air Force effort to use surplus 10,000 pound bombs to blow instant helicopter landing zones (LZs) in the jungles of Vietnam.

These bombs (minus their fins), originally made for the B-36 bomber, were stored in the Pueblo Ordnance Depot, Pueblo, Colorado and would be available for the project.

A USAF Colonel Smucker was director of the project. He selected a “Vietnam like” tree covered test site and under his direction the Air Force had moved a 10,000 pound bomb from Pueblo and built a tripod stand for it to fit into so that it would explode about three feet above the ground. Upon detonation, the trees would be knocked down, without creating a crater.

Initially, the tactics were to hover over the area, lower the bomb, utilizing the Crane’s 100 ft cable, release the hook and fly away and detonate it by remote control, which we did. Our test LZ was large enough for a UH-1 Huey to land an engineer tem with chain saws which cleared a reasonable large LZ in quick order.

In the debriefing, as encouraging as the results were, we discussed the safety aspects of flying a “hot” bomb over enemy terrain, hovering to lower it onto target, the possibility of it getting “hung-up” in the triple canopy jungle and the chances of a radio transmission prematurely detonating the bomb. I recommended against this procedure.


South Missouri Chapter of VHPA

Marine Aviator

Army Aviator