Toms and Barnett Shootdown: a Pilot's Perspective


R.D. Toms, Jr.

May 2015


It was the morning of September 17, 1970, QuanLoi airfield in the Republic of Vietnam. It seemed to be a usual morning, the humidity was high but I remember it as not being too hot. These are my recollections of that day. I have also added information gleaned after the fact.

I was standing at the nose of my aircraft. A team was out performing a mission at that time. As we readying the aircraft, someone came running out of the communications hooch yelling, "Marzola has been shot down". I immediately headed to the cockpit while yelling to Tom Barnett to mount up. We got airborne and were heading northeast toward the Cambodian border. Joe Jackson had formed up on my wing. We flew hard and fast and slowly gained altitude to expedite our arrival on station.

As we approached the contact area I saw Ed Marzola's aircraft on the ground. It was in a clearing with rotors turning. I determined the enemy location and saw Ed come to a hover. My assessment of the situation was that he was attempting to depart the area. To facilitate his departure I initiated a rocket run on enemy positions so that cover fire would be provided.

As I pulled out of my rocket run, I looked for Joe Jackson's run on target, so that I could provide appropriate cover to him. I did not see Joe on a rocket run, however I did see him flying away from the target area. It was not clear to me, at that time, that Ed had cleared the area. As a result, I radioed to Joe that I was back inbound, meaning I was starting another rocket run. The intent of this run was to continue to provide cover for Ed's departure from the area.

Into the second rocket run, we engaged a target. I then noticed that we were taking fire from our side (the AH1G, Cobra, has a large side silhouette and as a result is a very good target from the side). The rounds began to impact the aircraft very severely. In the initial stages I remember that the aircraft stability control actuation system (SCAS) had pitched the aircraft nose down. I was looking straight forward and straight at the ground. This is not a usual or good horizontal attitude and definitely not the visual picture one is used to in this type of aircraft. My first thoughts were, I'm going to die". My second thoughts were, "keep flying".

As a result of earlier training, I made an attempt to regain control of the aircraft and put it on the ground, in what I considered to be, a relatively safe area. As I pulled back on the cyclic the aircraft responded appropriately, and the aircraft leveled out. I determined the spot in which I desired to put the aircraft down and guided the aircraft in that direction.

It is my belief, that the initial rounds that impacted the aircraft, hit the turret and the ammo bay and destroyed them. I maneuvered the aircraft toward the landing site and continued taking hits. These hits were in the fuel cell area. As rounds continued to impact the aircraft fuselage, I realized that the aircraft was on fire. Smoke started coming into the cockpit through the ventilation vents.

My attempts at communication appeared not to be effective. It turned out that I could transmit, but I was not hearing any reception. (In my second tour, I had a similar situation in reverse, I could hear but not transmit. It was a result of my mic cord being shot in half.) Despite of my perceived loss of communication, I continued to transmit our condition and my intent.

As smoke continued to fill the cockpit, I realized that it was unlikely that I would have the visibility to effect a safe landing. I saw Tom Barnett attempting to open his canopy door (instead of trying to jettison it). I believe that Tom was a pilot that had come over from the UH-1 (Slick) platoon and had not been through Cobra transition.As a result it is likely that he was not aware of the method to jettison the door or the importance of stowing the sight. I noticed that his turret gun sight was not secure and was floating in the cockpit. With the amount of smoke coming into the aircraft, seeing him struggling with the door, and realizing that we would likely impact the ground "hard", I yelled to Tom several times to forget the door and stow the sight.

As the aircraft continued taking hits and the cockpit continued to fill with smoke, I realized that it would not be possible to keep the aircraft level due to lack of visibility. I was very concerned about the aircraft landing on its side and even more concerned about it going inverted. Knowing that the SCAS could be confused and in an attempt to negate input to the rotor head, thereby keeping the aircraft somewhat level, I decided to move the cyclic in a counterclockwise motion at maximum extent (i.e., wipe out the cockpit with the cyclic). I had hoped this action would cause the aircraft to settle or wobble toward the ground. (Talking with observers afterwards, they indicated that this in fact happened and that the aircraft had struck the ground in a level position, i.e., it him and pancaked in.)

Aside from the smoke problem it was becoming apparent that I was beginning to lose control of the aircraft. It was confirmed when I saw the turn and slip indicator ball in an extreme position, hard up against the end of the race. I pressed on the appropriate pedal and there was no trim adjustment. The last thing I remember before the crash was a complete gray out in the cockpit and then everything went black.

Among the aircraft flying in the area was Scout pilot Louis Chodara and his gunner Sgt. Purcell. Louis landed his aircraft, and the two of them pulled Tom and I out of the burning wreckage. (Later, in the hospital, Sgt. Purcell told me that the rockets were "cooking off". He had burn blisters on his face and also said that he was having trouble hearing as a result of the noise.) These are two brave and courageous men, to whom I am indebted. They gave of themselves sacrificially

The next thing I remembered was being dragged by two what I believe to be infantry toward a waiting helicopter. What appeared to bring me to consciousness was that my pistol had gotten caught on a bush and for this I was very upset, I then passed out again. My next remembrance was on the floor of the helicopter laying next to Tom. As I woke I heard myself saying, "oh my back, oh my back", not understanding why I was saying that. I looked over at Tom, and saw him jerk up to a sitting position, and then I was out again. I was in and out of consciousness as I was transported to an aid station and then the 92nd hospital at Long Binh.

As a result of the crash Tom Barnett paid the ultimate sacrifice and died 10 days later from renal failure, based on what I was told. It is also my understanding that he had received serious trauma from the sight impacting his body and might have had a severed spinal cord. I suffered three compression fractures in my spine (ultimately losing the disc between T9 and T10), first, second, and third degree burns, fractured sternum, fractured wrist and temporary paralysis.

By the grace of God, I was able to recover.I returned to Vietnam a little over a year later.


Post Log

I was later able to obtain the following information:

Ed Marzola's aircraft had received a hit in the ammo bay they landed the aircraft. After making an assessment on the ground they were able to depart the area safely.

Talking to Joe Jackson at Fort Rucker some months later, I learned that the reason Joe was flying away from the target was that the CO, Major Rafferty, had called a disengagement from the target, over the VHF radio frequency. My VHF was inoperative (it was typical for aircraft to aircraft communication to be carried on the UHF radios, not VHF). Joe stated, that, when I called that I was back inbound he immediately returned to the fight. He also noted, that as I was taking fire he was putting rockets on the gun that was engaging our aircraft. He further stated that that the rockets were impacting the gun, yet it continued firing. It was concluded that the weapon was a radar controlled .51 caliber antiaircraft gun.

In discussions with others, it was not clear as to whether the aircraft exploded in air or on contact with the ground.

During my return to in '71-'72 Vietnam, some of my fellow pilots and I decided to go to a nearby officers club. On our way back from the club, one of my fellow pilots mentioned to me that he had a discussion with a UH 1H (Huey ) pilot from a sister unit. The Huey pilot told him that he was in the aircraft that recovered Tom and I. He also said that the Huey pilot told him that they had counted 23 bullet holes in the transmission cowling alone.I was never able to find out who this pilot was.

There is seldom a day that goes by that this incident does not come to mind. The loss of Tom was tragic and I deeply regret some of the decisions I made that day. The heroism of Chodara and Purcell is beyond commendation and stands as great credit to the men that they are. I know that this event was not unique and had seen it replay itself many times during my second tour during the siege of An Loc in the Easter Offensive of 1972. After much reflection in the months and years after about this incident; others similar incidents; and incidents that should have had the same or worse results but did not; it is evident to me that these are not random occurrences in a random world. I have concluded that God intervenes in the lives, deaths, and events of man.



Thomas M. Barnett

Tribute to Tom Barnett



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