It takes Robert F. Curtis forty-two pages to get to Vietnam in his memoir, Surprised at Being Alive: An Accidental Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and Beyond (Casemate, 298 pp., $32.95 hardcover; $9.99 Kindle). But the wait was well worth the reading time.
Curtis’ eye for detail puts him in the top rank of my list of Vietnam War autobiographers. The precision of his style creates both the picture and the mood of acts as simple as crawling out of bed and shuffling to the flight line in the middle of the night.
Curtis repeatedly refreshed my Vietnam War memories. His highly personalized description of helicopter action during Lam Son 719 is the most straightforward account of that operation I have read. What’s more, Curtis injects historical references without breaking the narrative thread.
As a WO1, Curtis flew CH-47C Chinooks for the 101st Airborne Division in the 158th Aviation Battalion at Phu Bai. “For helicopter pilots at least, war stories don’t even require a war,” he writes. For war-time and peacetime missions, nights are just as dark, the weather just as bad, and loads just as heavy.
He describes helicopters as a “collection of thousands of parts flying in close formation” waiting for a “single-point” failure that, if it happens, brings the entire machine crashing down. Because helicopters do not have ejection seats and crews do not have parachutes, he says, “where the helicopter goes, also goes the crew.”
Curtis does not write about just the Vietnam War. His memoir covers a twenty-five-year, five-thousand-flight-hour career in helicopters. After leaving the Army, he flew with the Kentucky National Guard, the United States Marine Corps, and the British Royal Navy.
As a CW2 in the National Guard, Curtis’ tasks ranged from flying a governor on a tornado damage-assessment mission to helping state troopers spy on striking truckers from the air. Curtis flew an assortment of helicopters, and he details the peculiarities of each model.
The post-war section dispenses with the desperation in the earlier combat tales. The stories here are enlightening and funny. For example: “In the event of a complete loss of engine power at night, the pilot should turn on both the landing and searchlights. If he does not like what he sees, he should turn them off.”
After three years in the Guard, and with a new college degree and acceptance letters to two law schools, Curtis opted for a commission as a Marine aviator. Instructor duties, deployments, and exercises filled his years (1975-93) in the Marine Corps. He provides insights into helicopter operations from ships, mainly aboard the USS Guam, particularly at night. Without sparing the feelings of other services, he also highlights the Marine Corps’ distinctive approach to developing its Special Operations Capable units.
During two years of exchange duty with the Royal Navy, Curtis deployed from Africa to the Arctic. He mastered the difficulties of flying through brownouts from blowing sand and whiteouts from falling snow, on the ground and in the air. Operating from a ship in the notorious British fog further tested his airmanship. This section could have been titled “The Amazing Became Routine and the Routine Was Amazing.”
I found but one fault with Curtis’ thinking. He contends that success in flying results from “luck and superstition,” words that put final punctuation on most of his stories. Based on his stories and those of other pilots, I believe that success in flying helicopters results from the pilot’s skill and bravery that transcends fear—and, yes, perhaps with an occasional nod from Lady Luck.
On second thought, Curtis’ many references to “luck and superstition” that supposedly explain his surviving many narrow escapes from danger might simply be his way of downplaying his skill and bravery.