Machine-Gun Practice

by Capt. John Snidow

Hazing, or something like it, wasn't altogether unheard of on long flights across the Pacific during the Vietnam War. Boredom was as much responsible as anything else. The young, new hire F/As were far away from their upbringing which was sometimes in remote and unsophisticated areas of the U.S. (remember, this was back in the middle and late nineteen sixties) and they were experiencing a trip of a lifetime. Coming from the mountains of the southern Appalachians, I have some experience there. If a passenger airplane was empty inbound to Vietnam, the new ladies were often invited to sit in the two cockpit jumpseats. It was a great opportunity for mischief and pilot practical jokers couldn't resist.

One scenario was set up after the two jumpseaters were in place. The captain and the first officer (F/O) would get into a big prearranged argument about whose turn it was to "shoot" at something. The F/O had to lose the argument, slide his seat back, and put his feet up on the footrest at the bottom of the DC-8 instrument panel. All the while, he would make disparaging comment about the captain's heritage, his inability to hit anything, and what a waste of time all this was. Meanwhile, the captain would point out the two "guns" (the pitot tubes in front of the windshield that measure airspeed) while making an exaggerated autopilot disconnect and rolling the airplane 10-15° left and right. The F/O's foot was now over the Mach Overspeed Warning light which could be tested by pushing on it, resulting in it lighting up (which you couldn't see with the foot over it) and a loud clacker aural warning sounding something like a machine gun. The captain would make a big deal of saying "there's one" while rolling the airplane around and the F/O would imperceptibly push the overspeed warning with his foot. The jumpseaters always visibly jumped. The F/O would say, "you not only missed it, it was one of ours!" in apparent disgust After landing, the women would go back and tell the others about the stunning events in a near state of shock. They didn't get the reaction they expected, of course, because the more senior F/As were in on the joke, many of them having gone through the experience themselves. Sometime it backfired. One morning about 4 a.m., we were approaching Bien Hoa Air Base northeast of Saigon. About 400 feet above the ground, there was a blinding light in the darkened cockpit. We thought we had been hit! The jumpseater had taken a photo with her Kodak Instamatic camera. The DC-8, not noted for having soft landing gear, hit the runway like a ton of bricks. It was very quiet taxing to the ramp. I had forgotten to brief her about that. Funny now, but not so then.

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