Scott completed many rescues as helicopter pilot

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McGregor resident David Scott earned multiple commendations during his 22 years serving in the Army and Coast Guard, including air medals, distinguished flying crosses, a bronze star and purple heart. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

David Scott served in Vietnam from April 1965 to April 1966, with the Army’s 197th Armed Helicopter Company and 145th Battalion. Minus a few stints transporting cargo and troops, he mostly flew armed helicopters to suppress resistance aimed at U.S. ground troops. (Submitted photo)

Not all Scott's Coast Guard search and rescue missions were marine. He once had to help pick a man up off the top of a grain bin following an explosion. (Submitted photo)

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register


McGregor resident David Scott served 22 distinguished years in the U.S. military, first with the Army, including one year as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, followed by 16 years flying search and rescue missions with the Coast Guard.


Scott grew up in central Iowa with service in his genes. His father and several uncles were World War II veterans. He became involved with the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) while in college at Iowa State University, and also earned his pilot’s license during this span. Scott started active duty in February 1961, and while at Fort Sill, Okla., became an advisor for new ROTC candidates coming into the school.


On one fateful day, Scott was tasked with escorting some of those who’d signed up for aviation to the hospital for their flight physicals.


“Only seven of the eight showed up,” he recalled. “They said, ‘You’re supposed to have eight. What are we going to do? You only brought seven.’ I said, ‘Write down Scott.’ They did, and a few minutes later they called me back for a flight physical. A couple months later, they sent me orders to Army helicopter flight school.”


Scott said transitioning from piloting a plane to a helicopter wasn’t too difficult.


“The noise is different because you’ve got to keep up and down with the collective beside you,” he explained. “You steer where you’re going with the cyclic between your knees. You keep the nose in front of you with your feet and two pedals. A helicopter can pick up straight and hover. An airplane, you have to have minimum takeoff speed so it’ll lift off the ground.” 


What followed were stops at Fort Walters, Texas, Fort Rucker, Ala., and then Fort Benning, Ga., where the Army was forming the 11th Air Assault Helicopter Division. In April 1965, Scott was among three helicopter companies sent to Vietnam. 


“They sent our helicopters out to the west coast and put them on a Navy [landing platform helicopter] and the crews for the helicopters inside, and we set off for Vietnam,” he said.


Scott served one year in the country with the 197th Armed Helicopter Company and 145th Battalion. Minus a few stints transporting cargo and troops, he spent the majority of time flying armed helicopters.


“The 197th was armed with machine guns that the co-pilot fired and one for each of the two door gunners. Sometimes we’d go in and strafe an area to try to clear the VC out before the troop carriers landed. Then, while troops were on the ground, we’d try to suppress any resistance they received. Then we’d escort them back out,” Scott said. “Each machine gun was firing about 700 rounds a minute, so we had to carry extra ammunition on board. Depending on what the two door gunners decided, we’d have between 6,000 and 10,000 rounds of .30 caliber on board. Plus we had seven 2.5-inch rockets that were usually fired by the pilot. Fourteen rockets, seven on each side, and you’d fire them as pairs.”


“There were times we were engaged with the enemy with several bunches of helicopters,” Scott added. “Most of the time, I was flying with a wingman. We’d coordinate by radio and go in and do the engagement.”


Some of the most challenging times involved aiding special forces, when the armed helicopters were tasked with suppressing fire from the enemy until U.S. troops fled or reorganized. Scott could tell who was firing based on the bullet tracers: U.S. tracers were orange while the opponent’s were blue/green.


How often did he have to think on the fly? “Oh, every second or two,” Scott responded. “You just concentrate on what you’re doing. You have something to accomplish that you’ve been briefed on, so you try to do it to the best of your ability.”


“But it was always challenging,” he continued. “There’s times you worked to help the special forces if they were engaged in a fire fight. If they got somebody wounded that needed to be evacuated, we’d go in, suppress enemy fire and land. My wingman would keep circling and suppressing fire while I got that injured person in, then suppress fire with machine guns going out.” 


Other missions involved escorting medevac helicopters, which were not armed.


“We’d try to draw fire away from them,” Scott said. “We could see [enemy] tracers, so we could zero in and suppress their ability to concentrate on the medevac.”


Scott returned from Vietnam in April 1966 and served as an instructor for pilots entering flight school. In 1967, he had the opportunity to return to combat, but transitioned out of the Army into the Coast Guard instead. The idea was suggested by a friend.


“After some of the rescues I was able to perform in Vietnam, when this friend mentioned the Coast Guard did search and rescue, I thought it could be really interesting, being able to help people out,” Scott said.


After signing up in Houston, Texas, Scott was stationed in Traverse City, Mich., covering much of the Great Lakes and occasionally up into Canada.


“I was up there when a big freighter sank on the eastern end of Lake Superior. We spent 30 days searching for it,” he recalled.


From there, Scott moved to southeast Alaska, stationed offshore from Ketchikan. Crews searched north to Juneau and Yakutat, even once looking for the missing plane of an Alaskan congressman.


Three years later, it was on to Cape Cod, where coverage included not just that area, but up into New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and southeast Canada.


Scott’s final stop was in New Orleans, largely flying search and rescue into the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to the Florida panhandle.


“We made a number of rescues off the drilling platforms that were offshore. If the weather was bad enough, the oil company helicopter wouldn’t be able to make it, so they’d call for us to go out,” he said. 


The final two years, Scott was reassigned from the air station to the district headquarters in New Orleans, serving as the Coast Guard advisor to the volunteer Coast Guard Auxiliary.


Of all his rescues, Scott said hurricanes were among the most difficult.


“Occasionally, they’d say, ‘Well, you have to rescue somebody in the middle of a hurricane coming up through New England.’ You’d fly into the edge of the hurricane to get them. It’s a lot of wind and rain,” he stated. “But the Coast Guard had a program that really emphasized your ability to read your instruments to control your helicopter. You had to be able to trust your instruments without looking outside to see where you were.” 


He recalled one mission rescuing the crew from an offshore Coast Guard light station off the coast of Cape Cod. 


“We went to lift the crew off and the crew was on the flight deck holding onto the structure, which was moving back and forth several feet. I figured, with the gusty winds, instead of trying to hoist one at a time, I’d land on the platform and let them scurry across to the helicopter. I let the platform roll back and forth under my wheels while the crew came over and got onboard,” Scott said.


He could even maneuver on the water, as evidenced during a search for two men whose boat sunk off Cape Cod during a storm. Without life jackets, the men treaded water through the night.


“We spotted one and I was concerned hovering over might drown him because he was really fatigued. So I sat down in the water and taxied up to him and the crewman walked out to the rescue platform and grabbed him by the collar. Just as he did, I dipped the helicopter sideways and scooped him onto the platform, and the crewman could pull him on in,” Scott shared. “As the guy was being pulled in, I looked up ahead and could see a top of a head bobbing. So I picked up and went over and did the same thing to him. Rescued both of them. That’s what you call a good day.” 


Not all rescues were marine, however. Scott recalled hoisting out fallen hikers, even picking someone off the top of a grain bin following an explosion.


“That was another instance of having to rely on your instruments. You could see almost outside the window,” due to the choking smoke from burning grain, Scott said. “I was 50 feet above the 250-foot silo, trying to get a rescue basket down to the guy.”


“Just another challenging day,” he added. “It’s all part of the job.”


Through his 22-year career in both the Army and Coast Guard, Scott earned multiple commendations, including air medals, distinguished flying crosses, a bronze star and purple heart. For him, it was a privilege to serve his country.


“It was a rewarding life,” Scott said. “You’re out there being guided by the crewmen in the back: ‘Move several inches this way or that way with the basket.’ Trying to keep the helicopter up and the crew with you. All those opportunities to do different things and figure out how you’re going to accomplish what you need to accomplish.”

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