Riding the Skids
An Army of One

by Richard Dieterle

MARCH ?, 1968 — I recently read an excellent website on D Co., 1/8, where the author showed a picture of a soldier of his company with his feet dangling over the edge of the open doorway of a huey. The caption described this as "riding the skids." This is definitely not what "riding the skids" meant in A Company in my day. The reason for the change in the meaning of the nomenclature can probably be traced to an order promulgated near the end of my tour. We were told flat out not to ride the skids. Apparently it was unsafe, and God knows we ought to be worried about safety in a war zone. Now they certainly did not mean that we couldn't hang our feet out the door and let them dangle above the skids; what they objected to was our our actually standing on the skids while the helicopter was in flight. This was the true meaning of "riding the skids."

The skids are the helicopter's substitute for wheels. They looked a little bit like skis, except they're rounded. Once the chopper was airborne, it was my habit, following a tradition created by others, to grip the slot where the door latched, then drop about six inches down onto the skids. This was not especially dangerous. Then I would stand on the skids no matter what maneuver the chopper executed. Surprisingly, even when the chopper leaned sharply to make a turn, I could feel no force pushing me off the skids. So in time I became quite confident, and generally made it my practice to ride the skids whenever I could. It was an exhilarating feeling, almost like sailing through the air on the mythical flying carpet. For once I was an individual again, an army of one doing his own special mission.

I hadn't always been so bold. I had first heard about riding the skids when Sgt. Washburn told me about it. It had fallen into disuse in recent months, and I could see why, as it sounded like a crazy idea to me. Once I had become acclimated to the routines of Vietnam, the idea did not seem quite as wild as it had when I was new. One day I had my legs dangling out the door, and looked down at the skids and thought, "Hell, it would be easy to drop down on them." So I got a grip on the door latch hole and dropped a few inches onto the skid below. Even though the skids were somewhat rounded, it was easy to maintain balance. After that, I completely lost my fear of the practice.

In time, riding the skids had become my special trademark. The CO, Capt. McAndrews, even tried to coin a new nickname for me — "Sky King." I thought that this was very flattering, and was certainly more romantic and prestigious than "the Deacon," but I had become used to my nickname, however denigrating it was, so I stuck to it. When the order came to avoid riding the skids, I just ignored it. I stepped out onto the skid after the ban was in effect, and the gunner gesticulated wildly at me, waving me back. I just ignored him; after all, they were hardly going to trouble themselves with a court marshal over that.

I had often turned over in my mind the one real danger: what if we flew into a hot LZ? There I would be, standing conspicuously alone in midair, so to speak. A very nice target — but hot LZs were a rarity, and at least I would be a moving target. However, the one thing that I had never thought of actually did happen to me. On one dreary gray day, we saddled up and trudged off to our makeshift LZ and waited for a flight of hueys to come in and carry us off to the boonies. However, the Brass, the clever bastards that they were, had a Plan. Unfortunately, they failed to tell us about it. Once we were airborne I immediately jumped onto the skid, and looked forward to an uneventful journey to nowhere in particular. We flew over fields and jungles, and finally we came to an area of scrub brush. We gracefully descended, nice and smooth. We had gotten to within one foot off the ground, and I thought, "Well, I'll just step off." I extended my right foot to drop down, when all of a sudden, the chopper pulled up! "What the Hell?" I said aloud, as I found myself floating in the air again. It had been a feint: a fake landing to throw the enemy off as to where we were really going. I had come within inches of stepping off the skid out into the Great Nowhere. There I would indeed have been "An Army of One." "Sky King" my ass ... I couldn't have resembled anyone more than the Deacon from "Paint Your Wagon," standing there all by myself, the only fool in the cast, while all the rest flew away to God knows where.