Author's Name: Richard Elgin

Title: "Sniffer Missions"

In an effort to literally smell the bad guys, the military had a “sniffer” machine developed and built. The airborne version of the machine was flown at treetop level, sampling the air. The machine took in an air sample, analyzed it, testing for ammonia (I think) from urine. Where there is urine there are humans and if there is urine detected where there aren’t any good guys, they must be bad guys…that is if the urine detected wasn’t from monkeys or water buffalo. No matter…get out there and “sniff” for urine. If we detect some we’ll land some artillery on top of the spot. Too bad for the monkeys and water buffalo!

The 196th Brigade Headquarters had a Chemical Corps captain who ran the sniffer missions. These ill-conceived and high-risk missions took quite a bit of planning and coordination, and they went like this: The Chemical captain, along with our maintenance guys would mount the black box sensing equipment (the “sniffer”)  to the floor (literally) in the back of a LOH. A piece of 2” aluminum pipe was attached to the side of the helicopter, the tube extending five or six feet in front of the helicopter’s bubble, acting as a sampling tube. A flexible hose connected the black box to the back of the tube. The black box had a meter on its side which the captain watched, while seated in one of the LOH’s back seats, next to the box. As I flew, air went into the tube and into the black box.  When the sensors in the black box detected ammonia in the air sample, the meter would peg itself indicating we’d just flown by the bad guys, or their camp. When the meter pegged itself the Chemical captain would yell “hot spot, hot spot” on the radio indicating where the bad guys were, according to the black box. 

We flew these missions with a team of helicopters. The LOH (me) was down on the deck, intentionally doing my best to get as close to the bad guys as possible, hot spots being called out when the black box showed a reading. About 2000 feet above my LOH was a Huey. His job was twofold: On a map up there had been marked locations where someone thought the bad guys were located, so the mission coordinator would direct me (with radio calls from the Huey overhead) where to fly such that I would fly right over the suspected camps or positions of the bad guys. When the meter pegged and the Chemical captain yelled “hot spot” the mission coordinator 2000 feet up was supposed to be watching me and marking on the map exactly where the “hot spot” had been called. Those locations were passed on to the artillery folks after we had cleared the area. The other team members were the Firebird gunships.  If the “sniffer ship” (me) got shot down, the gunships were to keep the bad guys away while the mission control Huey swooped in to grab the Chemical captain and me. If we started taking fire the gunships were there to sanitize the area. These were the only missions I ever flew in Vietnam where I had gunship cover.  

One other kind of disconcerting thing about the black box and the mission was that the black box had a small thermite hand grenade, bolted in a bracket to all 5 sides of the box. ( All sides of the box except the floor side.) We were told that the box was TOP SECRET. If we crashed, our instructions were to pull the pin on the thermite grenade which was on top of the box and run like hell. After a few seconds it would explode, starting a chemically-induced fire that would eat its way through the black box and destroy it, along with the helicopter. It was a pretty good plan. With a grenade attached to each side, no matter in what position the crashed LOH came to rest, one side had to be up (unless we were upside down), so pull the pin on top. And oh yes, Warrant Officer Elgin, it is the Chemical captain’s job to pull the pin, but if he’s dead, then it’s your job. Burn the damn thing up. Understand? “Yes, sir.”

The mornings of these missions we would all gather over at the fixed-wing airstrip at Baldy. There I would meet up with the mission control Huey and the Firebird gunships. Everyone was tense. So the team would get all equipped and prepared and briefed and take off. It wasn’t every day someone actually directed your low level flight out in Indian Country to intentionally fly over the bad guys. At the start of these missions the Pucker Factor was about 7.  When the Chemical captain yelled “hot spot” it went to 9. When the bad guys shot at you it was a solid 10 out of 10.

Every so often we would get AAR’s (After Action Reports) after the artillery had shelled a “hot spot” and the grunts had gone there after the strike to observe the remnants of a bad guys’ camp. One time I remember getting an unusually large, long, “hot spot” reading. We took no fire. It was noted and called-in. A few days later the AAR informed us that we had successfully found and the artillery had destroyed a group of water buffalo. And I thought the black box sensed only the bad guys!  

During these missions I took ground fire and hits, but was never shot down. I think due to poor results and the system being unreliable, after a while these missions were cancelled. The system seemed to be unreliable because in our area the valleys sometimes had lots of smoke or haze in them and the temperatures and humidity seemed to bother what must have been some very sensitive sensors in the black box. We were all happy to see those missions cancelled.