Monday, March 1, 2010

Like An Angel Came Down to Get Me

One of the world’s first helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) pilots shares his combat rescue experiences in the Korean War.

By Andrew D. Parker, Managing Editor

Korean War helicopter pilot, World War II fighter pilot, author, artist, great-grandfather. Many people would relish in accomplishing just one of these goals. For Richard C. Kirkland, that’s just where his story begins. Among his honors are the Distinguished Flying Cross, six Air Medals and the U.S. Air Force Commendation Medal. Rotor & Wing visited Kirkland recently at his home in Vienna, Va., where his basement features an “aviation gallery,” filled with helicopter and aircraft models and WWII, Korea and Vietnam War memorabilia from his 50-plus years in the aviation industry.

His new book, “
MASH Angles”—published by Burford Books in late 2009—provides a detailed account of life in a helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) unit in the Korean War. Kirkland’s unit—the 8055 MASH with the 3rd Air Rescue Group—helped pave the way for modern military HEMS operators. He flew the Sikorsky R-5 (H-5 after 1948, S-51 in commercial designation) and H-19 Chickasaw during the Korean War, picking up downed pilots and injured soldiers from the battlefield and transporting them to Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units. The H-13, a military variant of the Bell 47, was also used in Korea. Many of the medevac ops would take place in Korean-controlled territory, and the helicopter played a new and integral role in the war.

Helicopters from the 3rd Air Rescue Group “were given credit for picking up 846 pilots and aircrew from behind enemy lines,” Kirkland explains, adding that the group rescued 8,373 soldiers from the front lines and transported them to the mobile hospitals. “Quite a feat for a handful of taxi drivers,” he says. Kirkland served with Capt. Sam Gilfand, who was the basis for the fictional character “Hawkeye” in the popular 1970s television series, M*A*S*H, that was based off a Richard Hooker novel.

They were real people,” Kirkland says. “The reason we called him Hawkeye is he could take a wounded [patient] and see stuff no one else could see. He could save a patient when no one else could,” Kirkland says, pointing to a picture of Hawkeye, “Trapper” (Capt. Michael Johnson in real life) and himself (see photo below). While noting that Hooker exaggerated “quite a bit,” in writing the fictional characters, Kirkland says Gilfand “was a great guy, a great surgeon … and a great prankster, too.” While the book and TV series provided the story from the doctors on the ground, “it didn’t really get into the helicopter part. That was a really important part,” he adds.

An author of four published books—”MASH Angels,” “War Pilot,” “Tales of a War Pilot” and “Tales of a Helicopter Pilot”—Kirkland spends most of his time these days writing and painting, chronicling his experiences. Each one of the other books contains anywhere from 15–20 short stories, except “MASH Angels,” which is one cohesive story from cover-to-cover.

He’d been aiming to write “MASH Angels” for some time “because it was a story that just needed to be told. It’s another part of that great story that hasn’t been told. It lays the groundwork for the current air medical helicopter program that’s all around the world now, and it began in Korea.”

Flying Roots

My dad used to say, if you’re lucky you’ve got the world by the tail, but if you’re not, you’re in deep trouble. And I’m lucky. Because I’ve gone through an awful lot,” Kirkland says, including 103 combat missions in WWII and 69 in Korea. He initially got into flying after joining the Army when WWII came to America.

From left to right, Kirkland, Capt. Michael Johnson (Trapper) and Capt. Sam Gilfand (Hawkeye) in front of the officer’s quarter’s tents at 8055 MASH during the Korean War in spring 1953. Historical photos courtesy of Richard C. Kirkland

Capt. Kirkland takes off in a Sikorsky H-5 from the 8055 MASH. The aluminum pods were used to transport patients from the battlefield to the mobile medical units.

The country was basically isolationist when the war broke out,” he recalls. “Nobody wanted it, but when they bombed Pearl Harbor, it changed overnight. Everybody just signed up. In some places, you had to stand in line for two days just to sign up.” He decided to apply as a pilot. “They would divide us up into groups—bomber pilot, fighter pilot, reconnaissance pilot, transport pilot. I wanted to be a fighter pilot and was fortunate enough to get it through the Army Air Corps cadet program.” After WWII, Kirkland flew “many different kinds” of aircraft up until the Korean War, when he joined the MASH unit.

Inside the MASH

The MASH helicopters were given missions by Army headquarters to fly to one of a number of pre-determined base camp locations.

They would call us on a landline—we had a phone right in our tent—and say there’s a wounded soldier at spot number 23 [or K-23]. We would go and pick him up and bring him back to the MASH, and then they’d call again when the next one was coming. Sometimes, when they had a big battle, we’d just be going back and forth as fast as we could, but otherwise they’d just call us when they had one.”

Many times, wounded soldiers who could still walk were taken out on the ground via ambulance, but “if the area was under fire or the patient was seriously wounded and his life was in jeopardy, they called on the helicopter,” he says.

Kirkland kept a demonstration Hughes 500 in his back yard for about a decade from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. He describes the Hughes 500 as his favorite helicopter.

If he just had an arm or leg wound or something where he could get on an ambulance, they would just bring him down, but if the roads were cut or they were under fire … we would have to do it all,” Kirkland adds. A doctor would come along on each helicopter medevac flight, and maintenance crews would be based at the MASH home location and each spot, or station, designated by “K” (for Korea) and a number, such as K-8 or K-14. The stations would move around every two to three weeks, depending on the battle lines. The helicopter units would rotate around the various stations—two on the front lines, two behind the lines, and another couple at the major combat bases.

The Army and Air Force supplied the pilots and medics for the different MASH units. Kirkland says that the Army units flew the H-13 (military version of the Bell 47), which has a pod and didn’t have room for a doctor. “We had a medic, using the Sikorsky H-5, which is a little larger and has a little more horsepower. The medic came in handy because the wounded might be in pretty bad shape and need attention while we were getting him back to the hospital, particularly when we’d go behind the line.”

Vietnam Vs. Korea

Kirkland explains that the way helicopters were used in the Korean War differed from Vietnam (he didn’t serve in Vietnam, but did train pilots for that conflict).

We did lose some pilots and some helicopters, but nothing compared to Vietnam. In Korea, we primarily flew up the bottom of the canyons, or we would fly offshore,” he says, adding that if a fighter pilot got into trouble, he could bail out in the Yellow Sea and be picked up by a helicopter-mounted rescue hoist.

Stepping back for a moment, Kirkland explains that before Korea, when helicopters came out in the 1940s, “everybody thought they were kind of novelties. They were in great demand during the holidays to come and show people how they could fly, do circles, bring in Santa, etc. But then they would go home and everybody would get back to business.”

The Korean War “changed all that,” he continues. “All of a sudden, helicopters were doing all kinds of neat stuff.” The Army picked up on this, having lost a significant amount of air power when the Air Force split off from the Army Air Corps in 1947. “They were looking for something to [establish another] air unit, and latched on to helicopters, saying they are ground-related. Pretty soon they had thousands of helicopters.”

In Vietnam, Kirkland says, “they made a big mistake, they thought the helicopter could fly like a fighter or bomber,” he says. This resulted in thousands of pilots and around 4,000 helicopters being shot down, a stark contrast to Korea. “You could count on two hands the number of pilots killed in the Korean War,” he notes.


Kirkland’s love for helicopters didn’t stop after he left Korea, flying “a little bit of everything.” In 1963, he took a job working for Hughes Aircraft Company, starting out in sales. He went through a number of promotions—sales, then a demonstration pilot, a sales pilot and national salesman—before McDonnell Douglas took over the company in 1984.

Kirkland stayed on, working as a division manager. A few years later “Boeing took over, and I [continued] as a division manager, and then I retired,” he says. But that would not be the end of his professional career, as Kirkland became vice president of marketing for Heli-Source before retiring again in 1996. His ratings include command pilot, multi-engine, single-engine fighter, transport, seaplane and helicopter. “I have all the flying ratings,” he says. He gained the helicopter rating in 1949, following his first flight in 1947.

Hughes 500

Kirkland says that if he was forced to pick which type of aircraft “you love the best of all, I would choose the Hughes 500. I love my helicopter flying experience, particularly in that bird. You could go in and out of almost anywhere. It was the best.”

From around 1975 until 1985, while he was a demonstration salesman at Hughes Aircraft, Kirkland kept a Hughes 500 in his back yard in Vienna. In addition to company business, he would occasionally fly his wife, Maria, various places instead of driving, many times landing in a parking lot or field near a park, restaurant, or hotel. Of course, Kirkland wouldn’t be allowed to fly a helicopter from his back yard these days, but back then he “had an advantage. [Former Washington Redskins Quarterback] Joe Theismann was my neighbor. So I think they figured if it was all right with Joe, it must be OK.”

Family Man

After retiring his wings in 1992, Kirkland has stayed out of the cockpit. “When I walked away after 50 years of flying, I’d had a great career and enjoyed it. Well, there were some parts I didn’t enjoy so much, but when I walked away, I said, ‘That’s it, I’m through,’ and I haven’t flown since,” he explains, adding that he still won’t take to the air—except on commercial airlines as a passenger.

It’s just that I did that, and loved it. But everything has an end to it and I shifted to writing books and painting pictures.” He still speaks at local organization meetings around his community, such as the McLean Historical Society, the adult program at George Mason University, the Aeronautical Society of Vienna, and other local Rotary and Kiwanis-type events.

They love to have me come because they’re not too many people left, I’m one of the fortunate ones,” he says, pausing for a second. “There’s only two people in my squadron that are still alive, and I’m 86 years old.” People who are history buffs really seem to appreciate the stories, he adds. “It’s fun, I enjoy it.”

Above all, Kirkland is a family man—by far the most important role he’s played. With nine kids, 16 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, it’s hard to imagine where he finds the time to write memoirs and paint memories. Spending even a little time talking to Kirkland reveals his great appreciation for his wife of 35 years. The dedication on the third page of “MASH Angels” helps to sum up his feelings, thanking Maria “for her continued encouragement and inspiration.”

List of rotary and fixed-wing aircraft that Richard C. Kirkland has flown, in order of date, according to his recollection:


Sikorsky R-5/H-5/S-51
• Sikorsky H-19 Chickasaw
• Kaman H-43
• Piasecki H-21
• Hughes 300
• Hughes 500/500N
• Bell HU-1 Huey (changed to UH-1 Iroquois in 1962)

Fixed-Wing Aircraft

Boeing PT-18 trainer
• Vultee BT-13 Valiant trainer
• Beechcraft AT-6 advanced trainer
• Saab T-17 trainer
• Lockheed P-38 Lightning
• Piper L-4 Grasshopper
• Republic P-47 Thunderbolt
• Bell P-39 Airacobra
• Bell P-63 Kingcobra
• Fairchild C-82 Packet
• Douglas C-47 Skytrain
• Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
• Stinson L-5 Sentinel
• Stinson L-13
• Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star
• C-45 Expeditor/Beechcraft Model 18
• de Havilland L-20 Beaver
• North American B-25 Mitchell bomber
• Martin B-26 Marauder