In 1970 in Laos the 21st Special Ops Sq. had been conducting emergency refugee evacs from a high narrow LZ, east of the Plain De Jars and about three miles from North Viet Nam. Each of our 10 HH-3E's had been shuttling 50 to 75 refugees per sortie to a base near the PDJ for several days from dawn to dusk. Most armor plate, the refueling probe, seats, forward door, aft ramp and the drop tanks were removed from all the birds to reduce weight.
One of the newer pilots in the squadron came up and told me that we were right when we advised him that if you don't know what you weigh don't take off if you can't hover. This was his tale.
Since we were the last bird on the last sortie of the day, we had the irrigation pump that had been converted to pump fuel from drums tied down at the back. We dropped off four Laotian soldiers. The three soldiers whom they relieved and the body of a fourth (wrapped in parachute material) were loaded first. The sun was setting and the refugees were in a panic to escape capture by the North Vietnamese. They scrambled aboard in a horde and packed in like sardines. We had no
seat belts. The dust chased the rest away when we tried to hover. It wouldn't hover so we decided to try a running take off. Our tail rotor just cleared the lip of the LZ. At an optimum climb speed and at maximum power plus all the extra torque we could get by backing out the topping screws, we were still descending at 200-300 feet per minute. Back into a jungle covered valley where we had drawn fire earlier.
Fuel already below the level that would dump, we ordered the flight engineers to reduce our load. They threw out both M-69 machine guns and the ammo cans. One engineer climbed over the refugees to get to the back while the other began fighting our passengers for their sacks of pots, rice and personal belongings. These went out the front door. The webbing and tie downs at the back were cut so the pump, hoses and body of the soldier could be jettisoned. His three friends threw out their weapons and grenades. For a few seconds they thought they were next. Dumping the pump was the key. We circled the valley twice while climbing at about 100 Ft/Min just to clear the hills. The first time we came off maximum power was to land at the refugee drop off point. The next time she won't hover, we don't go.