All About Guns

Loaches, Snakes, and the GE M134 Minigun by WILL DABBS

This is LTC Hugh Mills. During the Vietnam War LT Mills was one steely-eyed Loach driver.
Here is LT Mills some fifty years ago.

LT Hugh Mills earned three Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars, four Distinguished Flying Crosses, and the Legion of Merit during three tours as a combat helicopter pilot in Vietnam. Mills was shot down sixteen times and thrice wounded in combat. He flew 3,300 combat hours in OH6A and AH1G helicopters.

This is the Hughes OH6A Cayuse, affectionately known as the “Loach.” Everybody who ever touched one of these machines loved it.
The Loach lives on as the AH6M Little Bird today.

The Hughes OH6 Light Observation Helicopter (LOH) was affectionately known as the Loach by all who encountered it. Looking much like a giant angry bumblebee, the Loach was fast, nimble, and crashworthy. Improved versions soldier on as MH6 and AH6 Little Birds with the TF160 Night Stalkers today.

I flew OH58A/C helicopters operationally. They were simply great fun but were not nearly so capable as the OH6 Loach.

The OH6 was supplanted in US military service by the Bell OH58. Though entirely different designs both of these aircraft shared a common engine. I flew OH58’s myself, but we all mourned the passing of the Loach. It was a massively better aircraft.

Their combat mission dictated the crew and weapons loadout for the Loaches in Vietnam.

For operations in Vietnam, the Loach was typically flown single pilot. In helicopters, the command pilot sits on the right. Behind the pilot also on the right was a crew chief armed with an M60 belt-fed machinegun. The crew chief also had access to a variety of smoke, frag, and white phosphorus grenades. Counterbalancing the two-man crew on the other side of the aircraft was typically an M134 minigun in an XM27E1 mount along with its 2,000-round ammunition load.

The M134 minigun gave the Loach some serious fangs in low level combat operations.

The M134 minigun was an electrically-driven 7.62x51mm Gatling gun featuring two different rates of fire. Pulling the trigger on the cyclic stick partway back ran the gun at 2,000 rounds per minute. A full pull resulted in 4,000 rpm. In Vietnam, the gun was typically aimed by means of a simple grease pencil mark on the Plexiglass bubble.

The AH1G Cobra was the first purpose-designed helicopter gunship used by the US Army.
Loaches and Cobras flew as coordinated Hunter Killer teams.

A Hunter Killer team consisted of a Loach flying extreme low level while a Cobra gunship trailed behind at 1,500 feet or so to provide fire support. These aircraft were in constant radio communication. The scout crew would identify targets and then break off to allow the Snake to engage with rockets, miniguns, and automatic grenade launchers.

You can see a Loach here in the left aspect of this picture investigating a Vietnamese hamlet for enemy activity. Experienced scout crews could glean vast amounts of information during these VR (Visual Reconnaissance) missions.

The use of helicopters in combat was pioneered during the Vietnam War. Aviators like LT Mills figured it out as they went along. The end result was some of the grittiest combat in the history of modern warfare.

War Story

The mission this day should have been routine.

It was the summer of 1969 and LT Mills was on a routine trip to Dau Tieng for a briefing with the Brigade S3 operations staff. In the back of his Loach was Jim Parker, his regular crew chief. Paul Fishman flew the Cobra gunship that was his cover. None of the American aircrew were looking for trouble, so Mills was enjoying a little vigorous NOE (Nap of the Earth) flying.

Night Vision Goggles revolutionized combat helicopter operations.

NOE is the reason God made combat helicopters. NOE in an Aeroscout aircraft means tearing along five feet or so off the ground sans doors following the contours of the ground while maneuvering to avoid obstacles. The biggest difference between NOE flying back then and the same thing in my day was that, thanks to night vision goggles, we could also do it in the dark.

LT Mills happened upon a group of NVA Regulars moving tactically.

As LT Mills popped over a modest treeline he happened upon an NVA heavy weapons platoon. All involved were comparably surprised. It was on.

This painting by Joe Kline shows a Loach deep in the suck in Vietnam.

Mills opened up with his minigun. AK47 fire rose up from all directions while Jim Parker engaged NVA troops with his sixty. The end result was unfettered chaos.

The minigun is a remarkably efficient weapon.

As the NVA soldiers ran for cover a pair of them charged down a paddy dike. The rearmost soldier had a large black rice-cooking pot affixed to his back. Mills aligned his Loach with the running man, centered his grease pencil mark on the pot, and squeezed the trigger on his cyclic. His minigun buzzed out a burst that passed through the closest soldier and killed the man running ahead of him as well.

The Gun

This cherubic-looking gent designed one of the world’s most enduring military weapons.

Richard Jordan Gatling was trained as a physician but never practiced medicine. He was by profession an inventor, contriving designs for an automatic seed planter, a screw propeller, a steam tractor, and an improved toilet, to name but a few. What most ties him to history, however, was the multi-barrel gun that will forever bear his name.

This turned out to be some sincere but deeply flawed sentiment.

Dr. Gatling envisioned his weapon as a mechanism to depopulate battlefields. He rather naively believed that by providing armies with such efficient weapons fewer troops would be needed, and overall casualties from both combat action and disease would therefore be minimized. The reality was obviously not quite so tidy.

Before the end of the 19th century Dr. Gatling had already hooked up one of his guns to an electric motor. It took another six decades to fully realize the potential of this idea.

In July of 1893 Gatling was awarded a patent for an electrically-powered version of his gun. This weapon sported ten barrels chambered in .30 Army and was driven by a belt drive attached to an electric motor. This gun ran at around 1,500 rounds per minute.

The M61 20mm Vulcan aircraft cannon was the predecessor to the GE M134 minigun.

Developed in 1963, the GE M134 minigun was an evolutionary development of the M61 Vulcan 20mm aircraft cannon. Featuring six 22-inch barrels and chambered in 7.62x51mm, the M134 could cycle reliably at rates up to 6,000 rpm. The gun weighed 85 pounds and was 31.5 inches long. Some 10,000 miniguns were used during the Vietnam War.

The US military mounts miniguns on all sorts of things these days.
The M134 minigun has logged some fairly impressive screen time as well. Jesse Ventura’s use of the weapon in the movie Predator is a cinematic classic.

In the late 1990’s Dillon Aero purchased several used miniguns from a foreign user and upgraded the design. Designated the M134D, these modernized versions found an enthusiastic home with the Army’s TF160 Special Operations Aviation Regiment. These weapons are widely used on AH6, MH60, and MH47 aircraft today. Dillon miniguns have since been exported to dozens of friendly countries as well.

The Rest of the Story

Mills’ crew chief, Jim Parker, sprayed the clearing with his M60 door gun. These weapons frequently sported extensive field modifications.

Mills darted his Loach back and forth around the little clearing, engaging NVA soldiers as they scattered. His crew chief did the same thing until his M60 ran dry. At one point Parker had to get Mills to level the wildly maneuvering aircraft so he could get a clear shot without perforating his own rotor blades.

Vietnam was awash in weapons. Shotguns like this Ithaca Model 37 could be bought, bartered, or won in games of chance.

As Parker’s gun fell silent, Mills lined up on another target and squeezed his trigger. His only answer was the spinning barrels of his Gatling gun, its ammo supply exhausted. Parker then engaged the remaining NVA with his personal M16 and finally an Ithaca pump-action 12-gauge shotgun he kept underneath his seat.

Magnum revolvers like this Colt Python .357 were prized personal defense weapons among aircrew in Vietnam.

Mills carried an M1911 .45 on his belt and a .357 Magnum Colt Python in a shoulder holster. Steadying the collective with his left knee he flew the aircraft with his right hand while shooting his Python left-handed out of the right door of the aircraft. He expended all six Super Vel Magnum loads before finally breaking clear to make room for the hungry Cobra orbiting above.

A Cobra spitting 2.75-inch rockets is reliably awe-inspiring.

Fishman rolled hot with his Snake and blew the treeline to pieces with 2.75-inch rockets. He punctuated his run with flechette warheads. These diabolical monsters flew a set distance out from the aircraft before bursting automatically with a visible puff of red smoke. At that point the warhead released a thick cloud of 1,180 pressed steel darts.

Flechettes are affectionately referred to as nails in military parlance. In Vietnam, they could be fired from shotgun shells, aerial rockets, 105mm howitzers, or the 90mm main guns on M48 tanks.

These flechettes look like finishing nails with little stabilizing fins pressed into their rear ends. Thousands of these tiny darts would absolutely shred soft targets in the manner of a gigantic shotgun. Ouch.

Hundreds of American helicopters were lost during combat in Vietnam.

A replacement Hunter Killer team was soon on station allowing Mills and Fishman to return to base at Phu Loi. Once Mills landed his Loach he took stock.

In roughly two minutes of combat Mills’ Loach took some 25 rounds yet successfully returned to base.

The aircraft had been hit a total of twenty-five times. The airspeed indicator and altimeter were both blown away. The armor plate underneath Parker’s seat stopped two rounds, while Mills’ seat armor caught several as well. Five rounds passed through the Plexiglas canopy, two perfed the tail boom, and three bullets ventilated the rotor blades.

For such a small aircraft the Loach packed a great deal of firepower.

One AK slug passed all the way through the engine compartment, miraculously missing anything vital. One round tore the op rod off of Parker’s M60 and left a half-moon crescent in the bottom of the barrel. Between Mills’ minigun, Parker’s -60, and their personal weapons the two men had expended several thousand rounds in less than 120 seconds of frenetic combat.

ARP Infantrymen subsequently cleared the area performing battle damage assessment.

ARP (Aero Rifle Platoon) grunts subsequently inserted via UH1 Hueys and swept through the area. They cataloged 26 KIA and captured a pair of POWs, recovering a large number of AK47 rifles, a 60mm mortar, a pair of Russian pistols, and an SGM heavy machinegun. They also came back with a cooking pot sporting some twenty-four 7.62mm bullet holes.

Hugh Mills’ memoir is a fantastic read.

LT Mills’ combat memoir Low Level Hell is one of the most compelling accounts of modern combat I have ever read. The prose reads like an action novel, and it is chock full of gun stuff. The details about the weapons they carried, captured, and wielded from their aircraft are worth the read, while the gripping nature of the action is red meat to guys like us. The book is available on Amazon.

Those Vietnam-era Army aviators figured it out as they went along.

We have discussed aviators’ personal weapons in Vietnam here before. Here’s the link.

This was Hugh Mills’ last Loach in Vietnam. It is the centerpiece of the US Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker.
This is Mills’ Loach before it came back from Vietnam.

Mills’ original Loach, Miss Clawd IV, is on permanent display in the US Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker today.

The Little Birds of today’s TF160 SOAR are direct evolutionary developments of the Loaches that flew in Vietnam.

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