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Chapter 1: Tailspin!

[Timeline: Ban Me Thuot – 21 December 1969]

It was a cold, bleak morning. Two Huey crews had responded to a call to pick up a bunch of marines in the Ban Me Thuot area and bring them back to Nha Trang Headquarters. They were perched precariously behind a large boulder, on the side of the valley on a 30-45 degrees slope, with Charlie closing in fast on them from the north.

Captain HM Murdock was #2 in the formation. The lead ship had descended first, just as the enemy artillery started to thunder around them. They managed to pick up six of the 12 men before taking off again, under cover of the remaining marines left on the ground.

Murdock immediately began his descent down the side of the valley. The Gunner and Crew Chief were firing furiously at the jungle as he made his approach. He had just cleared the tree tops at the front of the LZ and had cut transitional lift.

Suddenly and without warning, his pedals went soft, causing him to make an uncontrolled right pedal turn. Before he had time to react, the Huey was facing 90 degrees to the right, flying in a sideways motion. The Huey continued to spin round several times, in quick half-turn movements. Murdock had lost all power to the tail rotor cable.

"Strap yourselves in!" he yelled frantically over the intercom. "You're in for one hell of a ride!"

The marines and his crew immediately strapped themselves down, a look of sheer terror and panic plastered over their faces.

Murdock couldn't understand it. He was damn sure they hadn't been hit. The only thing he could think of was that the phenolic pulley in the vertical stabilizer cowling must have broken, causing the cable to slip out. The resulting slack in the cable appeared to have fooled the tail rotor into thinking it wasn't needed.

They were spinning round faster and faster and Murdock was actually beginning to feel dizzy! He managed to steer the Huey a little and tried to aim for the LZ. On about the 4th half-spin, he knew he had to somehow set the aircraft down. But first he had to get rid of the rotors, otherwise his bird would just flounder around like a fish out of water when it hit the ground.

As the tail cleared the upside of the slope, the pilot gave it his best guess and cut the throttle in the hope that he would stop parallel to the slope. With no power to the main motor, he was now in a hovering autoration at about 20 feet up. Just before the right skid touched down, he gave full right cyclic and dug the rotor into the slope as hard as he could. The impact caused the blades to shear off at the mast, leaving the transmission in place.

Murdock let out a heavy sigh of relief. He was afraid that if the transmission had also come out, it would have pitched forward, bringing the blades crashing through the cockpit area, killing both himself and his Peter Pilot.

The aircraft then fell over on to its side, and slid a few yards down the icy slope. Fortunately it became wedged against another large rock, bringing it to a standstill, otherwise it probably would have ended up sliding down the valley.

"Sorry about that old thing!" apologised Murdock to his Huey, as he quickly turned the engine off. As soon as he moved, a sharp twinge shot up his back, causing him to instantly black out with the pain. With Charlie hot on their heels, things didn't look good for the occupants of the crashed Huey.

[AN: This did actually happen to a pilot. If anyone is interested in the intricate mechanisms of helicopters, please see glossary at the end of the story.It might help to explain the above procedure a little better without bogging the reader down with too much unnecessary information.]

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[Nha Trang Headquarters]

It was now early afternoon and there was a sombre mood around the camp. The men had watched, in quiet trepidation, as the two departing Hueys had airlifted off earlier, in response to the SOS call. By all accounts, the crews should, by now, be making their way back home.

Despite the cold weather, Sergeant BA Baracus was outside in the motor pool, fiddling with the engine of an army jeep. Every now and then he would look nervously up into the sky, a worried frown puckering up his forehead as he watched the grey snow clouds gathering above.

"Where is that fool!" he muttered quietly to himself. "Hope he ain't got himself into trouble."

Meanwhile, back in the hooch, First Lieutenant Templeton Peck (aka Faceman) was decorating the Christmas Tree. As he was Supplies Officer, Murdock had been pestering him for days to get some festive decorations.

Face had groaned inwardly to himself. Christmas was a bitter-sweet time of year for him. In fact, he hated Christmas almost as much as he hated his birthday. He had always thought that these were moments that could only be shared with families. Being an orphan, it just reminded him of all the family celebrations he had missed out on.

"Oh, please, Faceman!" Murdock had whined beseechingly. "It's our first Christmas together as the A-Team. We can't have Christmas without decorations."

The rest of the team joined in with Murdock's pitiful laments.

"Or mince pies!" declared Second Lieutenant Ray Brenner.

"Or brandy and cigars!" interjected Colonel Hannibal Smith.

"And don't forget the crackers!" chimed in Jim "Fitz" Fitzgerald, the team's Radio Officer.

"And you betta get a tree, sucker!" growled BA.

"And a carrot for the reindeer!" finished off Murdock, with a big goofy grin.

The child-like enthusiasm on the pilot's face was contagious. The team had only been together for about six months, but Face was learning fast that he could never say no to Murdock – especially when he flashed those doleful brown eyes in his direction!

So true to his work, the conman soon turned the dull, dreary hooch into a little Santa's grotto. His locker and army trunk were crammed-packed with all types of goodies – from candy to bottles of mulled wine.

The only thing that was missing was the tree, which Face had managed to procure just after Murdock had responded to the SOS call. He made himself busy, adorning the tree with an array of brightly coloured baubles and tinsel. He couldn't wait to see the Captain's face when he clapped eyes on it!

Face had just finished putting the star on top of the tree, when the unmistakable drone of rotor blades hummed in the distance. Everyone rushed outside. The snow clouds had released their heavy burden and large snowflakes were beginning to fall. Through the white haze, they saw only one bird descending down to the airfield.

"Where's the second Huey?" exclaimed Ray in alarm, as the men ran to meet the embarking crew and their passengers. Their worst fears were confirmed as they realised Murdock's bird hadn't returned.

Despite their best efforts, all attempts to send out a rescue party had proved useless. With the snow now falling heavily, the Hueys were grounded. The fading light also meant that any foot patrol would get hopelessly lost in the dark, vast, Vietnamese jungle.

It wasn't until late the next morning when the pilots were given permission to fly again. The A-Team flew with the lead ship, and very soon the stricken Huey was spotted, lying exactly where it had crashed.

But there was no sign of Murdock, his crew or any passengers. Blood marked the scene, but no bodies were found, possibly giving hope that they had all survived the crash.

So this could only mean one of two things. Firstly, the survivors had been caught by the VC and were now prisoners of war. Or secondly, they had managed to escape the enemy's clutches.

Either way, their chances weren't good. The VC did not take prisoners lightly and were particularly cruel to pilots. On the other hand, if they had found refuge in the jungle overnight – and bearing in mind there could be casualties - their chances of surviving the bitter cold and snow were very slim.

It was time to pray for a miracle.