Surprised at Being Alive

An Accidental Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and Beyond

Robert Curtis

Sometimes you do everything right, but it just isn't your day. A part fails and your helicopter comes apart in flight, or the enemy gunner pulls the trigger at just the right moment and his rounds find your aircraft in exactly the right spot to take it out of the sky. Which is why, after 24 years and over 5,000 flight hours, Major Robert Curtis was
Date Published :
December 2014
Publisher :
Illustration :
16pp photos
Format Available    QuantityPrice
Binding. : Hardback
ISBN : 9781612002750
Pages : 312
Dimensions : 9 X 6 inches
Stock Status : In stock
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Sometimes you do everything right, but it just isn’t your day. A part fails and your helicopter comes apart in flight, or, another aircraft runs into you and the pieces of both fall to the ground below, or the enemy gunner pulls the trigger at just the right moment and his rounds find your aircraft in exactly the right spot to take it out of the sky. Whichever way it happens, it wasn’t your day.

Which is why, after 24 years and over 5,000 flight hours with four armed services, Major Robert Curtis was so surprised at being alive when he passed his retirement physical. Starting with enlisting in the Army to fly helicopters during Vietnam, and continuing on through service with the National Guard, Marine Corps and Royal Navy, he flew eight different helicopters—from the wooden-bladed flying he OH-13E, through the Chinook, SeaKnight and SeaKing, in war and peace around the world. During that time over 50 of his friends died in crashes, both in combat and in accidents, but somehow his skill, and not an inconsiderable amount of luck and superstition, saw him through.

His flying career began with a misbegotten strategy for beating the draft by enlisting. With the Vietnam War raging full blast in 1968 the draft was inevitable, so he wanted to at least get some small measure of control of his future. Although he had no thought of flying when he walked into the recruiting office, he walked out signed up to be a helicopter pilot. What he did not know was that 43% of all the aircraft sent to Vietnam were destroyed in combat or accidents. Soon he was in the thick of the war, flying Chinooks with the 101st Airborne. After Vietnam he left the Army, but kept flying in the National Guard while going to college. He was accepted at two law schools, but flying is addictive, so he instead enlisted in the USMC to fly some more. Over the next 17 years he would fly around the world off US and British ships from Egypt to Norway and all points in between. His engaging story will be a delight to all aviation enthusiasts.

About The Author

Robert Francis Curtis was born in Middletown, Ohio, in 1949, making him exactly the right age to be drafted for the Vietnam War. After dropping out of high school twice, he passed the general educational development exam, giving him enough educational qualifications to gain entry into the Army’s Warrant Officer Candidate program. There he learned to fly, starting him on the path to a military career as an aviator in the Army, National Guard, Marine Corps, and as an exchange officer with the British Royal Navy. After service in Vietnam he attended the University of Kentucky, graduating with honor with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. Later, while serving at Naval Air Systems Command in Washington, DC, Robert completed a Master’s Degree in Procurement and Acquisition Management at Webster University. His military awards include the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and 23 Air Medals. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa while at the University of Kentucky. Robert is an FAA certified Commercial Pilot in both helicopters and gyroplanes. He has previously published articles in professional journals including the Marine Corps Gazette, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm Aircrewman’s Journal TACAN. Robert and his wife, Mariellen, reside in Exeter, New Hampshire.


Introduction: Helicopters

Flying Life One: The Army 1968–1971
1: The Accidental Aviator
2: Chasing Buzzards
3: Engine Failure
4: The Playtex Club
5: First Takeoff Of The Day
6: Luck And Superstition
7: Survival Instruments
8: Tracers
9: Army Night Flight
10: Flares
11: Napalm
12: Last ’Nam Flight

Flying Life Two: The National Guard 1972-1975
13: Truck Strike
14: National Guard Night Flight
15: Tornados
16: National Guard Summers

Flying Life Three: The Marine Corps 1975-1993
17: Night Vision Goggles
18: Marine Corps Night Flight
19: Wires
20: Externals
21: The Ritual
22: Special Operations Capable
23: Broken On A Moroccan Beach

Flying Life Four: The British Royal Navy 1983-1985
24: Sand
25: Introducing The Arctic To Captain Curtis
26: Royal Navy Night Flight—The Difficult Valley
27: Troop Lifting, With Night And Heavy Snow Showers
28: Long Flight Home
29: Sea Fog
30: Day And Night Passengers
31: Final Flight With The Royal Navy

Epilogue: The Wall, 20 Years After


"one of those books that you read that gives you the feeling of Deja Vu, and makes the hairs on the back of your neck rise."

- Neall Ellis

"Robert Curtis gives us a compelling account of his exemplary service in wartime and beyond.  The combat missions he flew out of Phu Bai/Camp Eagle in Vietnam did so much for so many, and remain alive and meaningful for all of us today.  "

- Gary Matthews, American Ambassador (ret), Former Deputy and Province Senior Adviser, Thua Thien/Hue

"Curtis’ eye for detail puts him in the top rank of my list of Vietnam War autobiographers. The precision of his style creates both the picture and the mood of acts as simple as crawling out of bed and shuffling to the flight line in the middle of the night. Curtis repeatedly refreshed my Vietnam War memories. His highly personalized description of helicopter action during Lam Son 719 is the most straightforward account of that operation I have read. What’s more, Curtis injects historical references without breaking the narrative thread."

- The VVA Veteran

"Curtis uses a particular wit and sharp descriptive skills to narrate his extraordinary career. He brings the reader right into the moment, whether in the cockpit of a Chinook in Vietnam, a CH- 46E on a pitching deck at night, or a Sea King navigating the fiords of Norway. Curtis was surprised at being alive when he passed his retirement physical. you will be surprised as well, with this great reading experience."

- VHPA Aviator

“The author’s time in Vietnam was action packed, flying over the DMZ, the Laotian border and Khe Sanh. During his time there, he heard NVA radar and radio signals, dodged enemy ordnance, and survived an enemy round through the helo windshield. . . . The danger of flying the aerodynamically complex helicopters in all kinds of rapid changing weather conditions and varied topographies required courage and skill. Curtis few training, transportation, supply and combat missions in climate regions from the Southeast Asian tropics to the storms, highlands and ice of the Arctic. . . . In 1992, Major Curtis retired from the military, “…surprised to still be alive.

- Naval History Magazine

"provides a worthwhile journey into history and one man’s multifaceted service. The work is recommended reading for all aviation aficionados."

- 20th Century Aviation Magazine

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