A Hundred Feet Over Hell by Jim Hooper

Book Review: A Hundred Feet Over Hell

26 March 2012

What sort of man actually chooses to fly very low and very very slow over enemy positions in a plane with neither protective armor nor weaponry?
In this impressive book, author Jim Hooper allows such remarkable men to tell their stories in their own words. The result of fifteen years of research and numerous interviews, 'A Hundred Feet Over Hell' gives an insight into the life of a Catkiller in Vietnam – flying over I Corps and the DMZ as part of the 220th Recon Airplane Company.

To describe being a Catkiller as highly dangerous would be a serious understatement. The only armor available to pilots were non-bullet-proof flak jackets, otherwise all that stood between them and the enemy’s fire was the thin metal skin of their tiny 100 mile per hour Cessna Bird Dog plane.

A relic of the Korean War, the 0-1 Bird Dog was also unarmed, apart from white phosphorous marking rockets. Consequently, when other means of support were unavailable, pilots often resorted to firing an M16 rifle or pistol out of the window to try and pin down enemy troops. Needless to say, this practice was not officially authorized!

Brave as they were, the pilots were not always alone. They were often accompanied by an Army or Marine Corps observer for better communication with the ground elements they were tasked with supporting. Such spotters became affectionately known as GIB - Guy in the Back.

So many of the Catkiller stories detailed in 'A Hundred Feet Over Hell' are genuinely astonishing. For instance, there’s the night mission to locate a Marine recon team in heavy contact with North Vietnamese troops. Despite flying in the pitch black and in hazardous mountainous terrain, the pilot picked out their tiny red marker light and was able to direct the fire of Navy aircraft, saving the Marines from being overrun.

There’s also the story of the author’s brother Bill, who, after being badly hit, had to fly for almost twenty minutes with a severely damaged arm that was sending him into shock. Fighting the almost overwhelming desire to sleep, he somehow managed to land his plane back at Dong Ha airstrip, not only saving his own life but also that of his observer, Bill Norton.

Containing plenty of action, but also humour and some sadness, A Hundred Feet Over Hell is an engrossing and worthwhile read
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