The 'Loach' was one of the riskiest helicopter assignments in Vietnam
While barely any American helicopters served in World War II and few flew in Korea, Vietnam was a proving ground for many airframes — everything from the venerable Huey to Chinooks sporting huge guns.
One of the most dangerous helicopter assignments was a tiny scout helicopter known as the “Loach.” Officially designated the OH-6 Cayuse, these things were made of thin plexiglass and metal but were expected to fly low over the jungles and grass, looking for enemy forces hiding in the foliage.
When the Loach debuted in 1966, it broke records for speed, endurance, and rate of climb, all important attributes for a scout helicopter. It was powered by a 285-hp engine but the helicopter weighed less than a Volkswagen.
They were usually joined by Cobra gunships — either in hunter-killer teams where the Loach hunted and the Cobra killed or in air mobile cavalry units where both airframes supported cavalry and infantrymen on the ground.
In the hunter-killer teams, the Loach would fly low over the jungle, drawing fire and then calling for the Cobra to kill the teams on the ground.
In air mobile teams, a pilot would fly low while an observer would scan the ground for signs of the enemy force. Some of them were able to tell how large a force was and how recently it had passed. They would then call in scouts on the ground or infantrymen to hunt for the enemy in the brush while attack helicopters protected everyone.
The Loach also had its own gunner in the rear and could carry everything from 7.62mm miniguns to 70mm rockets and anti-tank missiles. But even that armament combined with the Cobra escort couldn’t keep them safe. They were famous for being shot down or crashing in combat. One, nicknamed “Queer John,” hit the dirt at least seven times.
Queer John was famous not just for crashing, but for keeping the crew safe while it did so. An Army article written after John’s seventh crash credited it with surviving 61 hits from enemy fire and seven crashes without losing a single crew member.
While Loachs were vulnerable to enemy fire, they were famous for surviving crashes like John did. A saying among Army aviators was, “If you have to crash, do it in a Loach.”
The OH-6 was largely removed from active U.S. Army service in favor of the Kiowa, but modified versions of the helicopter flew with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment as the MH-6C Little Bird as late as 2008.
Today, the Little Birds in use by special operations are MH-6Ms derived from a similar but more powerful helicopter.