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Plexiglas splinters. Crews wore and sometimes sat upon flak jackets. USAF built an armor-plated box for the flight mechanic in the cargo hold.
    The first known combat loss of a Ranch Hand aircraft took place on June 20, 1966. Two UC-123s were making multiple
passes on a target in Quang Tin province. Both were hit on each of the first four passes, but they pressed on for a fifth spray run. On the fifth pass, heavy ma-chine-gun fire shot an engine out on the aircraft of Lt. Paul L. Clanton. The aircraft crashed, trapping Clanton in the burning wreckage. He was saved by the efforts of his crew - Lt. Steve
Aigner and SSgt. Elijah R. Winstead. As the escort fighters bombed and strafed the Viet Cong, Winstead used his personal weapon to provide covering fire. A Marine assault team of six helicopters rescued them.
    The Ranch Hand workload increased in direct proportion to the increase in American activity in Vietnam. When, in
time, the US began to leave Vietnam, the number of mis-sions declined. Arranging a mission was still a bureaucratic
nightmare, with many US and South Vietnamese agencies involved, but Ranch Hand crews always had plenty of targets.
    In December 1966, the Ranch Hand operation moved its headquarters to Bien Hoa, where the ramp was less crowded, and a special "herbicide farm" was set up to speed the turn-around process. This greatly in-creased USAF's capability but at a cost of higher casualties.
    Continuous exposure to danger transformed some Ranch Hand crew-men into adrenalin junkies. When required to perform routine cargo duties, as during the 1968 Tet Offensive, they quickly became bored and longed to get back to the spraying operation. As an indication of the degree of difference in hazard, the Ranch Hand unit averaged a hit every six missions

when flying spray missions. During the almost 3,000 cargo missions they flew during Tet, they received only one hit.

Joy of Jets
In early 1968, UC-123K versions of the Provider began to arrive. The new model had a more powerful GE jet engine mounted under each wing, anti-skid braking, improved armor, a better pumping system, and nu-merous other refinements. The extra power was used on take off, the climb outs afterward, and of course during emergency conditions. The offsets to the increased power were increased weight and higher fuel consumption, both  gladly accepted by the Ranch Hand crews, in exchange for the blessed power of the jets. The new airplanes were not invulnerable, how-ever, and a UC-123K was lost on May
24, 1968.
     However, the value of the jet engines was indisputable. This was proven dramatically on Dec. 13, 1968. On that date, Lt. Col. Winthrop W. Wildman was hammered by automatic weapons fire while leading a six-airplane formation north of Bien Hoa. His airplane rolled rapidly to the left. Only by applying full left rudder and full right aileron, with his right jet engine at idle and his left jet at full power, was Wildman able to herd the UC-123K back to Bien Hoa where they landed

safely after a risky approach. With-out jet engines, they would have crashed.
The years 1968 and 1969 saw a continued high level of activity. Crews had become highly proficient in their tasks, and spraying, whether defoliating or destroying crops, was as routine as it could be for airplanes that were still flying at 130 knots, 150 feet off the ground, in the face of gunfire.
Even so, political support for the program was rapidly disappearing as a result of continual political pro-tests at home and abroad. As the US involvement in Vietnam wound down, so did Ranch Hand missions - from an average of 400 sorties per month in 1969 to only 43 in the last quarter of 1970. By then, the hand-writing was on the wall. Ranch Hand was going to shut down, even though the demand of local commanders was as high as ever. The Defense Depart-ment "temporarily" halted al l spraying of one particular herbicide, Agent Orange, in April 1970. That ban was never lifted, despite protests from the military.
The program was phased out over the next year as the amount of spraying declined dramatically and the number of Ranch Hand aircraft dwindled without replacement. The men of Ranch Hand flew their final three herbicide missions on Jan. 7, 1971 - nine years to"the day after arrival of the first spray airplane at Tan Son Nhut.

Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, is a retired Air Force colonel and author. He has written more than 400 articles about aviation topics and 29 books, the most recent of which is Beyond the Horizons: The-Lockheed Story.  "The Forgotten War," appeared in the June 2000 issue.