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Snake Pilot: Flying the Cobra Attack Helicopter in Vietnam Military United States Veterans Randy R. Zahn Potomac Books Inc.

8th May 2012 History Books 29 Comments

Randy R. Zahn is the chief pilot, Alaska Rotor Wing Division, for Era Helicopters in Anchorage, Alaska. He learned to fly helicopters while serving in the U.S. Army from 1968-71. He served a tour of duty in Vietnam (1970-71), earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Bronze Star, two Air Medals for valor, and two Army Commendation Medals for valor. He lives in Eagle River, Alaska.

Based on audiotapes he recorded during the war and sent home to his family, Randy Zahns Snake Pilot recounts his experiences flying AH-1 Cobra helicopters during the Vietnam War. First deployed in Vietnam in 1967 and loaded with a formidable arsenal of weaponry, the Cobra was the first helicopter designed from inception as an attack aircraft. It dramatically changed the nature of the war in Vietnam by offering the Army, for the first time, its own powerful and highly accurate weapons platform for close-air-support missions.

Randy Zahn arrived in Vietnam shortly before the 1970 U.S. invasion of Cambodia, one of the most impressive demonstrations by the Cobra in the war. He describes his stunning transformation from a naive, middle-class teenager from southern California to a hardened killer during his tour in Vietnam. Unlike the pilots who flew the fast-moving strike jets, Zahn experienced the war up close and personal, witnessing the grisly effects of the Cobras firepower on enemy soldiers. The author does not glorify killing but rather explains in sharp relief the kaleidoscope of emotions associated with combat: fear, revenge, hate, remorse, pity, and even ecstasy. He captures many of the ironies and nuances inherent in Vietnam, especially during the final years of the conflict. Zahn displays a sensitivity rarely found in memoirs written by battle-hardened warriors. This human element, combined with the vast amount of archival research and interviews with members of his former unit, ensures that Snake Pilot will become the definitive account of the role helicopters played in Vietnam.

Snake Pilot: Flying the Cobra Attack Helicopter in Vietnam

Rattler One-Seven: A Vietnam Helicopter Pilot’s War Story

Gross joined the army in November 1968 at age 18 to fly helicopters, believing the Vietnam War would be over by the time he completed his flight training. It wasn’t. He put in a year in the war zone, from May 1970 to May 1971, as a young Huey helicopter pilot, flying hundreds of dangerous missions under the Rattler 17 call sign with the 71st Assault Helicopter Company near Chu Lai and later in Quang Tri. Gross took part in the massive Operation Lam Son 719 in February 1971, when American forces provided air and artillery support for Army of South Vietnam troops who crossed into Laos to raid the Ho Chi Minh Trail. His war memoir is heavy on detail; Gross dutifully, and sometimes dully, describes his day-to-day activities in the air and on the ground. Reflections on the latter include passages on his interactions with his fellow pilots and superior officers and with the Vietnamese “hootch maids” who did the GIs’ laundry and polished their boots, as well as details of his R&R and leave time in Australia. He offers some commentary (“What bothers me most is that we could have won the war!”), but wealth of detail, rather than of insight, is the draw.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Rattler One-Seven puts you in the helicopter seat, to see the war in Vietnam through the eyes of an inexperienced pilot as he transforms himself into a seasoned combat veteran. At the age of twenty, Chuck Gross spent his 1970-71 tour with the 71st Assault Helicopter Company flying UH-1 Huey helicopters. He inserted special operations teams into Laos and participated in Lam Son 719, a misbegotten attempt to assault and cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, during which his helicopter was shot down and he was stranded in the field.

Soon after the war he wrote down his adventures, while his memory was still fresh with the events. Rattler One-Seven is written as Gross experienced it, using these notes along with letters written home to accurately preserve the mindset he had while in Vietnam.

Rattler One-Seven: A Vietnam Helicopter Pilot’s War Story (North Texas Military Biography and Memoir Series)

  • 29 responses to "Snake Pilot: Flying the Cobra Attack Helicopter in Vietnam Military United States Veterans Randy R. Zahn Potomac Books Inc."

  • robotech
    11:20 on May 8th, 2012
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    This is an outstanding account of how things were in C-Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam. Randy has done an excellant job discribing not only the events of his experience but also his feelings at the time. I served 3 years prior to Randy; but, the events amazingly paralleled each other. This is a must read for anyone who flew or crewed helicopters in Vietnam, and anyone who was ever exposed to the way the 1st of the 9th flew. Buy it and read it right away. You will not be disappointed. Great job Randy. Thank you.

  • Ripel
    13:13 on May 8th, 2012
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    Rattler One Seven gives insight into Chuck Gross’s journey into manhood through the Vietnam Conflict from Special Secret Operations to the little known but bloodiest operation of the entire war, Lamson 719. Chuck Gross relives the days and events of everyday life as an helicopter pilot in Viet-Nam. His story is personal and candid. He shares his thoughts and feelings as he transitioned from a midwestern high school graduate into a seasoned Senior Aircraft Commander in three short years. The book lets you feel the daily grind of combat and life as a chopper pilot. The Viet-Nam history buff will enjoy reading the book. Gross does not sensationalize his service. The book also shows how his enlistment and becoming a helicopter pilot ultimately lead to an aviation carrier and becoming a pilot for American Airlines.

  • TrafficWarden
    13:38 on May 8th, 2012
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    This book would make a great movie…. The way it is written makes you feel like you are out there with him… I believe I’ve read about every book written about the war and this is one of my favorites. The Author has a very good way of telling a story of a small group of young men doing a job that not many people could accomplish in a war zone.

  • John Baxter
    16:32 on May 8th, 2012
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    A very well done book on the experiences of a Cobra gunship pilot in Vietnam. From my perspective, with around 300 hours in Cobras, my only criticism would be that personal matters and personalities at times got in the way of the subject of the book. Flying for the 1st Cav Division was generally the wildest in Vietnam. A solid four stars.

  • nedendir
    17:58 on May 8th, 2012
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    I have to admit, I don’t know much about how things were during the Vietnam War…mainly because I wasn’t here yet. I know things weren’t good at home and worse yet overseas.

    However I have the great opportunity to work with Randy and was thrilled to learn he was writing a book. When he told me about the letters and tapes his parents saved and what the book was about, I knew I had to read it.

    “Snake Pilot” is a brilliant telling of what went on day-in and day-out in Randy’s world while he was in Vietnam. The book is written in Randy’s own words and many times I felt as though he was sitting next to me telling the story. The language easily lets you imagine what it must have been like and while the pictures in my mind can’t compare to anything Randy and his comrades endured, I could see the cities, hooches, aircraft maneuvers and what it must have been like to fly over the jungle….I could also imagine what his buddies must have been like and the bonds they formed.

    I can honestly say that I laughed, cried, shook my head in disbelief and cursed my way through the book. Of course, there is a waiting line in my family to read the book…so I couldn’t give anything away even when I wanted to say, “listen to this!” I plan on buying this book for several people in my family who are history buffs. This gave me an amazing insight to the war in Vietnam and the adversity our soldiers faced.

    Don’t worry if you aren’t a military buff, there is a wonderful glossary that I had to refer to time and time again. That was a genius idea!

    Thank you Randy, for this glimpse into history. And although I wasn’t here at the time…thank you.

  • Dagmar Naguin
    4:18 on May 9th, 2012
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    I found this book to be very easy to read. I never felt myself searching for the end of the book but wanted it to go on and on. The relife experiences that he shares make you feel as if you are part of his flight crew. In the book, Gross was able to just tell his story the way it happened to him with out all the political nonsense that you find in other books about the vietnam war. I would recomend this book to anyone that is interested in the Vietnam war or in History. It truly gives you a real life experience of what it was like for a helicopter pilot.

  • PaulTheZombie
    5:27 on May 9th, 2012
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    This was a very good representation of a “normal” life for a year in Viet Nam for a Huey jock. Most of it was truck driving, then an exciting week or so had you melting in your socks. But upon looking back that week or a few days is hard to believe. Brings back lots of feelings.

  • Jolynn Ordona
    9:53 on May 9th, 2012
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    As a veteran of this war and someone who has
    spent time in the back of Huey’s. I found this a
    very good read. But the good thing about this
    book is that its written so well that has appeal
    across a wide range of exerience and interests.
    The author doesn’t use lingo without explaining
    it, so you don’t have to have been there to under-
    A good read. Thanks Mr Gross and Welcome Home!

  • TrafficWarden
    10:17 on May 9th, 2012
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    I have gotten to know Randy and his family because they are neighbors of our son, a U. S. Air Force pilot in Anchorage.
    Randy is the real deal, as a storyteller, a helicopter pilot, a husband and father, and a loyal friend to our son and his family.
    If you know Randy at all, you know he puts his heart into everything he does. This book is no exception.
    It tells a story that is so gripping and so human, it could not be fiction. That said, I must add that this book is not for everyone. Do not read it unless you want to know what really happened.
    It is a tough read that pulls no punches. It names names, recounts vicious combat in great detail, re-creates helicopter missions with heart-pounding veracity, and makes the reader share the confusion, grief, terror, bravery, deep and abiding friendships, vulgarity and, yes, even the humor, of Randy’s year as a “snake” pilot. In short, it is unforgettable, just like its author.

  • John Baxter
    13:12 on May 9th, 2012
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    Talk about “Take me back!” Randy Zahn did just that. What a memory! The heat, the killing of friends and the enemy, incoming and the showers, it’s all there! I was there three years earlier than Randy, but I met his persona every day, 19 years of age, but much more mature. The soldiers aged ten years in one month in the “Nam.” Great read, thanks for baring your sole Randy.

    Richard L. Snider, M.D., author of Delta Six, Soldier Surgeon

  • Karla Shelton
    18:34 on May 9th, 2012
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    I recently purchased a book entitled Rattler One-Seven written by Chuck Gross. Once I started to read this unbelievable account of this helicopter pilots involvment in the VietNam war I could not put it down. What these young pilots went through to insert and extract and suport rescue missions to bring back our ground troops during this confrontation is almost more than a mind can absorb. Chuck Gross was a young warrant officer (19 yrs old) from Minnesota. His in depth writing will take you to a time in history that many of us have forgotten. The daily fear of lossing ones own life, being caputured and the stories of friends and comrades who did not make it home is riveting to say the least. His writing is so in depth I gurantee you will ride that Huey with him and his crew, and you will share the tears, heartache and jubilation just as he did during his year of service. If you remember anything about Nam and the protests regarding this war you owe it to yourself to read this pilots account of what hell must really be like, and applaud these brave young men for doing the job that they were told to do. Whether you agreed with the war or not is not the issue, but what these soldiers did at our governments request of them. I hope you can reflect as I did when you read Chuck Gross’s account. You will hold a special place in your memory for all of these brave men. Bill Turck, St Cloud MN

  • cjinsd
    1:09 on May 10th, 2012
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    If you have ever wanted to know what it was like to be a helicopter pilot during the most significant war in our history where helicopters were used, this is a MUST READ. Not only do you sit in the seat with the pilots and the gunners, but you will FEEL the war exactly as a 19 year old pilot experienced it: saving soldiers lives in the field, risking everything for the wounded, and ultimately having a front row seat to the greatest helicopter assault ever used in warefare–Lam Son 719. Find out why the soldiers in the field called these “Rattlers” the bravest soldiers in the war. You won’t find this in any history books! It is one of the most unique books I have ever read.

    Allen Schemmel
    Hendersonville, TN

  • PaulTheZombie
    2:17 on May 10th, 2012
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    The book is almost a diary, to many unnecessary facts and people. Other than that a good read if you want to know about flying choppers in Nam……..

  • Ripel
    4:10 on May 10th, 2012
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    What can a book tell you about a strange lady who loves her AH-1Z? Let’s “pull pitch” in the words of this book and find out.

  • TrafficWarden
    4:35 on May 10th, 2012
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    The author tells of his experience of being a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War at the age of 20. His mind set, skill level and sense of honor at such a young age is quite rare and highly commendable. I don’t know any 20 year old who could have done what he did. The man was very wise beyond his years.

  • Jim Levitt
    10:20 on May 10th, 2012
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    Just finished Randy’s book and must say it didn’t disappoint. He tells an in-depth story of his time in South Vietnam as well as some brief “visits” flying into Cambodia. It’s obvious from his writing he has a deep devotion to his country and love of those he fought with. As a reader i was drawn into his world and immediately identified with him and his fellow aviators. He describes day-to-day life there and all his feelings at the time with the help of letters and recordings he made for family members. His accomplishments are all the more incredible when i thought about how young he was. I have much admiration and respect for Randy and appreciation for his service. I would recommend this book as a great first person narrative of a great American fighting a very difficult war.

  • nedendir
    11:46 on May 10th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    As a former Vietnam helicopter pilot, I lived a similar life in “Nam” so I know the story was factual and well written. The author was single minded in getting home alive and keeping those flying with him as safe as he could make it for them. I enjoyed his professionalism in flying and striving to be the best in a bad situation. The combat assualts were great and I was “in the cockpit with him” as he described the action. Good reading for vet and non-vet alike as to what it was like to be in a true airmobile war.

  • Dagmar Naguin
    22:06 on May 10th, 2012
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    Randy sent a copy with a very personal message and signature to my mom back in the states, upon finally recieving it here in Iraq I read it cover to cover closing it only to go on mission. It brought back a lot of memories of stories my father, Charles Frazier, used to tell me about the days in Tay Nihn, Phouc Vihn and all the insanity of losing friends. Being at war myself, I really connected with a lot of the stories. It was a great book deeply personal, full of the heartache of Vietnam.

    PFC Frazier, Jason J
    21 M.P. (ABN)

  • PaulTheZombie
    23:15 on May 10th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    You have seen it in the movies, now read actual accounts of flying UH-1 Huey helicopters in and out of hot landing zones.

    Author Chuck Gross details his 1200 hours of combat as a young aviator during the Vietnam war. He details the way it really was from the propective of being on the front lines during tense operations. Rattler One-Seven is a collection of his notes and memories written in an exciting format, which captured my emotion to read more.

    He shares with his readers his thoughts and emotions as he carried out risky operations, putting his talents ahead of his emotion to complete the mission at hand. It is clear to me that Chuck was a fine aviator with high moral standards. This book tells the real life experiences in the eyes of a 19 year old Vietnam combat helicopter pilot. The challenges this pilot experienced which formed his skills and moral values into who he is today.

    You will read chronological events as they were experienced; being a Newbie, busting your cherry, Special Operations including Lam Son 719, what it is like to be shot down, coming home and more….. Read it. As I read it I felt the combat as if I was there in the action.

    A must read for all to experience a time in history.

  • Ripel
    1:08 on May 11th, 2012
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    Well written. I’m sure that a lot of the 5 star reviews come from fellow Rattlers, but that’s how it should be. The good news is these guys didn’t have to lie. It’s a good book. Plus I’m jealous. I was with the 192nd AHC in ’68 and ’69 and none of the guys in the 192nd care for my book. I guess their reason is a good one. I didn’t believe the war was in our best interest and said so, plus I was pretty much a loner.

  • Juana Cruz
    4:28 on May 11th, 2012
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    In a chance meeting I met Chuck Gross at Panera’s Coffee Shop in Hendersonville, TN. He was with a friend and had his book with him. I was with a friend who had also served in Viet Nam in an Army unit. When I noticed his book, I was intrigued and obtained a copy from him. Chuck’s experience in Viet Nam should make us all realize what a debt of gratitude we all owe him and others like him who served our country bravely in a war that we never intended to win. Initially one’s there for our country, but these men ultimately fought for each other as they have done in all our wars. His story in this book is a great testimony to that fact.

  • Jim Levitt
    10:13 on May 11th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    I loved this book. I wasn’t afforded the chance to fly a Snake in combat, but at that age I wanted to so much. What could be more exciting to a 19 year old than be able to fly, in competition and armed. At that age we could walk on water.

  • nedendir
    11:40 on May 11th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    Rattler One Seven is a rare view into the mind, heart, and emotions of one boy’s journey into manhood through the firestorm of the Vietnam Conflict from Special Secret Operations to the little known but bloodiest operation of the entire war, Lamson 719. Chuck Gross relives the days and events that tested every fiber of his being as a young idealistic American assault helicopter pilot. His story is personal and candid. He shares exactly what he thought and felt as he transitioned from a midwestern high school graduate into a seasoned Senior Aircraft Commander in three short but unforgettable years. The facts and events that he relates in his “memoir” are, to the best of my knowledge and recollection accurate, and at times painfully so. I know this because I also served as a helicopter Aircraft Commander in his unit. My call sign was Rattler 12 (One Two)
    The author brings the reader into the 71st Assault Helicopter Company of the infamous Americal Devision from his arrival through his departure and finally to his return to an ambivalent nation. To those of us who served with Chuck in 1970 -1971 this book is, in many ways, our story too. He includes the good and the bad as he pulls no punches in airing some of our dirty laundry along with the unembellished acts of heroism that characterized our unit’s daily operation.
    This book will appeal to the seasoned veteran and the history buff as well as the novice reader just being introduced to the Vietnam War. It is clearly and carefully written and includes many mundane facts that, to my knowledge, are not recorded in the rest of Vietnam War history but were so much a part of the culture shock of the “Vietnam experience”

  • Dagmar Naguin
    21:59 on May 11th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    Randy arrived in RVN almost the day I left. We have friends in common. Randy captured the emotions, and day-to-day life of those of us in C/1/9. His story very much parallels a lot of us. As I was reading the book, I occasionally had to take a break to come back to the current year. His telling of his story has told the story of all of us!

    Welcome Home!

  • webdiva
    7:30 on May 12th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    Sometimes I read a good book that interests me, then on a very rare occasion, I pick up a great book that captures my fullest attention; such was the candid memoir from Huey helicopter pilot Chuck Gross. He has authored an historic book for the ages. One that takes us through the firestorms of some very “hot LZs” and pulls us directly into the action, as if we were getting a pilot’s eye-view of the Vietnam War. The writing is vivid and painfully accurate at times. “Rattler One-Seven” is truly the best helicopter story by a pilot coming out of the Vietnam War.

    Chuck allows us to fly along with him and his unit, the Rattlers, where we get to meet their gunners, crew-chiefs and other pilots. Take it from someone who has been there and done that — this is very close to having the real experience yourself from the safety of your sofa. The book is a good insider look at the world of Assault Helicopter units in Nam.

    Book Cover is an award winning art piece by Vietnam Veteran artist Joe Kline

    The book also was a 2004 Distinguished Medal winner from the The Military Writer’s Society of America

    I give this book my personal recomemendation! It is a FIVE STAR BOOK but if I were able to give it more stars I would do so!!!!!

  • Jolynn Ordona
    11:56 on May 12th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    Gross wrote an easy to read book that educates the reader about flying choppers in Vietnam and how the perspective of the war from a pilot’s view differs from ground soldiers. But, I didn’t feel his writing style to be emotionally engaging. The text had a few typos – some grammatical errors too. The language is rather plain for my taste.
    Not a bad story, and I do not intend to make any inference or judgement about the Vietnam war or the service Gross bravely gave his country. I am plainly reviewing the literature of it, not the history of it.

  • TrafficWarden
    12:21 on May 12th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    First, it is an autobiography. I think his main attribute is the ability to explain things in a way that is both understandable and also exciting. He covers his career in the U S Army from when he is in BCT through all of the helicopter schools and then on to Vietnam. Describing training and making it fun and interesting is where a lot of authors fail, but I did not see that happen here.
    His missions in Vietnam were to me an unusual and to me unknown part of that war. He was fairly new in his unit and in their mission set when the orders came from D C to invade Cambodia and he was there in that new turn of events. I thought he was a solid author and enjoyed this work.

  • John Baxter
    15:15 on May 12th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    Evidently, the publisher’s printing press has a maximum number of pages that it can print in a book of this size. Regrettably, Randy was forced to cut major portions from the original manuscript that detailed more than the actions of a cobra pilot.

    In spite of this, Randy has completed the impossible task: He has documented the details correctly, and has also caught the tone, captured the frustration, and has put into writing what it was like to be a very young cobra pilot in Charlie Troop, 1/9 Cav.

    This is personal. This is a personal account; with all of the personal feelings and interactions that one is expected to have in combat. He has not blown his personal, the troop’s, nor the 9th Cav’s exploits out-of-proportion (like another author has), and has tried his best to describe the unit as it was…. a great Troop in the highly recognized 9th Cavalry, “doing it all like it was supposed to be done” in Nam. As such, the good and the not so good are both reported as fairly as any human being in combat can. When you are done reading his excellent book, you will no doubt have assimilated his personal feelings for what it was like to be a “Snake Pilot.”

    Grover Wright
    Charlie Troop, 1/9 Cav
    Snake Pilot

  • Lisa Llano
    1:30 on May 13th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    It almost felt like I flew with the author, Chuck Gross. I,too,flew slicks in Vietnam. I arrived in June 1971 just as the author left. I flew out of Chu Lai as did Rattler 17. My call sign was Minuteman 17. His narrative brought back many memories, good and bad. Over the years I have heard stories of Lam Son 719 from pilots who flew in that conflict, but I never realized the magnitude and horror they survived. He does a great job explaining the intricacies of how a helicopter works and the techniques of flying in combat.

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