A Jack of all Trades
By: Allen Cates
The land locked Kingdom of Laos was considered by the Americans to be the lynch pin preventing communist encroachment along the Pacific Rim. The political situation in Laos was volatile and the Royalists, Neutralists and the communist Pathet Lao governed the country in a three-way coalition rendering an even more difficult environment since none of them liked each other.
The 1954 Geneva Convention specified that no foreign army could conduct war in Laos. The problem was the North Vietnamese refused to abide by the agreement, but what the North Vietnamese did was not as publicly visible had America overtly done the same. America was hamstrung. Yet, a military presence to support the Royal Lao military was clearly necessary.
The Pathet Lao were augmented and supported by the North Vietnamese and using eastern Laos to funnel troops and supplies into South Vietnam. There was concern the country could be overtaken by the communists unless the Royal Lao military could be trained to defend themselves. U.S. Special Forces, under Operation White Star and Hot Foot, had been operating in northern Laos since 1959 secretly. They had been tasked with training the Lao military and required continuous logistical support. Normally, the U.S. military would handle this task, but bringing in a large military force to handle logistics could not be kept secret and would be seen as a violation of the 1954 Geneva Convention.
Air America was the only entity available with the necessary experience and local knowledge to handle it and Air America could be utilized as a military force posing as a civilian enterprise because the truth was Air America was owned by the U.S. Government and could be regulated internally.
The war in Laos has often been called the CIA’s secret war, but he truth is it was America’s secret war and four administrations used the CIA and the armed forces to conduct the war. The 1962 Geneva Accords required all foreign military personnel to leave Laos. The U.S. Special Forces departed. The North Vietnamese army remained. So did Air America.
It was not an easy task. There were few roads and even the ones they had would become uninhabitable during the rainy season. The only real way of getting around was by air and there were fewer landing strips than roads.
Air Force major Harry C. Aderholt, who later retired as a Brigadier General, introduced the Helio Courier to Air America operations in Laos in the early 1960’s. Aderholt along with a few pioneer Air America pilots like Bill Andresevic, Ed Dearborn and Joe Hazen went about the task of creating adequate landing strips, but when I say adequate the truth is they looked more like landslides than runways. The Helio Courier was one of the few aircraft that could operate on primitive landing areas with short field capability, but these strips were literally carved out of the jungle on the sides of steep mountain slopes surrounded by craggy lime stone karsts and deep gorges. Northern Laos in the rainy season is shrouded in fog obscuring the terrain and in the smoky season, when the Lao burn their fields getting ready for the next crop, its like flying in a glass of milk. Quite often even the experienced pilot was lured into a trap searching for a small airstrip in a hidden valley and discovering only one way in and one way out and very little room to turn around. The Helio Courier had the wherewithal to do the job but it still took great talent on the part of the pilot to accomplish it.
Ron Sutphin checked out several of the Helio pilots. He was a former Marine and reported to be a natural stick and rudder pilot with innate flying ability. He was hand picked by Air America VP Operations Manager Robert Rousselot to go to Laos and train Helio pilots solely because of his expertise. I never met him personally, but there were others like him that few knew about and not all of them were former military aviators.
John McRainey never flew in the military but was an excellent C-123 pilot and a fine man to boot. Pat Thorsen was a civilian Beech 18 pilot that came to Air America the same time as I did. He later flew the Beech 18 turbine version with Air America called Volpar that conducted low-level photoreconnaissance missions. He was an excellent pilot and it was with heavy heart that I helped Ray Jeffery clean the blood from his personal effects after he was shot in the throat and killed over northern Laos.
Additionally there were others like Don Whitaker who learned to fly a crop duster in the rice fields in Arkansas and what he could do in the Porter was near phenomenal. Those are the ones I personally knew. There were others. Every pilot who wants to live a ripe old age learns to abide within his limitations, but not every situation could be handled by a prescribed method or done “by the book” in Laos nor in Vietnam for that matter. The early Air America pilots had few limitations and were unknown giants in a very difficult environment and few people knew what they accomplished. They learned to adapt and often had to draw from deep inside to cope and stay alive.
The Helio was not an easy aircraft to fly and especially vulnerable to crosswinds. The vertical stabilizer was short and the pilot did not have an effective rudder control until the tail started to fly and the stabilizer rose high enough to catch the wind. Consequently, ground loops occurred for both the inexperienced and the experienced pilot often.
Joe Hazen was the chief pilot for the Helio program in Laos in the early sixties. He reported he never came close to ground looping the Helio, but he might have been an exception. Joe knew his stuff and recorded over 2000 hours in the Helio, but that wasn’t the only aircraft he worked in Laos.
Flying in Vietnam was easier than Laos. There were more landing strips and they were usually in better condition, but Vietnam too had its challenges. Most of Air America’s pilots came from the military for obvious reasons. They were well trained and plentiful. Les Bays was a retired Marine Corps pilot who had flown the F4D Sky Ray high altitude interceptor prior to coming to Air America. BJ Singleton had been a F-102 Air Defense pilot in the Air Force and he too was now retired and both of them were now in the Helio Courier program in Vietnam and it was a challenge. Les was a caustic no BS pilot who demanded strict adherence to aviation rules and regulations, but he got away with being mean spirited because he was a damn good pilot. BJ, who was also pretty mean spirited himself and a great aviator too, told me in his east Texas drawl that if you paid close attention the first 10 degrees of ground loop was pretty slow, but the next 170 degrees came damn fast. Les retorted that only an Air Force pilot would have that trouble and flying tail wheel aircraft was second nature to Marines.
Sure enough a cross wind one day caught BJ at the wrong time and he did a ground loop and bent the aircraft at an outlying landing strip. Bays quickly and viciously told BJ that he should resign. BJ could only hang his head in shame. But, the next week the same thing happened to Les. BJ found Les in the ready room the next day and produced a paper and pen.
“What the hell is this?” Les growled.
“This is your letter of resignation you son of a bitch!” And it was Bays’ turn to grovel. It was actually good-natured bantering, but laughable. BJ left Vietnam and went to Laos to fly the Helio successfully and his wit and personality was well known and a delight to listen to on the radio during light moments.
The Helio was phased out in Vietnam because the Porter did the same job easier and had a larger payload. Jake Wehrell, another former Marine, was the chief pilot for Porters in Vietnam and was a stickler to detail and procedures. He checked me out in the Porter in 1967. He made sure I understood what to do and what not to do and I obeyed religiously. In 1968 I was an instructor pilot in the Porter and as luck would have it I was assigned to check Bays out when he transitioned from the Helio.
I was not looking forward to it because Les was hard on junior pilots and my assignment as an instructor pilot was not necessarily based on ability and more probably due to the fact that few others wanted the job. Putting up with a hard assed Marine who started flying when I was in diapers was not going to be fun. Les was a complete surprise. He demanded as much for himself as he did others. He was an ideal student and learned quickly. I actually enjoyed flying with him and came away with a different outlook. On our last day he asked me if I had ever rolled a Porter.
“You mean an aileron roll?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He said, and before I could say don’t do it he made a perfect roll. Mind you the Porter has a very long wingspan and nothing anywhere says the aircraft is aerobatic, but I guess Pilatus never talked to Les Bays.
Many of Air America’s pilots were former A-1 attack pilots with gobs of experience. Joe Hazen was one of those. Air America became more rigidly structured later, but in the early days they had to learn how to fly an aircraft the hard way by getting in it and learning how to fly it by themselves. Ron Sutphin checked Joe out in the Helio, but he was on his own after that. It was not uncommon for the early Air America pilots to be proficient in several types of aircraft simultaneously. Joe checked out in the Caribou and the Dornier DO-28. He also got the rare chance to fly the T-28 in combat with Air America. Others in the original group included John Wiren, Tom Jenny, Rick Byrne, Don Romes and Ed Eckholdt.
The war had heated up in 1964 and the administration realized the Lao troops needed close air support, but the average Lao pilot then did not have the necessary experience. The 1962 Geneva Accords prevented overt combat flights by U.S. military personnel. The solution was to use certain Air America pilots who had close air support experience.
Joe Hazen had the duty of selecting who he felt would do the best job. It was ultra top secret and they worked their normal job as Caribou pilots, or whatever aircraft they were assigned to, and when called upon they climbed into a T-28D and dropped bombs, rockets and fired 50 caliber bullets at the encroaching enemy. It wasn’t the first time Air America had been involved with direct combat operations. B-26s were used in Indonesia originating from Clark AFB in the Philippines and operating out of anti communist bases in Sumatra. Allen Pope and Connie Seigrist were two of the Air America pilots, called CAT at that time, and in the spring of 1958 Allen was tasked with a strike on communist ships and was shot down, captured and sentenced to death. It was a huge embarrassment to the Eisenhower Administration. Allen was not executed and was released through efforts by the Kennedy Administration, but allowing civilian pilots to fly combat operations was not something the Johnson Administration wanted advertised.
It was a secret hard to keep and a Bangkok newspaper reported, “Laos Royal Air Force strengthened by American-supplied fighter-bombers, has claimed at least two successful strikes against communist tanks and troop concentrations in the Plain of Jars region and near the north Vietnamese border.” Joe told me he got the lead truck, John Wiren the last and the rest had nowhere to go. Joe said the other two pilots were Tom Jenny and Rick Byrne. This operation was discussed in detail in Wiren’s story “It Takes Five To Tango.” The program was not destined to last and the military took over later on, but at the time, they did what they had to do and did it admirably.
Prior to that event Joe had the opportunity to fly the Dornier, which was a far cry from the T-28 or the Caribou. He was sent TDY to Saigon and he related a story to me about one day in the DO-28, an aircraft I called an ugly duckling.
“It was quite comfortable and worked as advertised on two engines. On one engine it was a real dog. I flew N2001F from Long Xuyen to Saigon, shutting down the right engine after climbing to about 3000′. I was barely able to maintain that altitude at METO power on the left engine, which was beginning to overheat and probably would have done so had the flight been longer.
The reason for the shut down was a defective oil line on which I made a field repair from parts bought in town, including a couple of cans of auto motor oil. I figured I could take off and get to altitude and shut the faulty engine down before it ran out of oil and destroyed the engine. It worked.
I was informed by US Army advisors there that it would probably have been burned by the local VC If I had left the aircraft at the airport overnight.
When I got to Saigon and taxied to the AAM ramp, I talked to the ground mechanic supervisor and explained what happened. He just about came unglued saying I had no authority to repair the aircraft and that it was against regulations and on and on. When I told him about the possibility of the aircraft being destroyed by the VC, his attitude did not change. I just walked away.”
Joe later went to Japan airlines and flew the DC-8 and 747. Joe, along with several others, could fly just about anything with wings. In the early sixties the situation in Laos and Vietnam required that kind of pilot. It was a heady experience and one that might never be duplicated.