By: Allen Cates
There was an abrupt change in the war in Vietnam after the 1968 TET Offensive. Americans were tired of a war that appeared to have no end and seeing fifty young men a day coming home in body bags did not provide comfort. Johnson said, “It’s like a west Texas hail storm. You can’t stay or leave and you can’t make it stop.” In 1969 Richard Nixon said, “Let us understand. North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.” That was the conundrum facing the new president.
What most Americans did not understand, and perhaps not the Johnson administration either, the bombing campaign in North Vietnam had taken a huge toll and the North Vietnamese were ready to sue for peace. America may have lost resolve after TET, but the truth is America won the battle decisively. But Johnson, perhaps looking at his popularity collapse and realizing he could not win another term, fell back and gave the North Vietnamese a second wind.
Nixon declared he would end the war in Vietnam and he knew continuing with a limited campaign utilized by Kennedy and Johnson was not going to work. Most of the left leaning books on Vietnam spend three-quarters of time writing about American failures from 1960 to1969, but barely a mention about 1969 to 1972.
Because you see, America actually won the war in Vietnam and peace has ensued along the Pacific Rim for more than forty years. But, it took a change in tactics both militarily and politically, and Nixon didn’t waste any time.
Nixon was under intense pressure from anti war groups. It would almost seem they wanted America to lose the war solely to appease their conviction the war had been ill advised and any person who conducted war with thoughts of winning should be branded a war criminal. But Nixon realized he needed to conduct war as a warrior and his first act was to appoint General Creighton Abrams, Westmoreland’s assistant, to command Military Assistance Command Vietnam.
Phillip Jennings, former Air America Helicopter pilot and author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide™ to The Vietnam War” wrote, “Abrams was a West Pointer and a man of well known integrity. Earthy in expression, no-nonsense, and rock solid, he was a brilliant leader. While he never criticized Westmorland, after taking command he completely revamped MACV on every count.”
Jennings wrote, “Abrams admired his enemy’s understanding and complete adherence to the “One War” concept of fighting: the military effort had to be part of a coordinated political and psychological assault on the enemy.”
Together with Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and CIA Director William Colby they adopted their enemy’s philosophy, and it worked.
Instead of a limited war of seek and destroy and fall back. Abrams conducted a search, destroy and hold campaign. Instead of stopping at the Lao border, he went across and attacked the enemy fiercely. The NVA used Cambodia as a launching place and infiltrated South Vietnam at will. Nixon did something no other president had ever done. He attached the NVA in Cambodia equally as fiercely.
Nixon did something else that few have written about, and even fewer have knowledge of. He broadened the war in Laos with Lao troops attacking the Ho Chi Minh trail along the Lao/Vietnamese boarder and used Air America as a military force to support them. This forced the NVA out of Vietnam to Laos to defend their supply route making it look like the Army of South Vietnam could defend their country without America.
Air America’s tenure was from 1950 to 1975. Approximately 186 were killed in action, but 35% of these casualties occurred from 1969 to 1973. The reason is simple. Air America was thrust into a military role that was more intense than experienced previously and the casualty rate increased accordingly.
The work in Laos was not mundane prior to 1969 and the H-34 helicopter group was assigned to search and rescue operation in northern Laos as a result of the increased bombing activity in North Vietnam and Laos. The 1962 Geneva Accords specified that no foreign military force could operate on the ground in Laos. Clandestine work with Special Forces and Air Force pilots in civilian clothes were supplied logistically by Air America, but an Air Force rescue force remained across the border in Thailand. Getting a downed pilot out safely required quick action. An Air America helicopter was able to be on station much faster than Air Force helicopters coming from Thailand. However, Air America helicopters were not armed and the H-34 was not as sophisticated as the newer turbine helicopters flown by the Air Force.
Former Air America H-34 helicopter pilot Charles O. Davis went to work for Air America in 1965 and left in 1967. He wrote an excellent book called “Across The Mekong” about his experiences. The book does not make the connection about jurisdiction over Air America, but it provides a graphic description of the life of a Lao helicopter pilot in a strange country embroiled in a terrible war. Reading his book now, after studying the history, makes it easier to make the connections and see how Air America was guided by a collective organization of 7th/13th Air Force, CIA, and Ambassador to Laos, whose mission was determined by the National Security Council.
Mr. Davis describes how he and others were directed to monitor their HF radio during bombing operations in the north in case a SAR situation developed. On one occasion he describes how they were ordered to go to a certain set of coordinates where a downed pilot was located. They were ordered to contact “Crown” an airborne command post who would direct them to the location. Military T-28 aircraft came overhead to assist. Air America pilots may have flown these aircraft, but they were under control of an Air Force Major by the name of Cochran who controlled the program called Water Pump.
Later in the sixties and early seventies Air America rescues were covered by A-1 Skyraiders flown by Air Force pilots. The chain of command during a SAR situation came from the 7th/13th Air Force to Air America operations directly or thru CIA operations in Udorn, who in turn went to Air America operations. The helicopters were either standing by at LS-36 in the early years, or contacted by radio by operations later on. All Air America pilots had to check in with operations by radio, or radio relay if out of the area with an operations normal report every thirty minutes.
A search was immediately conducted in the event a pilot did not check in every thirty minutes. Sometimes I worked so far north that I was out of radio contact with Udorn and checked in with Saigon with an “Operations Normal” report. Therefore, operations knew where every aircraft was at all times. The operations manager on duty was able to contact a helicopter in close proximity to a SAR situation when it developed. Occasionally a helicopter monitoring the emergency guard channel, which was required, could affect a rescue quickly before anyone could get organized. Especially the enemy.
Usually however, the helicopter in close proximity would be told to contact an airborne command center by radio. At that time he was under control of that command center. The close air support, composed of T-28s or A-1 Skyraiders, checked in and we would normally brief each other on how we were going to accomplish the rescue. Usually we had radio contact with the survivor and would tell him what we were going to do and tell him to get clear of his parachute so that it would not billow up into the blades of the rescue helicopter.
It did not always go that way cut and dried, but that was the intent of the National Security Council. Air America was clearly designated primary SAR in the early sixties in Northern Laos in writing by then Secretary of State Dean Rusk. The Air Force became more sophisticated in the late sixties and early seventies and Air America became secondary, but all of my personal SAR events occurred after 1970 and I was always in contact and under the jurisdiction of the Air Force for each one.
Yet, Dr. Timothy Castle, a former door gunner on rescue helicopters stationed in Thailand, who later worked for the Center of the Study of Intelligence and an accomplished author of historical books about Laos wrote on the CIA web site, “Air America crews were not required to monitor military emergency radio calls, fly to the location of military personnel in distress, or place their lives at risk of enemy ground-fire and possible capture. They received no extra compensation for rescue work and sometimes lost wages for their efforts. However, in their flying community it was enough to know that a downed aviator was in trouble and that airmen should always come to the aid of other airmen. It was simply the Airmen’s Bond.”
Dr. Castle praises Air America liberally, but the statement above would indicate to the general public that Air America conducted SAR operations without jurisdiction or authority and were actually no more than talented ambulance chasers interfering in the war effort. Dr. Castle’s feigned graciousness actually harms our effort to be recognized as veterans because it denies the critical requirement demanding proof of military jurisdiction.
I personally confronted Dr. Castle about his statement and told him I had proof of jurisdiction and authority that extended from 1964 through 1973 and asked that he reconsider his remarks. He declined saying we had a gentlemen’s disagreement and further stated Air America’s SAR activity began in 1964 and ended in 1965 and was short lived.
The truth has been graphically revealed in recent declassified documents. Specifically, “The War in Northern Laos” by Victor Anthony and Richard Sexton that can be found on the Internet though heavily redacted. The redaction doesn’t hide the apparent jurisdiction and authority the military had over Air America.
In 1968, at the same time period as the TET offensive in Vietnam, a tragedy was about to unfold on a mountaintop in northern Laos. The Air Force had secretly installed a navigation and radar facility on a mountain called Phu Pha Ti, commonly called LS-85. Air Force technicians in civilian clothes manned the site. Air America was assigned with the task of logistical supply for the technicians and the Hmong security force. They were also tasked with joint SAR along with the Air Force. Air Force Major Richard Secord, who later retired as a Major General, was in charge of this operation.
In the early part of 1968 North Vietnamese AN-2 Colt aircraft modified with tubes allowing mortars to be dropped from the air bombed the site. The damage was slight, but in a bizarre twist an Air America Huey arriving on location with supplies observed the activity. The pilot, Ted Moore gave chase and the flight mechanic, Glen Woods, armed with an AK-47 survival weapon shot down one of the Colts. This is the first, and perhaps only time a helicopter has shot down a fixed wing aircraft in combat.
The site fell in the spring with the loss of several lives. An elite North Vietnamese commando force scaled what was thought to be an impossible scalable cliff and attacked the Air Force non-combatants. They fought back valiantly with limited weapons and Air America was ordered to the site to rescue survivors at first light by Major Secord thru Air America operations.
Air America Captain Ken Wood, flying a Bell Huey along with flight mechanic Rusty Irons arrived at the site to find it in heavy and bloody hand to hand combat. They had remained over night at LS-20 Alternate, which was much closer to LS-85 than the Air Force rescue helicopter at Udorn, Thailand.
A group of survivors had made their way to the edge of a cliff and Wood was able to maneuver his helicopter close to the edge but was hovering out of ground effect.
They were under heavy fire and when the last man, MSgt Etchberger, was on board an enemy bullet came through the belly of the helicopter smashing Irons’ survival weapon and striking Etchberger causing a mortal wound. Sgt. Etchberger received the Medal of Honor for his actions on the ground that day, which saved many of his comrades.
Air America Captain Phil Goddard, who also had remained overnight at LS-20 Alternate, was meanwhile on a lower level of the mountain rescuing Hmong and CIA personnel who had fought their way to the existing runway.
Air Force aircraft destroyed the site, but the damage had been done and the site remained closed for the duration of the war. A number of Air Force personnel were presumed killed by the NVA attacking force, but their bodies were never recovered.
By 1969 Air America was operating Air Force C-123, C-130 and C-47 non-FAA approved military aircraft. They also operated Marine Corps H-34 helicopters, Army UHID helicopters and CH47C helicopters. No other civilian airline had ever operated a non-FAA certified aircraft in combat previously, but the truth was Air America was not a civilian airline. They were owned by the US Government and no different than any other member of the armed forces.
USAID and rice hauls for the Army, called Requirements Office, was still being conducted. The Hmong military force headed by General Vang Pao had been strengthened, but the military activity was quickly evolving. C-130 aircraft, working secretly from Takli, Thailand and operated by Air America pilots were carrying trained Cambodian troops into Cambodia. They were also carrying ammunition into Laos.
The C-130 crews received training from the Air Force E-Flight training program in Naha, Okinawa. Check flights were also conducted by the Air Force. However, Air Force Crews could not fly in Laos or Cambodia overtly. The Air Force would land their aircraft in Udorn, Thailand, disembark and spend the day around the Air America club that had a swimming pool. Air America crews would man the aircraft and fly into Laos loaded with ammunition for the Air Force Ravens and the Thai and Lao troops operating there. I sincerely believe the Air Force crews wanted to go to Laos, but the Geneva Accords prevented it.
Air Force crews at an ammunition dump called Pepper Grinder located at the Udorn airport loaded the ammunition. Air America also operated Air Force C-123 aircraft doing the same job, but these aircraft remained either in the capital of Laos, Vientiane or at Udorn.
C-46 aircraft operated out of Vientiane and air dropped rice to various places in Laos to refugee locations. C-7 Caribous did the same. The rice was bagged in loose double bags and dropped at altitude where it was found less damage occurred by air dropping in this fashion. It was a difficult job and often hazardous.
Air America now had the Bell Huey, but the workhorse was the H-34. I left Vietnam when I sensed I would lose my captain’s position due to decreased flying in Laos and accepted a captain’s slot in a helicopter I had vowed I would never fly again.
Not all, but many men would love to own and drive a powerful sports car or truck. Some are not able to do so because they are not always practical, but the desire is still there. I felt the same when I saw an F8-U Crusader take off with full afterburner. That’s me, I said to myself. Flying a helicopter was tantamount to driving a dump truck in my opinion, and this is true to a certain extent, but flying a F8-U over Laos might have been a lot easier than flying an H-34 in Laos, and there is a certain degree of satisfaction when getting the job done in a difficult environment.
Some may look at my next remarks as sour grapes, but the truth is flying involves a lot more than take offs and landings. Flying, like golf, is ninety percent mental and ten percent mental. The easiest aircraft I ever flew was the Sabreliner. Not a fighter with after burner, but a swept wing high performance jet nonetheless. Yes, flying to the west coast from Louisiana was a lot easier in a jet than when we did it in a Navajo. You could pick your way thru thunderstorms instead of flying way around or not at all, but you could practically land a Sabreliner with your eyes closed regardless of the turbulence or crosswind. In fact there is no crosswind limitation in a Sabreliner. Try doing that in a Cessna 206 and you’ve got your hands full.
I’ve always maintained the secret of flying is knowing what’s going to happen before it happens, but I’m not talking about clairvoyance.
This means pre-planning a flight from beginning to end. It also means listening and watching for signals that tell you what’s happening in front of you. It’s always been pleasing to me to plan a flight and hit all the checkpoints on schedule and arrive at the appointed place at the planned time. The navy said flying consists of hours of pure boredom interrupted by seconds of pure terror. The navy guy who said that never operated an H-34 in Laos because I never got to the boredom part.
The navy also said the best time to know your emergency procedures and the worst time to study them is during an actual emergency. I’ll go along with that. However, in the Sabreliner the rule is for every emergency the first act is to breakout the book. Then, look up the emergency and follow the directions. Yes, you study them beforehand, but the point is you have time to act.
In the H-34 helicopter time is not in your favor. You have both hands on three different controls. A stick called a cyclic that is not unlike a yoke in an airplane that moves the aircraft forward and back, and left and right A stick called a collective, which is not like an airplane that moves the helicopter up and down, and a throttle on the end of the collective that is somewhat like an airplane, but more like a motorcycle. Both feet operate rudder controls, which are like an airplane, but since a helicopter doesn’t have a rudder it actually increases and decreases the pitch on a tail rotor that resembles an airplane propeller and acts similarly.
It’s powered by a single radial Wright Cyclone hot rod engine, which has been modified to produce 1525 horsepower at sea level. The main rotor system has four blades and the system is fully articulated, which means simply that each blade is allowed to move independently of the others.
Those are the main attributes, but to successfully operate the H-34 in elevated terrain on small landing zones required knowledge of certain idiosyncrasies that were unknown to me and I had flown the H-34 in Vietnam with the Marines and thought I was experienced. Therefore, what I’m saying is, anybody can learn to mechanically operate any aircraft, but to be a real pilot there’s a whole lot more to it and I was about to learn how to fly an H-34 like I’d never flown it before. I might add that when you getting shot at and you’ve got both hands and feet in a helicopter there’s no time break out any book. You got about one second to either stay alive or become a statistic.
There was one other idiosyncrasy I had forgotten about. The H-34 seat is extremely small and uncomfortable. Most H-34 pilots carried a cushion as part of their flight gear and were unabashed about it. Like the military, helicopter pilots with Air America wore helmets. Most were decorated and I had mine fitted because they too became uncomfortable on 12 hour flying days. Mine said “Mad Dog” across the front.
I checked out fast for primary and then spent a couple of weeks line training. I observed operations that I never knew to be possible with some very talented pilots and absorbed every bit of knowledge that came my way that seemed to occur hourly.
Taking advantage of translational lift can be very useful when heavily loaded in elevated terrain. Essentially this lift occurs when the helicopter transitions from hover to forward flight. In the H-34 this occurs between 16-25 knots. In a strong head wind you have it automatically, but if not then it can be physically felt as a slight shudder. In the H-34 just as you feel translational lift occurring you can pull up on the collective decreasing the rpm from 2800 to 2650 and arrive at maximum performance. You can actually feel the helicopter punch forward.
Normally the H-34 is operated with two pilots and a flight mechanic, but in Air America the normal crew is with one pilot and one flight mechanic. Two pilots are assigned when knowing you are going to an extremely hazardous situation. Right after I had been released on my own I had the opportunity to use all the knowledge I had picked up and the hidden talents in this helicopter. There were no milk runs and it was “Katy Bar the Door” from morning to night.
My first flight was for USAID and my passenger elected to ride up front with me. He had several villages he wanted to visit and was planning on dropping various and sundry items that included some construction rebar that was heavy. Landing on a small mountain pad is a lot easier than taking off and I assumed we would be dropping the rebar at the first zone. I should have asked because to my chagrin it was staying on board.
Well this was a fine how to do! Here I was on my first trip and I either was going to have to make an unscheduled drop and upset the client, or crash into the trees on take off. Whoa! What have I got myself into?
“Stay cool”, I told myself and use your head. I came to a hover and had just barely three inches of MP in reserve. I’d been taught that was enough. There was very little wind, but I maneuvered the helicopter so that I was faced squarely into it. I’d been taught that too. Even if it meant landing down hill ALWAYS land into the wind, and definitely take off into the wind ALWAYS.
I cranked on 2800 RPM, lifted the collective and pushed the cyclic forward so that we went up and forward at the same time. I felt translational and pulled up on the collective to reduce rpm by increasing the pitch on the blades and achieving best lift over drag and the helicopter leaped forward with a deafening roar. Damn! What a rush! I was hot and that’s flying! I looked over at the customer and he was nonchalantly looking at the scenery like this was routine.
I never tired of making those takeoffs. Another thing I liked is you could ride with the energy in the rotor system on landings while dissipating airspeed. Near the end you start feeding in the power arriving as if on a rope striking the tail wheel and settling smoothly on the main wheels. You could also do this with no landing zone and settle on the wheels with the blades barely above the slope on a hill and hold there while the flight mechanic dumped the cargo consisting of food, water or ammo.
But like I said the military situation was changing and becoming intense. Flights now resembled what we had done in the Marines in Vietnam. Flights into outlying pads under fire became common. You brought food, water, and ammo in and took the dead and wounded out. Doing that all day for six days required you to become jaded to the carnage, but sometimes seeing young men with horrible wounds flight after flight made it difficult to remain focused. All the time I kept thinking I hope somebody somewhere is justifying all this.
A couple of years after I’d been country I was asked to take the VP of Operations from Taipei up to 20 Alternate for a look see. He told me he had heard we were not professional and there was too much banter on the radio. I explained joking with each other took the pressure off but when it came down to the nut cutting it got real quiet. I could tell he didn’t believe me.
Sure enough all the way up from Udorn there was a lot of chiding and bickering not unlike listening to the truckers on a CB radio on Interstate 10. I was flying the Bell at that time and looked back to see if he had a headset on. He did and he had a sour expression on his face.
We landed and refueled and was told to head north of Skyline just to the east of Sam Thong and check in with Durex on a different frequency. Durex was the Air America call sign used during combat operations. I looked at the VP direct and told him that where we’re going could be dangerous and he could be killed. He looked at me like, “yeah right” and told me to get going.
Once airborne I changed frequencies and it became deathly quite. I checked in and was told the enemy was trying to take the LK pad from the north and fighting was heavy. They were lobbing mortars into the site and I was to come in from the south low in between strikes, stay light on the skids, load up with wounded and depart with a hard left turn out of the way of Skyraiders lighting up the hillside with CBU ordnance.
The hills to the north were covered with smoke and flashing lights from the cluster bombs. The Skyraiders were coming in left to right below the pad pulling vapor trails from the wings as they unloaded and pulled hard out of the pass to avoid hitting the hill in front of them. I could see the mortars landing and it looked like they were coming down the hill in a pattern and I would be able to get in between if I timed it right.
The Bell lands slow, or you will over shoot the pad and that would put me right in the middle of the melee. So, even though you’d like to be in a hurry its necessary to use discipline and land normally.
I came thru the slot between two hills, hit the angle I wanted and landed with no haste, but not wasting time either. As advised I kept the power up and stayed light on the skids. I could smell the cordite stinging my nostrils and I was running on ninety percent adrenaline and ten percent seven up. Immediately the stretcher-bearers moved up from the trench they were hiding in and loaded me up. I could see the mortar rounds coming down the hill toward me and timed my take off as a pair of Skyraiders streaked by.
We were airborne now and I had the pedal to the metal heading south. There was no time for them to place adequate bandages on the wounded and the blood was everywhere. I looked back at the VP and he was white faced and shaken. I understood and there was no sense in saying anything.
I took the wounded to the hospital and watched as they unloaded one soldier that looked all of 12 years old. It’s hard to describe, but he didn’t have a face. There were two holes where his eyes had been, two for his nose and one for his mouth. I kept thinking how this boy was going to cope and knowing if he lived he would never have a girl friend or any life whatsoever.
I lifted off the hospital pad and hovered down the runway to the refueling area. Just then there was a loud explosion right in front of the blades that sounded like a huge lightening bolt. It was a 122 MM rocket and I moved off to the parking apron and shut down to see if there was any shrapnel damage.
There was none and I was ready to go back for another trip, but I had to walk around telling myself to get a grip and put it behind me. I looked at the VP and asked if he was ready for another trip. He shook his head and said he’d seen enough. I nodded and he knew I understood. He caught a C-123 heading back to Udorn and I went back to work. I never heard anymore about radio chatter.
Charlie Davis said in his book he had been a hunter before coming to work with Air America. Afterward he could not make himself do it anymore. I had not been an avid hunter previously, but I too feel the same. I had rather watch ducks flying in the marsh than shoot them. The idea of a 7.62 round smashing into a deer and ripping his insides apart conjures up what I saw happen to human beings and I find no joy in it.
I did this for five years. Some lasted only three, while others went three times that long. It wasn’t always so chaotic but it’s hard to remember when it wasn’t. Some helicopter and small bird pilots transferred out of Laos to fly the DC-4 or DC-6 out of Japan with Air America’s scheduled operations. Some just went home and like Charles Davis had successful careers as airline pilots. I had no place to go and being an airline pilot did not appeal to me.
Actually, I would have stayed longer, but one day it ended. There was no victory in Laos. The Hmong were left to dangle in an ill wind and they have been persecuted ever since. The kingdom was dissolved and the King and Queen were arrested and placed in a camp in northern Laos where they died of malnutrition.
I took the night train south to Bangkok thinking surely I would be called back, but it never happened. I had a brief stint in Taiwan, but in 1975 when the war officially ended I went to Louisiana and started a career in the oil field that has lasted for close to forty years.
I only flew airplanes and helicopter for twenty years but all the pictures in my office are of aircraft and none of the oilfield. People ask me about it and I really don’t know what to tell them.
By: Allen Cates, Air America Pilot (Retired)
Air America Association