MARCH 2011 – In working to ensure the heritage of pilots around the world are not forgotten, this article examines the involvement of pilots and aircrews in the secret war and operations over Laos during the long Vietnam War. The war went throu various stages in the 1960-1970s , this article can not cover this all in detail but will hopefully give people a insight to the nature of the war and what US and Lao pilots experienced.
WAR IN LAOS – A SECRET WAR
The war in Laos started as early as 1955 with CIA involvement. It escalated in the early 1960s with North Vietnam and Russia using Laos as a staging ground for the overthrow of South Vietnam.
The US wanted to stop the Pathet Lao and Russian expansion in Laos.
Problem was it wanted to deny it ever operated in Laos in a military way, so to circumvent this issue of official US activity, it brought in the covert CIA air arm – Air America to these fly flights – flood relief, cargo and covertly Royal Lao Government soldiers and weapons.
As the war developed North American Aviation T-28 Trojan trainers/bombers were used by the Royal Laos Air Force flying out of numerous air bases to support Royal Lao government military operations.
During the war, the US operated at remote sights called Landing Sites or more commonly – STOL -Short Take Off and Landing sites. These Lima Sites which totalled over 188 covered Laos. They had many uses from main air bases to small hillside landing strips for US covert bases and radar installations. They were at all times vunerable to attacks by North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces.
In 1968 a US operated Lima Site base was overrun. The North Vietnamese sent a force of 3,000 soldiers to over run the site. Lima Site 85 was only 120miles west of Hanoi and provided radar bombing assistance for the USAF and US Navy fighter bombers attacking North Vietnam.
A US soldier working there as a “Lockheed technician” won the Medal Of Honour in his military service role as he saved 3 of the survivors. The medal recipient sadly died on helicopter as it left the LS.
The now famous attack and overrun on Lima Site 85 by the North Vietnamese army showed no where was safe in Laos. Many US Army,CIA and local soldiers died in this battle on the remote /hard to climb mountain side base location.
After the fall of Lima Site 85, the US Embassy finally realised that with the increased bombing in Laos, some means of controlling them was necessary. This increase in air sorties was the basis of enhancing the Raven FAC program and increasing the number of FACs allowed in country. …more later on about Ravens.
ROYAL LAOTIAN AIR FORCE – RLAF – DEVELOPMENT OF AIR POWER
EARLY STRIKE AIRCRAFT
The Royal Laotian Air Force (RLAF) made its first-ever air strike on January 11, 1961; using its entire operational fleet of four North American AT-6 Texan aircraft, which were equipped with wing-pylon mounted rocket launchers.
This initial cadre of four Lao pilots had attended a one-week check out by Thai instructors at Korat and then received two days of tactical training in Thailand.
Two more pilots soon went into training at Korat.
The AT-6s were based in Vientiane, and the Lao government wasted no time in putting their new airplanes to use. Ten AT-6s had been provided, but there were not enough pilots to fly them as the RLAF was in the infant stages of developing a tactical air strike capability.
The preliminary training for the entire fledgling tactical group was conducted by the French Air Force and is reported to have occurred in Marrakech, French Morocco. Many of the Lao pilots also received L-19 indoctrination flight training by French instructors at Wattay Airport prior to 1961. This training preceded their check out in the AT-6.
AIR FORCE EXPANSION NEEDED
It was soon realised there was a greater need to upgrade the RLAF with better equipment and this mission was given to the USAF Air Commandos to control and organise. The US arranged for the Lao pilots to be trained in Thailand, with the start-up of the Waterpump program at Udorn in 1964. More on Waterpump later….
The RLAF began an expansion that would see it receive 60 North American T-28Ds as its main attack aircraft. The RLAF were also to receive 50 transports and 30 helicopters.
This was the dawning of a new era.
Although the RLAF received limited aid under the U.S. military assistance program, the 1954 and 1962 accords restricted training inside Laos. To improve the emerging RLAF, the USAF – PACAF proposed in December 1963 the deployment of a USAF special air warfare unit to Thailand. Its presence would permit the training of Lao and Thai pilots in the T-28.
In January and February 1964, after coordinating with the U.S. Ambassadors in Vientiane and Bangkok and the two governments concerned, the Secretary of Defense and the State Department concurred. On 5 March the JCS directed the Air Force to send a Special Air Warfare unit to Udorn, Thailand, for six months TDY.
The Waterpump detachment was just about to start.
WATERPUMP – A T-28 TRAINING PRGORAM FOR WAR INSIDE LAOS
Detachment 6 of the 1st Air Commando Wing, code named WATER PUMP, departed Hulbert AFB in a C-135, arriving in Saigon in mid-March.
The personel assembled four crated T-28s which had arrived at Bien Hoa in C-130s, while the others flew to Udorn 1 April 1964.
Detachment 6, 1 ACW with four T-28Cs and 41 personnel arrived at Udorn where the detachment established a T-28 maintenance facility using Air America equipment.
The Water Pump training facility for RLAF T-28 pilots was located at Udorn adjacent to the Air America parking ramp, and immediately began a ground and flight school for Lao pilots.
Additional troops arrive at Udorn increasing flying hours dramatically.
RLAF T-28 OPERATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT
The T-28 was designed as a trainer, but the T-28D-5 attack version could carry 3,500 pounds of ordnance, was armed with two flush mounted forward-firing 50-caliber machine guns, and boasted the installation of the R-1820-26 engine rated at 1,425 horsepower. The T-28Ds could be used for close air support, as well as for training. More importantly, the simplicity and reliability of the T-28 made it particularly well suited for developing countries with limited technical capabilities.
RLAF PILOT TRAINING FOR T-28 TROJAN OPERATIONS
The majority of all the students, Thai, Lao or Hmong spoke very little or no English. This meant that all sessions and briefings were conducted through an interpreter and one hoped that the information was conveyed to the student correctly. The Lao and Hmong languages were not structured for aeronautical and aviation terms. The instructors hoped that the meaning of what was conveyed was accurate enough for the student pilot to absorb it. Repetition was the key to instructing these students.
After the briefing session, IP and student went to the T-28 Trojan and again through an interpreter, went through the preflight. Then with the interpreter on one wing and the IP on the other, the student was instructed on the checklist procedures with a checklist they couldn’t read.
Checklist items: Before engine start, Engine start, Taxi, Before Takeoff, and Takeoff procedures were all covered in detail by the interpreter. The student was shown how to accomplish all of the procedures up through Engine start from the safety of on the wing.
It was necessary for the instructors to demonstrate the radio procedures to get cleared on the runway for departure. They would repeat this many times before the student was able to do it on his own.
Each lesson was usually initiated with a demonstration and practice of the element to be learned for the day. One hoped the RLAF student remembered some of the things covered in the briefing. The pace was fast and the student pilots were eager to learn, and when a new pilot soloed it made the IP and the rest of the group very proud of his accomplishment.
While in training, each Laotian student pilot received approximately 200 hours in an intense six-month program designed to qualify the young pilots to fly and fight with the T-28D. Areas of training included transition, instruments, and formation. After qualifying in the T-28 and soloing, each student pilot entered into the weapons delivery phase of training.
They learned high angle bomb and rocket delivery, low angle CBU and napalm delivery, and strafe techniques with the .50 caliber machine guns. Prior to graduation in the later years of the program, students were allowed to participate in Tiger flights against selected targets across the river in Laos.
Some of the Waterpump students included Thai Victor pilots in an accelerated upgrade training program consisting of approximately 30 hours, and initial training for the Laotian pilot candidate who received 200 hours of very intense training. All of these young pilots had been screened and selected for their ability and expectation of successfully completing the course.
The Watermpump program from 1964 until the facility was closed, trained more than 250 pilots.
SHORTAGE OF RLAF T-28 PILOTS
Because of the pilot shortage, Thai Air Force personnel, with their governments approval, were trained and joined the Laotians in flying operational missions. Some Air America pilots also received combat training. The program was continuous through 1975 when all training operations were brought to an end.
Since only the RLAF pilots were allowed to conduct air strikes inside Laos, more T-28’s were needed for the RLAF. At the request of the U.S. Ambassador to Laos, more T-28s were loaned temporarily to the RLAF. At its peak 33 T-28 were on line to the RLAF.
For a long time General Vang Pao had wanted his own TACAIR capability that would be responsive only to him and committed to and based at Long To. To resolve a shortage of pilots he wanted the U.S. to train some of the younger Meos (Hmong) to fly the T-28. After considerable debate concerning their qualifications and whether or not the Hmong students could be successful, VPs persistence won out. The US Ambassador finally agreed to send the Hmong student pilots to Waterpump program.
Many of the students didn’t know how to read Arabic numbers and didn’t understand what a compass rose represented or what constituted a 360-degree turn. This in itself made it difficult for them to read aircraft instruments.
A insight to the problems experienced in converting a pilot to fly and flight is seen in this extract from a Waterpump trainer viewpoint –
“You might say that they learned the very basics of how to start the engine, take off and fly the airplane to the target and drop a bomb. Then return to base and land safely. Unfortunately there is more to being a combat pilot than this and tragically that is why 20 out of the 33 Hmong pilots trained were killed. Smart fighter pilots learned quickly that you don’t fly in weather you can’t handle and you don’t duel with triple “A” everyday and live very long.
The Hmong were very brave but sometimes foolish in that they were always operating at a maximum effort and didn’t know when they had exceeded their limits.
They picked up bad habits like dropping bombs too low and flying through their own frag pattern picking up holes in the airplane. Being very tired, many of them lost the proficiency edge that fighter pilots need to fly safely. Anyone that has flown in Laos can tell you that it is very imposing even to a highly experienced pilot. The weather associated with the monsoon and the thick haze experienced during the slash and burn season would quickly challenge the capabilities of pilots with limited instrument training. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to recognize an accident waiting to happen.”
Waterpump was a unique training experience. It was responsible for producing the majority of the T-28 combat pilots needed for TACAIR operations in Laos. During the time that Waterpump was operating, just about every T-28 pilot in Special Operations did at least one tour of duty at Udorn.
PROJECT 404 – BACKGROUND TO EXPANDED US PRESENCE AND OPERATIONS IN LAOS
The CIA was largely responsible for conducting military operations in Laos, but the U.S. Ambassador was really the man in charge. The secret war in Laos was his war and he insisted on an efficient, closely controlled operation. There wasn’t a rice bag or a bomb dropped in Laos that he didn’t know about.
The US Ambassador also imposed two conditions upon the personnel operating in Laos. First, the thin fiction of the Geneva accords had to be maintained to avoid possible embarrassment to the Lao and Soviet Governments. Military operations, therefore, had to be carried out in relative covert secrecy.
404 is STARTED
In 1966 the U.S. government established Project 404 (sometimes referred to as “Palace Dog”), a system whereby military personnel could be “in the black” in that technically they were not in Laos. Individuals in Project 404 were assigned to out of country units and their in-country existence was classified for most of the 1964-1973 time period. Being in the black allowed personnel to perform military duties as a civilian operating in Laos under the supervision of the Air Attaché (AIRA).
There could be no regular US combat troops involved in Laos due to the agreement. In general, this policy led to the using of Project 404 personnel operating covertly in Laos to maintain a balance that offset the increasing number of NVA moving through the country.
During the air war in Laos, the Air Commandos were called upon to perform operational tasks at great risk to the personnel and pilots involved. Although operating under rules not normally found in the regular Air Force, the personnel assigned to Project 404 continued to place their lives at risk for many years. Some Air Commandos flew in Laos for more than a decade, braving enemy fire and surmounting challenging operational conditions with rare skill and determination.
404 – PROBLEMS – USAF DISAGREES TO THE PROJECT METHODS
The successful nature of the CIA operations and Speical Operations in Laos made the US Ambassador William Sullivan seeking to ensure Project 404 personnel to have a Special Operations background to support his air operations and selected the Air Commandos to fill his requirement.
He was quoted as saying: ”To be in special operations you have first of all to be a volunteer. Secondly you have to be prepared to take extraordinary risks, to function outside normal chains of command, and also to be able to make individual decisions of life and death immediately. It takes a special breed.”
The individuals that the Ambassador wanted in country flew into the face of the standard US Air Force Doctrine. In fact it was counter to the views of assigned commander 7th AF General Momyer.
It was clear to see why the Air Force had a problem with how the US Ambassador in Laos operated. Momyer was promoting an all jet operation in SEA and the use of the highly successful Air Commandos at NKP defied his wishes.
General Aderholt commander of 56th SOW, was noted to (and at some risk to his career) state that propeller-driven aircraft, with their long-loiter times and ability to deliver ordnance more precisely, were better suited to the war in Laos.
The vintage A-1s and A-26Ks had amassed an impressive record in interdicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail and supporting troops on the ground. He had also argued that low-tech aircraft such as the T-28D was ideally suited to the combat environment in Laos and for training Lao and Hmong pilots.
Senior USAF commanders still remained committed to a totally modernized, all-jet Air Force, due to the thinking that that jets were more survivable and provided air support quicker.
THE END OF LAOS OPERATIONS
As the war dragged on more and more AAA sites appeared along with more support from North Vietnm to the Pathet Lao forces. By 1974-75 the forces amassing in the country were overwhelming the Royal Lao Government.
As the stronger Pathet Lao emerged, not only did this pose a threat but on the border North Vietnam was building up its air defence system putting at risk slow moving propeller aircraft, These slow moving propeller aircraft couldn’t carry self protection systems which were more commonly found on the jets.
The war in Laos ended in 1975 when without US government support, the Pathet Lao aided by North Vietnamese aid managed to finally over run the Royal Lao government army and air force. This over running of the country, made a mass evacuation of remaining US personnel and Lao people who were in US dependency essential, as they were liable to be killed if they remained in the country.
RLAF T-28 TROJAN AIRCREW- THE MEN BEHIND THE RLAF TACTICAL AIR FORCE
Most RLAF pilots wore USAF issued sage green K-2B flight suits or if needs be locally made suits. Some wore bright orange or black flight suits. Some wore duck hunter or spotted camoflagued flight suits. As most were small sized pilots the small suits were keenly sort after.
Standard USAF garrison caps were issued for head wear on base. The aircrew wore HGU-2A/P flight helmets with boom microphones. They were either white or painted for camoflauge measures. Standard flight boots were worn.
SRU-21/P survival vests were always carried. Some used pistol belts with a Colt .45 pistol in holster. All aircrew wore backpack parachutes.
Raven was the call sign used by civilian (USAF) Forward Air Controllers (FACs) in Laos.
It came to designate, however, a special breed of FAC—someone who was highly motivated, aggressive, decisive, daring and exceptionally skilled and professional in his work.
The the mission of the Raven FAC was to :
1) to conduct air reconnaissance to obtain first-hand information concerning enemy locations, activity and threats;
2) to control and direct Air Force or Navy aircraft bombers or Arm artillery on enemy targets; 3) to control, direct and coordinate air strikes with ground troops for close air support.
The Raven FAC was in a position to have immediate information about troop movements and direct air power or artillery very effectively on the target. He had the ability to be assigned as an on-scene commander with all the responsibilities and authority of the position.
Background to Raven operations in Laos
In 23 July 1962, the United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam finally signed the Geneva Accords guaranteeing the neutrality of the Kingdom of Laos. One of the provisions of the Accords called for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Laotian soil. North Vietnam had troops still remaining in Laos from the end of the French Indochina War. The United States had a small number of advisors, which it withdrew from the country.
The North Vietnamese provocatively ignored the Accords because they were determined on keeping their supply corridor to South Vietnam – the Ho Chi Minh Trail – open to continue overthrow.. North Vietnam repeatedly stated in 1962 that they had “no military presence in Laos”, even though they had numerous troops stationed in two Laotian provinces.
Due to the expanding North Vietnamese presence in his country, the Laos Prime Minister, Prince Souvanna Phouma, asked the US Government for military aid help to counteract the North Vietnamese.
To avoid the appearance of unilaterally violating the Accords, U. S. President John F. Kennedy directed the United States Air Force to perform covert operations in Laos to help the Lao fight the North Vietnamese communists
Covert Operations begin in Laos
The U. S. Air Force originally forwarded four sergeants from Combat Control Teams in 1963. These sergeants turned in their uniforms and military identification and were supplied with false identification so they could work in civilian clothing. This process was designed to preserve the fiction of American non-involvement dubbed plausible deniability.
Once “civilianised”, the Butterflies flew in the co-pilot’s seat in Air America Helio Couriers and Pilatus Porters. They were often accompanied by a Lao or Thai interpreter in the back seat.
The Air Commando sergeants directed the air strikes according to U. S. Air Force doctrine. These commandos flew and operated air strikes without notice or objection until General William Momyer discovered that enlisted men were in charge of air strikes. When found out, they were ordered to be replaced with rated fighter pilots.
RAVENS appear in the skies over Laos
The Raven program was officially founded on 5 May 1966. It began with two pilots on 90 days temporary duty, working out of aircraft borrowed from Air America. Lieutenants Jim F. Lemon and Truman Young had been directing air strikes on either side of the DMZ dividing Vietnam.
Upon their return to Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, they were told that minor disciplinary sins of unauthorized aerobatics and furniture destruction at a party would be excused if they volunteered for a secret program—which, of course, was the Ravens.
Joined by a third Raven, they began 90 day TDY tours flying support for the Royal Lao Army.
Recruiting for the Ravens began when Air Force personnel checked into their original assignments in Vietnam.
These FACs – Forward air controllers – beginning a tour in SouthEast Asia, were told as part of their orientation briefing that halfway through their year’s tour of duty in Vietnam, they were eligible to volunteer for special duty via the Steve Canyon Program.
To be accepted for Steve Canyon, a pilot had to have a minimum of four months combat duty, including at least 60 days service as a FAC, at least 100 hours flight time as a fighter pilot and/or FAC, at least 750 hours flying time overall, and six months or more time remaining on his tour in SEA.
Those who did volunteer via this program did so with no knowledge of their destination – Laos.
The mystique was heightened by the secrecy of the Raven assignment. Pilots would leave Vietnam and seemingly disappear.
After profile screening by the 56th Special Operations Wing at Nakhon Phanom RTAFB, they received temporary duty orders, and were forwarded to the American Embassy, Vientiane, Laos. There they were stripped of all military identification and gear, supplied with U.S. Aid identification, and changed into civilian clothing to be worn for their entire tour of duty.
How RAVENS worked
The Ravens belonged only tangentially to the U. S. Air Force. They performed their duties under direction of the Air Attaché; the Air Attaché in turn reported to the Ambassador.
As this was part of the USAF’s clandestine unit in Laos, the Ravens flew not only FAC but supported CAS and air interdiction support. The CAS missions were largely in support of Laotian irregulars, mainly the Hmong, and Laotian regulars.
The Air Force kept the Ravens’ records and paid them, but had no operational control over their daily operations. They went to war in blue jeans, T-shirts, and sometimes cowboy hats.
The Ravens were airborne fighter pilots in unarmed light aircraft O-1Birdogs who flew observation missions, marked enemy targets with smoke rockets, directed air strikes onto them, and observed and reported bomb damage assessment post strike.
In August 1967, the three Raven FACs on duty in Laos were augmented by three more Ravens stationed with Detachment 1, 606th Air Commando Squadron at Nakhon Phanom.. At the same time, the US Air Attache in Vientiane requested 0-1 Birdogs with unmarked national insignia be supplied by the USAF – 7/13th Air Force. This was because the Ravens needed their own airplanes instead of riding with civilian pilots. The 0-1s were supplied. By November, the Raven head count had increased to eight.
Operational problems with RAVEN fleet
Both the 0-1s and the later-supplied U-17s had severe maintenance problems in the beginning. Maintenance was spotty; it was performed by pilots, poorly trained Lao mechanics, or Air American technicians.
The piston engines found in the 0-1s and U-17s were tuned for optimum performance at Udorn’s low altitude but instead in Laos they were run on lean settings. Adding to the woes were high power settings needed for maximum weight takeoffs, toting maximal loads, or short-field takeoffs. With such pressures on the Continental engine, the engine life for the 0-1s fell from 1,800 hours to 400 hours flight time.
As these issues grew, the engine failures became epidemic. 18 engine failures occurred during the last quarter of 1968. Walt Polifka (call sign Raven 45) reported 26 failures in February 1969.
This led to all the 0-1 Birdogs being cycled through Udorn to have their fuel tanks cleaned out. Some of them had over 18 years of crud and mud contaminating the tanks.
The tanks were cleaned, and by May 1969, air force mechanics came to the program and fixed the engines. Engine problems dropped drastically after that.
RAVEN threats over Laos – AAA fire
Anti-aircraft fire could be intense and accurate; the Raven’s 0-1s and U-17s were known to take as many as 50 hits battle damage in a single sortie.
Working as a Raven FAC was an exhausting, high-risk, high-stress job. The casualty rate among them ran about 50% wounded and killed; one calculation by a participating Raven at his end of tour was that 90% of the Raven planes had been hit by ground fire during their tours of duty; 60% had been downed by enemy action at some point; 30% had been killed in action.
RAVENS – the aftermath
The roster of 161 Ravens breaks down to show 23 of the Air Force Ravens were KIA during the Secret War Over Laos.
Some photos of the pilots and what they wore in flight.
Thanks to Ed Gunter /EAPLS – Raven Fac – for allowing HFGD to let the world know more about the Raven and T-28 Trojan experiences during the secret war in Laos.
Thanks to others who have helped contributed to this article.
For further information please visit - http://www.ravens.org/ and learn about the Ravens operations and pilots.