You are here:   Homepage  >  Main Menu  > Stories Menu  > FREEDOM BIRD

1st Mob/Comm Stories

FREEDOM BIRD

By Lawrence E. Pence
Colonel, USAF (Ret)



Interesting account of a 1967 AN-2 attack on lima site 85 during Viet Nam war.... CIA Huey shoots downs attacking AN2 For most servicemen who served in Vietnam, the Freedom Bird was that civil airliner which took them back to the land of the big PX at the end of their tour. Mine was a bit different sort of Freedom Bird.

In mid-1967, as a junior Air Force Captain, I was detailed to 7th AF Hq in Saigon as an Air Technical Intelligence Liason Officer, short name: ATLO (the "I" gets left out, as people look strangely at anyone who calls himself an ATILO, thinking he is somehow related to Atilla the Hun). My job was to provide 7AF and the air war the best technical intelligence support that the Foreign Technology Division of AF Systems Command (my parent org­anization) could provide, in whatever area or discipline needed. Also I was to collect such technical intelligence as became available. This was a tall order for a young Captain, and this assignment provided much excitement, including the Tet Offensive.

At that time, Operation Rolling Thunder was underway, the bombing of military targets in North Vietnam. The weather in NVN was often lousy, making it difficult to find and accurately strike the assigned targets, so a radar control system was set up to direct the srike force to their targets. This system was installed on a remote, sheer-sided karst mountain just inside Laos on the northern Laos/NVN border. The site could be accessed only by helicopter or a tortuous trail winding up the near-vertical mountainside, so it was judged to be easily defensible. The mountaintop was relatively flat and about 30 acres in size.

On it was a tiny Hmong village called Phu Pha Ti, a small garrison of Thai and Meo mercenaries for defense, a helicopter pad and ops shack for the CIA-owned Air America Airline, and the radar site, which was manned by "sheep-dipped" US Air Force enlisted men in civilian clothes. Both the US and NVN paid lip service to the fiction that Laos was a neutral country, and no foreign military were stationed there, when in reality we had a couple of hundred people spread over several sites, and NVN had thousands on the Ho Chi Minh trail in eastern Laos. This partic­ular site was called Lima (L for Laos) Site 85. The fighter-bomber crews called it Channel 97 (the radar frequency), and all aircrews called it North Station, since it was the furthest north facility in "friendly" territory. Anywhere north of North Station was bad guy land.

The Channel 97 radar system was an old SAC precision bomb scoring radar which could locate an aircraft to within a few meters at a hundred miles. In this application, the strike force would fly out from Lima Site 85 a given distance on a given radial, and the site operators would tell the strike leader precisely when to release his bomb load. It was surprisingly accurate, and allowed the strikes to be run at night or in bad weather. This capability was badly hurting the North Vietnamese war effort, so they decided to take out Lima Site 85.

Because of the difficulty of mounting a ground assault on Lima Site 85, and its remote location, an air strike was planned. Believe it or not, the NVNAF chose biplanes as their "strike bombers!" This has to be the only combat use of biplanes since the 1930's. The aircraft used were Antonov designed AN-2 general purpose "workhorse" biplanes with a single 1000hp radial piston engine and about one ton payload. Actually, once you get past the obvious "Snoopy and the Red Baron" image, the AN-2 was not a bad choice for this mission. Its biggest disadvantage is, like all biplanes, it is slow. The Russians use the An-2 for a multitude of things, such as medevac, parachute training, flying school bus, crop dusting, and so on. An AN-2 just recently flew over the North Pole. In fact, if you measure success of an aircraft design by the criteria of number produced and length of time in series production, you could say that the AN-2 is the most successful aircraft design in the history of aviation!

The NVNAF fitted out their AN-2 "attack bombers with a 12 shot 57mm folding fin aerial rocket pod under each lower wing, and 20 250mm mortar rounds with aerial bomb fuses set in vertical tubes let into the floor of the aircraft cargo bay. These were dropped through holes cut in the cargo bay floor. Simple hinged bomb-bay doors closed these holes in flight. The pilot could salvo his bomb load by opening these doors. This was a pretty good munitions load to take out a soft, undefended target like a radar site. Altogether, the mission was well planned and equipped and should have been successful, but Murphy's Law prevailed.

A three plane strike force was mounted, with two attack air­craft and one standing off as command and radio relay. They knew the radar site was on the mountaintop, but they did not have good intelligence as to its precise location, It was well camou­flaged, and could not be seen readily from the air. They also did not realize that we had "anti-aircraft artillery" and "air de­fense interceptor" forces at the site. Neither did we realize this.

The AN-2 strike force rolled in on the target, mistook the Air America ops shack for the radar site, and proceeded to venti­late it. The aforementioned "anti-aircraft artillery" force- one little Thai mercenary about five feet tall and all balls- heard the commotion, ran out on the helicopter pad, stood in the path of the attacking aircraft spraying rockets and bombs everywhere, and emptied a 27-round clip from his AK-47 into the AN-2, which then crashed and burned. At this juncture, the second attack aircraft broke of and turned north towards home.

The "air defense interceptor" force was an unarmed Air Amer­ica Huey helicopter which was by happenstance on the pad at the time, the pilot and flight mechanic having a Coke in the ops shack. When holes started appearing in the roof, they ran to their Huey and got airborne, not quite believing the sight of two biplanes fleeing north. Then the Huey pilot, no slouch in the balls department either, realized that his Huey was faster than the biplanes! So he did the only thing a real pilot could do-attack!

The Huey overtook the AN-2's a few miles inside North Viet­nam, unknown to the AN-2's as their rearward visibility is nil. The Huey flew over the rearmost AN-2 and the helicopter's down-wash stalled out the upper wing of the AN-2. Suddenly the hapless AN-2 pilot found himself sinking like a stone! So he pulled the yoke back in his lap and further reduced his forward speed. Mean­while, the Huey flight mechanic, not to be outdone in the macho contest, crawled out on the Huey’s skid and, one-handed, emptied his AK-47 into the cockpit area of the AN-2, killing or wounding the pilot and copilot. At this point, the AN-2 went into a flat spin and crashed into a moutainside, but did not burn.

It should come as no surprise that the Air America pilot and flight mechanic found themselves in a heap of trouble with the State Department REMF's in Vientiane. (REMF is an acronym. The first three words are Rear, Echelon, and Mother.) In spite of the striped-pants cookie-pushers' discomfort at (horrors!) an inter­national incident (or perhaps, partly because of it) these guys were heroes to everybody in the theatre who didn't wear puce panties and talk with a lisp. They accomplished a couple of firsts: (1) The first and only combat shootdown of a biplane by a helicopter, and (2) The first known CIA air-to-air victory. Not bad for a couple of spooks.

Communication with Headquarters was very good in Vietnam, and I learned of this incident within an hour or so of its happening, although I had no details. But the prospect of access to a North Vietnamese aircraft of any sort was very attractive to an intell type, so I grabbed my flyaway kit and headed for Udorn AFB in northern Thailand, where I knew I could get transport to the crash site from the Air Rescue and Recovery Service (ARRS), the Jolly Green Giants. Sure enough, the next morning we headed for bad guy land with a flight of three Jolly Green Giants. The State Department geniuses had decided to cover their ample butts by having the remains of the AN-2 airlifted down to Vientiane to put on display to an outraged world press, thus proving that North Vietnam had violated Laotian neutrality by sending armed aircraft against a peaceful civil airline facility. Yawn. The Air Force went along with it because it provided good cover for our intell­igence operation. Of course, when State found out that I had gone in without saying Mother-may-I to them, they were really hot. But by then I had already gotten the goods we wanted, and what could they do to me? Fire me and send me to Vietnam?

We found the crashed AN-2 a few miles inside NVN. There were already some Meo mercenaries there led by a CIA field type, whose mission was to bag the crew's bodies and check to see if they were Russians. They weren't. The jungle and rough terrain precluded landing, so we went in by jungle penetrator, a cable-mounted weighted affair somewhat like a large plumb bob. I would have liked to parachute in because a behind-the-lines jump is considered a combat jump, opposed or not, but the jungle and rough terrain would have made that very dangerous. I may be a little crazy- all parachutists are- but I'm not stupid. With me went a couple of PS's- pararescue specialists. These men are elite young tigers who regularly risk their lives to save downed aircrews. They are universally and deservedly admired and respected. The PS's function was to rig a sling on the AN-2 so it could be lifted out, and to look after me. I was very glad they were there.

I was delighted to find the crashed AN-2 had the piece of equipment aboard that I had hoped to find, a brand new undamaged IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) electronic "black box". An IFF ~ a coded signal when interrogated by a friendly radar, thus identifying itself as a friendly. All combat aircraft have an IFF, and I had felt certain that the AN-2 would have been fitted with it for this mission. We had never before gotten our hands on one in undamaged condition. With this, we could "reverse engineer" a system which could reliably locate the small, sleek, elusive MiG-21's before they could sneak up on our strike air­craft. And we did just that, greatly improving the RED CROWN warning system we had at that time. This capability saved a good many crews and aircraft during the later years of that miserable war. I am very proud to have had a hand in this effort.

After rigging the sling on the AN-2, and finishing my intell collection, we tried to lift it out, but it was too heavy for the Jolly Green helo. (We sent in an Army Chinook heavy-lift helo the next day to lift it down to Vientiane.) All this activity took several hours. Suddenly we got a call from the Jollys that an RS57 had been shot down somewhere north and had strung bailed-out crew members along a twenty mile path. An all-out rescue effort was required and our helicopters were being pulled off our mission immediately, without even time to pick us up. They would be back to get us when they could. Suddenly, what had been a relatively low risk in-and-out mission took on a whole different aspect. I knew from good intell that there were NVN Army elements in the vicinity, and they would no doubt be directed to find and destroy the crashed AN-2. All the stooging around with noisy helicopters we had done that morning, plus voluminous radio comms, could not have failed to alert them. We were four Ameri­cans, who knew not ten words of Umong between us, and about a dozen Meo mercenaries, none of whom spoke English. Our arms consisted of three -38 revolvers, my Colt 1911 .45 automatic, and the Meos' ragtag lot of Ml's, Ml4's, and '03 Springfields. We had very little ammo, no water, no rations, no flares or smoke grenades, not even a compass. We did have short range ground-to-air radios, and a promise to return for us, but who knew when that would be. Not a good situation.

After a hasty conference, we decided to remain at the crash site until an hour or so before dark, and then move off and find a defensible place to spend the night, if necessary. So we waited. Late that afternoon, we heard a helicopter and got a call that the big rescue operation was completed, and we should saddle up for extraction. I can't begin to describe how relieved we were to see that big beautiful Freedom Bird flying toward us. Our Freedom Bird picked us up with no problem, and we were back at Udorn in time for Happy Hour. No ARRS crewman ever bought his own drink at any club in 'Nam. I can assure you none did that night.

As a postscript, Lima Site 85 was overrun by ground troops about a month after the bombing attempt, and all US personnel were killed or captured. The comm guys who heard their last mess­ages said it was a pitiful situation as the site team reported the attackers' progress at getting at them in their cave bunker. The official version of what happened is that North Vietnamese troops climbed the sheer sides of the mountain with ropes and pitons to attack the site. I didn't believe it then, and I don't believe it now. The attack had all the earmarks of a Spetsnaz operation, probably insertion by a HALO parachute team, but un­less the Russians admit it we will probably never know.

Of interest, the History Channel in their Missions of CIA series, did a one hour documentary on the Lima Site 85 incident which I saw a few months ago. It showed footage of the AN-2 in Vientiane, and discussed the ground assault (the "official" version). All in all, they did a pretty good job with it, espec­ially considering that it was over thirty years ago. They got some things wrong, and some they never knew about, but they weren't there at the time. I was.

By Lawrence E. Pence
Colonel, USAF (Ret)

To contribute or add information, email me by clicking on this link:
(Requires active javascript to see email address)


You are here:   Homepage  >  Main Menu  > Stories Menu  > FREEDOM BIRD

1st Mob & 1st Comm Alumni Webpage ©