When a CIA Huey Won a Dogfight with a Communist Biplane

I always knew I wanted to be a military pilot. I’m the skinny guy third from the right who looks like he’s about 12 years old. That was a long time ago.

Many’s the doctor, farmer, or policeman who knew what they aspired to be even at a tender age. For me, I felt I was destined to be a military pilot. I saw my true calling as flying P38 Lightnings over Europe in 1944.

I was born way too late to fly fighter planes in World War 2.

Alas, I was born four decades too late to be screaming over occupied France in a forked-tail devil. That’s just as well. Some Focke Wulf jock would likely have cut me to pieces before my 21st birthday. However, for a guy born in my era Army helicopters seemed the next best thing.

This is the cockpit of an F/A-18 Hornet. That all just seems so terribly distracting.

Modern fighter pilots seem like they have an awful lot of technology to manage. I just wanted to wiggle the sticks and feel the aircraft move around me. In modern Army helicopters, I got to scratch that itch.

Everybody who has ever flown one has a soft spot for the UH-1 Huey. It was such a fantastic stick-and-rudder aircraft.

Training folks to fly helicopters is expensive, so the Army typically slots you into a single aircraft and leaves you there. I actually got to fly four. The most nostalgic of the lot was the UH-1 Huey.

The Huey is remarkably agile for its size.

With a max gross weight of 9,500 pounds, the Huey is indeed a fairly big old bird. However, deftly handled that rascal will do some of the most amazing things. On January 12, 1968, a UH-1D Huey piloted by an Air America pilot with the 20th Special Operations Squadron named CPT Ted Moore actually shot down a North Vietnamese AN-2 Colt biplane in air-to-air combat.

The Setting

Lima Site 85 was not known for its creature comforts.

Lima Site 85 was a TACAN facility located near Phou Pha Thi in the Annamite Mountains in northeastern Laos. I actually have a friend who did a stint there during the war. Desolate and all but inaccessible, Lima Site 85 was manned by Air Force personnel seconded to Lockheed Martin and the CIA as civilian contractors, a practice known at the time as “sheep dipping.”  The bomber jockeys who used it for targeting information called the place Station 97.

General Vang Po was responsible for local security. He went on to become a remarkably controversial figure in the post-war world.

Local security was courtesy friendly Hmong guerillas and a smattering of mercenaries under Hmong General Vang Pao. The radar site was used to guide American bomber strikes into targets in North Vietnam independent of weather or visibility. LS85 was a mere 125 miles as the crow flies from Hanoi.

Fighter-Bombers like this F105 Thunderchief were devastating against North Vietnamese targets when guided by radar signals from LS85.

The beating heart of LS85 was an old SAC precision bomb scoring radar. This device could locate an aircraft to within a few meters under any conditions. By flying along a given radial outward from the radar site and releasing their bombs on the command of the radar operator USAF bombers could attack targets in North Vietnam day or night in any weather.

B52 Stratofortresses like this one were devastating during Operation Rolling Thunder, a lengthy bombing offensive that was ongoing during the events described here.

By 1967 LS85 was guiding 55% of the bombing missions directed against North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese soon grew weary of this pummeling.

LS85’s greatest strength was its inhospitable remoteness. Any attacker would have to manage these cliffs to reach the facility.

LS85 sat perched atop a desolate 5,800-foot karst peak. In true US government fashion, the facility was kept habitable via resupply by air. The sheer cliffs surrounding the facility helped discourage a North Vietnamese ground assault. Frustrated by their inability to neutralize the facility, the North Vietnamese Air Force marshaled four of their Soviet-supplied AN-2 Colt biplanes for an ad hoc bombing mission.

The Players

The AN-2 Colt was originally designed for agricultural chores.

The AN-2 was a lumbering beast of a thing first flown in 1947. With a max gross weight of 11,993 pounds and a cruise speed of 100 knots (115 miles per hour), the AN-2 was originally intended as a crop dusting and military utility aircraft. Around 18,000 copies were built.

The VNAF Colts used for this mission were weaponized for ground attack missions.

For this mission, the North Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) had outfitted their Colts with two 12-shot underwing pods for 57mm folding fin aerial rockets. They had also arranged twenty 250mm mortar rounds configured with impact fuses along the floor of the cabin. These hefty rounds could be dropped like bombs by the pilot by triggering hinged release doors from the cockpit. Thusly equipped the four Colts approached the CIA radar station perched atop this rugged peak.

The Attack

The VNAF attack plan was sound. However, the remote and inhospitable nature of the terrain worked against the improvised bombers.

Two of the aircraft started their attack runs while the other two orbited in wait. The AN-2 is a noisy machine, and the LS85 contingent knew they were there before the mortar rounds began to fall. The facility was well camouflaged, so the planes had to get in close to accurately drop their loads.

The defending mercenaries were nothing if not tenacious.

Four Hmong natives were killed in this initial attack, two men and two women. A Thai mercenary ran outside with his AK47 and opened fire on the lead plane. The big fat slow VNAF biplane shuddered and then descended to crash into the jungle. This took the spunk out of the other VNAF aircraft, and they broke for home.

Air America was the CIA’s secret air force used for covert operations in SE Asia.

An Air America UH-1D was coincidentally enroute on a resupply mission when the AN-2’s started their mischief. Confronted as he was by the swirling biplanes on his approach to the site CPT Moore later remarked, “It looked like something out of World War 1.”

Sensing that discretion might be the better part of valor, after losing one of their number the remaining Colts headed for home.

As the remaining AN-2 Colts banked for North Vietnam CPT Ted Moore’s UH-1D gave pursuit. CIA operator Glenn Woods rode in the back of the Huey and readied his personal weapon.

The Fight

Visibility to the rear of an An-2 is essentially nonexistent. This allowed CPT Moore to approach undetected.

In short order, the AN-2’s and pursuing Huey were in North Vietnamese airspace. Visibility out of the AN-2 was pretty wretched on a good day. The plane was designed to dust crops, not mix it up in aerial combat with enemy aircraft. As a result, CPT Moore’s Huey was on top of the AN-2 before the communist pilot knew he was there.

Given the disparate nature of these two aircraft, they were surprisingly well-matched.

These two dissimilar aircraft were about evenly matched as regards performance. They both had a similar top speed, though the Huey was likely much more maneuverable. As a CIA Air America driver, CPT Moore was undoubtedly the markedly more capable pilot as well. This was about to make a huge difference in the day’s outcome.

Glen Woods leaned out of the door of his Huey with an AK47 and opened up.

This AN-2 was flying low, presuming that it had gotten away free and clear. CPT Moore maneuvered his helicopter above and behind the lumbering biplane, using his prodigious rotor wash to stall the plane’s top wing. This caused the confused communist pilot to further reduce speed in an effort at maintaining control. Now with the AN-2 flying slowly and mere meters from the pursuing Huey, Glen Woods leaned out the door of the helicopter and unlimbered his AK47.

The Weapon

Aircrews in Vietnam were typically afforded some latitude in their choice of personal weapons. Air America crews could carry most anything they could find.

We have covered aircrew weapons in the Vietnam War in this venue before. Here’s the link if you’re interested—

A captured AK offered several real advantages over an American weapon for a downed aircrew evading capture.

For an Air America flight crew in 1968 those guys would pack whatever weapons they could scrounge. Considering they would be operating over hostile territory, a captured AK47 would be a superb choice. This would give a downed aircrew the capability to use locally available ammunition. It also allowed an evading aviator some degree of anonymity as their weapons would make the same noise as those of the enemy.

Mikhail Kalashnikov designed his eponymous assault rifle to defend Mother Russia against the rampaging German hordes. Reality was a slightly different affair. Mind that trigger finger, Mr. K.

Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov was the 17th of 19 children raised by Siberian peasants. He is universally acclaimed as the founder of the ubiquitous communist assault rifle that bears his name. More than 100 million copies make the Kalashnikov the most produced firearm in history.

The communists pumped untold thousands of weapons into Vietnam.

Vietnam was a proxy war between the two biggest kids on the block. While the United States went all-in with hundreds of thousands of combat troops, the communists responded with untold mountains of military materiel. This meant lots of AK47 rifles.

A transferable vet-bringback amnesty-registered AK47 like this one runs substantially north of $50,000 when they can be found.

The Russians and North Koreans did their part, but it was really the communist Chinese who moved the most iron into South Vietnam. Prior to the 1968 Gun Control Act, it was theoretically possible to bring captured automatic weapons back into the country as war trophies. These vet bring-back AKs command astronomical prices on the collector market today.

The Aftermath

The VNAF AN-2 Colt slammed into the jungle after a long burst from Glen Woods’ Kalashnikov.

At close range, Glen Woods emptied his AK into the cockpit of the big VNAF biplane. The airplane fell into a flat spin and crashed hard into the thick jungle below. While two of the VNAF Colts escaped, CIA ground teams purportedly located both crash sites later and indeed reported copious bullet holes in both aircraft.

The North Vietnamese strike team trained for months to make the assault on LS85.

Two months later on MAR 10, 1968, communist special forces troops of the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and Pathet Lao successfully scaled the karst cliffs and infiltrated the LS85 site. A specially selected platoon of 33 PAVN soldiers led by Lieutenant Truong Muc had trained for nine months for the attack. This assault unit carried 23 AK47 rifles, three Chicom Type 54 pistols, four SKS carbines, and three RPG7 rocket launchers along with ample explosives and hand grenades.

The resulting desperate assault was a bloodbath.

They overwhelmed the installation’s meager defenders and slaughtered the poorly armed technicians stationed there. Thirteen American airmen and 42 Thai and Hmong soldiers died, making the battle for LS85 the worst loss of life for USAF ground forces during the Vietnam War. Two sets of remains were not identified until 2013.

Dick Etchberger ultimately earned the Medal of Honor for his selfless actions during the attack on LS85.

Chief Master Sergeant Richard Etchberger earned a posthumous Air Force Cross in 1968 for helping evacuate his troops during the frenetic defense of LS85. This award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor by President Obama in 2010.

Though hardly what might be considered air combat in the Space Age, in January of 1968 the crew chief on an Air America Huey helicopter did indeed bring down an enemy biplane with an AK47.

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About the author: Will Dabbs A native of the Mississippi Delta, Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D, and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…always at the controls of an Army helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains. Major Dabbs eventually resigned his commission in favor of medical school where he delivered 60 babies and occasionally wrung human blood out of his socks. Will works in his own urgent care clinic, shares a business build-ing precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three awesome adult children, and teaches Sunday School. Turn-ons include vintage German machineguns, flying his sexy-cool RV6A airplane, Count Chocula cereal, and the movie “Aliens.”

{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Don October 19, 2020, 8:44 pm

    FWIW, Dr. Dabb’s had another pic of his Vietnam flight crew in a reprint of an article that was included in the current Guncranks (from last Friday, 10/16/20), and that pic also had a woman in it. Maybe even the same one! I wondered what her job was, since I doubt she was a pilot back then …

  • Bohica October 12, 2020, 1:33 pm

    To the best of my recollection, there was evidence that 1 or 2 Americans were taken POW from LS 85, and transported to Hanoi. They were not released during the “homecoming” facade and were forgotten like the 1,000+ other Americans abandoned at the end of the war.

    Anyway, great article, Doc!

  • Kent September 14, 2020, 6:34 pm

    Why ? Because the CIA and Lockheed wanted plausible deniability in case it went wrong, as it did. No US forces or weapons in Laos. Just brave sheep-dipped Americans to be slaughtered like sacrificial lambs, along with their valiant hmong allies. Why do we continue to lose the best amongst us to these craven cowards who never wore the uniform themselves when it was their turn? Same old swamp critters, different war. We can ill afford to lose any more. Remember the USS Liberty? Look it up, PLEASE! The most highly decorated ship in the US Navy for a single combat action, and it only mounted four 50 cal machine guns. 1 CMOH, 3 Navy crosses, 11 silver stars and 174 purple hearts with 34 KIA. Capt McGonnegle wasn’t even given his CMOH by LBJ. That trash relegated it to the Sec of the Navy at the Newport Navy yard. Probably the only CMOH ever NOT awarded by the president himself. I would suggest that all US military personnel consider their options if these Neo-American Bolsheviks win in November. Put in your paperwork before they issue a stop-loss order, because these snotty craven cowards and the America-hating scum that educated them won’t serve themselves. Come home and bunker up. I say this as a former Marine who has finally seen the truth, and it sickens me. Pray for our country. It really was that great in spite of what this trash shouts. Thanks for another great article Dr. Dabbs, and thank you for your service.

    • Trevor_Phillips September 16, 2020, 3:13 am

      Just like these sorry vets that vote Democrat and say that they hate Trump. I don’t see how they live with themselves.

    • DowntoEarthThinking.com October 4, 2020, 4:11 pm

      Excellent comment Kent. I was there in 68/69 in war zone D and knew well of the mong and gen Pao. CIA had an air station at our base camp and lots of flights of C 47s and Caribou and choppers. I also flew many LURPS out in support of this very location and picked them up later, many were Kit Karson scouts supported by special forces and some very serious MOFOs. These were the guys that collected scalps and ears and such as proof of their success and prowess over the NVA ? And as I have mentioned many times a lot of US soldiers and MERCs preferred an AK for many reasons. The main one was the distinctive sound of the AK vs AR as well you could get your ammo off the dead NVA when you ambush them. Ambushes were the main way to kill them in small numbers and any survivors were seriously interrogated without any water boarding or lawyers to be consulted.

      I will say it flat out, todays military is a very serious bad joke ! I have trained many people and have a student in Ranger school now and I get all the real skinny feed back and trust me it is a very serious bad joke these days. Basic training and Tigerland at N Ft, Ft. Polk in 67/68 was about the same as todays ranger school , not much difference at all in some ways even more difficult ! I was offered a high paying job as a contractor to go to Afghan in 2012 and turned it down because I knew BHO would likely get me killed and there was no way I could serve under his garbage. I do not regret that decision although my bank account would have been $700 K larger for a 2 year stint in the middle of nowhere ? Been there and done that and BHO was not the right guy for sure. But as you say all of these phony wars are junk and that is precisely why a lot of returnees have killed themselves, because they figured out they had been grossly lied to and many were actually prosecuted for doing their jobs ? As well most have been given all manner of psychotropic drugs that pushed them over the mental edge !

      We RVN guys got zero anything and in retrospect it was a very good thing , because they actually make bad matters far worse ! It is all a very bad joke on all of us here in USA today. I am still a very capable and able warrior and train people how to acquire all the right stuff as well as step out of the many illusions we all live under here in USA today ! I urge everybody to get your own shit together and get fit, strong and healthy and well trained out because we are in a war here in USA , make no doubt about it and you will be tested for sure ! Good on Ya !

  • Mike in a Truck September 14, 2020, 12:20 pm

    Why someone didnt have the presence of mind to sling load a quad 50 cal and drop it off I’ll never figure out. It would have settled the hash of NVA’s flying circus quickly. Ahhh….but nobody asked for my brilliant advice. Besides I was too busy treading paddy water.

  • Fred September 14, 2020, 9:17 am

    Curious how woman (pictured second from the right) was part of the crew. Back then I didn’t think that was possible

    • Bill Kennedy September 15, 2020, 11:01 pm

      My question as well. When I went to flight school in 1981 women were still a rarity as aviators. I spent years with soldiers and aviators who had multiple RVN tours and I never heard one word about women flying helicopters during the fighting years in Vietnam. I think that picture is from well after the end of the war. Note that they all have one piece nomex which I’m pretty sure was still, on an Army wide scale, years later than early 1968. I believe the two piece flight suit was still the vast majority in 1971. The far right patch is the 11th ACR and the rest, including the woman, are wearing what looks like the First Aviation Brigade although the photo isn’t clear enough to be sure. If that photo was later it ought to have been stated.

      • DowntoEarthThinking.com October 4, 2020, 4:24 pm

        Fred and Bill K, good questions I noticed that as well. But the really odd thing is that Huey is the exact correct genre UH1D model apparently. I flew mainly in loachs with the right door removed and an M60 slung. And yes Black Horse had a CIA contingent and used that short runway airfield often because of its proximity to the Cambodian border and Laos

  • Lee Gossett September 14, 2020, 8:47 am

    I was an Air America pilot during this period and remember the shoot down very well. The artist that did the famous ‘shoot down’ painting is British aviation artist, Keith Woodcock and personal friend. If you want to read the best book written about the tragic fall of LS-85, Read Dr. Tim Castle’s book, “One Day Too Long”.

    • DowntoEarthThinking.com October 4, 2020, 4:33 pm

      Lee thanks for the info. This is the first time I have ever even heard of this story/event and I was there ? And no doubt the compartamentalization has gotten far worse since on many black ops. We live in a very different world today for sure and all because the people are weak minded and lazy thinkers and have been conditioned to be wimps for at least 40 years now. any wonder most will not stand up and fight back today but talk a good game ?

  • Dave September 14, 2020, 8:16 am

    I have a pretty-neat company “souvenir calendar” from a couple years ago that includes that shoot-down painting….each month’s illustration is VERY interesting.

  • FRANK DILATUSH September 14, 2020, 7:45 am

    Love your writing Doc, keep ’em coming!

  • Mark Miller September 13, 2020, 6:39 pm

    Great story, well told.

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