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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By 1967 LS85 was guiding 55% of the bombing missions directed against North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese soon grew weary of this pummeling.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
We have covered aircrew weapons in the Vietnam War in this venue before. Here’s the link if you’re interested—
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.