How the fighting in Southeast Asia transformed a curious young man into a fiercely dedicated pilot.
- By Roger Warner
- Air & Space magazine, September 2003
(Page 2 of 4)
In some ways the T-28 was better suited than jets to supporting ground troops in combat in Southeast Asia: The Trojan could fly low and slow, maneuver through valleys, and loiter over targets. Just under 30 feet long and about 40 feet in wingspan, the airplane had been developed as a two-seat trainer after World War II. With huge flaps, tricycle landing gear, and a nine-cylinder, 1,425-horsepower Wright Cyclone engine, the T-28 was practical and versatile. But the official Laotian military, which was dominated by Lao lowlanders who had long disliked hill tribes like the Hmong, opposed allowing the Hmong into the T-28 program, and some Americans opposed the idea too. Teaching Iron Age tribesmen to become combat pilots was absurd, they said.
At Lair’s request, the two most promising Hmong from the Piper Cub flight school were promoted to the T-28 program. After they completed their training, one of them died on his second combat flight when he flew into a cloud and hit a mountain. The other, named Ly Lue, had been the star of his Water Pump class. Undaunted by the combination of mountains and monsoon weather, Ly Lue flew his T-28 to Long Tieng. The dirt strip there sat in a bowl 3,000 feet above sea level, with a couple of steep karst outcroppings at one end of the runway and clouds and fog obscuring the mountain ridges during the rainy season. Once in Long Tieng, Ly Lue loaded his T-28 with 500-pound bombs and dared his wingman, a lowland Lao lieutenant named Houmpheng Insixiengmay, to follow. The two airplanes took off, barely clearing the ridgelines. The brief golden age of the Hmong pilots had begun.
When the next wave of tribesmen were sent to Thailand for flight training, Vang Bee finally got his chance. Meanwhile, Ly Lue, in constant demand by ground commanders, was becoming a hero to his people. A CIA case officer, known as “Linus,” with the tribal program remembers, “The Hmong loved to have aircraft working around them. But when a Hmong T-28 arrived on the scene, the excitement was electric. Those T-28 pilots did more to raise the fighting morale of the Hmong than all of the other factors combined. We could have American fast movers [jets] working around our positions and there were oohs and aahs, but when a couple of Hmong T-28s showed up on the scene, the Hmong ground-pounders could hardly contain themselves.”
Like many of the tribal pilots who followed him, Ly Lue became exceptionally skilled at delivering ordnance. He flew missions every day, and he dropped his bombs from treetop level, a practice that, while increasing his accuracy, allowed the underside of his airplane to be damaged by shrapnel from his own bombs. Legends of his feats, some unlikely, abounded. One story says that a North Vietnamese PT-76 tank once drove onto open ground on the Plain of Jars and that Ly Lue dropped a single bomb through the tank’s open turret.
Most sorties from Long Tieng took an hour or less, and then Ly Lue would land at Long Tieng, re-arm, and go up again. Other pilots averaged three to five short missions a day, but Ly Lue flew five to eight, and occasionally 10.
It was a rate that couldn’t be sustained. On July 11, 1969, with 720 missions in his logbook, Ly Lue was working a target at low altitude when a 12.7-mm anti-aircraft gun stayed on him all the way into the ground. During the funeral ceremony at Long Tieng, Vang Pao wept and U.S. officers paid respect to the pilot many considered the best in Southeast Asia. A new unofficial motto for the Hmong pilots began to circulate: Fly until you die.
In Udorn Thani, meanwhile, Vang Bee was learning the principles of aviation in the classroom. (Years later, he provides a succinct summary of what he learned about the creation of lift: “The wind heavier than the airplane.”) The U.S. instructors with the Water Pump program were never quite sure how aeronautical science blended with spiritual beliefs in their students’ minds. The call sign for all the Laotian T-28 pilots, ethnic Lao as well as Hmong, was “Chaophakhao,” meaning Lord White Buddha, a reference to a mystical sect of monks who wore white rather than the traditional saffron or brown robes. At his graduation, the Thai instructor pilots followed Buddhist tradition and doused Vang Bee with a pail of water to cleanse his soul. Back in Long Tieng, his parents followed Hmong religious traditions, lighting incense and praying to the spirits for his safety every morning when he left the house.
Vang Bee began flying out of Long Tieng in the dry season toward the end of 1970, after the Hmong had captured the Plain of Jars, the largest piece of non-mountainous real estate for miles around. In the rainy season the communists took the Plain of Jars back, and in the following dry season the Hmong would retake it. As a wingman, Vang Bee armed his T-28 with whatever ordnance his flight leader thought was needed: 500-pound bombs for enemy bunkers; bombs with fuze extenders to create air bursts near troops in the open, napalm for deep bunkers or caves, white-phosphorous marking rockets, and .50-caliber machine gun ammunition. After his first few hundred missions, he helped develop new tactics, such as using two-airplane teams for taking out enemy machine gun positions. Coordinating by radio, he and another pilot would come in from opposite directions, the first marking the site with rockets, the second hitting it seconds later with bombs. The teams flew during daylight hours, with little or no navigation equipment.