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 3 of 4)
At night Vang Bee lived well by Hmong standards. His official salary, plus a dollar-a-mission bonus from the CIA, plus unofficial payments from Vang Pao, added up to about $200 a month, and that, along with the status that came with being a pilot, made him a catch to the women of his tribe. “The life of the fighter pilot very good for the single man,” he recalls with a laugh. “More money, eat enough, play enough, die no matter.”
Some Hmong tribesmen flew with U.S. forward air controllers in unarmed Cessna O-1 spotter airplanes, serving as observers—“backseaters”—or as liaisons and translators. The FACs, known as Ravens because of their radio call sign, coordinated with a U.S. airborne command center and directed tactical strikes flown by U.S. jets based in Thailand and on aircraft carriers (see “Ravens of Long Tieng,” Oct./Nov. 1998). By this point in the war, the North Vietnamese had abandoned guerrilla tactics and instead were installing large, fixed troop concentrations in Laos. The U.S. Air Force bombed the troops with B-52s. If the giant bombers were at one end of the Vietnam War air-power spectrum, the Hmong air force of six to 10 little T-28s was at the other. The Hmong pilots flew local missions under the direct command of Vang Pao, who often radioed orders to his pilots from an unarmed aircraft high above the battlefield. The T-28s, it was said, were Vang Pao’s artillery.
But the North Vietnamese had real artillery to use in Laos, along with two army divisions. As dusk fell on December 31, 1971, North Vietnamese troops opened up on Vang Pao’s positions with a tremendous barrage around the Plain of Jars and followed it up with assaults by waves of ground troops. The shells came from Soviet-made 130-mm long-range artillery, and they caught the Hmong-Thai-U.S. alliance by surprise. After the North Vietnamese captured the Plain of Jars yet again, they began an artillery assault on Long Tieng. The T-28s were evacuated, and although they eventually returned, the maintenance facilities that serviced them were permanently withdrawn to safer territory. After that, Long Tieng lost its importance as a base. AC-47 gunships, B-52s, and other formidable aircraft kept the air war going, but Hmong morale sank. The tribesmen didn’t feel in charge of their own war anymore.
Vang Bee says he and the other Hmong pilots knew the war was lost when President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972. The fighting in Laos dragged on, though, and when a Hmong T-28 flight leader was shot down and killed, Vang Bee replaced him. Fly until you die. The signing of the Paris Peace Accords by the United States and both North and South Vietnam in January 1973 resulted in a cease-fire, and the U.S. Air Force stopped flying combat missions. Local skirmishing continued, though, and during one engagement, Vang Bee was shot down near the North Vietnamese border, not far from the village where he had been born. Unhurt, he was picked up by an Air America helicopter. After that, he did most of his flying at the controls of Vang Pao’s personal aircraft, a twin-engine Beech Baron. By then, 36 tribesmen had gone through the T-28 program, and about half had survived. They even began to diversify, a few becoming C-47 co-pilots, a few others copiloting H-34 helicopters.
In May 1975, after South Vietnam and Cambodia fell, it was Laos’ turn. An evacuation of Long Tieng began, with thousands of tribespeople gathering on the runway in hopes of a ride to Thailand—the last pro-Western country in Southeast Asia. An Air America C-130 helped in the evacuation, and Vang Bee made five round trips in the six-seat Beech Baron; on one of them, Vang Pao’s daughter gave birth in the cabin as the flight crossed the Mekong River. All the tribal pilots who survived to the end of the war made it to Thailand, and most of them subsequently immigrated to the United States.
The Americans who had known the Hmong pilots believed that the T-28 program had succeeded, even though the covert war as a whole had not. The Hmong, they say, would have done even better if they had had more education to help them coordinate with U.S. pilots and better understand instrument navigation. But they still performed far beyond expectations. Their dedication was, according to former Raven Karl Polifka, “unsurpassed by any combat pilot anywhere.” He adds, “They seemed to have no fear, although I do think they had a vision of early mortality.” Another Raven, Darrel Cavanaugh, says, “In close, they were damned accurate. They liked to get down there and mix it up with the bad guys.” Bill Lair, long retired from the CIA, remembers, “I never saw any better bombing runs in my life.” He still believes that the methods used to train the Hmong to fly would work anywhere in the world. Tribal people, says Lair, “can do amazing things, if they are motivated and given the chance.”
Vang Bee, now living in North Carolina, is more ambivalent. He wanted to win the war and would have liked to see the U.S. extend its support. He also lost many of his best friends and believes he is lucky to have survived the war without any serious wounds. By his own reckoning, he flew about 1,000 combat missions and made another 400-odd flights in the unarmed Beech Baron. He didn’t keep a flight log, but all the available evidence suggests that his numbers are in the ballpark. Two other Hmong pilots who survived the war and at least two Lao pilots make equally plausible claims of having flown more than 1,000 combat missions in T-28s.
The surviving dozen-plus tribal pilots are scattered throughout the United States. None still fly, though they have inspired a few Hmong of the younger generation to take up aviation. Hmong communities such as those in Minnesota, California, and Wisconsin share information through a Web site (www.hmongnet.org), and a foundation named for Vang Pao has been established.