Above & Beyond: Nights Over North Vietnam
A former South Vietnamese Air Force commander shares his military experiences in a new book.
- By Nguyen Cao Ky
- Air & Space magazine, September 2002
(Page 2 of 3)
On the day before the mission we flew to Danang, about 300 miles north of Saigon. After dark we went through a final check of our aircraft. As a full moon rose over the South China Sea, six or seven Vietnamese men in dark, nondescript farmers’ clothing loaded equipment and parachutes into our ship, then climbed in. They were all volunteers, paid by the CIA and specially trained for this mission. It would be a long time before I knew much more than that about them.
Like our passengers, the air crew wore the black cotton pajamas of the Vietnamese peasant farmer. In our pockets were small sums of North Vietnamese money, North Vietnamese cigarettes, even North Vietnamese matches. If our plane went down over enemy territory, we needed to be able to blend in with the locals. But each of us also carried a hundred U.S. dollars, in case we had to bribe someone. (If we crashed, I could foresee no situation where we’d have time to use our parachutes. If we went down, we would be very lucky to have any use for currency or cigarettes.)
We took off from Danang, near the southern end of the Gulf of Tonkin, climbed to several thousand feet, then headed out to sea. Once we were out of sight of land, we descended, and when I could see white froth atop individual waves, I leveled off. We were two or three feet above the water at nearly 200 mph, and if enemy radar was pointed our way we hoped that our image would be lost in the clutter of the sea surface.
After heading east for several minutes, I brought the nose around to the left until it was pointed north by northwest, which took us straight for the mouth of the Red River. At Thanh Hoa we turned inland, crossing into North Vietnamese airspace.
Once inland, we followed the Red River. With the full moon behind me to illuminate the landscape and no more worries about naval radar, I climbed just enough to avoid bridges and power lines. The land rose, the river valley narrowed, and the dark mountains loomed all around. With my copilot and navigator calling out course changes, we found the drop zone. As far as I could tell by moonlight, every parachute opened.
It was impossible that no one on the ground had heard us pass, but they had no time to react. If we returned the same way that we had come, however, the Communists would be waiting. So we continued west into Laos. Once out of North Vietnamese airspace I climbed to 12,000 feet, then flew south until we could turn east. Inside friendly airspace, I let the autopilot take over while we smoked a few cigarettes.
It was dawn when we landed in Saigon and taxied to an unmarked hangar. To my astonishment, Colby was waiting inside with a group of Americans and Vietnamese—and two cases of good French champagne.
After our second or third mission, Colby came to Tan Son Nhut with a delegation from Washington. They all wore civilian clothes; I assume they were CIA officials, there to observe how my pilots performed. Colby asked me to fly them from Saigon to Hue, and I did so in routine fashion. For the return trip, I gave them a taste of what their agents encountered. I flew out to sea, then turned south and descended until our prop blast blew foam off the wavetops. Then I pushed the throttles forward and flew at maximum speed. At this point, my crew later told me, all the Americans became very pale.