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Above & Beyond: Nights Over North Vietnam

A former South Vietnamese Air Force commander shares his military experiences in a new book

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Nguyen Cao Ky trained as a pilot in France and North Africa with Vietnam’s army in 1951, and by 1964 he was named commander of South Vietnam’s fledgling air force. The following year the army installed Ky as prime minister. He was the senior South Vietnamese official at the Paris Peace Talks. After the Communist victory in 1975, Ky went into exile in California, declining U.S. citizenship. Today, at 71, he sits on the boards of international corporations and consults with business and political leaders in Asia and the United States. This article is adapted from Buddha’s Child: My Fight to Save Vietnam, Ky’s autobiography, which he wrote with Martin J. Wolf, published last May by St. Martin’s Press.

BY 1960 THERE WAS AN UNDECLARED WAR between the two Vietnams. The Communists regularly sent intelligence agents and other infiltrators into the South, and because we had a relatively free society, many escaped detection. We, on the other hand, were getting no intelligence from the North. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency proposed sending intelligence agents into North Vietnam using South Vietnamese airfields and aircraft.

I decided the best way to insert people into the North from the air would be to come in at night from the sea, very low, under the enemy’s naval radar, and follow a river up-country to the mountainous and relatively unpopulated border area, where the agents could parachute to the ground. A few instructors, Americans in civilian clothes, flew in from the States, and we started our night training, flying C-47s from Saigon to the mountainous region near Da Lat, about a hundred miles northeast. We did so well that after a few days it was apparent that we didn’t need U.S. help. The Americans went home, and after that, night after night, in any weather, we flew practice missions, following river beds through narrow mountain passes, learning to maneuver at low altitude in tight airspace at night.

Our objective was to drop small groups of agents with radios. After landing, they would disperse and take up residence in various towns. Once they were established, they could be used for almost any intelligence purpose or perhaps, eventually, as saboteurs. I didn’t need to know much about that; my job was merely to deliver the agents to the North and get back undetected and in one piece.

Several weeks before the first mission I was introduced to William Colby, who was in charge of our mission (he would later become chief of the CIA). A compact, handsome fellow who spoke French but not Vietnamese, Colby was about 40. With thick eyeglasses and a disarming demeanor, he might have passed for an academic or an accountant. We became friends, often going out for dinner or a drink. As I came to know him better I realized that behind those glasses was a brilliant mind—he didn’t miss much.

For the North Vietnam infiltration mission, the CIA built a scale model of the entire flight profile, complete with mountains, rivers, and bridges. This was to be a night mission, and there would be few landmarks visible along our route. Once we were inland, we had to fly by dead reckoning. That meant dividing the flight plan into segments of five minutes or so each, keeping very careful watch over airspeed, and making each planned course correction by the clock. We had nothing to enhance the pilot’s night vision, and we didn’t dare use lights in the cockpit, not even to read the map. I had to memorize every detail of the entire flight plan.

We moved to the Bien Hoa air base, north of Saigon. Upwards of 12 hours a day we practiced the navigation and the rest of the mission. During this training, as during the mission, the copilot and the navigator stood behind me, calling out the time in one-minute intervals. “Three minutes, two minutes, coming up on the turn of the river, 30 degrees left, one more minute…” I had to keep every detail in mind, and the other crew members also memorized the flight plan.

We went over it again and again, by day and night, sitting in a C-47 in a closed hangar. Even while I slept, the flight path was always in my mind: the map, the route, the elevation of surrounding terrain, how many minutes and how many seconds to fly at what speed for each leg of the flight, where the river turned, the locations of bridges, power lines, and other obstructions. Even now, I think I could fly most of that route without looking at a map.

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.)

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