A daring mission to fly combat in Vietnam came with a catchno one else could know.
- By Susan Katz Keating
- Air & Space magazine, May 1997
(Page 2 of 8)
Jungle Jim was authorized a scant force of propeller-driven aircraft--C-47 transports, B-26 light bombers, and T-28 trainers--that seemed more appropriate for a museum display than for the modern U.S. Air Force. The aircrews had none of the sophisticated electronic aids their colleagues relied on. "We flew in all kinds of weather'," Farmgate T-28 pilot Frank Gorski recollected in a formerly classified 1973 Air Force interview. "If you wanted to get someplace, you just picked up a canal and went. That was your navigation system. Flew time and distance. Kept one eye on the fuel and one eye out the window and pressed on."
But the old C-47s and T-28s, which flew low and slow, were actually better suited than high-speed craft for the types of activities an airborne counter-guerrilla effort would conduct: dropping supplies and propaganda leaflets, for example, or bombing and strafing small, dispersed targets like huts or boats. The aged airplanes would also be inconspicuous in the Third World nations whose forces the Jungle Jim crews would assist.
In Vietnam, the missions would be flown by pilots wearing plain flightsuits that had been stripped of all identification and insignia, and they would be conducted in complete secrecy--both because they violated the 1954 Geneva Accords, which prohibited the introduction of foreign troops into Vietnam, and to withhold knowledge of the operation from the American public.
The Farmgate mission was so sensitive that even now some of the official documentation remains classified. More than one pilot contacted for this article echoed the comments of former C-47 pilot Bill Brown, who prefaced his remarks with a hesitant "I'm not sure what you're entitled to know."
Not that the documents were plentiful to begin with. "In those days, a lot of times the special operations folks simply didn't keep records," says writer Michael Haas, himself a former air commando, as the men of Farmgate were later known.
The information that is available reveals that in the spring of 1961, the Air Force sought volunteers: elite pilots with at least 5,000 hours of flight time and enlisted personnel, including mechanics, armament specialists, and combat controllers, who ranked among the top two percentile in their specialties. Potential recruits were told only that the program was highly classified and that it would remain so for 25 years after it ended. More than 3,500 men volunteered.
"The recruiting was rather unique in my 38-year Air Force career," says retired four-star General John "Pete" Piotrowski, who in 1987 became the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the U.S. Space Command. A recently promoted captain at the time, Piotrowski was told to meet with a general who was visiting Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. "When my turn came I was ushered into a small office, dark except for a light that shone on the interviewee," Piotrowski recalls. "The officer conducting the interview was barely visible--a shadowy figure in the darkness."
The interviewer asked three questions: Are you willing to fly old obsolete aircraft? Are you willing to fly combat? If shot down and captured, are you willing to be disowned by your government? With some hesitation over the third question, Piotrowski answered yes to all three, after which the interviewer said only, "You may go now."