U.S. soldiers in Vietnam heard rumors of ghosts; the Viet Cong chalked it up to bad luck.
- By Roger Warner
- Air & Space magazine, May 2004
(Page 3 of 5)
Toward the end of August 1967, the brass arrived at Tracy for a night demonstration. Asked to find the airplane, they peered upward and strained to hear something. Suddenly a bright light appeared directly above them, and the pilot boomed into his mike a single word, “Gotcha!”—amplified, of course, through strategically placed loudspeakers on the ground. Members of the delegation were suitably impressed.
Further modifications were made—portholes in the sides to improve visibility for the backseat observers, a bigger vertical tail to offset the effect of the nose pylon, self-sealing fuel tanks, and military avionics. They received a couple of Starlight Scopes, and training began. Then the QT-2PCs, as the new models were called, were disassembled, put on trailers, and loaded onto C-130s. They were flown to Soc Trang, in the Mekong delta, and the trailers were unloaded and wheeled into a secure hangar, with other trailers encircling them like covered wagons to keep them safe from prying eyes. It was January 1968, and as enemy activity picked up, sandbags were being stacked up around the base.
Within a day the funky little airplanes were operational. Under the command of Horn, newly promoted to lieutenant commander, there were briefings in the late afternoon, first flights after sunset, refuelling around midnight, and second flights with a change of pilots until shortly before dawn. They got in 10 hours of flight time every night.
On January 30, 1968, communist forces launched a countrywide offensive during the Vietnamese new year, or Tet. Soon enemy rockets and mortar shells were landing in Soc Trang. “I was supposed to get a little green card saying I was a noncombatant,” recalls a laconic Dale Ross Stith, a Lockheed avionics specialist. “What I actually got was an M-14 and 200 rounds.” With Soc Trang under fire, the QT-2s were flown to Vung Tau, which was a little more secure, and the missions continued.
The QT-2 test period in Vietnam in the early months of 1968 was the first use of stealth or low-detection technology in combat and was one of the first operational deployments of night-vision devices aboard aircraft. Night after night, the QT-2 crews peered into the Viet Cong world without the Viet Cong knowing it. Through their Starlight Scopes, the backseat observers saw—in crude, two-tone green and black—heavily loaded sampans traveling on darkened waterways, truck convoys bumping along on unpaved roads, and thousands of campfires twinkling beneath the jungle canopy. They saw VC sappers—demolition teams—with explosives climbing on a bridge along a major highway and onto ocean-going junks on a southern delta river. The observers radioed reports to the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, but at that time MACV, for the most part, couldn’t respond. The U.S. military simply didn’t have the capability to fight at night.
But the potential was clear enough to James McMillan, science advisor to General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. McMillan summoned Les Horn to Saigon and, giving him almost no time to prepare, told him to brief Westmoreland on the project. When Horn walked into the briefing room, “it was like a Time magazine centerfold,” he remembers, with not only Westmoreland but the U.S. ambassador, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and others. McMillan introduced Horn as the project officer for what he felt was his most significant science achievement in Vietnam.
Horn started his briefing, knees shaking, with a grease pencil and a board. Before the briefing was over, Westmoreland was standing with him at the board, sketching surveillance missions that he wanted to run.
The prototype quiet spyplane had passed its test, and now it was time to develop its successor. Back in California, Lockheed had already used its own funds to build what it called the Q-Star. A radiator from a Chevrolet Corvette sat in the nose, and the thing was even more peculiar-looking than the QT-2. The radiator cooled an exceptionally quiet marine Wankel rotary engine. When Curtiss-Wright, which owned the rights to the Wankel engine, decided against manufacturing an air-cooled version for aviation, the Q-Star became a footnote. Lockheed agreed to Stanley Hall’s proposal to develop the more conventional aircraft that became the YO-3A. (“Y” indicated pre-production; “O” stood for observation; and the meaning of “A” was unclear, possibly indicating later “B” and “C” models that were hoped for but that never materialized.)