Air America's Black Helicopter
The secret aircraft that helped the CIA tap phones in North Vietnam.
- By James R. Chiles
- Air & Space magazine, March 2008
(Page 3 of 7)
The decoys arrive
Meanwhile, Air America's fleet in Thailand accepted delivery of two more Hughes 500 models—standard ones—and used them for air taxi operations. The job of these plain-vanilla Loaches was to distract attention from the Quiet Ones before they even landed in Laos. Loaches were common in Vietnam but not in Laos, so Air America needed to start using them in full view of North Vietnamese sympathizers. That way, if an enemy observer later saw the modified Loaches flitting past on a moonlit night, he might not consider the event worthy of comment.
Initial flight training on the Quiet Ones, conducted in Taiwan, was complete by June 1972. The two helicopters and their gear traveled on a C-130 transport to an isolated airstrip in Thailand called LS-05. Mechanics pulled them out, swung the rotor blades for flight, and filled the tanks, and the two helicopters flew by night to an even more obscure base, a secret one in southwest Laos known to insiders as PS-44. PS stood for "Pakse Site," a reference to the garrison town of Pakse, 18 miles to the southeast. PS-44 had been built to house Laotian commandos and the aircraft that flew them around. Its dirt strip and three tin-roof buildings sat on the edge of a plateau, surrounded on three sides by steep ground that was unusual for its expanses of bright beach-like sand, eroded from nearby cliffs of white sandstone.
It appeared to be far away from everything, but it was not far from the enemy. By late 1972, units of the North Vietnamese army were ensconced 20 miles to the north. To offer some peace of mind, the CIA had Air America keep a turbine transport helicopter, the Sikorsky S-58T "Twin Pack," handy for evacuations. More reassuring, the terrain was so steep and overgrown that the enemy could have stormed it from only one direction: the west. The base also relied on a perimeter of six guard posts staffed by Laotian soldiers, and reinforcements could have been called in from a base lying southwest, along the Mekong River.
No pictures allowed
Cameras were discouraged at PS-44, and photographing the Quiet One was strictly forbidden. Crews already knew the risk of telling tales in the bars and brothels of Southeast Asia, but even inside the base, the code of silence persisted. "You just
didn't come up and introduce yourself at PS-44," says Dick Casterlin, an Air America pilot who came to the base often. "Nobody talked about their personal background or where they were from." Men who worked closely for months knew each other only by first names or nicknames. The CIA itself had its own nickname at PS-44: The men called it simply "the Customer."
Casterlin flew an S-58T helicopter during some of the wiretap attempts, accompanying the Quiet One in order to rescue the wiretap teams if that became necessary. Casterlin had a security clearance for special missions, but even he wasn't told where the CIA had hidden the Quiet One.
According to base manager Stephens, the Quiet One was kept out of sight about 600 yards northwest of PS-44's main building, reachable down an unmarked, narrow forest trail. Because of the distance, the forests, and the quieting gear, the helicopter couldn't be heard from the porch of the base's main building unless it was flying overhead. Even then, at night, it sounded like a far-off airplane. The helicopter had its own hangar so Soviet spyplanes and satellites could not get a look at the peculiar profile produced by the extra main rotor blade, a tail rotor with blades in an odd scissored configuration, and big muffler on the rear fuselage.