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 4 of 7)
Between June and September, Lamothe and Smith tried to train the Taiwanese crews to fly the mission, but after months of poor performance by the trainees—including a botched night landing that demolished one of the two Quiet Ones—and bickering over who would be the chief pilot, the CIA managers got fed up and sent the whole contingent home. Lamothe and Smith prepared to fly the mission themselves.
At the same time, the agency placed the project under new management. James Glerum arrived in Pakse to direct operations. Glerum had been the CIA's assistant base chief at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base when the Quiet Ones landed in Laos. The new assignment demonstrated how urgently the state department wanted the wiretapped information, according to Air America chief helicopter pilot Wayne Knight. Glerum, he says, was a CIA "super-grade," outranking many careerists at headquarters.
Soon after his arrival, Glerum quizzed Smith and Lamothe on their cover story. When he realized they had none, he provided them with false identities and a story to go with them in case of capture.
More help came from Air America, which was offering up its best aircraft (the term used was "gold-plated") and its most experienced men to support the mission. One was Thomas "Shep" Johnson, a rangy Idahoan with a background in smoke-jumping. Johnson had started with Air America in its first year, 1959, rigging bundles with parachutes and pushing them out of aircraft. A year before, he had been one of only three men to survive a North Vietnamese attack at another Laotian air base. Johnson's main responsibility was to train a squad of eight Laotian commandos for the Vinh wiretap mission. For years, the commandos had been fighting communist forces and had reported on enemy traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos. A group of 100, they lived in a separate part of PS-44 and manned the perimeter.
The CIA had hoped to get the wiretap in place before monsoon season, but a series of mishaps and equipment malfunctions, compounded by the monsoons starting early, delayed the mission. "We had a string of unbelievably bad weather," says Glerum. "Normally, November to January is the rainy season. It had started right as I got there [in October]." Twice Lamothe and Smith took off from PS-44 to fly the wiretap mission, refueling in eastern Thailand and heading into enemy territory, only to turn back after running into clouds in the passes or fog at the wiretap site. "The preparation for the mission was a very hectic time," says Stephens, "but it also seemed like it dragged on forever."
Hughes technicians toiled over the troublesome infrared camera; problems with it had forced cancellation of an October 21 attempt. "The FLIR [forward-looking infrared] required a lot of work," recalls Glerum. Other gadgetry included SU-50 night-vision goggles (their first use in Laos), which worked only when the moon was a quarter to a half full. The helicopter also had a long-range navigation system (LORAN-C).
Any mishap during the night flight into North Vietnam, particularly while the crew maneuvered among trees and telephone poles, would doom the mission and probably its participants. By day Lamothe and Smith studied photos and maps marking the stealthiest route to the target. By night they practiced by using LORAN to navigate from the hangar to a nearby training ground they called the Hole. The topography of the Hole was an "astonishingly accurate duplicate" of the actual wiretap site, according to Glerum. Flying into and out of it was "no problem in the daytime, [but] it could be a bugger at night," recalls Casterlin. Smith and Lamothe dropped the commandos near a simulated telephone pole (a tree stripped of branches and equipped with a cross arm) and flew to a pre-selected tree, where they laid out the radio rig called the spider relay.