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 5 of 7)
The spider relay was to be deployed as the helicopter hovered over a tree. With its solar panels, electronics boxes, and antennas sprung open to a width of almost 10 feet, the relay perched atop the branches with a fishnet-like webbing. It was nearly impossible to see from the ground. The relay could be folded into a compact package that fit between the helicopter skids, but there was so little ground clearance left after it was attached, the pilots could land only on a hard, flat surface.
When each night's practice was complete, Lamothe and Smith flew back through the darkness to the concrete landing pad, which was shaped like an old-fashioned keyhole. The approach to landing was memorable because the Quiet One used no landing lights; it relied on an infrared floodlight on the nose. The light cast an eerie, ruddy glow.
Some of the biggest threats to mission success came not from North Vietnamese army spies but from plain bad luck. One flight opportunity was lost when a scorpion bit a wiretap team commando, setting off an allergic reaction. On one of the training flights at the Hole, after Lamothe and Smith deployed the spider relay used for practice, it slid off the branches and crashed to the ground, with pieces scattering. Training for the mission could not proceed without the relay, and joyful speculation spread among the ranks: It would be a month or more until a new spider could come from the States, so the men could go on leave.
But no: Stephens flew to the spot by helicopter, slid down a rope, and helped technician Bob Lanning bag up the pieces. Back at camp, Lanning laid them out on a floor and said he could get the relay working if he had some new parts. "Jim Glerum sent a cable," says Stephens, "and in three days we had the parts by courier. Bob worked two and a half days, almost nonstop, and put it back together. So we only lost a few days."
With the moon entering the favorable phase, the rescue crews moved to a forward staging base in eastern Thailand while Lamothe, Smith, and the Quiet One remained at PS-44. An attempt was scheduled for the night of December 5, amid rising doubts among Air America veterans as to whether the scheme would ever work.
That night, the Quiet One flew to a refueling base at the Thai-Laotian border, where it met a de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter with the Laotian commandos. Two commandos with guns and the wiretap equipment climbed aboard the Quiet One, and the rest stayed on the Otter with parachutes and more guns in case they were needed for a rescue. Accompanied by an armed Twin Pack flown by Casterlin and Julian "Scratch" Kanach, the Quiet One set course for the northeast. The Twin Pack broke away at the North Vietnamese border and took up a slow orbit over Laos, out of radar range but on call if needed. Despite the Twin Pack's readiness to play the rescue role, security was as tight as ever. "I did the LORAN navigation, but I didn't have the coordinates of the wiretap location," Casterlin says. "I assumed they'd tell me if I needed to know, or maybe Scratch knew."
Leaving the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and without being targeted by the anti-aircraft defenses along it, Lamothe and Smith climbed to cross the Annamese mountains, then dropped to follow the nap of the earth, following streambeds when possible. When the pilots identified the wiretap spot, they hovered, and the two Laotian commandos jumped a few feet to the ground.
Lamothe and Smith then flew west across the Cau River to a 1,000-foot-high mountain to set the spider relay. Finding the ideal tree for the relay had taken months of intense photo-
reconnaissance work. The tree had to be tall, on high ground with a clear view of the western horizon, and flat at the crown. An Otter orbited over a receiver relay, which was already in place atop another mountain halfway into Laos. Inside the Otter, technicians were watching an oscilloscope measure a test signal from the spider relay.