THROUGHOUT HIS CHILDHOOD IN LAOS, he lived in a thatched hut with a dirt floor, outside the Hmong village of Muong Ngat, about 10 miles from the Vietnamese border. He never saw cars or trucks, but he did see his first airplanes high overhead as a boy, in 1953 and 1954. Some days he saw hundreds of them, as the French and their U.S. allies flew supplies to a besieged French army garrison in the Dienbienphu Valley. But to a Hmong child like Vang Bee, the things he saw in the waning days of French colonial control over Indochina seemed to belong to another world.
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After the fall of Dienbienphu, the French left Indochina, and a 1954 agreement partitioned it along political lines into North and South Vietnam. It wasn’t long before the United States began to fill the regional power vacuum. That’s when Vang Bee first saw an aircraft up close—a U.S. Sikorsky H-34 helicopter about the size of a house, he recalls. His entire village watched in fear as it descended slowly and landed noisily in a cloud of dust. When they saw men emerging from the beast, the villagers relaxed. Not long after that, small fixed-wing airplanes became a common sight.
By 1960 a civil war had broken out in Laos, and nations on both sides of the cold war sent support to the factions they favored. The Chinese, Soviets, and North Vietnamese communists backed the Pathet Lao; the Hmong were among several groups opposing the North Vietnamese. To counter the communists in northeast Laos, operatives of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and their allies in the government of Thailand contacted the highest-ranking Hmong officer in the Laotian army: Vang Pao. To support this charismatic warrior, the CIA and the Thais sent in the Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit, or PARU, a Thai special-operations force whose officers had been through U.S. Army Ranger training. The PARU wore uniforms without insignias, spoke the Lao language, and blended in as if they were native Laotians.
A three-way alliance arose: Vang Pao recruited and led a Hmong guerrilla force that would grow to a 30,000-man multi-ethnic irregular army. The PARU provided trainers, radio operators, and field advisors for local Hmong commanders. The CIA provided money, food, surplus World War II-era weapons, a few dozen officers, and transportation in the form of Air America, a contract airline the agency secretly owned.
Early in this proxy war, the people of Vang Bee’s village moved several times to escape North Vietnamese attacks. U.S. aircraft relocated tribespeople and dropped rice and supplies. According to Vang Bee, the elders appreciated the flights, which saved them long treks on foot, but soon came to take them for granted. For ambitious young people like him, however, aviation opened a world of opportunities and ideas. Now a U.S. resident, he recalls thinking: “Why the people can make the airplane fly in the air? A piece of metal, they made like a house, they put the engine in it. The airplane come from the technology. A lot of young Laotian people, they want to work close to the situation like that. I said, ‘I want to know how to fly. I want to know.’ ”
In 1965, Vang Bee and his family moved to Long Tieng, Vang Pao’s headquarters, southwest of Laos’ Plain of Jars, named for the large and mysterious ancient stone vessels found there. By this time Vang Bee was a square-jawed young man serving in the new alliance’s army. He was assigned to work as an announcer at a radio station, broadcasting news to the many ethnic groups in the north, but he did not like the job much, partly because the pay was low. When word went out that there were slots available for a dozen literate Hmong to take pilot training, Vang Bee was ready to apply, but his boss told him he was needed at the radio station and would just have to wait.
The idea to train Hmong tribesman to fly—to yank them out of the Stone Age and plunge them into the 20th century—originated with a CIA paramilitary officer named Bill Lair, the founder of the Thai PARU and the day-to-day leader of the CIA’s hill tribe operation in Laos. Lair believed that when it came to the wars in Southeast Asia, the United States should provide training and modest assistance, but beyond that, should stick to a supporting role. He believed that the fewer Americans in Asia, the more self-reliant the local people would become. This was not the prevailing view in the U.S. government, which had already started sending troops to support South Vietnam and warplanes throughout the region, including the skies over Laos. Lair, who had parachute training and worked with pilots every day, was determined to train indigenous Asians in as many forms of warfare as he could and equip them to fight. In 1965 he visited a CIA supply depot on Okinawa and spotted a couple of dusty Piper Cubs in a warehouse. Lair arranged for the airplanes to be shipped to his base in Udorn Thani, Thailand. And then, without notifying his CIA superiors, he opened a flight school, complete with an English language course, for a dozen newly recruited smart young Hmong. The students stayed in a safe house on the edge of a grassy airstrip to the west of the town of Nong Khai, near the Mekong river. The flight instructor was Lair’s PARU pilot.
By 1966 the first tribesmen were soloing in the Cubs. At the same time, a U.S. Air Force program at Udorn Thani was training Laotian military pilots in North American T-28D Trojans. The program, known as Water Pump, had specially selected U.S. personnel from a U.S. Air Force Air Commando unit at Hurlburt Field, Florida.
In some ways the T-28 was better suited than jets to supporting ground troops in combat in Southeast Asia: The Trojan could fly low and slow, maneuver through valleys, and loiter over targets. Just under 30 feet long and about 40 feet in wingspan, the airplane had been developed as a two-seat trainer after World War II. With huge flaps, tricycle landing gear, and a nine-cylinder, 1,425-horsepower Wright Cyclone engine, the T-28 was practical and versatile. But the official Laotian military, which was dominated by Lao lowlanders who had long disliked hill tribes like the Hmong, opposed allowing the Hmong into the T-28 program, and some Americans opposed the idea too. Teaching Iron Age tribesmen to become combat pilots was absurd, they said.
At Lair’s request, the two most promising Hmong from the Piper Cub flight school were promoted to the T-28 program. After they completed their training, one of them died on his second combat flight when he flew into a cloud and hit a mountain. The other, named Ly Lue, had been the star of his Water Pump class. Undaunted by the combination of mountains and monsoon weather, Ly Lue flew his T-28 to Long Tieng. The dirt strip there sat in a bowl 3,000 feet above sea level, with a couple of steep karst outcroppings at one end of the runway and clouds and fog obscuring the mountain ridges during the rainy season. Once in Long Tieng, Ly Lue loaded his T-28 with 500-pound bombs and dared his wingman, a lowland Lao lieutenant named Houmpheng Insixiengmay, to follow. The two airplanes took off, barely clearing the ridgelines. The brief golden age of the Hmong pilots had begun.