Air America’s Black Helicopter

The secret aircraft that helped the CIA tap phones in North Vietnam

The Quiet One had a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera on its belly that helped the pilots navigate at night. (Shep Johnson)
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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.

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."



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