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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Meanwhile, the Laotian commandos at the wiretap site found that the poles were concrete rather than wood, so they couldn't use their pole-climbing boots to get up them or a stapler to attach the antenna. The men shinnied up instead. After splicing into the phone wires, they put the tap in place; it was concealed in a glass insulator of the same color used on the French-built line. The commandos began taping up the short-range antenna and installing narrow solar panels atop the pole's cross-arm. This would power the tap's transmitter.

When Lamothe and Smith heard from the Otter that the Thai oscilloscope was getting a clear signal from the spider relay's transmitter, they threw a switch that released the last cables connecting the spider relay to the helicopter and flew the Quiet One to a streambed to wait for the commandos to finish attaching the solar panels. At the scheduled time, Smith restarted the helicopter's turbine; he picked up the commandos at the wiretap site and the team returned to Laos without incident. Those listening to progress reports at PS-44, Udorn, and the Lima 40A refueling site were pleasantly startled to hear that the crew was on its way back and the tap was in place without a firefight, recalls Wayne Knight.

"What makes the Vinh tap so special is that they pulled it off," Knight says. "It had to be right the first time."


Lamothe and Smith left the Quiet One at PS-44 and flew to the CIA's regional office at Udorn by conventional aircraft. Much celebration at ensued there—perhaps too much. During the subsequent R&R, someone at the Wolverine Night Club in town bit off part of Smith's ear. If a reprimand for attracting attention was ever entered in Smith's secret personnel file, it didn't matter: The CIA had no plans to send the Quiet One up again, and within a week all the Americans connected with the mission and their equipment were on their way out of Laos.

Recollections differ on how long the Vinh tap worked—perhaps one to three months—and why it went silent. But allegedly it yielded enough inside information from the North Vietnamese high command to help nudge all parties to sign a peace pact in late January 1973. Exactly what Kissinger eavesdropped on remains classified.

"I was not aware of any specifics Kissinger and company were looking for," Glerum says. "Since the land line [at Vinh] was understood to hold the command channel, virtually anything would have been welcome."

The one flyable Quiet One relocated to California. Air America pilots Allen Cates and Robert Mehaffey trained on it at Edwards Air Force Base, achieving proficiency in early 1973. Then, before any special-mission training began, and with no explanation, Cates and Mehaffey were sent back to their old piloting jobs at Air America. Mechanics pulled most of the special features out of the Quiet One, and its trail of insurance and registration papers ends in 1973, after it was transferred to Pacific Corporation of Washington, D.C., a holding company used as a screen for CIA-backed companies and assets.

"The agency got rid of it because they thought they had no more use for it," says Glerum. At least one of the ex-Quiet Ones surfaced years later at the Army's Night Vision & Electronic Sensors Directorate in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

But according to the participants, no more were built. It's puzzling why the CIA did not keep a stable of Quiet Ones, at least while the technology remained under wraps. And it remained a secret for more than two decades, until Ken Conboy and James Morrison told the story in their 1995 book Shadow War.


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