mission report information
A/159 ASHB 101 ABN was a US Army unit
for A/159 ASHB 101 ABN
Location = Udon
Location = Phu Bai
Location = Moung Soui
From date 690325 to 690403
Primary service involved, US Army
Location, Luang Prabang
Description: It was a fine Spring day at the end of March, 1969 in wonderful downtown Phu Bai. CPT William "Bill" Ailes and WO Harry "Rat" Nevling were on their way from A/159th ASHB, 101st Abn Div (affectionately known as Pachyderm Beach) to XXIV Corps Headquarters. We had been summoned for a briefing on a special operations mission.
Bill and Harry had been flying together frequently. Bill was the AC and Harry the pilot on a rather interesting mission earlier that Spring. We had wound up in Laos on a medevac mission for the Marines. (See "Mission Draws Chopper Into Laos" article in the July/August, 1998 VHPA Newsletter.) Our reward for that good deed was this call.
Upon arrival at the Headquarters Bill and Harry were taken into a briefing room. It was explained to them that a Chinook was needed in northern Laos. There was a U.S. backed effort to relocate Hmong tribe members from the Plain of Jars area to a more secure area further south. The Hook was needed to move some construction equipment for Pacific Architects and Engineers (PA&E). The operation would stage out of Luang Prabang, the location of the Laotian Imperial Summer Palace. This was about 135 miles northeast of Vientiane , about 250 miles west southwest of Hanoi, and only 110 miles west southwest of Dien Bien Phu. The mission was to move the equipment from an existing stronghold and haven for civilians to a new area, further from harm's way. The Pathet Lao, the North Vietnamese, and the Chinese were putting increasing pressure on the area at the edge of the Plain of Jars. An airstrip was required at the new area. This necessitated the relocation of construction equipment to have the new runway support up to C-123 type aircraft.
The mission would require us to fly the Hook from Da Nang, across the panhandle of Laos to Ubon, Thailand, about 230 miles west southwest of Da Nang, receive additional briefing information and then go on to Luang Prabang, another 365 miles to the northwest. We would have a CH-54 Flying Crane accompany us to relocate equipment too heavy for the Hook. I wonder what good deed they were being rewarded for. From there we would make daily missions to a pick-up zone, to be identified later, to pick up the equipment for transport to the drop-off zone, also to be identified later. We were shown the Intelligence Map displaying the anti-aircraft weaponry along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and its branches that would be crossed. There was an impressive array of different colored pins showing the various caliber's of weapons ranging from quad-.51s on up to 122 mm cannons.
Now the weapons on the Trail are there to shoot at tactical air bombers, all jets. Here we are considering going across in a Hook that has a top speed of around 175 miles per hour and a ceiling of 13,500 feet pressure altitude. We gotta be nuts!
The comforting thought was the briefing officer said that Charlie was up at night to shoot at the jets, so he'd be asleep during the day. We were offered the additional comfort that we'd be escorted by two OV-1 Mohawks. Yeah, that's right, they're observation aircraft - no guns! We were given the location of a safe zone on an escarpment in Laos. If something went wrong and we could make it there we'd be okay. Yeah, like when it hits the fan you've got a lot of choices where that flying brick is going to go down! Well, we were nuts. We said we'd do it.
Bright and early (well, it was early) the next day we left Pachyderm Beach for Da Nang. After topping off the fuel tanks we headed west on the two and one-half hour flight to Ubon. We rendezvoused with the Crane outside Da Nang and the Mohawks over the southern end of the A Shau Valley. We all continued into Laos. Looking down at the tracks of bomb craters that clearly marked the main route and branches of the Trail one couldn't help thinking how slow the Hook was traveling. Even the Mohawks couldn't go that slow. They were flying slow circuits around the lumbering helicopters. We were sitting ducks for anyone wanting to take a pot shot at us. Fortunately, the briefing officer appeared to be correct. Charlie must have been asleep, no tracers, flak bursts, or other nastys were sent up to greet us.
Our arrival in Ubon was a relief. The security of a Royal Thai air base with U.S. Air Force personnel seemed a very safe haven. We were taken to a briefing room where we were greeted by men dressed in civilian clothes. We were asked why we had insignia and patches on our flight suits. The response was that no one told us any different. The aircraft also had U.S. Army stenciled on its side. When asked if we had any civilian clothes with us the response was no. Again, no one had said anything about that either. We told them we could cut the identification off the uniforms and if they had any OD paint, we'd cover the markings on the aircraft. After some discussion among themselves they decided that would not be necessary. The bad news was that without civilian clothes they wouldn't be able to take us into Vientiane. So we stayed in our Nomex flight suits with the insignia and patches. The formal briefing began.
They told us more details of the mission. We would fly directly to Luang Prabang, and were given the frequency for an NDB at that location. There was an airstrip in the town used by Air America for re-supplying the Loyalist forces in northern Laos. We would be staying there with Air America personnel in their compound. The pick-up area was located at Moung Soui, a village with an airstrip located about 85 miles southeast of Luang Prabang and 180 miles north of Vientiane. The drop-off was in the area of Muang Kasi on the Nam Lik river about 55 - 60 miles west of Moung Soui, 60 miles south of Luang Prabang, and 150 miles north of Vientiane. We were provided with the names and grid coordinates for the pick-up and drop zones, radio frequencies, call-signs and maps for the pick-up and drop-off locations. Secure areas, enemy activity and defense forces were also explained. We were told that if we went down in an unsecured area the aircraft would have to be destroyed and they'd try to get us out. We were not to take any type of photographic equipment with us. Overall, it was fairly dismal information.
The briefing also contained information regarding the Hmong tribe. These are the aboriginal people indigenous to the area. The Hmong had actually migrated south from China several centuries previously and inhabited the mountainous regions of what is now Laos. This was now their homeland. They were very interested in protecting it. They are cousins of the Montagnards of Vietnam.
During World War II the Hmong had fought the Japanese invaders with flintlock rifles. Some were still using these weapons against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese. Unusual looking, they have no stock. The handle is more like the head of a golf club and held in the hand rather than against the shoulder. The Hmong were deadly with their use of this antique weapon.
They are very family and tribal orientated. Their loyalties are to their tribal family and its leader. This was and is General Vang Pao. The General was not only the chief of the Hmong, he was the leader of the Loyalist forces in Laos.
The Hmong are quite industrious people. We were told to watch for their trails enroute. When they wanted to go someplace they simply took the straightest line. Most of these straight lines involved significant vertical changes.
We were informed by the flight crew that the fuel control unit for our #2 engine was leaking. Bill made arrangements for another unit to be flown in by Mohawk. We had lunch and waited for the replacement part to arrive. When the unit finally arrived we found that the Mohawk that brought it over wasn't as fortunate as we had been. They had taken several hits flying over the Trail. Charlie must have been awake!
The crew quickly installed the fuel control unit so we could be on our way to Luang Prabang. The flight was uneventful, which was wonderful. The scenery was spectacular. The mountains in the area were quite rugged. Many of the ridge lines were nearly vertical, much like the mountains south of Hue. Here was the evidence of the Hmong trails. As we had been told, they were straight lines, even if that happened to go over a 2,000 foot high ridge they went straight up the ridge and straight down the other side.
In this area there was not the obvious evidence of the conflict. No large bomb craters, no defoliation, and no roads. Just the trails going from village to village. The vegetation was much like that around the A Shau Valley and Khe Sanh. Deep jungle with open areas the Hmong had cleared for their slash and burn agriculture. Spectacular scenery in an almost pristine area.
But, back to reality. Coming over yet one more ridge line, Luang Prabang appeared below. The summer palace of the Lao royal family nestled into the ridge on the west edge of the town. To the east, another ridge, more like a cliff. The small valley in between also held an airstrip - right in the middle of the town. The road, the first we'd seen since leaving Ubon, came up the valley and crossed the middle of the airstrip. Next to this crossing was an observation tower for control of the traffic on the road and the airstrip. The control method was simple. When the observer, an American, spotted an approaching aircraft he would fire his .30 caliber carbine into the air. The ground traffic cleared the strip and the aircraft landed. The signal for departure was the revving of an aircraft engine, or, in our case, picking up to a hover. The movie "Air America" must have used this airfield as its model for the film!
After landing we were directed to a parking/loading area. The larger aircraft, like C-123's, seemed to be in and out traffic, not actually based there. Our Hook and the Crane took up a significant part of their loading area.
We were taken to the Air America compound, actually a residence in the town with a fence and a gate. After stowing our gear we had a beer with the other pilots in residence there. They provided us with more information about the AO we were heading into. More dismal information. If we were to go down for some reason and the Hmong were to get to us first we'd be okay. The alternative was not pleasant.
During our chat with these men another man in civvies came in. We could tell by the reactions of the others that: A, he wasn't a pilot; and B, he was someone important. He informed us that we were to have dinner with General Vang Pao that evening. He told us that this was quite an honor. The murmurs of the others in the room confirmed this. It appeared that none of the regular pilots had been invited to dinner with the General.
We talked with the other pilots some more and then got ready for the evening. This meant a shower and a clean Nomex flight suit - with patches and insignia.
About 1830 we were picked up by the man that had informed us of the dinner and taken someplace in or near the summer palace compound. Upon entering the dinning room we were introduced to several Laotian officers by our escort. The room was very pleasant, quite comfortable, and well decorated without being ornate. The table, with seating for about 16 to 20, was set with linen, china, and real silverware. For a couple of GIs from Nam, this was impressive.
General Vang Pao entered the room and all were called to attention. We didn't speak any Lao but didn't need to for an understanding of this command. We were introduced to the General by our escort. The General, through an interpreter, welcomed us to Laos and thanked us for our assistance. He then called for an aide with a small box. When the aide opened the box it contained rings. Our escort displayed a look of surprise at seeing the box and its contents. The General removed a ring from the box and presented it to Bill. He repeated this with Harry. He then explained that these were symbols of the appreciation he and his people had for what we were doing for them. He understood that this was a voluntary mission and that we did not have to be there to help his people with this problem. We thanked the General for his gift and said we were glad that we could be of some assistance.
Our escort went on to explain that these rings were Hmong tribal rings. Their significance was that, in effect, the General had adopted us into the Hmong tribe. These rings were a tribal symbol, made of almost pure silver with a wound silver frame on the front forming four rows of triangles. Each of these triangles was filled with a colored substance looking like enamel. Very simple, very beautiful. He said we should be impressed. We were.
Harry was probably more impressed than Bill. First tour Harry had been a 'grunt' with the 4th Infantry Division. He'd been adopted by a Montagnard tribe outside Pleiku. A bit different process. But that's another story.
We all sat down to a thoroughly enjoyable meal. One item of local custom is that the only glasses on the table were for whiskey. The silverware included a large spoon at each place. This was used to dip liquid from the vegetable bowl and sipped from the spoon. The whiskey was served straight and at room temperature.
Following dinner and a bit more conversation we gave our thanks and our farewell and were taken back to the compound for a night's rest following a very interesting day.
The next morning we joined our flight crew at the aircraft. We performed a very thorough pre-flight check for the day's mission and departed for Moung Soui. Another beautiful flight over spectacular mountain scenery. Moung Soui turned out to be a small dirt airstrip at about 4,200 feet altitude for C-123 and Aero Porter traffic. This wasn't as nasty as the dirt strip in "Air America" but there was a definite slope to it!
The strip had a small loading area beside it near the middle. This contained fuel bladders and 55 gallon drums of fuel. Just above this on a small hill was a compound. The strip was outside any defensive perimeter for the compound. We had been talking to them by radio before seeing the airstrip or the compound. After shutting down the aircraft, we were greeted by a Special Forces SFC and taken up the hill to their headquarters in the compound. As we went into the compound we noticed a wide array of weaponry, including many Uzis. There we were introduced to a Special Forces CPT, the officer in charge of the compound and the senior advisor for the AO.
We had a nice conversation with this officer. While he was pleasant he had very hard eyes. He looked as if he had nails for breakfast - hold the milk and sugar! He explained that the fuel in the bladders was contaminated. He suspected sabotage. What this meant to us was hand pump re-fueling from 55 gallon drums. A Hook burns about 2,000 pounds of fuel an hour. This is roughly 335 gallons or six drums. Boy, were we ever glad we had topped of the tanks at Luang Prabang!
We listened intently to his briefing on local operations and activity. This included the story of his complaint about not having any mobile artillery as their large weapons were restricted to 4.2 inch mounted mortars. So the sergeant went out with a patrol and took a tank away from the North Vietnamese/Pathet Lao on the PDJ. Now the captain had his mobile artillery. However, the Sergeant told him he was on his own for any additional ammo he needed!
He also told us that the OIC of the airfield had been killed a few nights before. Someone had penetrated the camp and tossed a frag into the bunker where he was sleeping.
We went back down to the ship and helped the crew pump fuel. After getting a full load, thank goodness it was only an hour's flight from Luang Prabang, we talked to the PA&E people about their loads. The first item out was a small grader. While we had hauled 'baby bulls' in Nam for making LZs and FSBs as well as a variety of other construction equipment, this was the first grader either of us had hauled. The second item was a rubber wheeled packer. This piece of equipment used dirt for ballast and was lightened significantly by the removal of this ballast material. This was the Crane's first load. We had a second load of a large generator. We checked the rigging on both of our items as these were our only two flights scheduled for the morning.
We cranked up the Hook picked up the load and headed off for Nam Lik, about 60 miles away. We departed to the south along a beautiful valley of rice paddies. The west side was a low ridge about 100 feet above the valley floor. The east side was a cliff of more than 200 feet. About a half mile from the airstrip the valley abruptly ended with the hill to the west becoming a ridge turning sharply to join the cliff on the east. Beyond this ridge the land dropped away sharply in a series of ridge lines of lower elevation. This would become very important later.
We were able to make a fairly straight line to our destination. Radio contact was established with the drop-off point. They popped a smoke grenade and we put the grader on it. Whew! One down and no one shooting at us! What a relief!
We were a bit, just a bit, relaxed on the way back to Moung Soui and talked about the spectacular scenery and the immense difficulty of trying to transport equipment through this rugged terrain. We had moved supplies, equipment, and troops for the building of the road from Phu Bai to the A Shau Valley. That terrain had its challenges but it was nothing compared to this.
We made another run with the packer. This trip was also uneventful other than getting to see more of the spectacular scenery of northern Laos.
Upon our return to Moung Soui we shut down for lunch. We talked to the PA&E people about how many loads they had for the afternoon. They only wanted to move two more loads that day. Both were cargo net loads of miscellaneous equipment. We thought that was great! An easy day and, more importantly, we had plenty of fuel to take both loads and get back to Luang Prabang without having to hand-pump any more fuel!
The fun began when we cranked up after lunch. When we took the engines from flight idle (about 37% power) to flight (about 92% power) the number 2 engine went up to 42% and hung there. Cycling the engine control lever had no effect. We couldn't get more than 42% out of number 2. After trying everything we could think of with no effect we shut down to check the engine.
The FE opened up the number 2 engine nacelle and went over the engine and especially the fuel control unit. This is a highly complex piece of equipment that receives the demand asked of the engine, measures the pressure altitude, and meters the appropriate amount of fuel into the engine. Close examination of this piece of equipment revealed that the fuel drain had clogged. This prevented the fuel from in the unit from draining upon shut-down. The relatively cool fuel in the engine from flight was trapped upon shut-down. The expansion resulting from the heat increase blew out an internal 'o-ring' seal. This prevented the fuel control unit from performing its essential function.
We talked with the local cadre about getting a part flown in. They informed us that if our aircraft sat on that loading area overnight it probably would be destroyed by morning. Not an acceptable situation.
We cranked up the ship to see if we could get it to a hover on one engine at that altitude and temperature. We were unsuccessful. We shut down again to make arrangements for any excess weight we could shed. An Air America pilot told us he'd take our crew and equipment to Luang Prabang for us after he dropped off his load.
We took out the guns and ammo along with the tool box and anything else heavy we could get by without. This was going with our Crew Chief and Gunner on an Air America plane.
While we were waiting we witnessed an interesting accident. Another Air America, pilot flying an Aero Porter, was chaffing at the bit to get out but was told to wait for an incoming C-123. This seemed to upset him. He stomped around for a bit then got in and started up his plane. He taxied into the parking area facing towards the strip. As the loaded C-123 landed he gunned it and pulled onto the strip immediately behind it with the throttle to the firewall. The turbulence got him. His hurry put him up on a wing and the other into the strip. OOPS! Not going very far now! The pilot jumped out of his aircraft hollering about the turbulence and that the accident wasn't his fault. We tried real hard to ignore him.
Bill, Harry and the Flight Engineer cranked up again for the flight. We pulled another hover check and although we couldn't get a hover you could feel it was light on the landing gear. Both engines were running but number 2 was at flight idle. We discussed trying a running take-off. If we left the ship there it would be destroyed. It was worth the try.
We taxied to the far east end of the strip. We couldn't take off to the east, which was open plain and slightly downhill, as we had been told that if we tried to go that direction we would be headed into Russian .51 caliber machine guns. We wanted to avoid that problem! So, we headed west, which was uphill and towards a ridge line. Bill had practiced this running take-off procedure at Da Nang on several occasions. He eased the stick forward and we moved up the strip. He got the ship up on the main (front) gear and increased the airspeed as we moved down the strip.
All the instruments looked real good. We were moving along at about 80 knots when Bill eased the nose off the ground. We came up slowly and settled back in although we were well above what should have been flying speed. One bounce and we were off the end of the runway. We were in a slow climb, rotor rpm was steady and airspeed was increasing. All right! This was going to work!
Well, almost. We cleared the end of the strip and everything went to hell. The rotor rpm started bleeding off along with our climb and airspeed. Bill told the FE to get buckled in quick. We looked out at the ridge at the end of the valley. It was approaching fast. The extra 150 feet of altitude needed to clear that ridge was nowhere to be found. Bill was trying to get us back to the strip. He headed to the right and the ground dropped away below us. Bill eased back on the stick but she still wouldn't climb. Harry said "Let me try this." and flipped # 2 to its flight position. The engine picked up to about 42% as it had before and hung there. The good news was that this seemed to lessen the drag on the system enough for us to start regaining our rotor RPM. Bill had been bleeding off airspeed as we didn't want to go in at that speed. He had been trading the speed to maintain the low rotor RPM and altitude. Bill eased back on the stick again and we began a shallow climb. As we approached the ridge he found a break in the trees at the far end. He pulled back more and we slid over the top. He leveled off and traded the climb rate to get the rotor RPM back in the green. Carefully monitoring the instruments we limped around and landed back at the airstrip. Another Whew!
We shut down the aircraft and made the decision to switch out the fuel control units back to the leaky unit. Again, we couldn't leave the aircraft at the strip overnight. The FE made some unauthorized repairs and rebuilt the leaky unit with parts from the disabled unit. This was depot level repair, not field repair!
The FE changed out the fuel control units and we were ready to try again. This time things worked. The leaky unit no longer leaked and it got us to Luang Prabang.
Upon our arrival we were taken back to the Air America compound. As we got out of the vehicle we witnessed a very strange occurrence. At the entrance to the compound a group of Laotians had assembled. This was not unusual as helicopters and their pilots quite often attracted groups of the curious. What was strange was that one of the men had a camera and was taking pictures of us. We had never experienced a local taking pictures of GIs. It was always the GIs taking the pictures.
When we got inside the building we mentioned this to the Air America men. They all jumped up, asked us what he looked like and how he was dressed, grabbed their weapons and ran out looking for the man. When they couldn't find him they returned to informed us that if we ever saw someone taking our picture we should shoot him. It seems the photographer was probably a spy for the Pathet Lao and our pictures were for their "wanted posters" of "American agents in Laos." Oops!
We checked out the situation with the PA&E people. They determined that we had moved the essential equipment. The remaining equipment could be transported by the Crane and an Air America Huey. We were released from the mission.
We got our gear together and headed south to Udon, Thailand. The fuel control unit worked fine. We made an uneventful flight south and landed at Udon airport. This was a joint military-civilian airport used by the U.S. Air Force, the Royal Thai Air Force, and Royal Thai Airways, a commercial carrier. A 'Follow Me' truck escorted us to a parking ramp and handed us off to a ground handler. He guided us into a parking slot - and a light pole. Yup, he guided us right into a steel pole holding lights for the parking ramp. The FE was yelling, "We're too close!" We thought he was talking about the edge of the ramp and we were about to go off the concrete onto the grass. Wrong!
The rear blades took down the pole with little effort. We shut down and examined all three aft blades. One was damaged with a large dent in the leading edge. All three had tears in the lower side. Hook blades come in sets of three, they are very heavy, and the aft rotor head is about 25 feet off the ground. They have to be replaced in sets, even if only one is damaged. For the really important things going so well the disabling small things were getting real old!
To top off the situation, the Air Force came over and told us we couldn't leave the aircraft on that ramp overnight. We had to move it to the far side of the airfield.
We went into flight operations and contacted our headquarters with the bad news. They would make arrangements to get us a new set of blades and a means to get the old blades off and the new ones hung on the aft rotor head. We next made arrangements with the Air Force for billets for our crew and ourselves. They wound up putting us up in Udon at the Hotel Sharon. This was nice! A real hotel with real restaurants! We were expecting a Quonset hut with cots at the air base! This made the accident seem almost worthwhile.
We had another nice dinner. This one in a roof-top restaurant at the hotel. Even after all these years I remember the real tomato soup! Ah, what a wonderful evening. The only thing that spoiled it was that peculiar odor of Nomex. We were still wearing flight suits. These were the only clothes we had.
The following morning brought more bad news. Harry developed a major case of gastro-enteritis. Sweat, chills, and stomach cramps. At the air base, the flight surgeon made the diagnosis and provided the appropriate medications. It took a long four or five hours to overcome the symptoms.
Bill and Harry had lost their caps. They had tossed them on the seating in the back of the aircraft when they were filling out the log book following the mishap with the light pole. They couldn't check the blades until they wound down and stopped. They went outside the ship with the flight crew and checked the blade damage. Upon their return to recover their caps to leave the flight line they were gone. Neat disappearing act on the part of the caps. Following making arrangements for the replacement blades and billets we went looking for the BX to get new headgear. An Air Force colonel was walking along the other side of the street. He called Bill over and read him the riot act for being outside without headgear. Bill didn't have the opportunity to explain the situation. We found the BX and removed any opportunity for further ass-chewings with Air Force caps.
The replacement blades finally arrived. With the help of the Air Force, the old blades were removed and the new ones were slung on the aft rotor head. We tracked the blades and got the ship ready for the return flight to Vietnam. With a new set of rear blades, a full load of fuel, and flight plan filed with the Air Force, we cranked up the ship and headed for home. Another extremely apprehensive flight across the Ho Chi Minh Trail, this time without an escort. We thought we'd be as safe, or perhaps safer, without an unarmed escort. We felt that removing two additional targets might further dissuade and interest from the gunners along the Trail. This flight route was a bit different as we went straight to Phu Bai instead of to Da Nang. The scenery was strangely familiar. The main track of bomb craters clearly showed where the 'Trail' went. Each branch off the main route was clearly marked by a smaller track of bomb craters. Again the trip was uneventful. No 'nastys' came our way. By this time we were more concerned about mechanical malfunctions than the bad guys. Thankfully, nothing happened.
We were very glad to pass the eastern edge of the A Shau valley and the sight of Hue and Phu Bai in the distance. We descended out of our nose-bleed altitude and made a long approach to Pachyderm Beach. It was great to be home!
Written by Harry R. Nevling with William E. Ailes, 9/29/98
Comments: CPT Ailes, William; A/159 ASHB AC; ;
WO Nevling, Harry; A/159 ASHB pilot; ;
The source for this information was Harry Nevling's manuscript
Additional information is available on CD-ROM.
Please send additions or corrections to: Gary Roush Email address: email@example.com
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