I was in college when I dropped one too many classes and received the pre-induction notice during the Vietnam conflict. I was convinced I was going to Vietnam as a ground grunt.. and going to die. I was too much of a chicken to flee to Canada or go “underground,” and I really did not have an anti-war or pro-war position.
My dad graduated Luke Field class 41-I on December 12, 1941, and by March of 1942 he was in the South Pacific (Christmas Island and later Guadalcanal), flying P-39s. I only add that because until a couple of years of his passing he would only talk briefly of some of the incidents and humor flying the P-39 and later the P-38 but I will never forget one night when I was contemplating my induction, he said, “ You don’t want to go in to a war son, but you make your own choices in life.”
I always carried a lot of pride in what he did. So, having been a pilot for some time with a commercial certificate and multi-engine/instrument ratings, I found an ad for pilots needed: good pay, exciting flying, tropical climates, etc. So I signed up with Air America.
I primarily flew the Pilatus PC-6 Porter in Laos. Of course it would be Laos. The PC-6 is noted for its STOL performance on almost any type of terrain—it can take off within a distance of 640 feet and land within a distance of 427 feet while carrying a payload of 2,646 lbs. We usually had only a by gosh by guess estimate of load weight. During the 1960s and 1970s, Air America, while secretly CIA-controlled, was an actual airline in Vietnam with regular passenger routes. It operated up to 23 PC-6s at a time.
I flew rice drops and refugee evacuations, plus the occasional “hard rice drop,” which was our term for ammunition resupply. Most of these were flown in Laos—mostly. Laos has varied terrain and two “seasons.” There are very tall karst ridges/mountains and plains and valleys. The two seasons are the rainy season (and I mean real rain!) and the smoky season. This is when the local farmers practice their after-harvest burns. Smoke can reach thousands of feet and is quite unpleasant to fly through.
My in-country check ride was… quite interesting. My “instructor” was called Laughing Larry, and I never knew his real name. We took off and all I could see was occasional, obviously very steep, karst ridges towering into the clouds. After my heart rate and breathing calmed slightly, I had to ask (maybe more like whine like a baby), “We can’t see anything! How are you going to get to where we are going?”
He briefly glanced over at me, smile on his face of course, and said, “Standard Air America procedure, set your climb power, rate of climb and punch your stopwatch. Today after 10 minutes and 15 seconds, we’ll take a heading of 45 degrees then 180 for another 15 minutes and 32 seconds exactly, then power back, descent about 500 feet per minute—and bingo you’re there! Piece of cake youngster.” I detected a touch of sarcasm in that last statement.
We did break out of the clouds in time to “land” on a 30-degree upslope short patch on top of a karst. I amazed myself (Larry gave me an excellent stopwatch), as after 3 weeks I was fairly comfortable flying into these Lima sites.
So one day I was running between mountain peaks in the rainy season in Laos trying to stay VFR as navaids were virtually nonexistent there. My load was bags of rice and one baby goat for some long range patrol guys to BBQ. The PC-6 was loaded by the Laotians hired by Air America ( great people!) and I briefly checked that the goat was tied up.
While flying along dodging clouds, rain, and mountains, I suddenly felt a whack against the back of my seat. My first thought was that I had been hit with a rocket-propelled grenade, but I was still flying. Then came another whack and the scream of a baby goat. About that time I hit a downdraft/updraft which launched the 100 lb. rice sacks and the now mostly-untied baby goat up and back down. The baby goat had seen outside the front windscreen, an escape from this death trap (I am guessing here). That goat was determined to depart the aircraft, and I knew if he ever got close to the windscreen he would break out and it would likely not turn out well for me or him.
So what would you do?
I started high-G pull-ups and push-overs until I did not hear him anymore. Peeking in back, I saw he was unconscious and lying quite peacefully on some now half-full rice sacks. And I noticed it was raining rice, dirt, grease pencils, an old Rand-McNally map of Laos, and food particles inside the aircraft. I continued on to deliver the baby goat to his date with death. I did not stay for the feast. I wanted to get back “home” for a beer or three.
Lesson learned: always check your cargo loads! About a year later, I actually did get hit by an RPG, filling my knees with aluminum and hitting the ground hard, but that’s not quite as humorous a story as “Baby Goat.”
- Flying for Air America—where the cargo was always interesting - March 16, 2020