Flying for Air America—where the cargo was always interesting

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.

Pilatus Porter
The PC-6 is a rugged airplane that was well-suited to the remote strips in Laos.

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.

Baby goat
Know your cargo, especially your live cargo.

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.”

30 Comments

  • If anyone wants to read an interesting book about flying for Air America I recommend Flight by Neil Graham Hansen and Luann Plamann Grosscup. It’s a pretty amazing read.

  • I had 2 Porters in the Berlin Aviation Unit at Templehoff. Remarkable airplane. I loved to fly it. Slow but we joked you could takeoff on the numbers and land and stay on the numbers. Our mission never allowed for any exotic off airport flying though. But it was still a hoot.

    • I saw a buddy of mine, on a beer bet of course, say he could take off into the direct crosswind vertically. He climbs in the Porter, gets it screaming … and I just happened to be close enough to see the look on the “tower controllers” face as this PC-6 rose slowly up above him and flew away.. My buddy got his beers LOL.

    • Hi Paul, interesting! In what period were you in Berlin? I was the Pilatus sales manager responsible for the evaluation and then sale of the two PC-6 to the Aviation detachment. Very interesting period. John Urquhart was the CO, who eventually selected the PC-6.

    • 361L does not jog my memory, such as it is nowadays, most of my records were lost in a move years ago. I did look up 361L and it is still alive, registered to a Dutch Corporation in, of course Delaware.. I mostly flew 152L. it was shot down by small arms fire while on a Search and Rescue sortie about 2 years after I left.

  • I flew UH-1 in Vietnam and would occasionally see Air America Pilatus around. Heard they were affiliated with CIA but always wondered what they did. Goats and rice huh.

    • Yes the C.I.A. case officers required transport into some dicey areas, but what I was most proud of was the Evacuations of villagers getting their homes burned, rice stolen and murdered by the NVA. I flew the UH-1 on occassion but that landing gear always made me pucker up ,I never felt at ease on landing like I did in the PC-6. It would shake, rattle and scream at you before you exceeded it’s flight parameters. I think they call that “departure from controlled flight” these days.

  • Flying IFR , no navaids, no GPS, using a stopwatch to know when to turn. That’s some crazy flying. Excellent story!

    • Well there were, unfortunately, losses of skilled aviators due to the conditions. But I must say when I got to Laos I still thought I was a great pilot.. It took about 2 weeks before I,got my awaking I was NOT bulletproof, when I heard the unmistakable sounds of AK-47 rounds going through Aluminum wings. My in country check pilot took me to a friendly supply guy and gave me 4 extra large flack jackets. One to sit on, one behind my back and the other two on each side panel. Too hot and humid to actually wear them anyway…

    • About the floating Rand-McNally map of Laos?.. They were usually all I had, there were military maps but I rarely saw one. And the rainy season always changed the topography. So it was just flying numerous missions every day where you usually could find your way around..And everybody started saying as I was headed out to A/C from day 1 “well there goes Navdoggy again” A humorous term, “navigation bloodhound” in other words LOL, because I always got lost for a long time..

  • interesting story, but there was another very interesting one too when 3 fighting bulls come out of their boxes at 35,000 feet altitude on a DC8 freighter

  • When I was a kid in the mid 70s.
    We bought our house from an Air America widow.
    He flew DC9s as I was told. Dissapeared on one mission. No explanation…

  • As a regular Air America passenger beginning in 1965, the Pilatus Porter was my favorite aircraft. My early rides were in piston-powered model Porters, which was less powerful than the later turbo version flown by Mr. Gordon. However, both piston and turbo versions had margins of power greater other single-engined transport aircraft being used in Laos. Designed and built in Switzerland, they were made for high-altitude flying in mountainous terrain — just right for Laos.

    In 1965, Air America had many piston-powered Helio Couriers, a few Porters, and a variety of other aircraft. After the Porter, the Courier was my second favorite passenger-rated aircraft. But it didn’t have the power to cope with unusual circumstances such as trying to out-climb rapidly raising terrain or sustain steep turns while cork-screwing into or out of short airstrips surrounded by enemy units plinking at arriving and departing aircraft. Air America pilots became expert at such maneuvers, but acquiring the finesse to safely do so involved luck and a sharp learning curve.

    Mr. Gordon accurately reflects the airmanship skill needed to work and survive in the Laotian airspace during that period. In VFR conditions, several Air America pilots with instructor’s licenses would let me fly while they caught up on their daily paper work. These mini-lessons were a great “time out” for me — I had a pilot’s license for five years at that time and welcomed the opportunity to keep my skills up. But the real lesson was watching them plan their flights, make heavy-duty decisions along the way, and manage their slow-take-off-and-landing (STOL) aircraft as though it were an extension of themselves. Each of them was a master pilot and a phenomenal airman role model.

  • Plenty of these live cargo flight were done in Nepal. I remember carrying a mountain goat on a Cessna Caravan for a barbecue later in the evening. Besides what you have described is great but another situation is, sometimes they urinate inside the cabin. Great problem ! They smell and is corrosive. We used to keep sacks where they were tied to soak their urine if that happened.
    Carried live animals in Shorts SkyVan too. Few times the cages would be larger than animal and had ample space to move forward or back. Had to be careful due rapid trim change. But in flying, this is an experience to have and live with. That makes flying so much fun.
    Happy landings.

    • Urine and blood, both corrosive, were a problem with the Hueys I flew in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Or so it was said. Most helicopters didn’t last long enough for that to be a serious factor. A salute to the Air America crowd. I met a few over there. They were a very different breed.

  • I know about the smell, trust me. LOL.We also dropped pigs from C-123’s and Caribous, they did squeal on the way down, with chute’s of course…

  • Robert,
    Very much enjoyed your article and your posts. I used to own a C123K, N681DG, so I am intrigued by the Air America story. After I sold the aircraft I donated a parts inventory to “The Air America Foundation” in Titusville Fl. I think the founder passed and it is no longer active. The last I heard their C123 was still there but going down hill.
    Thanks

  • Flying UH 1’s in the 1st Cav we were somewhat jealous of tha Air America pilots. We knew they were making a lot more money than we were!
    Good story.

  • After I got there I found out the wide difference in pay for the same or in your case much more hazardous flying. I respect and honor you Sir!!! My cousin had just returned, before I found AA, from ‘Nam stationed on a firebase.. He told me about the conditions they had to live in!! We had luxury at LS20A compared to you guys!

  • I was assigned to the 5th SF Group in VN, and often carried large quantities of cash. I carried loaded weapons to reduce the possibility of tempting some wayward soul to hold me up. The USAF and US Army pilots would not let me on board unless I unloaded my weapons, so I moved about the country using Air America, who could not have cared less whether I carried loaded weapons or not (I did have the safeties on to prevent accidental discharge). Always got me there safely and on time, although I shared the passenger area with some really odd cargoes. SF had a very good working relationship with AA, and I really appreciated them.

  • Hi Robert,
    Did you know Ted Mauldin?
    Flew with him at the airlines, he some some great stories about his AA times.

    Ron

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