The second in a four-part series. Please look for the third installment on Tuesday, July 19.
Air Force personnel, said Weitz, were not well briefed about the existence of Air America. He had a SAR (Search and Rescue) mission in Laos, picking up one such airman.
“On the radio, I heard this guy call in saying ‘I’m taking some hits and I’m losing fuel and I’m going to have to punch out.’ I called him and asked him to give me his position and he radioed back that he couldn’t give out his position because it’s classified,” Weitz said. “It was in Laos, and nobody was supposed to know they were in Laos. I said ‘well, obviously they know where your position is now, and have a nice day.’ At that point, he gave me his position and described everything around him and we picked him up.”
Another SAR had the rescued pilot wondering who had answered his call for help. “There are no markings on our plane,” said Weitz, “and one of our crew chiefs was Filipino. All of a sudden, here’s this Asian guy reaching out to grab the downed airman, and he didn’t know who had gotten him.”
Eventually, Air America’s station chief from Udorn (Thailand) went out to the fleet and asked them to brief their people. “We were flying up there in Laos every day, and we knew the area,” said Weitz. “The Jolly Greens (Air Force rescue helicopters, Sikorsky HH-3Es), would have done what we did, too, but they couldn’t just leave and go pick someone up without permission from Washington. They had to go through the system because they weren’t supposed to be in Laos, either. We’d hear all the radio talk and by the time they launched, we were already bringing the guy home.
“We liked to yank their chain a little bit,” said Weitz of the Air Force. “We were good at what we did and I have no problem saying that. We were all ex-military pilots. But we had no restrictions with our flying. They gave us an aircraft and said ‘here’s your job, go do it.’
“We did crazy things, but when we went to work, we were dead serious,” said Weitz. “We were in a job where people were shooting at us, day in and day out, and people got killed. That movie, “Air America,” none of it was real, except for the bar scene. That was us, man. We often lived like there was no tomorrow, because we never knew if there would be one. There was always a lot of celebrating, because you could be dead the next day.”
Crew chief Willie Parker came close to that final “next day.” Based out of Udorn at the time, Parker was severely injured after his CH34 helicopter went down in 1967 in Laos.
“We weren’t shot down, it was an operational problem,” said Parker. “It was a matter of ‘the thing that worked yesterday didn’t work today.’ We had landed in a mountain pass where there was one way in and one way out. We had to take off against the wind, and the wind coming over the mountain created some downdrafts, and the plane never really started flying.”
Parker, the pilot, and another passenger survived. More than a dozen were killed. This time it was the Air Force to the rescue. “We crashed at 9 in the morning, and the reason I know that is that the watch I was wearing stopped at that time. We were picked up at 4 in the afternoon,” said Parker. “There were indigenous troops in the area that probably saved my life.”
Parker had burns over 58 percent of his body. The indigenous troops gave him water to drink and fanned him with fans they had made from bamboo trees until he was rescued seven hours later by one of the Jollies.
Recovery took more than three months. Following several reconstructive surgeries, Parker returned to Air America to work out of Taipei.
Air America flew regularly scheduled passenger flights in Vietnam as well. “The flight attendants were based out of Saigon,” said operations manager Mike Kandt. “They used two C46 planes, and they had regular passenger seats, and it was run as a scheduled carrier.”
“Our job as ops managers was to monitor the flights throughout the day to make sure they accomplished their missions, or were not lost,” said Kandt. “When the pilot would report his position, the clerk would write down the position on a big flight board. We’d have a series of reports, and when the aircraft was secured, at base or upcountry, that would be indicated.”
Ops managers also scheduled maintenance and coordinated customer needs. “The primary cargo was refugee relief, mainly rice on pallets, medical supplies, construction material, sometimes a jeep or other heavy equipment,” said Kandt.
Air America employed air freight specialists, or cargo “kickers,” those who were responsible for freight carried by their planes. Dan Gamelin was one such, having come to Air America from the First Special Forces Group in Okinawa.
“Half of us were special forces, the other half smoke jumpers,” said Gamelin. Kickers were responsible for deploying cargo during in-flight drops, or unloading it on the ground.
“We usually flew four trips a day,” Gamelin said. “We kept parachutes on because we had to move around the aircraft while the cargo door was open. We did have people who fell out, and one fell out without his chute and was killed.”
Crews, both pilots and kickers, were, for the most part, unaware of what freight they were carrying. The motto ‘anything, anytime, anywhere –professionally,’ was literal. “You name it, we hauled it,” said Gamelin.
And the ‘anything’ did, in fact, include drugs at times. “We never questioned what we were carrying,” said Wiren, “We just transported what the customer wanted. We’d be lying if we said we weren’t aware of the fact that the Laotians sold opium in order to pay the troops. That was the culture over there at the time. But we were never aware when we were carrying drugs, and the pilots never made one cent transporting them.”
Luann Plamann Grosscup has been writing freelance for more than 20 years, with a focus on vintage aviation. Her work has regularly appeared in the Chicago Tribune. In 2006, she was honored to be among the first mainstream journalists to have been granted personal interviews by Air America pilots, and remains a friend of the Air America Association.
Luann divides her time between Chicago and Key West, Florida.