Super Spad . . . A- 1 . . . Built for an older war, they found a place in Southeast Asian skies and in the hearts of men who dared to master two thousand seven hundred horsepower. Remember how they flew at AShau . . . Khe Sanh . . . across the burning Plain of Jars . . . Son Tay. They never asked for glory or a hero's place, buy only one more pass . . . to fly and fight. And if your memory dims, go ask the infantry who watched them from the battle's ragged front beneath the jungle trees . . . ask the FACs-"Firefly . . . Zorro . . . Hobo . . . Spad, 'Hit my smoke.'" Or ask a rescued pilot what the call sign "Sandy" means. Their wings were stained with oil and twenty millimeter cannon smoke; their valor was as bright as burning steel. And when they fell, they took an honor guard of enemy to tramp behind them on their final march. Faintly, heard from far away, the distant thunder of their engines rises through the evening calm . . . phantom wingmen, off to war, fly with us now . . . forever.
American operations in Laos, while this day was certainly not the norm, this may be illustrative of what was going on inside the "black hole" of Laos.
There was, and still is I understand, a large contingent of North Vietnamese soldiers in Laos and the job we had, among others, was to assist the Laotian troops who were actively fighting these Vietnamese. On the day in question (March, 1970) I was directing airstrikes against North Vietnamese positions north of the Plain of Jars. The place was pretty heavily defended and an F-4 was stitched up petty badly by the gunners on the ground. Both pilots ejected safely, and suddenly I was working a SAR. There was a rescue helicopter on alert at a clandestine forward base, and I called for this guy to get moving, which he did in short order. At the same time I called for some fighters from a base in Thailand to suppress any fire directed toward the "Jolly Green Giant" helicopter. These were A- 1 s (single seat propeller driver aircraft always on alert for SARs) The Jolly Green arrived first and with no opposition picked up the first pilot. However, when they attempted to get the other pilot they came under heavy fire. There are no guns on a Jolly Green and the decision was made to wait for the A-l's rather than lose the helicopter.
When the Sandys got there and went after the guns on the ground-- always a dicey job since the gunners on the ground have a stable gun platform and the airplane does not. One of the Sandys was hit and pulled off with a tremendous stream of fire. I can still see that moving fire ball ! Needless to say, the pilot ejected safely. But we are now back to two pilots on the ground, and I am so close to out of gas that I am not sure I can make it back to a little strip where I can refuel. Another Raven (the call sign of the FACs in the unmarked aircraft in Laos) showed up in a T-28 and I headed on out of here.
The next part of this is, of course, second hand, but my replacement and the other Sandy suppressed enough of the ground fire so the Jolly Green could pick up the other two pilots. However, by this time it was very nearly dark, the visibility was unbelievably bad due to the haze from all the farmers burning off their rice fields, and my compatriot was close to "outta gas". He was unable to find the small CIA base hidden in the mountains ( no navigational aids in Laos), and he headed for Vientiane knowing that he would never make it before he ran out of gas. He told the air borne command of his situation and that he would climb to ten thousand feet, glide to five thousand when the engine quit and then bail out. This airplane was the only T 28 we had that did not have an ejection seat, also it was to be "over the side" time. Additionally, he had a Laotian "back-seater" to whom he explained the situation in what I imagine must have been strained "pidgin" English. The engine did quit, and at five thousand feet the pilot went to unstrap, when he figured out that the Laotian was not doing the same. He then attempted to get out of the front seat, onto the wing, back to the other cockpit to get the Laotian out. This did not work, he fell off the wing, hit the tail, bounced free of the airplane, and pulled the "D" ring. We all had emergency survival radios which we used, so that Air America quickly retrieved our boy. At this time it would have appeared that we lost the Laotian; but retrieved four American pilots even though we lost one F-4, one A-l and one T-28. But, dear reader, all is not yet lost.
The next morning I flew out to try to find the wreckage, taking with me another Laotian in my back seat. I never did find it, but as I was circling the closest village to where I figured the aircraft might be and I spotted an American helicopter. I asked him to land near the village and put one of the residents on the radio to talk to the Laotian that was in my airplane. In this way I could learn if anyone has seen or heard the crash. As it turns out the Laotian in the T-28 had not felt that dead-sticking this airplane from the back seat at night was a good way to break into aviation, and somewhere between five thousand and impact he managed to get out of the airplane and deploy his chute. Additionally, according to the translation I got from my back-seater, our erstwhile skydiver was so drunk by morning that he had to be taken from the village on a stretcher. This last is hearsay since I never saw the lad again. Do you suppose that he gave up flying with "Ravens" and went back to the dull pursuit of farming rice? I guess I'll never know.
One postscript to this story. I guess it was five or so years later when I was, piloting a commercial airliner with another pilot in the jump seat. We were both vets, and I mentioned that I had been a "Raven". In some way or another the day so many guys ended up in parachutes came up and I noticed a large grin from my jump seat rider. "I was the pilot of the A-1 on that day," he said and, "perhaps I could buy you a beer." Small world.