by Lawrence E. Pence
Colonel, USAF (Ret)
For most servicemen who served in Vietnam, the Freedom Bird was that civil airliner
which took them back to the land of the big PX at the end of their tour. Mine was a bit different
sort of Freedom Bird.
In mid-1967, as a junior Air Force Captain, I was detailed to 7th AF Hq in Saigon as an
Air Technical Intelligence Liason Officer, short name: ATLO (the “I” gets left out, as people look
strangely at anyone who calls himself an ATILO, thinking he is somehow related to Atilla the
Hun). My job was to provide 7AF and the air war the best technical intelligence support that
the Foreign Technology Division of AF Systems Command (my parent org*anization) could
provide, in whatever area or discipline needed. Also I was to collect such technical
intelligence as became available. This was a tall order for a young Captain, and this
assignment provided much excitement, including the Tet Offensive.
At that time, Operation Rolling Thunder was underway, the bombing of military targets in
North Vietnam. The weather in NVN was often lousy, making it difficult to find and accurately
strike the assigned targets, so a radar control system was set up to direct the srike force to their
targets. This system was installed on a remote, sheer-sided karst mountain just inside Laos on the
northern Laos/NVN border. The site could be accessed only by helicopter or a tortuous trail
winding up the near-vertical mountainside, so it was judged to be easily defensible. The
mountaintop was relatively flat and about 30 acres in size.
On it was a tiny Hmong village called Phu Pha Ti, a small garrison of Thai and Meo
mercenaries for defense, a helicopter pad and ops shack for the CIA-owned Air America Airline,
and the radar site, which was manned by "sheep-dipped" US Air Force enlisted men in civilian
clothes. Both the US and NVN paid lip service to the fiction that Laos was a neutral country, and
no foreign military were stationed there, when in reality we had a couple of hundred people spread
over several sites, and NVN had thousands on the Ho Chi Minh trail in eastern Laos. This
partic*ular site was called Lima (L for Laos) Site 85. The fighter-bomber crews called it Channel
97 (the radar frequency), and all aircrews called it North Station, since it was the furthest north
facility in "friendly" territory. Anywhere north of North Station was bad guy land.
The Channel 97 radar system was an old SAC precision bomb scoring radar which
could locate an aircraft to within a few meters at a hundred miles. In this application, the
strike force would fly out from Lima Site 85 a given distance on a given radial, and the site
operators would tell the strike leader precisely when to release his bomb load. It was
surprisingly accurate, and allowed the strikes to be run at night or in bad weather. This
capability was badly hurting the North Vietnamese war effort, so they decided to take out Lima
Because of the difficulty of mounting a ground assault on Lima Site 85, and its remote
location, an air strike was planned. Believe it or not, the NVNAF chose biplanes as their "strike
bombers!" This has to be the only combat use of biplanes since the 1930's. The aircraft used
were Antonov designed AN-2 general purpose 'workhorse" biplanes with a single 1000hp radial
piston engine and about one ton payload. Actually, once you get past the obvious "Snoopy and the
Red Baron" image, the AN-2 was not a bad choice for this mission. Its biggest disadvantage is, like
all biplanes, it is slow. The Russians use the An-2 for a multitude of things, such as medevac,
parachute training, flying school bus, crop dusting, and so on. An AN-2 just recently flew over the
North Pole. In fact, if you measure success of an aircraft design by the criteria of number
produced and length of time in series production, you could say that the AN-2 is the most
successful aircraft design in the history of aviation!
The NVNAF fitted out their AN-2 "attack bombers with a 12 shot 57mm folding fin aerial rocket pod
under each lower wing, and 20 250mm mortar rounds with aerial bomb fuses set in vertical tubes let
into the floor of the aircraft cargo bay. These were dropped through holes cut in the cargo bay floor.
Simple hinged bomb-bay doors closed these holes in flight. The pilot could salvo his bomb load by
opening these doors. This was a pretty good munitions load to take out a soft, undefended target
like a radar site. Altogether, the mission was well planned and equipped and should have been
successful, but Murphy's Law prevailed.
A three plane strike force was mounted, with two attack air*craft and one standing off as
command and radio relay. They knew the radar site was on the mountaintop, but they did not
have good intelligence as to its precise location, It was well camou*flaged, and could not be seen
readily from the air. They also did not realize that we had "anti-aircraft artillery" and "air de*fense
interceptor" forces at the site. Neither did we realize this.
The AN-2 strike force rolled in on the target, mistook the Air America ops shack for the
radar site, and proceeded to venti*late it. The aforementioned “anti-aircraft artillery” force- one
little Thai mercenary about five feet tall and all balls- heard the commotion, ran out on the
helicopter pad, stood in the path of the attacking aircraft spraying rockets and bombs everywhere,
and emptied a 27-round clip from his AK-47 into the AN-2, which then crashed and burned. At
this juncture, the second attack aircraft broke of and turned north towards home.
The "air defense interceptor" force was an unarmed Air Amer*ica Huey helicopter
which was by happenstance on the pad at the time, the pilot and flight mechanic having a
Coke in the ops shack. When holes started appearing in the roof, they ran to their Huey and
got airborne, not quite believing the sight of two biplanes fleeing north. Then the Huey pilot,
no slouch in the balls department either, realized that his Huey was faster than the biplanes!
So he did the only thing a real pilot could do-attack!
The Huey overtook the AN-2’s a few miles inside North Viet*nam, unknown to the
AN-2’s as their rearward visibility is nil. The Huey flew over the rearmost AN-2 and the
helicopter’s down-wash stalled out the upper wing of the AN-2. Suddenly the hapless AN-2 pilot
found himself sinking like a stone! So he pulled the yoke back in his lap and further reduced his
forward speed. Mean*while, the Huey flight mechanic, not to be outdone in the macho contest,
crawled out on the Huey’s skid and, one-handed, emptied his AK-47 into the cockpit area of the
AN-2, killing or wounding the pilot and copilot. At this point, the AN-2 went into a flat spin and
crashed into a moutainside, but did not burn.
It should come as no surprise that the Air America pilot and flight mechanic found
themselves in a heap of trouble with the State Department REMF’s in Vientiane. (REMF is an
acronym. The first three words are Rear, Echelon, and Mother.) In spite of the striped-pants
cookie-pushers' discomfort at (horrors!) an inter*national incident (or perhaps, partly because of
it) these guys were heroes to everybody in the theatre who didn't wear puce panties and talk with
a lisp. They accomplished a couple of firsts: (1) The first and only combat shootdown of a biplane
by a helicopter, and (2) The first known CIA air-to-air victory. Not bad for a couple of spooks.
Communication with Headquarters was very good in Vietnam, and I learned of this
incident within an hour or so of its happening, although I had no details. But the prospect of
access to a North Vietnamese aircraft of any sort was very attractive to an intell type, so I grabbed
my flyaway kit and headed for Udorn AFB in northern Thailand, where I knew I could get
transport to the crash site from the Air Rescue and Recovery Service (ARRS), the Jolly Green
Giants. Sure enough, the next morning we headed for bad guy land with a flight of three Jolly
Green Giants. The State Department geniuses had decided to cover their ample butts by having the
remains of the AN-2 airlifted down to Vientiane to put on display to an outraged world press, thus
proving that North Vietnam had violated Laotian neutrality by sending armed aircraft against a
peaceful civil airline facility. Yawn. The Air Force went along with it because it provided good
cover for our intell*igence operation. Of course, when State found out that I had gone in without
saying Mother-may-I to them, they were really hot. But by then I had already gotten the goods we
wanted, and what could they do to me? Fire me and send me to Vietnam?
We found the crashed AN-2 a few miles inside NVN. There were already some Meo
mercenaries there led by a CIA field type, whose mission was to bag the crew's bodies and check
to see if they were Russians. They weren't. The jungle and rough terrain precluded landing, so
we went in by jungle penetrator, a cable-mounted weighted affair somewhat like a large plumb
bob. I would have liked to parachute in because a behind-the-lines jump is considered a combat
jump, opposed or not, but the jungle and rough terrain would have made that very dangerous. I
may be a little crazy- all parachutists are- but I'm not stupid. With me went a couple of PS's-
pararescue specialists. These men are elite young tigers who regularly risk their lives to save
downed aircrews. They are universally and deservedly admired and respected. The PS's function
was to rig a sling on the AN-2 so it could be lifted out, and to look after me. I was very glad they
I was delighted to find the crashed AN-2 had the piece of equipment aboard that I had
hoped to find, a brand new undamaged IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) electronic "black box".
An IFF ~ a coded signal when interrogated by a friendly radar, thus identifying itself as a friendly.
All combat aircraft have an IFF, and I had felt certain that the AN-2 would have been fitted with it
for this mission. We had never before gotten our hands on one in undamaged condition. With this,
we could "reverse engineer" a system which could reliably locate the small, sleek, elusive MiG-21's
before they could sneak up on our strike air*craft. And we did just that, greatly improving the RED
CROWN warning system we had at that time. This capability saved a good many crews and
aircraft during the later years of that miserable war. I am very proud to have had a hand in this
After rigging the sling on the AN-2, and finishing my intell collection, we tried to lift it
out, but it was too heavy for the Jolly Green helo. (We sent in an Army Chinook heavy-lift
helo the next day to lift it down to Vientiane.) All this activity took several hours. Suddenly
we got a call from the Jollys that an RS57 had been shot down somewhere north and had
strung bailed-out crew members along a twenty mile path. An all-out rescue effort was
required and our helicopters were being pulled off our mission immediately, without even time
to pick us up. They would be back to get us when they could. Suddenly, what had been a
relatively low risk in-and-out mission took on a whole different aspect. I knew from good
intell that there were NVN Army elements in the vicinity, and they would no doubt be
directed to find and destroy the crashed AN-2. All the stooging around with noisy helicopters
we had done that morning, plus voluminous radio comms, could not have failed to alert them.
We were four Ameri*cans, who knew not ten words of Umong between us, and about a
dozen Meo mercenaries, none of whom spoke English. Our arms consisted of three -38
revolvers, my Colt 1911 .45 automatic, and the Meos' ragtag lot of Ml's, Ml4's, and '03
Springfields. We had very little ammo, no water, no rations, no flares or smoke grenades, not
even a compass. We did have short range ground-to-air radios, and a promise to return for us, but
who knew when that would be. Not a good situation.
After a hasty conference, we decided to remain at the crash site until an hour or so before
dark, and then move off and find a defensible place to spend the night, if necessary. So we
waited. Late that afternoon, we heard a helicopter and got a call that the big rescue operation was
completed, and we should saddle up for extraction. I can't begin to describe how relieved we were
to see that big beautiful Freedom Bird flying toward us. Our Freedom Bird picked us up with no
problem, and we were back at Udorn in time for Happy Hour. No ARRS crewman ever bought his
own drink at any club in 'Nam. I can assure you none did that night.
As a postscript, Lima Site 85 was overrun by ground troops about a month after the
bombing attempt, and all US personnel were killed or captured. The comm guys who heard their
last mess*ages said it was a pitiful situation as the site team reported the attackers' progress at
getting at them in their cave bunker. The official version of what happened is that North
Vietnamese troops climbed the sheer sides of the mountain with ropes and pitons to attack the
site. I didn't believe it then, and I don't believe it now. The attack had all the earmarks of a
Spetsnaz operation, probably insertion by a HALO parachute team, but un*less the Russians admit
it we will probably never know.
Of interest, the History Channel in their Missions of CIA series, did a one hour
documentary on the Lima Site 85 incident which I saw a few months ago. It showed footage of
the AN-2 in Vientiane, and discussed the ground assault (the "official" version). All in all, they did a
pretty good job with it, espec*ially considering that it was over thirty years ago. They got some
things wrong, and some they never knew about, but they weren't there at the time. I was.
I believe that the An-2 is still in production today as the Shijiazhuang Y-5 and can be bought in the civilian market. (I think one of the after market kits is flying jacket, helmet, goggles and white silk scarf ) Wikipedia says that they are about $30,000
That was the first known helicopter air-to-air kill, the first helicopter-fix wing aircraft kill, and the first (and maybe the only) helicopter-biplane kill, not to mention the first known CIA air-to-air kill.
AN-2s are still being made in other places as well. WSK was making them in Poland not long ago, and I seem to recall that Antonov was making them again after a pause in production. Its a good sturdy plane that can damn near land anywhere in a short distance.
I do find it rather surprising that they used it as an attack airplane. The top speed on that thing is listed at 160 MPH, but I have flown that thing and 160 is being very generous. Maybe in a dive with a tail wind... Anyway with it's slow speed and large size, using it as an attack airplane seems a fools errand to me.