The Hillclimbers in Laos, 1966
Submitted by: COL(R) Sy Berdux and CW4 (R) George Miller
The mission originated with 7/13 th Air Force (a hybrid of the 7tl' Air Force, Vietnam and the l3~~ Air Force,
Philippines) in September1966. The mission was classified and originally planned for late October 1966. The tasking
order had us recovering a crash damaged CH-3 from a classified site in "The Other Theater" to Udorn AFB,
Thailand and to accomplish other missions as directed. At that time even the country was classified and you couldn't
mention Laos. The mission was tasked to the l2~ Aviation Group through the 11 th Combat Aviation Battalion command
by LTC Joe Starker (later promoted to BG and killed in an auto accident in Texas). Captain Joe Campbell, the S-3,
passed the mission to the 147th Assault Support Helicopter Company (Hillclimbers) which was stationed at Vung Tau.
The unit was commanded by Major "Smiling" Jack L. Keaton (retired as an 0-6 and currently resides in
Naples, FL). Captain (P) Sy Berdux, 1st Platoon Leader (retired 0-6 residing in Alexandria, VA) was designated
mission lead and selected CW4 Roy Mollick, CW2 George Miller, (retired CW4 living in Enterprise, AL) CW2 Cal Moor
and another pilot whom we can't recall.
Mission planning commenced and included assigning five pilots and nine enlisted men to the mission. The normal
Chinook crew consisted of a pilot, copilot, flight engineer, crew chief/gunner and door gunner. An additional maintenance
person replaced the assigned door gunners. A pilot and three additional maintenance personnel, tech inspector,
hydraulic repairman and an engine mechanic augmented the two crews. In anticipation of maintenance problems requiring
spare parts, the normal fly away kit was utilized and a "Red Ball" arrangement was developed for high
priority parts to be shipped to us via USAF aircraft operating daily between Saigon and Udorn. Fortunately that
system was not utilized as both aircraft operated throughout the twenty-day period without any maintenance requirements.
Both aircraft had just completed a one hundred-hour periodic inspection.
As in the Delta, each aircraft carried its normal complement of slings and A-22 bags. All of the crewmembers, to
include the pilots, were experienced in rigging loads.
The mission was postponed due to the total commitment and the deployment of the l46~ to Phu Loi, RVN in support
of Operation Arrleboro (October and November 1966). Following re-deployment to Vung Tau, the
Hillclimbers received the execute order at about 0200 hours, 4,5 or possibly 6 December for deployment of two CH-47A'
5 to Ubon, Royal Thai Airbase, Thailand. We were to arrive NLT 1800 hours that day for further missions as assigned
for a period not to exceed three weeks.
After assembling the crews, installing internal auxiliary fuel tanks (that in those days consisted of rubber bladders
with an internal boost pump to increase range), doubling our basic load, and going through the myriad of items
on the pre -mission check list, the aircraft departed at 0615 hours bound for Udorn, Thailand. Op stops were planned
at Bien Hoa AFB for refueling and filling the aux. Bladders. The bladder required a single point refueling capability,
which was not available at home station.
Following departure from Bien Hoa, we checked fuel transfer enroute to Pleiku. Upon arriving at Pleiku the first
SNAFU occurred. During the pre-mission briefing we were informed that upon landing at Pleiku, we were to proceed
to a compound at the opposite end from the control tower for appropriate briefings and refueling. Upon touchdown
the tower directed us to park in front of the tower where a large number of personnel were gathered. After debating
with the tower and the compound we lost the discussion and parked. Before the blades had stopped, security forces
surrounded us from the compound. We received our SAR and other briefings, changed into civilian clothes and spray
painted all identification and US markings from the aircraft. A full Colonel was outside the ring of security demanding
to know what was going on. Captain Berdux strolled over and asked if he could assist him. He was not happy when
he was informed of the screw up and that we were supposed to be somewhere else on the airfield. Obviously he didn't
have a need to know because if he did, he would have known. His next comment answered a lot of questions. "You
aren't here to pick up Bob Hope? Nope, well where are my Chinooks"? Sy pointed out two aircraft that were
inbound and he politely gave us ten minutes to get off his air patch. We cranked, taxied and sat in the run-up
area watching the two or three C-130's bring Bob Hope and his tour in to entertain the troops.
Following take off our next stop was Ubon, Thailand for refueling. When we got within 30 miles of Ubon, we discovered
they were below minimums due to restricted visibility and directed us to divert to Udorn. We were unable to comply
as we were short on fuel. We shot an instrument approach
to Ubon. Fortunately, both Mr. Mollick and CPT Berdux had special instrument ratings to make us legal. After touchdown,
the base operations officer and Captain Berdux discussed the applicable regulations and we didn't have any problem.
Following an uneventful flight to Udorn we touched down and were directed to park near the Air America flight line.
Our contact, was an Air Force Major, who we later found out was part of the Special Operations crowd at Udorn.
Following post flight everyone was taken to the Officers Club to exchange our MPC to Baht. As the money exchange
wouldn't open for awhile, we took over one of the poker rooms and discovered that a bunch of newbie majors were
having a promotion party, which we joined. Free beer! After changing our money we headed downtown to a very nice
hotel where we were all billeted for the duration of our stay.
The next morning the USAF presented extensive weather, intelligence, search and rescue, and escape and evasion
briefings to all of the crewmembers. The aviators were briefed on the use of the codes for the day. The USAF tried
to key our KY-28 equipment but was unable to. We operated the entire time without secure communications. As the
crews were dailying the aircraft, one auxiliary bladder burst sending 500 gallons of JP-4 cascading down the ramp
and onto the parking area. This left us in a dilemma. Without the bladder, our "A" model didn't have
enough fuel to return to Vietnam. (the down side of this is .....) The Air Force did a non-standard fix on the
tank so all ended well.
We were tasked to recover a crash damaged CH-3 and return it to Udorn AFB. Move a D-4 Bulldozer to a construction
site and subsequently to another location. Provide ammo
resupply to a number of 105 howitzer positions in northern Laos on the hilltops surrounding the Plaine des Jarres
and other missions as assigned.
Following our briefings at Udorn, CW2 Miller and CPT Berdux in one of the aircraft proceeded up country (as Laos
was called) to Landing Site 20A (alternate) the secret city of Long Tieng. After departing Udorn we had to proceed
to a point 25 miles east of Vientanne, the capitol of Laos, before crossing the border. We were flying over terrain
unlike anything we had seen before; a gentle tree covered slope that went on for miles, then a shear drop of a
couple of thousand feet, mountains erupting out of the green
jungle, some shaped like pinnacles with sharp jagged edges, others like knife edges and towers of limestone on
the banks of the Mekong and other rivers. It was beautiful. Long Tieng lay in a perfect bowl. It was surrounded
by high mountains on three sides with a gently rolling hill on the fourth. Looking down, we saw a C-47 taking off
and it looked like a model some 4 or 5,000 feet below us. Following a circling descent, we shot an approach and
observed a huge green flag being waved from the tower, we were cleared to land. ATC communications were interesting
as they had a red and green flag and that was it. The runway was at about 4,000 feet ASL and had a huge stone rock
outcrop (or krast) about 100 feet high at the end. For fixed wing aircraft, it was obviously one way in and one
way out. The Ravens (AF FAC's) called it the speed brake and apparently a number of fixed wing had run into it
over the years.
We were directed to a house in the village and there we were briefed on the rules of engagement and our first mission,
to recover the damaged CH-3. We looked at the hulk of the CH-3, which was just a shell, no transmissions, gear
boxes, or engines. With all the structural damage we wondered what the Air Force wanted with this pile of junk.
We discussed the situation and as we were not allowed up country overnight, proceeded to return to Udorn with a
brief stop at a landing strip near Vang Vieng to check on our refueling stop for the lift mission. The next morning,
after getting the CH-3 estimated weights, calculating weight and balance for the lift and coordinating the pre
positioning of fuel at Vang Vieng; we proceeded back to Long Tieng accompanied by an AF full colonel to lift the
CH-3. The Air Force had placed 4 x 4's on the hull portion of the aircraft to act as spoilers and an F-4 drogue
chute on the tail boom. Following all of the preparations, including topping the engines, rigging the aircraft,
we found we had 20 lbs torque to spare during the hover check. We shut down and went back for briefings and were
informed that the mission was a go and that Air America had pre-positioned fuel for us at Van Vieng.
We hooked up, picked up the load and hovered to the runway for departure. As we moved forward, one of the airmen
tried to open the drogue chute which unknown to us, roman candled immediately, and became totally ineffective.
After translation we established a gentle circling climb towards a gap in the ridge when the crew chief stated
that something fell off the load. The flight engineer stated the load was flying (slack in the slings). The CH-3
swung 90 degrees and struck the aft gear of our aircraft. This sent us into
an unusual attitude, we saw parts of the attitude indicator that you don't see unless
you are disassembling it on a test stand. We basically stopped in mid-air and as the CH-3 started to swing forward
the flight engineer, pilot and copilot all hit their pickle switches. We don't know which one worked. The jettisoned
load ended up in a very deep revine. When we volunteered to try to recover the load, the AF colonel, who was on
board declined stating that the hulk was going to be shipped to the States and used as a maintenance trainer and
not worth the risk. Mission failure.
Enroute to Udorn we stopped at Vang Vieng to refuel from the pre-positioned stocks that turned out to be 55 gallon
drums and a 10 gallon per minute rotary hand pump. The refueling seemed to take hours and wore the arms off all
of us. While we were refueling a C-46 'CA2' touched down. Someone remembered seeing it touching down at Vung Tau
the morning we departed for the mission. A short time later the pilot came walking over and Sy says "I know
that walk". It was Porter Huff his civilian instructor from rotary wing transition in 1960. A short reunion
was held there in Laos. Huff had been flying for Air America since 63 or 64. (He bought it in 1968 somewhere in
A couple of days later, the second mission began. We were to move a D-4 bulldozer externally which weighed in the
neighborhood of 11,600 lbs. We proceeded to a small airstrip in the vicinity of "The Rock", Landing Site
85, which was close to the North Vietnam border. The idea was to enlarge the strip so the Jolly Greens coming in
from the North could transfer more senously wounded to fixed wing aircraft thus getting them to the hospitals quicker.
We carried the dozer in two loads, one aircraft had the tracks and blade, the other the main frame. An Air America
Pilatus Porter who we communicated with over our five channel emergency VHF radio, guided us to the area. The first
aircraft in dropped the tracks and ground crew. They then repositioned the blade further away while the ground
crew rolled out the tracks. The second aircraft set the main frame onto the tracks. The ground crew reconnected
the tracks and the blade within half an hour.
We headed to LS 36, Nha Khang, for fuel and on the approach, over-flew a camp with what looked like PT-76 Tanks
parked in it. As we were passing mid-field we heard the crump of mortars and observed the rounds impacting in the
center of the runway. The Raven personnel who handled our refueling
stated that yes they were PT-76's and yes the Pathet Lao always welcomed people with mortar fire.
We provided one aircraft to augment the Air America CH-34's, to provide artillery re-supply. Each gun position
had a 50 to 75 foot cleared area for the CH-34's to make a running landing, to increase there load capability while
landing at 4 or 5,000 feet. With our greater carrying capacity, one CH-47 sortie equated to 4 CH-34 sorties. Since
we were carrying sling loads, our turn around time was greatly reduced. As opposed to the artillery hauls and ammo
re-supply we had experienced in Vietnam, this was really interesting. Each artillery position consisted of one
tube with another located a few hundred yards away on another hilltop. There was no radio communication as they
didn't speak English and we didn't speak Laotian. To our knowledge, these artillerymen had never seen a Chinook
nor had they experienced the rotor downwash and turbulence that it creates. We weren't sure whether they were glad
to see us or not after the havoc we raised. Operating in the Plane des Jarres was interesting and much different
than our normal mission area in the III and IV Corps. The crews were subjected to flight conditions and altitudes
in the areas frequently exceeding 6,000 feet and all landing areas were much more confined with extremely high
barriers than those experienced in the Delta.
The highlight of the trip was twofold. The first, Bob Hope caught up with us at Udorn and we had an opportunity
to see his show, which we wouldn't have if we had stayed in Vietnam. Secondly, Cal Moore, the chief scrounger,
found 18 brand new 15 cubic foot refrigerators still in their original crates that the Air Force was disposing
of Each aircraft carried nine home as a Christmas present to the troops.
Heading home we RON'd at Ubon and then on Christmas morning, 1966 we headed to the "Golf Course" at An
Khe thinking we would eat Christmas dinner with the Cav. Unfortunately, they were serving dinner later that day,
so we had some "C's" and headed south to the relative civilization of Vung Tau. In CW2 Miller's "C"
ration was a "Pound Cake" that he still has. He says that "Some day, when the time is right, he
will eat the cake and think of all of those times thirty odd years ago.