Pelican's Perch #79: The Air America Years (Part II)

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AVweb's John Deakin did spend time in Southeast Asia as part of Air America, one of the 'airlines' run by the CIA in the 1960s. Upon arriving in Asia, there was time for using old Link trainers, relaxing in hot springs, avoiding alcohol-pushers, and learning the reputation of The Compnay as John continues his story.

Pelican's Perch

I'm pleased to announce that -- after decades of prodding -- I have written a book. It is a compendium of some of my writings on Compuserve's AVSIG Forum for well over 20 years, some of the AVweb tales in my columns, and others, old and new (see sidebar to the right).

There is a second book in progress that will be a compendium of old, new and updated information from my engine-related columns here in AVweb, and from our seminars. I sometimes think we learn more from teaching those seminars than anything else we do, and that will all be incorporated.

I have the idea for yet another book about my time as an Air America (AAM) pilot, and the columns I write on this subject will be incorporated into that. I would ask anyone from those days to chip in with any details I miss, correct my errors, and possibly send me a photo or two, preferably black and white. This month, I continue the story of The Company that I started in Part I ...

The Newbie In The Far East

Having blown most of my savings on the DC-3 type rating, I arrived in the Far East in October of 1963 essentially broke, and 23 years old. I remember having $3.95 in my hometown bank account, one hardshell Samsonite three-suiter suitcase with all my possessions, and no other assets whatsoever. I doubt if I had $20 in my pocket. It was not the first time I'd been so broke, but it was a very long way from home, and I wasn't happy about it. For years after that, I was very uncomfortable with less than $500 in cash in my billfold. I seem to recall floating a small advance on my pay in Taipei so I could eat.

Mercifully, the shabby little hotel room in Taipei was on the company tab and I think there was a flat rate per diem paid monthly with the paycheck. I shared the hotel room with another newbie pilot, a huge former Marine named Rick Jacobs, who towered over my six feet by many inches. He regaled me with many stories of his Korean War service, night patrols, and "killing gooks." (Koreans call themselves "chow gook" in their language, and American GIs adopted the obvious shorthand, which is fairly offensive, at least to my ear.) This being 1963, the Korean "Police Action" had been history for less than a decade. I listened quietly, having no stories of my own that could compete.

There was one other pilot in indoctrination with me: Art Russ, one of the nicest people I've ever known. He'd lost his right thumb some years earlier while hand-propping a Bonanza, and years later that would cost him the opportunity to fly for Japan Airlines, as the Japanese couldn't believe anyone could fly without thumbs on both hands. Art was an outstanding pilot, flying for AAM for some years, and then working for the "non-skeds" for a time. Then, like so many ex-AAM pilots, he found work with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). There are unconfirmed rumors in "the community" that he was flying a Volpar Twin Beech on a DEA mission in Central America, and was shot down (and killed) by the local "friendly" air force, probably because the friendlies were protecting their own deal with the druggies. The U.S. buried the whole thing, in order not to offend the "host" country. The insane drug war corrupted absolutely everyone, and I was always sad to hear of friends involved -- on either side.

By the time indoc was over, we had taken and passed the written test for the Chinese ATP and the practical test for a Chinese Radiotelephone Operator's License. These were mandatory, because many of the Air America airplanes were registered in Taiwan, with tail numbers starting with "B" (B129, B146, etc.). The regulations were straight out of the original U.S. CAR regulations from the '30s, and "quaint," causing a lot of chuckles. But regulations were much simpler then, so this was not hard. Mercifully, we did not have to learn to communicate with Morse code. That chore was left to genuine Radio Operators, all of whom were Chinese.

There were other tests on navigation, weight and balance, meteorology, and company procedures, such as they were. Once I got past the "radius of action to a moving base problem," the rest was easy, for I had very recently been studying hard for the U.S. ATP written test (no computers, then) and knew the material fairly well. There were also several training sessions in a genuine Link Trainer, complete with the old plotting table, so we could see where we had been, and more importantly, where we hadn't (and should have).

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Link Trainer
(Click photos for larger versions.)

This was not my first time in the long-obsolete Link. I was forced to take my initial ATP ride (in 1962) with an FAA Inspector named Robert Arendel of the Birmingham FSDO (then a "GADO"). This man was a walking, talking nightmare, and contributed greatly to my early feelings about the FAA. He tried to block me from taking the ATP written before I was 23 (had to get a letter from D.C. that it was legal), and during the checkride he feathered both engines simultaneously -- twice! He also insisted that I had to demonstrate an LF range approach when there was no working LF range within 1,000 miles, and only a few left in the U.S. (Then, as now, any two non-precision approaches were required on the checkride, and the list included the LF Range.) Fortunately, some local old-timer had lovingly restored a Link Trainer to pristine condition in his basement, and I was able to arrange a flight in it to demonstrate the obsolete approach.

This early "full-motion simulator" was a funky device: just a box perched up on a rather shaky central pivot, with noisy pneumatic actuators to move it around three axes, hissing like a nest of snakes at every movement. There was no attempt to simulate acceleration -- it simply rocked and rolled as the pilot moved the controls, and rotated on the base with heading changes. Every move was plotted on a table outside, and an operator would simulate ATC. With the door and the top closed, nothing outside was visible, so it was true "blind-flying" device that also rather effectively tested for claustrophobia. There are a few left in museums, and a Google search on "Link Trainer" will turn up more information.

Relaxation at The Library

So Rick, Art and I blundered through indoc during the day, and idled away the rest of the time walking and talking, or hanging out in the cheap bars -- Rick drinking beer, while I drank Coke. I do seem to recall one such establishment that was of a higher order than most -- The Literary Inn (a.k.a. The Library) -- in the little mountain town of Peitou, about a 30-minute cab ride from Taipei. Peitou was famous for hot springs, Japanese-style baths, and other delights -- most notably young ladies who would team up to scrub the customers before everyone soaked in the hot-spring baths. I heard rumors there were other services available, but of course, I knew nothing of that. We sure were clean, sweet-smelling and relaxed during the cab ride back down the hill the next morning, though. This was my introduction to the fleshpots of Asia, and I can only be thankful that my time there was after penicillin and before AIDS. Military training films to the contrary, it was a relatively low-risk pastime in those days.

Both Rick and Art could talk of nothing but getting into the legendary "Helio Courier Program," which paid the most, and carried the most risk. While there was more risk because of the single engine, that was the trivial part. The Helios operated into some incredible landing sites: nothing more than small bare spots scraped out of the jungle with dynamite and coolie labor with kinks, roots, and rocks in the landing area, and often steeply sloped. I mean, steeply sloped, both length and width. Helio pilots operated much closer to the enemy, delivering personnel, food, medical supplies and "hard rice" (the euphemism for various things that go bang).

It was not rare to take off with the destination known to be "friendly," and arrive there to find that the situation had changed. In principle, the people on the ground who needed the cargo would send a message to Vientiane (in Morse) as to what was needed, and there would be an agreement on what color the signal smoke would be. Upon arrival over the site, the smoke grenade would be popped, and if it was the right color, everything was supposed to be okay for the air drop, or the landing. This system was better than nothing, but not much. Bad guys sometimes had radios, and once the details were known, they'd take the strip and wait. Or they'd torture the information from the good guys (some of whom weren't very good at all) and pop the smoke, luring the unwary aviator to his death.

Oddly (or stupidly) enough, I had no fear of all that, and was strongly tempted to go for the adventure. But I knew that flight time in the Helio Courier wouldn't mean a thing on my resume, and deep down, I knew that I would not be with AAM forever. I had my eye on the big iron, and with the fresh DC-3 type rating, I wanted to operate it for real -- if nothing else, to prove that old Bill Conrad hadn't been wrong to issue me the rating. I knew The Company also operated C-46s, DC-4s, and DC-6s, and that was the progression I had in mind.

At the end of indoc, we all celebrated with a final energetic visit to "The Literary Inn," for we had each been assigned the program we wanted, and to Vientiane, Laos, the hotbed of AAM activity at the time. There had been a briefing on what was going on there, with reference to Communists, Neutralists, Pathet Lao, Muong, Meo and other exotic names. It was all terribly confusing; it seemed that two brothers were leading opposing sides that were sometimes friendly and sometimes not. None of it made any sense to me, and besides, I didn't see that it had anything to do with flying.

Reporting For Duty

The Golden Worm -- Convair 880

Orders in hand, the three of us boarded "The Golden Worm" in Taipei, taking off for Hong Kong (even I had heard of Hong Kong) for a transit stop, then to Bangkok for an overnight stay. We would board the "Milk Run" to Vientiane the following morning.

On the flight, we ran into some old hands, on their way back from R&R (rest and recuperation) or company business, and naturally enough, we all headed for the bar in the Hong Kong transit lounge during the one-hour stop. One, a retired Marine Major I shall call "LD" bought the first round of drinks for the half-dozen people. I thought that incredibly generous, but even I was smart enough to know that my turn would come, and I had only a few small bills in my pocket, probably not enough to buy a round. I was upfront about it, and said, "I'd like a Coke, but I don't have enough money to reciprocate, so I'll pay for it myself." LD was already pretty well oiled from several drinks on the flight, and he put a fatherly arm on my shoulder and said, "Don't worry kid, we'll get you some money when we get to Vientiane, and you can buy me a drink then. But you gotta have a drink, not that Coke crap."

"Thanks, but I don't drink."

I could have dropped a bomb in that bar with less effect, a reaction I would come to expect constantly. My new friend instantly turned ugly, and started a torrent of abuse. I took it in stunned silence. (I should have decked him for it -- might have gained a little respect). Later Rick and Art told me to ignore him, but that I really ought to learn to nurse a scotch, or something, anything, so that things would be a lot easier. "But I don't like scotch!" "Well, it is an acquired taste." "Why should I learn to drink something I don't like, just to please that drunken ****"

"I'll Have a Coke"

Not drinking beer or booze was a crippling social limitation almost everywhere in those days, but I just didn't like the taste and I was just stubborn enough to hold out. I think it cost me heavily in many ways. There was a lot of good-natured teasing over it, and some not so good-natured comments, too. "Never trust a man who won't take a drink," and "What are you, some kind of fairy, or something?" Real men drank, by god, and anyone who didn't really stood out. Of course, the drunker the weather got, the more comments there were. It was sometimes quite hurtful to be the only sober person at the party. Fortunately, a few good friends were willing to put up with the odd young man who seemed to have a Coke (capital "C," please) addiction. My age worked against me, too, for I was but a mere lad of 23, and might have been the youngest pilot ever hired by The Company.

This was not just Air America. It was an all-pervasive attitude in the military and the airlines of that time. If you were a military man, you were absolutely expected to participate in the festivities (and the nonsense) at the bar, whether at the Officer's Club, the Enlisted Club, or any available watering hole. If you didn't, you were not "one of the guys," you "didn't fit in," and everyone thought there was something wrong. Military fitness reports would never show, "Doesn't drink, something wrong," but the effect was still very real, and those writing the reports (often based on data from the barroom) would have the strong feeling, "Well, this guy obviously feels he's too good to hang out with his fellows, so he doesn't fit in." That would definitely affect the fitness report, and anything less than 110% superlatives on a fitness report was a career-killer. As a result, there were a lot of people drinking who didn't really want to, and some of them couldn't handle it.

Bad, bad system. It cost a lot of lives, and it produced a lot of drunks. The men got out of the military and went to the airlines where the system continued, and into the corporate offices, where it was also pervasive (as the "three-martini lunches"). Most pilots with a booze habit could refrain from drinking for some hours before going to work and would perform acceptably. Even some alcoholics can refrain for a few hours before the flight, during the flight, and (barely) hold out until they get to the hotel room.

Some even developed both an addiction and a tolerance for booze that not only allowed them to perform well, but some couldn't perform well without a little nip now and then.

I know of one case where the old captain was faced with a very difficult and demanding approach and landing. He had done without his little nips because his boss, the owner of the company, was in the jump seat. The old boy was getting a severe case of the heebie-jeebies, shaking, sweating, unable to concentrate. He finally pulled out his flask, said, "Sorry boss, but I need this." He took a couple healthy swigs, steadied right down, and flew a beautiful approach and landing. The boss never said a word, and he kept his job.

But it's a very, very rare person who is a better person or pilot when under the influence.

When drug testing for airline pilots came in, I was as bitter as anyone over the issue, because to this day, I have never seen or known a pilot with a drug problem other than alcohol or tobacco (which are the worst drugs of all, but that's another story).

But for all my bitterness over the drug-testing issue, I quietly thought to myself that the feds were incredibly dumb, barking up the wrong tree, ignoring the alcohol problem, which was very, very real. But it's easy to do drug testing; very hard to address alcohol problems, so they took the easy way out, the P.C. way, and came up with solutions to non-existent problems, as usual. After all, drinking is legal, and "everyone likes a drink, now and then." Even the feds, I guess.

Into The Wilds Of Laos

As I recall, we arrived in Bangkok fairly late in the evening, and flew out of Don Muang airport the following morning on the AAM "Milk Run" to Vientiane. I was delighted to see the shiny C-46, with which I had first become acquainted at age nine, when I would lie in my bed and listen to distant groan of C-46 brakes as Aerovias Sud Americanas operated night freight in and out of Sarasota, Fla. I had long fantasized about someday flying this wonderful airplane, and here was my goal.

I was much less enthusiastic after entering the airplane. Oh, the airplane was fine -- spotlessly clean and well maintained, although the interior was stripped of anything not necessary. It was the heat! Bangkok is very hot all year around, and with that merciless tropical sun, the inside of any airplane is an inferno. But we were soon off and up to cooler air; and with the waist hatches removed for ventilation, it became bearable. Cargo was piled high in the middle and right side of the cabin, with a narrow aisle up the left side where troops seats folded down from the wall for the passengers. No smiling Chinese girls with slit skirts on this run, to my disappointment.

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Map of Laos Showing Friendly and Enemy Territory
Jim Henthorn has done a wonderful job of scanning the 1:250,000 maps from those days, including the "Lima Site" numbers we used. Poking around among those brought back many memories. These were the charts that covered two walls of the briefing room: one for northern Laos, the other for southern Laos. I have drawn a solid black line that splits the country, and it represents my dim memory of what appeared on the charts in the briefing room when I arrived. Everything to the right and above was enemy-held, and everything left and below that line was friendly (maybe). The line shifted constantly.

Best I can recall, the AAM flights between Bangkok and Vientiane ran daily, just like a scheduled airline. Almost always a C-46, but a C-47 might be pressed into service. There were also regular daily runs between Vientiane and Luang Prabang (the old capital), and between Vientiane and Southeastern Laos, to Savannaket and Pakse. These were rather contemptuously referred to as "milk runs," and only a few pilots wanted to fly them. They were relatively safe from enemy fire, and thus did not qualify for "Project Pay," (also called "Hazard Pay") which was then $10 per hour extra. There were one or two pilots who volunteered for them, not wanting the riskier flights. The rest looked down on those pilots as wussies, but were also grateful because it was that much less competition for the high-paying trips, which were deeper into Laos. Generally speaking, the further from the Mekong River, the less safe the area.

This was my first exposure to "pilot rationalization." Pilots will generally whine to the limits over minor safety issues, but when offered extra pay, they'll be fighting for the runs as if the money made them "safe." It was not uncommon to hear some disgruntled pilot whining in the chief pilot's office, "I flew the milk runs four times last month, and Benny Lee only did two!" I resolved early on that I would never be a chief pilot, or a crew scheduler. Thankless and difficult tasks, both, and I'm as guilty as anyone of sometimes making their jobs even more difficult. (Some of my adventures with chief pilots are here.)

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Perforated Steel Planking

Vientiane was not impressive. I seem to remember part of the runway and most of the ramp being "PSP," which is perforated steel planking. I had never seen this stuff before, but I would come to know it well after hauling several hundred thousand pounds of it in various aircraft, and landing on it often. Hard surface runways only existed at major airports, with the rest being PSP, or the red dirt of southeast Asia and the tropics called Laterite. When dry, Laterite makes an excellent dirt runway with good braking action. When wet, it is quite slippery, greatly extending the landing roll. When really wet, it becomes deep, sticky mud, which greatly shortens the landing roll. When it oozes up through the holes in PSP, the surface becomes slicker'n snot on a brass doorknob -- great fun in a crosswind with a heavy load on a short runway.

I got only a brief look at the AAM installation: a rather shabby-appearing group of buildings with a large hangar or two, and a number of other buildings of various vintages for "Operations," the briefing room, a café (which turned out to have pretty good food, and plenty of it), and various other buildings I never explored. An AAM van (I seem to recall a Volkswagen bus) ran us into town a mile or so away, to the company hostel, the "The Grey House" (or "Great House" -- I never did find out which).

I was getting very low on cash at this point, and green cash was king in Southeast Asia. Credit cards worked only at the major hotels and stores, and ATMs had not yet been invented. I think Rick had loaned me a few bucks. Someone, I don't know who, ran me over to the only "decent" hotel in town, The Constellation, owned by one Maurice, a Frenchman with some sort of mysterious past, who had been there longer than anyone could remember. I was introduced, and it was mentioned that I needed some cash. "Sure, how much?"

I stammered a bit, mentioned that my first paycheck had not yet been deposited, that I had no money in the bank, and no security. Maurice just laughed, and said, "You work for Air America, your credit is good. How much do you want? A thousand? More?" I must have walked out with a few hundred dollars, in both green cash and "Kip," the local currency. I was speechless. Finally I asked, "How can he trust me?" The old hand who had introduced me looked me right in the eye and said, "He doesn't, but he trusts us. We enjoy absolutely excellent trust and credit throughout Southeast Asia, and if you ever do anything to hurt that, we will find you and see to it that you make it right. Air America pilots do not bounce checks." The threat was very, very clear, and even I was not dumb enough to miss the implications. I would later hear stories of various "solutions" to such problems. I would also learn that if the manager of a night club approached me and said, "Your friend left without paying," or "Your friend passed out and has no money," it was absolutely up to me to make the bill right without question, immediately, then sort it out with "my friend" later.

It was an extremely effective honor system.

To be continued ...

Be careful up there!