Pelican’s Perch #14:
Pigs Flew at Air America!

For over 30 years, AVweb's John Deakin has been flying big iron for Japan Airlines. But in a previous lifetime (mid-60s), John flew for Air America in Southeast Asia. (Yes, THAT Air America.) As you might imagine, he's got a zillion fabulous and funny flying stories from those days. This true tale of livestock running amok aboard a C-46 is one of John's most entertaining. Besides, aren't you just dying to see what Deakin looked like in 1965?


Pelican's PerchLet’s take a little time off from the hardcore technical stuff, and have a little fun. One of my favorite stories involves a pig, but first, allow me to set the stage, jump up and down on my soapbox, rave a little, then tell the story.

From 1963 through 1968, I had the incredible honor of flying for Air America, (the real Air America), in Southeast Asia. Most of that time was spent in what was then Saigon, South Vietnam, rightfully known as “The Paris of the Orient.” I also spent some time in Laos, which was definitely not “Paris.” They were probably the happiest five years of my life. About the time I left “The Company,” life in Saigon got a lot less pleasant (can you spell “Tet Offensive?”), but I never had to contend with more than the occasional pipe or bicycle bomb, and worse, the incredible traffic on my little Vespa motor scooter. I was also a part-owner of the night club “Kontiki” in Gia Dinh, and spent most nights there, after flying all those neat old airplanes in very challenging ways, to the limits of my ability and the airplane’s limitations. I ended up flying almost all the twins and the Douglas DC-4, but the airplane that I flew the most was my beloved Curtiss-Wright C-46 “Commando,” my all-time favorite.

C-46s flying the hump.
C-46s “flying the hump” in China.
(Photo from “Flying the Hump” by Jeff Ethell and Don Downie, Motorbooks International, ISBN 0-7603-0113-1.)

C-46 in Da Nang, RVN
C-46 on the ground in Da Nang, RVN.
(Photo from “Wings of Air America” by Terry Love, Schiffer Military/Aviation History, ISBN 0-7643-0619-7. Picture taken in September of 1966, by Tom Hansen.)

China doll nose art.
“China Doll” is the C-46 I fly these days for the Confederate Air Force.

This magnificent aircraft was used throughout Southeast Asia for many things, all of which it did well. We flew it fully loaded in and out of 3,500-foot strips, often unimproved, at elevations up to 3,600 feet above sea level, in awesomely hot, humid, and dusty conditions. Even today, Everts Air Fuel of Fairbanks, Alaska, is still operating a handful of these aircraft, hauling fuel and cargo into and out of 2,500-foot gravel-bar strips in Alaska, fully loaded…a job no other airplane can do as well. Also today, after more than 30 years of not seeing a C-46, I am again serving on one, “China Doll,” belonging to the Confederate Air Force. I am very fortunate.

In Southeast Asia, the strips were often not very secure – the enemy owned them at night, and sometimes laid claim to them during the day as well. Either way, they’d take potshots at passing aircraft with any weapon at hand, sometimes up to .50 caliber and 20 mm weapons. It was also not unknown for “friendly” troops to take shots at us now and then, just to relieve the boredom, and several aircraft and crews were lost to so-called “friendly fire.” All part of the game, as it was played in those days.

Flying for “The Company”

Air America was, of course, an arm of the CIA, but that was highly secret information at the time.

I was 23, so young, and so nave. I had just been fired from a corporate job in Nashville, Tenn., for refusing to fly Thompson & Green’s Twin Beech over-gross. Then, a local pilot suggested there was “some outfit” in Washington, D.C., hiring for overseas flying. Being young, single, and dumb as hell, I followed it up … and amazingly, got hired.

I had been there for several months – hearing “The Customer” this and “The Customer” that (or occasionally “The Company”) – when I finally asked “Who the hell IS this Customer or Company, anyway?” My colleagues reacted to my ignorance with dumbfounded silence followed by much laughter. Only then did I finally learn that I was among “spooks,” working for the largest airline in the world (in number of airplanes) other than Aeroflot. (Anyway, Aeroflot cheated by including cropdusters as part of the Soviet national airline.)

The United States government (and sometimes others) used Air America for a variety of purposes, some clandestine, some not, but all to further the cause of “containing communism,” which we believed to be a Very Good Cause indeed. Everyone I know still thinks it was a good cause, and we are very proud to have been a part of an effort that was more successful than not. As long as the U.S. maintained its presence in the region, communism was mostly contained. It was only after we beat a shameful, politically-driven retreat that the much poo-poo’d “Domino Effect” truly came to pass. The years after the U.S. pull-out saw some of the worst bloodbaths in history take place in Cambodia, Vietnam, and elsewhere. We’d like to think we helped hold that back, for a time.

Deakin IP appointment
September 1965 memorandum announcing my appointment as C-46 instructor pilot in Vietnam.

We all learned very early on that most of the media people covering Southeast Asia were simply looking for stories that made the USA look bad. Oddly enough, it seemed the American media people were the worst at doing this. Most of those stories were thoroughly researched in the fleshpots of Saigon, and in the Officer’s Clubs. As a result, none of us would talk to any strangers about anything, even the operations that were not particularly secret.

One of the most outrageous tales they told was that Air America, with CIA knowledge, was in the business of smuggling drugs to foot the bills. I believe that to be utter nonsense, totally untrue. Like others who were there, I’m really bitter over what the press did to us, especially because that misinformation persists to this day. For the record, I never saw the slightest evidence of drug smuggling (although I would not be surprised if some of our passengers carried and used a little opium, as that was a legal cash crop there, as was marijuana).

We who worked there are all universally disgusted with the Mel Gibson movie that trashed the name of the company so badly (some wonderful flying scenes, though). Many good movies could have been made of the real events, but alas, Hollywood and the press prefers lies, when the truth would serve them better.

But, enough of the soapbox!

Cargo and Air Drops

Deakin's Laotian driver's license

My Laotian driver’s license. Wow, was I young!

Deakin's Chinese airman documents
My Chinese airman documents.

One very common mission was to air-drop rice to hungry people, and the “Old China Hands” with Air America used a neat trick. If you air-drop a bag of rice without a parachute, it will burst when it hits, and even hungry folks will have trouble making the resulting mix of dirt and rice edible. But parachutes are a pain: They drift all over the place, they foul, they take a lot of preparation, and the cost is high, too, because they are not usually recoverable in this type of operation.

Instead, we used the trick of double-bagging the stuff. 50 kg (110 lbs.) of rice or wheat would be packed into a tightly-fastened burlap sack, and that bag would in turn be placed inside a 100 kg burlap sack, but the outer layer would be sewn shut at the end, as if it contained the full 100 kg. These bags would be pushed out the door on pallets at about 500 feet agl, and free-fall to the DZ (Drop Zone). Upon impact, the inner bag would rupture, absorbing most of the energy, and the loose outer bag would contain the contents. Some genius in old China dreamed that one up, it works beautifully, usually with only one or two bags in a load breaking open.

Some of the recipients, not having carefully studied the laws of physics, would run around the DZ and try to catch these bags as a game, but it only took one successful “catch” (and a dead “catcher”) to teach them that really wasn’t much fun.

We’d do the drop, then rack the airplane over into a left turn, both to see the results, and to position for the next pass. One thing you didn’t want to see was dark spots on the grass roofs. That wasn’t decoration or discoloration – it was a hole from a bag of rice! I would guess the homeowner wasn’t too happy with my aim if I put a hole in his roof, rice or no rice. At least he didn’t have to carry it very far, it was true “Home Delivery.”

The C-46 is, above all else, a cargo aircraft, designed for operation into and out of rough, unimproved landing sites, and for air drops as well, both people and cargo. A common payload would be 13,000 pounds, and it might be anything from medical supplies, rice and bulgur (a processed form of wheat) to paper sacks of cement (nasty stuff), munitions, PSP (Perforated Steel Planking, to make runways and ramps), and live animals.

Live animals. Man, do they get interesting! They all smell bad, and they all make a lot of noise. Some can make real trouble, and thereby hangs this tail … er, tale.

Why on earth would we haul live animals? Well, the ravages of war are hard on livestock and food supplies, and we’d often relocate whole villages from a danger area to a safer spot (only to move ’em again months later). Some livestock was flown in to serve as breeding stock, but I’d guess very few of the animals that I delivered survived more than a few days before being consigned to the cook pot. In a few cases, live animals would be air-dropped by parachute. On at least one occasion I’m familiar with, live pigs were air-dropped without parachutes, presumably to be eaten that night, as none, to my knowledge, survived the drop (no matter how hard they flapped their fat little legs). This was long before “Animal Rights,” of course – can you imagine the furor that operation would cause today?

Deakin at Tan Son Nhut in 1965
Me, on the balcony of the AAM Operation Building at Tan Son Nhut AFB, Vietnam, circa 1965.

Deakin at Tan Son Nhut w/C-46 in BG
Another shot at Tan Son Nhut, with a C-46 in the background.

A much more conventional method was to box the pigs up in cheap, flimsy wooden-slat crates, wrapped in chicken wire. (I could never understand why they don’t call it “Pig Wire.”) We’d stack up a whole bunch of these crates from the floor to the ceiling in the C-46, over hard against the right side, leaving only a narrow passage along the left side of the airplane for the crew to get in and out. I was much skinnier in those days, but it was still a chore to wiggle through that passage.

Stink? Whooee! One of those trips, and there wasn’t enough hot water in Saigon for me to wash the smell off for a week! Some uncharitable people said they didn’t notice any difference, but I always ignored them and figured their sense of smell was too delicate. The normal airflow in a C-46 cabin is forward, which is nice for detecting smoke or fuel leaks, but it is not exactly optimum with a load of pigs. We always flew with the overwing hatches out, which helped pull some of the smell out, once we got off the ground.

Speaking of “delicate,” some think what follows is a revolting story. So if you are a “sensitive person,” you might want to skip this column. On the other hand, if you’re sensitive, you probably ought to skip all my columns.

Ok, still with me, there? My kinda guy!

I don’t mean to be sexist with that remark, but have you noticed that not one single woman has ever responded to this column? I had so hoped to develop a following of groupies (female), as promised by Mike Busch when he so foolishly asked me to write a column, but it has not happened. I guess Durden gets all those. Maybe the smell of those pigs still lingers …

Anyway, there we were, droning along one day in “Old Dumbo” (another of the many nicknames the C-46 acquired). It was just me and a Chinese copilot, with maybe 150 pigs in back, doing what pigs do best: making noise, and pooping. The floor was protected by several layers of some indeterminate material to keep “The Residue” from getting into the belly of the aircraft. It even worked, most of the time. I think the copilot that day was one of my favorites, K. M. Chow, who went on to become a 747 captain for the national airline of Taiwan much later, and I think the trip was from Saigon to Kontum, about two-thirds of the way “up-country.” But memory fades, and I made many such trips, so it might have been someone else (Charlie Gung?), and to another destination. It doesn’t matter.

But on this one particular trip, my memory of what happened is vivid, and what follows is as factual as I can make it.

Porcine Jailbreak

I was awak … er, “alerted” by the sounds of crashing and squealing from the back, even more than normal from a load of pigs, and decided it was necessary for me to investigate, after the copilot refused my order to do so. So much for captain’s authority, and that was before CRM!

It didn’t take me long to find the source of the trouble. What looked like a 300-pound pig (more likely 100 to 150) was well into the process of performing a successful jailbreak, and considering the evil look in his piggy eyes, he was fully intending to pay me back for all those pork chops I’d been eating. On the other hand, maybe he just didn’t like airplanes, or perhaps someone had tipped him off to his fate. In any case, he was definitely not a happy camper.

I promptly decided the cockpit was the best place to be, and returned there quickly, closing the door, and bolting it behind me. Next thing we knew, the pig was free and began running up and down the narrow passage, inciting all the other pigs to riot and to jailbreaks as well.

Pig pandemonium had been in progress ever since the animals had been loaded, but now the frenzy was rising to new levels, as the ringleader seemed to be very effectively communicating the fate which awaited them all. In his travels, he was actually helping to break open some of the boxes from the outside, while the pigs still trapped were working hard to the same end from inside. One pig running up and down the aisle didn’t faze me too much, but the thought of a whole herd of them doing that did not please me one bit.

Of course, some airlines, even today … oh, never mind, that’s not PC.

I knew the pig was running up and down the length of the airplane, because I could feel the trim change, and a couple peeks when he was aft revealed that he was doing some damage to the other boxes. Reluctantly, I decided that the time had come to do battle with this recalcitrant porker, so I armed myself with the airplane crash axe, and proceeded into the fray.

I should note that I was carrying a firearm, as most of us did. But we were strictly forbidden to do that, as we were technically civilians, and not supposed to be armed, under “The Geneva Convention.” The enemy, of course, never even heard of such niceties, and summarily executed some of our guys who were unfortunate enough to fall into their hands in a number of very unpleasant ways. In fact, many of our people had prices on their heads, by name, so we figured it was safer just to break the rules and pack a little hardware, just in case. My weapon of choice was an Uzi, which fit nicely in the bottom of my flight kit, and the local managers quietly looked the other way when it went “KLUNK” on the floor of the office. All those manuals, y’know.

I was more than willing to shoot the pig and get it over with, but figured I’d have a hard time explaining the holes in the aircraft from any misses, and a dead pig with bullet holes in him. Besides, I figured one good hit with the pointy end of the crash axe would solve the problem, either killing, disabling, or discouraging old bacon-belly.

Axe in hand, I left the flying to my trusty sidekick, and proceeded aft, and into combat. The pig saw me coming, and promptly retreated all the way aft, into an area of the cabin we call “The Orchestra Pit” since it’s lower than the main floor. I followed him, braced, aimed right between his eyes, and took a mighty swing, hitting him exactly where I intended (quite by accident, of course, but never mind).

Physiology Lesson

Now unless you grew up on a farm, and maybe not even then, you probably have never really studied a pig’s physical characteristics, specifically, the structure around the head. Neither had I. The whole area is apparently solid cartilage, gristle and bone, and apparently impenetrable by anything short of a .50 caliber slug. The only thing I did with that first mighty axe blow was startle that stupid pig, who squealed loudly just like a … well, like a stuck pig. My target took off like a rocket for the other end of the airplane with me in hot pursuit, hoping he’d been at least a little dazed by my Herculean blow.

No such luck. This time, I aimed for the pig’s ear, which didn’t work any better. A pattern began to develop: I’d get in a couple of licks, and the pig would take off again. We fought in the front, and we fought in the back, and we fought in the narrow aisle, and sometimes that pig would bolt directly at me, and I’d have to grab the airplane and some chicken wire to lift myself out of the way, because he was “coming through.”

I beat on that pig until I thought my arm was going to fall off, and it never even slowed him down. I tried the pointy end, the blade edge, and the flat of it, but mostly the axe just bounced off those layers of fat, with his little pig-like eyes (you expected doe-like?) glaring at me the whole time. I’m not sure who bled the most, that pig where I had at least broken the skin, or me, where I’d bounced off the chicken wire and the insides of the airplane so many times. I also discovered that really exited pigs poop a lot, and I had fallen several times, so I was (to put it mildly) a mess. Determined, to be sure, but a mess nevertheless.

Meanwhile, all the other pigs were doing their best to get out and join the fun, and durned if it didn’t sound to me like pigs cheering when he got a lick in. Maybe it was just my imagination, but not a one seemed to be cheering for me.

I finally had to give up. I just had nothing left. I returned to the cockpit, bleeding, filthy, and really smelly, now. I can’t imagine what my trusty copilot thought, he was characteristically inscrutable over the whole thing. They thought we foreigners were all nuts, anyway. I can’t imagine why.


Maybe I did wear that pig down a little, because things were reasonably quiet after that, and we landed uneventfully. I went back, slipping and sliding in all the blood and pig poop, and used the “push stick” to push the C-46’s big cargo door open and up. My fat little buddy was back in the orchestra pit, still moving around, but at this point I didn’t care. The instant that door started up, however, the pig saw daylight and darted right between my legs, doing about 90 knots, very nearly taking me out the door with him. The C-46 doorsill is about 10 or 12 feet off the ground, but the pig hit the ground running, bounced once, and never slowed down. For all I know he’s running still, and I hope he’s still bleeding.

Somehow, the story got out, and I bore in stoic silence a few unflattering nicknames not repeatable here, until the whole thing died down.

I have since hauled a single load of more than 160,000 pounds of live pigs in a cargo 747, and it was a much more comfortable, if less exciting experience. Pressurization is a wonderful thing, all the flow goes aft, and the pigs were in secure cages, probably tranquilized, and a full floor below me. What a difference.

Be careful up there!