Above & Beyond: Ration of Luck

Above & Beyond: Ration of Luck

The author surveys the forbidding Laotian terrain from a C-46. Donald V. Courtney

There’s probably nothing to it, but sometimes I think that airplanes, and people as well, come equipped with a finite amount of luck. As with all things finite, maybe luck can be used up. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.

In the spring of 1961, I was one of eight or so U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers at the Royal Thai Air Force base in Takhli, on loan to the Central Intelligence Agency. We were theoretically not aware of the identity of our employer because our job came with a “risk of capture,” and the less we knew, the better. The CIA liked to use smokejumpers for airdropping supplies because we were very good with parachutes, did not get airsick, were strong and fit, and were used to operating without much supervision. Perhaps most important, at least in the eyes of bureaucrats, we were not military, and any U.S. government connection to us could be denied should we end up in unfriendly hands. Our duties were to rig, load, and drop arms, ammo, and food to a small but growing irregular army in Laos. In this incarnation, our job title was Parachute Dispatch Officers—PDOs.

We lived in (and were confined to) a not-too-large compound with a not-too-bad barracks. The food was okay, although for some reason the eggs in the mess hall tasted of diesel fuel. There was a movie every night, which tended to be the same movie every night, so everyone memorized the dialogue and shouted it at the screen, which was the back wall of the mess hall. There was beer, and there were bug fights: Collect a variety of beetles, mantises, and other six-legged items in a big dishpan, stir it with a stick until all occupants were highly annoyed, and then bet on the bug you like. The workday began in the pre-dawn dark and ended well after dark. The work weeks were seven days long; Sunday was different only because that was when you took the malaria pill. An individual PDO would rig cargo and load airplanes one day and fly and drop the next. Flight days were the best because it was a lot cooler at 12,000 feet and you could catch up on sleep for much of the time aloft. You also got extra pay—“danger money”—for time spent north of the Mekong River. The down side was that bad things sometimes happened north of the Mekong River.

The airplanes were Curtiss C-46 Commandos. After flying the China-Burma-India “Hump” in World War II, they were bought by Flying Tiger general Claire Chennault when he started his Chinese airline, Civil Air Transport (CAT). Controlling interest in CAT had been bought by the CIA, and CAT had recently spun off a corporation called Air America, which could legally bid on U.S. government contracts. A different CAT/Air America C-46 and crew would rotate into Takhli every week. One week, a crew came in C-46, tail number B-916—a particularly good airplane and crew.

“Rich” Richardson was the pilot, an ex-Flying Tiger and fun to work with. First Officer Fred Reilly was an ex-U.S. naval aviator and deeply Irish. On this particular day, the PDOs were Fred Barnowsky, two trainees from the Thai army, and me. We got to our drop zone early in the morning and saw the safety signal, which for this drop zone was a white “0.”

The people on the ground were supposed to display this signal only when they heard the airplane overhead, but this bunch of good guys had gotten lazy and made their signal permanent. The previous night, the good guys had been chased off by the bad guys—Pathet Lao, or North Vietnamese, or both. The place was overrun with hostiles, the signal on the ground said it was safe to make the drop, and here we came.

While we looked the drop zone over, we heard a four-round ripple of machine gun fire. Barnowsky and I looked at one another, then shrugged. Probably some training going on down there, we thought. Later, we would learn that if you are in an airplane and you hear gunfire, what you are hearing is not the weapon firing but the sonic boom of flying bullets, many of them, coming right at you.

On the next circuit, when we were lined up to drop, the world turned into a popcorn popper. Bullets everywhere. They just ate us up. I was nearest the cockpit and so went forward, bent over, and told Rich that they were shooting at us. He said he knew already. There was a particularly loud crack that made my ears ring for some time afterward. We found later that while I was bending over, a bullet had passed behind my head. Old Marine Corps instincts said that I should hit the deck, but then logic whispered that this would be dumb because those guys were below us shooting upward, and flat on the deck would offer the largest possible target. For a moment it seemed like the smart thing to do might be to climb on top of a pallet of ammo. This began to seem dumb also, and in the end I just stood there and listened to the popcorn popper until we flew out of it.

Barnowsky and I checked the damage and counted bullet holes. Fuel was pouring out of the left wing, but Rich said no problem, we had an empty tank on the right we could use. He started transferring fuel, and then gas started pouring out of the right wing too, through a hole we hadn’t known about.

C-46s were famous for enduring an engine fire for about 45 seconds before the wing came off. B-916 now had fuel pouring out of each wing, over each engine exhaust. Everybody chuted up and kept their eyes on the streams of avgas. On approach to the airport in the Laos capital of Vientiane, as soon as we were too low to jump, we shucked off the parachutes and pulled open anything that resembled an emergency exit. We waited to see what would happen when B-916 backfired on final approach, as it always did, and to see if one or both of the main tires had caught bullets and gone flat.

Neither main was flat, and B-916 did not backfire. We just rolled on out to the parking ramp and shut down the engines. It was rainy season, and the ramp was submerged in several inches of water. We piled out and watched fuel pouring out, spreading avgas rainbows all over. We waded about a hundred yards before we found a dry spot where we could safely light smokes. We all stood there, shaking and cussing and puffing away.

About a year later, Fred Reilly was landing with a load of rice on the Plaines des Jarres, a field of ancient monuments in north-central Laos, just as the Lao Neutralists split in two and started an intramural firefight. Reilly was stitched across the legs by .50-caliber machine gun fire and his C-123 piled up at the end of the grass runway, crushing him under several tons of rice. The wreckage of his airplane, shining on the grassy plains, became a landmark.

B-916 went back to Tainan and was rebuilt. Right after it came back, it was hit just south of the Plaines des Jarres, got a fire in the left engine, and shed the left wing in less than a minute. Two Thai PDOs—Varaphong and Kukinchin—and nobody else got out on static-line chutes at about 200 feet. Very soon after, Kukinchin was killed when C-46, tail number 77 Victor, went straight into a ridge and blew up.

Meanwhile, back at Takhli, another C-46, B-136, came in with pilot Bill Beale. Beale had a Smilin’ Jack moustache, a laid-back outlook, a fat and interesting logbook, and an addiction to paperback westerns.

On a hot, humid morning, B-136, with Beale, a first officer whose name I don’t remember, a big load of ammo, and PDOs Art Jukkala, Russ Kapitz, and two Thai army trainees, left Takhli and headed north. Once the load was ready for delivery, the guys in the back sacked out. Onboard, even when you are in a deep sleep, one sound will bring you right out of it: a change in engine power settings. Jukkala got up and went forward, looked over Beale’s shoulder, and saw a ridge coming—a ridge that the airplane would not clear, and there were spur ridges on both sides that prevented a turn out of trouble. B-136 was in a box.

Jukkala woke up everybody and had them strap in. Then he belted himself in, listened to the power go up as far as it would go, and waited for the crash. It didn’t come, and finally he got up and went forward again. Over Beale’s shoulder he saw B-136 just barely scrape over that first ridge—and come face to face with another one that was higher still. By now, there was nothing to do but stand there and watch.

B-136 buried its nose in a big tree. Branches went by on both sides of the cockpit; there was a series of thumps. The airplane stalled and nosed over.

Laos is limestone country—sheer white karst cliffs all over. B-136’s tree was on the edge of one of those cliffs, and when the airplane nosed over, it fell free, over the edge and down. It picked up flying speed. Beale nursed the nose up and flew away.

Air blasted up through the cockpit, blowing dirt and dust up pant legs and into faces. The crew went to Vientiane, dropped the cargo over the airport, and headed south to Udorn, Thailand. Beale put B-136 onto the pierced-steel-planking runway, and everybody on board was soon kissing muddy ground. Another C-46 came up from Bangkok, collected some of us at Takhli, and that night flew north to pick up Beale and company and get the roller conveyor and other drop equipment off B-136 so we could use it the next day. We went over B-136 with flashlights, whistling and making blasphemous comments in awed tones.

On the left side, a branch a foot in diameter had passed between the fuselage and the propeller arc, missing the prop but driving a hole two feet deep in the wing root. Another branch punched a head-size hole right under Beale’s feet, missing the rudder pedals but letting in the torrent of air that sent all that World War II dirt up Beale’s pant legs. All along the belly were dents and holes. The left ends of the horizontal stabilizer and elevator were sheared off about an inch from the outboard hinge. Everywhere there was damage that just barely missed being fatal.

Like B-916, B-136 went to Tainan for a total rebuild, and was back in a few months. That summer, while trying to turn out of a mountaintop karst bowl, heading for the one gap where it could get out, B-136 hooked a wing into a spur ridge and cartwheeled into little pieces, its luck all used up. On board were smokejumpers Dave Bevan, John “Tex” Lewis, and Darrel “Yogi” Eubanks. Their deaths pretty much brought an end to the CIA PDO program, and Air America began hiring its own cargo droppers. By the end of 1961, most of the CIA PDOs had moved on to other things. On a hot day in 1962, Bill Beale hit another tree at the end of a short airstrip. It was his final tree.

—Donald V. Courtney

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.