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E Flight crews flew sanitized C-130 ‘ghost planes’

By John A. Manney
12/5/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

During the summer of 1970, I was assigned to the U.S. Air Force 374th Tactical Airlift Wing (374th TAW) at Ching Chuan Kang Air Base (CCK), Taiwan, as a C-130 master crew chief. It was designated as an “unaccompanied assignment,” which meant family members were not authorized to accompany the airmen stationed there.

I had been in the unit only a short while when my prior security clearance and duty in Vietnam with another C-130 outfit came to the attention of the leadership. I was taken aside and asked to become a member in a newly arriving squadron, coming from Naha Air Base, Okinawa. This particular squadron was designated E Flight.

The 374th TAW flew supplies into and around Southeast Asia. Our aircraft normally moved supplies and equipment from Taiwan to Tan San Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, and from there we flew to various other bases in the theater, transporting materiel and troops. Whenever we ran short of flight time before our next scheduled phase maintenance, we flew to Clark Air Base, the Philippines, where Filipino civilian dock crews did the required work.

During our usual three-day stays in the Philippines, the flight crew typically was put up in an off-base hotel in nearby Angeles City. Once the plane was readied for flying, the crew returned to CCK, where the crew chief was allowed two days to prepare for the next rotation back to Vietnam.

As we came in for landing after my third such trip, I spotted a dazzlingly silver C-130E sitting on the CCK tarmac. Curiously, there were no insignia or aircraft numbers on the plane.

It was during the post-mission debriefing session at CCK that I learned I was being reassigned to E Flight, and that I would be the crew chief of this mysterious aircraft. Following two days of near round-the-clock maintenance, the plane was ready to fly, and the six-man flight crew prepared to deploy to Vietnam. At the time, the E Flight squadron at CCK was so new that it would be more than a month before the first commander of E Flight’s Detachment No. 1 would arrive on base. The commander’s late reporting date was a function of the series of briefings he had to receive in Washington on our Southeast Asia mission.

On our first E Flight mission, we flew supplies to Tan San Nhut, and then on to Takli, Thailand, where we were met on the ground by a C-130A flight crew that had come in from Naha. Before our landing, the base control tower ordered us to report to a briefing as soon as we disembarked. When we arrived at the base headquarters, we found it was a CIA administrative center. Following our briefing, the C-130A’s on-board aircraft equipment was transferred to our C-130E. That equipment included skate-wheel rollers—sometimes called beer rollers—installed on the cargo compartment floor over which wood pallets could be rolled at remote locations without forklifts.

From Takli we flew to Udorn, Thailand, and began running missions out of what was referred to by the CIA as the “Pepper Grinder.” E Flight aircraft were sanitized by removing metal plates with tail numbers and any U.S. insignia. The tail number was modified from 40515 to 405, which had belonged to a C-130E that had crashed sometime before while flying out of Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. In essence, 405 was a ghost plane.

As part of the sanitizing process, our crew changed into civilian clothing once we departed CCK, and wore it throughout the mission until preparing for landing on return to CCK. We also were encouraged to wear sideburns, popular with civilians during the 1970s, and to keep our hair a bit longer than the standard military style.

On the occasions when E Flight planes were turned over temporarily to CIA crews, every such mission was flown by a contracted pilot. Each contract was assigned a different mission number. So if he flew nine missions on any given day, the pilot carrying out those missions had signed nine separate contracts. Since most of the locations we flew into were less than an hour’s flight time from Udorn, we could make as many as 15 trips a day with two aircraft, keeping the CIA’s client forces supplied with daily provisions, ammunition, weapons and other essential operating supplies.

“Forbidden territory” missions in Southeast Asia were allowed no more than 15 minutes’ ground turnaround time. The airplanes parked leaving one engine running. To speed up the process, the aircraft was fueled and loaded with ammunition at the same time. E Flight aircraft were equipped based on the demands of each mission, and we developed our own operating procedures to avoid “friendly-fire” incidents.

Frequently E Flight aircraft had to use remote tropical rain forest roads for landing strips. Bulldozers already on the ground were used to widen and smooth these narrow rutted roads before the plane touched down to drop off its classified cargo. During one such mission, the CIA pilot turned the aircraft too wide as he taxied for takeoff after dropping the load. The plane’s left landing gear sank down, causing the No. 4 propeller to strike the ground. The propeller broke away, destroying the No. 4 engine.

The crew had no more than four hours to get the aircraft out. If the plane was still on the ground when darkness fell, it would be easy prey for the enemy. While the crew of the stricken C-130 waited for the parts and maintenance support to arrive, Special Forces units operating in the area broke down and started to distribute the load that had just been delivered. A CIA-operated C-123, meanwhile, brought in a new engine and propeller, and an Air Force maintenance crew quickly installed them. After attaching a tow cable to the C-130’s landing gear, the crew used a bulldozer to pull the plane out of the ground. As soon as the new engine and propeller were installed, the plane started up on the pilot’s first try. He quickly flew out in the gathering darkness, testing and calibrating the engine during takeoff.

E Flight aircraft served as troop carriers for Lao, Hmong and Thai troops, crisscrossing the theater between their training camps. Whenever guerrilla troops from Takli were on board our aircraft, their identities were concealed beneath ski masks and all-black uniforms. Whenever they captured North Vietnamese or Soviet equipment, we extracted it for technical evaluation in the United States.

As the crew chief, I oversaw the aircraft’s weekly phase maintenance. E Flight had forward-positioned teams of engine, sheet metal, radar and radio specialists, so the plane never had to go back to the Philippines for maintenance. All members of the forward maintenance teams were crosstrained in various other functional areas to prevent any potential delays in the required services.

When major repairs were required, a maintenance crew from Lockheed flew in from the United States and performed the work wherever we might be at the time. E Flight aircraft had a repair part priority equal to that of the top government executive airplanes. If repair parts were required that were not immediately on hand, the maintenance crews were authorized to cannibalize any other C-130E for them.

When we returned to CCK after a mission, E Flight travel vouchers revealed little of where we actually had been. The finance clerks at CCK knew how much travel pay was due to us only by the site number we recorded on our vouchers. While on a mission we paid for our own food and lodging and were reimbursed accordingly.

The quarantined CIA crews lived in Vientiane, Laos, and flew into Udorn daily with instructions for that day’s mission. Most of the military personnel stationed at Udorn never really knew whether we were civilians, Air Force or Army.

As the mission continued to grow, the command decided it was necessary to extend the unit’s married men beyond their initial 15-month orders at CCK. In compensation, the command also decided in 1972 to permit E Flight families to come to Taiwan on accompanied orders. The tuition costs for school-age children at the Morrison Academy, a Baptist missionary school in Taichung, Taiwan, were covered by the Air Force, and on-base commissary and exchange privileges and medical coverage were extended to the families.

When the war in Vietnam began winding down in late 1973, E Flight pulled out of CCK and moved to Clark Air Base, where it was absorbed into another squadron. To keep the move as quiet as possible, the family members and their household goods were flown aboard an E Flight C-130 directly from CCK into Clark. The experience was quite a thrill for many of the children, who were permitted to move about the plane once airborne. Some of the older boys enjoyed the privilege of riding part of the way on the flight deck. The chief drawback on the first dependent flights is that we had no restroom facilities set up on the aircraft.

During its existence, E Flight provided airlift and supported the CIA’s commercial airline, Air America. While I was with the unit, we (both military and civilians) covertly airlifted supplies to friendly forces in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. After E Flight was disbanded, its aircraft were retired to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. Some were later sold to foreign countries. The C-130As were transferred to the South Vietnamese air force before the American pullout in 1975.

 

Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.  

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