CHAPTER ONE: THE CALLING
The two North Vietnamese MIG 21 fighter aircraft slipped over the ridge of mountains that separated North Vietnam from Laos and headed west into Laos. Their destination and intended target was a solitary American aircraft. It was circling aimlessly over the vast expanse of mountains and roadless jungle that stretched hundreds of miles north from the Laotian Plain of Jars. The sun reflected brightly off the polished aluminum of their supersonic fighter planes. The bright red star on their tails displayed the pride and dedication of the two Russian trained North Vietnamese pilots. Their call sign, Test Flight Two, was designed to confuse anyone eavesdropping on their radio frequency.
The operators in the People’s Army of Vietnam (North Vietnamese) ground control intercept radar facility had been waiting for this opportunity. They had been operational for a week and it was their first opportunity to get a clean kill on an American aircraft, without risking the loss of their own fighter planes. Tucked away in a limestone niche, carved just below the peak of a mountain eight miles inside the North Vietnamese border, they could see with their new radar well into the northern section of their Laotian neighbors to the west. Their new ground control intercept (GCI) site made it possible for them to monitor American aircraft support operations in the highly contested Laotian Plain of Jars, where the People’s Army of Vietnam was battling the fierce Hmong tribesmen. They could also see far north where Towhead Three Three had been lazily flying an oblong 50 mile orbit. For this shoot down, the American aircraft with a call sign of Towhead Three Three would be just right. It would make the headlines in the American newspapers and would add a new dimension to the war in Laos.
“Test Flight Two, I have radar lock on. Climb to 22,000 feet and fly heading two seven zero degrees. I have your traffic 104 miles . . . negative hostiles in the area. Do not answer.” The North Vietnamese radar controller was keeping their radio usage to a minimum and as ambiguous as possible.
Unfortunately for Towhead Three Three, this North Vietnamese foray into Laos was taking place during one of many unproductive and ineffective “bombing halts” dictated by the American President. The bombing halt was structured so no American aircraft could fly anywhere in North Vietnam; even if in hot pursuit. The North Vietnamese fighters' plan was to shoot down Towhead Three Three in Laos and scoot back across their border before the American Air Force could react. The Americans' own self decreed rules would prevent them from pursuing the MIGs into North Vietnam.
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In the cockpit of Towhead Three Three, their radio came to life, “Towhead Three Three, this is Invert on guard emergency frequency. I have two bandits exiting the fishmouth, position channel 98 bearing zero eight zero at 105 miles DME, tracking a two seven zero degree course. Towhead Three Three, if you read me, it looks like they’re fast movers coming hell bent to get you. You’re the only aircraft we know about in that area. I’d suggest you get the hell out of there.”
Eddie sat stunned . . . in disbelief. Bandits was the code word for unknown aircraft of suspected enemy origin, probably enemy MIG fighters. The fishmouth was a portion of the North Vietnamese border that had a fish mouth shape on the map. It couldn’t be happening to him! With all the antennas his highly modified World War II C-47 cargo aircraft had, the wind drag was significant. The fastest they could fly in level flight was 120 knots, which would convert to 138 miles per hour. The MIGs, as they probably were, would be coming somewhere around 500 knots. To get the hell out of there was not an available option. They were on a top secret mission, far from any military operations, thus had no American fighter planes flying cover for them. Probably the nearest American fighter planes were several hundred miles south, along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Eddie had checked in with Invert, the American ground radar controller after taking off from Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base. Eddie and his crew were flying out of the remote air base, located just across the Mekong River in Thailand, in support of American covert operations in northern Laos. They had maintained radio silence thereafter. Eddie knew that while they were crossing over the ancient Plain of Jars and the high mountains surrounding it, the American “Invert” radar had silently monitored their flight path.
Unfortunately, Eddie’s reconnaissance mission required him to fly way north, all the way to the Chinese border. Up there, they could only be tracked by Invert if they flew above 18,000 feet. Without cabin pressurization and without supplemental oxygen on board, flying that high was not an option. Twelve thousand feet was their sustainable limit. Invert could not see the Towhead EC-47 on their radar but had locked on to the much higher MIG fighters as they crossed over the dividing mountain ridge from North Vietnam. The Invert operator knew Towhead Three Three was somewhere up there and he was broadcasting the Towhead aircraft a warning, in the blind. A warning just in case the Towhead could hear him. In fact, if Eddie’s aircraft had been any less than their current 12,000 foot altitude, he and his seven crew members wouldn’t have been able to hear the radio warning.
“Towhead Three Three, this is Invert broadcasting in the blind. If you hear me, I estimate eight minutes until the bandits are in your area. We scrambled F-4 fighters out of Udorn. They’re coming pedal to the metal. Their estimated time of arrival to your area is 16 minutes. Do you copy?”
“I copy,” Eddie broke radio silence, not knowing if Invert could hear him or not. That meant the bandits, if they really were MIGs, would have six minutes to shoot him down and a two minute head start back across their border and safety. That would be easy pickings for the highly maneuverable MIG fighter planes. They only needed a minute or two to maneuver into position and use their cannons to rip his unarmed, slow C-47 transport aircraft into shreds.
Eddie was shocked and upset with their exposed position. Without fighter air cover and as transport pilots, neither Eddie nor his co-pilot had any air to air combat tactics training. Even if they had been trained in air combat maneuvers, it wouldn’t have improved their situation. Their slow and low C-47, with its World War II heritage, and Eddie, were both way out of their league.
“What the hell am I doing here?” Eddie thought to himself. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this!” He looked at the thick jungle below. “Would he, his aircraft, and his crew spend eternity together down there; scattered among the endless jungle?” The pilot’s cliché was “bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.” There wasn’t any room to bend over in the tiny cockpit so Eddie closed his eyes and tilted his head back . . .