One of the strangest stories from the Vietnam War occured in Laos, when a CIA Huey managed to shoot down a North Vietnamese aircraft.

LIMA SITE 85: When a Huey shot down a Plane

The Vietnam war has no shortage of strange and intriguing stories, but few come close to a 1969 incident in Laos, in which a CIA Huey pilot and crewman managed to pursue and destroy a North Vietnamese plane.

BACKGROUND

During Operation Rolling Thunder, allied forces noted the difficulty of striking targets over North Vietnam. Not only was it perhaps the most well defended airspace in the world at that time, but during stormy or cloudy weather, target finding became near impossible. In response, the CIA was tasked with setting up a mountain outpost in Laos, which could be used by operators to guide pilots on bombing missions onto their target release points, something which had been practiced by Strategic Air Command for many years.

The CIA set themselves up in a good location known as Lima Site 85, which sat atop a steep mountain which was very hard to access. The mountain, which had already been in use as an outpost for some time before, was set up as a TACAN radar site. The CIA used this site in conjunction with the Hmong Army – or ‘Secret Army’ – a highly effective militia operating against both the Communist insurgence group Pathet Lao, and the Vietnamese communists.

The mountain base was split into two sections; halfway up the mountain was a command bunker, which would be used by both TACAN operators and the Hmong soldiers. There was also a short runway, used by light CIA aircraft and as a refuelling point for emergency rescue Hueys heading into Vietnam. At the top of the mountain sat the radar outpost itself. According to reports, there were only two ways to reach the mountaintop; a small access trail used by the Hmong guerrillas and CIA paramilitary, or by flying up to the airstrip.

From Lima Site 85, operators could use a bomb scoring radar to guide aircraft onto their target, and then tell the pilots when to release their weapons. This would be improved with the arrival of the Miscue 77 automated radar system. This system – a vacuum tube computer – outperformed its older course direction systems, in that it could accurately predict the impact point of bombs – not just the release point – during radar track. This method was successful given the tropical weather over North Vietnam hindering visibility.

THE ATTACK

As operation Rolling Thunder continued into 1968, the North Vietnamese decided to strike back at a number of specific targets. One such target was Lima Site 85. Several small scale attacks took place, and probing from both Vietnamese forces and Pathet Lao increased. The Vietnamese had noted the existence of both the radar facility on the mountaintop, as well as the command bunker further down the mountain. Not only that, but they had noticed that Lima Site 85 had more successful strikes on North Vietnamese than any other similar site achieved, and also allowed for accurate night strikes known as operation Commando Club.

Then on January 12th 1968, Four Antonov AN-2 biplanes were sent to the outpost. According to a CIA report of the incident, two of the aircraft had been converted into strike aircraft by the North Vietnamese. This included strapping 57mm rocket pods under the wings for strafing, and creating a makeshift bomb bay, which could house 20 250mm mortar rounds armed with aerial fuses.

At the base were Hmong militia fighters, alongside CIA operators who were disguised as civilian Lockheed Martin workers. Everyone was caught off guard by the sound of prop aircraft closing in.

The first of the AN-2s closed in, beginning an attack run on the base, dropping mortars and then returning to strafe with rockets. The second aircraft fired at the wrong hilltop, opening fire with rockets which alerted everyone on the base that they were under attack. During this time, CIA operators were able to contact an Air America Huey nearby. Air America had been a airliner business secretly operated by the CIA. Two of the Vietnamese aircraft had departed, but the attack continued, killing four Hmong people. Then, running out of one of the buildings, a Thai mercenary grabbed an AK-47, took aim, and managed to shoot down the first aircraft, which crashed into the side of the mountain. After witnessing this, the second AN-2 decided to turn around and return to base.

It was at this point that Captain Ted Moore decided to give chase, realising that his unarmed UH-1D Huey would likely surpass the AN-2 in speed. Moore started up the Huey, while his crewman Glenn Woods – picking up an AK-47 – jumped into the back. Taking off, Moore followed the now-unsuspecting AN-2 across the Laotian border into North Vietnam, slowly creeping up behind it. After many miles of pursuit, Moore pushed the Huey over the top of the biplane, causing the downwash to stall out one of the wings of the AN-2. The pilot of the aircraft was forced to slow down, and Woods opened fire from the side door of the Huey. The aircraft, becoming increasingly unstable and likely damaged from gunfire, went into a flat spin and crashed into the jungle.

The incident was unique to say the least. To this day it remains the only documented incident in which a helicopter has been credited with a biplane kill. Not only that, but it is also the only air to air victory credited to the CIA.

As for Lima Site 85, however, things would not end well. Several months later, another attack would take place, this time from the ground. North Vietnamese forces – cooperating with Pathet Lao militia – staged a large scale attack using well trained forces. With 3000 men against roughly 1300 Hmong, Thai, and American forces, the Vietnamese and Pathet Lao managed to overrun the outpost, at the cost of 13 Americans and 42 Hmong and Thai soldiers. Known as the Battle of Lima Site 85, it would result in the largest single combat loss of US airmen to ever occur during the Vietnam War.