Defending Lima Site 85

Text by Divan Muller
Clandestine operations in one of the most controversial wars in history set the stage for one of the strangest and unique air battles ever fought.
Painting by Keith Woodcock
Air America

In 1950, the USA’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) realized that it needed air transport capability in Asia, primarily to support its covert operations. It therefore purchased a Chinese airline called Civil Air Transport (CAT), which was founded by none other than General Claire Chenault, pioneer of the American ‘Flying Tiger’ volunteer group of World War II. CAT continued to operate as a private airline, but also provided aircraft for secret CIA missions. Less than three years after being acquired by the CIA, CAT was used to support French forces in combat in Indochina, a region consisting of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. As the war in Vietnam intensified, whilst the political stability of the region weakened, CAT became increasingly active. In 1954, for example, over the course of about one and half months, CAT aircraft evacuated almost 20 000 civilians out of North Vietnam. The airline’s name was changed to Air America in 1959. Over the next seventeen years, Air America would grow in size and capability, providing humanitarian aid, transporting thousands of refugees and troops, conducting search and rescue and medevac missions, as well as supporting various covert, intelligence gathering missions. Air America is mostly known for the fact that it was disguised as a civilian airline, allowing the US to conduct covert military operations in regions where it was not allowed to operate.
Lima Site 85

Lima (‘L’ for Laos) Site 85 was a secret military radar facility on the top of Phou Pha Thi mountain in the northeast of Laos, near the North Vietnamese border. The radar facility was vital to US air operations during the Vietnam War, as it provided all-weather guidance to US Air Force (USAF) strike aircraft and bombers, when attacking airfields, supply depots and other targets in North Vietnam. This remote site, also known simply as ‘LS-85’, was only accessible by helicopter, or by climbing the near-vertical cliffs of the 5 800 ft high mountain. Air crews referred to LS-85 as the ‘North Station’ or ‘Channel 97’. It was equipped with a tactical air navigation system and an automatic tracking radar computer system to guide aircraft during bombing runs or strike missions. The site was manned by ‘sheep dipped’ USAF volunteers, which meant that they were disguised as civilian employees of Lockheed Corporation.
A Unique Air Battle

Despite the high level of secrecy maintained regarding the existence and purpose of LS-85, the North Vietnamese Air Force (NVAF) realized the importance and significance of the site. It had to destroy the radar site, but instead of sending military jets into its neighbouring country, the NVAF devised a unique plan. On 12 January 1968, four Antonov An-2 biplanes flew towards LS-85 from North Vietnam. Two of these aircraft served only to transport observing tacticians to the site. The other two were modified to carry 57 mm folding-fin rockets in underwing pods, whilst vertical tubes were installed in their cargo compartments, through which 122 mm mortars could be dropped as ‘bombs’. As the aircraft approached LS-85, they split into two formations. The two unarmed aircraft circled the area, whilst the armed biplanes attacked the radar facility. As it happened, at the same time, an Air America Bell UH-1D Huey, transporting ammunition, approached LS-85. It was flown by Air America ‘employees’ pilot Ted Moore and flight engineer Glenn Woods. Noticing the strange battle in progress, Ted Moore later said that “it looked like World War I.” The slow, lumbering An-2s broke off the attack and flew toward North Vietnam. However, Ted Moore noticed that his helicopter was faster than the NVAF’s ad hoc ‘bombers’, so he intercepted one of the aircraft and flew above it. Glenn Woods stood at the door of the Huey, firing at the An-2 with an AK-47 assault rifle. After about twenty minutes, the Antonov, riddled with bullet holes, crashed into a mountain. Moore and Woods set their sights on another An-2, shooting it down within minutes, before it could reach the North Vietnamese border. The two An-2s which were used as observing aircraft were able to escape. Still, Moore and Woods had achieved the CIA’s first air-to-air victories, as well as the only instance of biplanes being shot down by a helicopter.

LS-85 survived the attack, but this story did not have a happy ending. Two months later, on 11 March, North Vietnamese commandos attacked the site at night, resulting in the greatest loss of life on the ground for the USAF during the entire Vietnam War. Thirteen US servicemen died, along with 42 personnel from Thailand and Laos. After North Vietnamese forces had captured the radar site, the USAF responded with several air attacks, eventually destroying every building and installation in LS-85.