I know everyone is asking what does this blog have to do with the elephants. Actually, it has a lot to do with elephant conservation in that our previous blog on the Hall of Opium referencing Air America was very well received by many outside the Beltway of Washington, D.C. Therefore, I will continue to write similar blogs until we sell some of our Vietnam Era Hmong memorial jackets or an order for the entire inventory comes out of Langley, Virginia.
In 1969, I chose to fly from Vientiane, Laos to the airstrip outside of Luang Prabang to have an associate take an inventory of the aviation fuel while I terminated the employment of the Lao manager for theft and selling fuel destined for Air America and others to the bad guys. I had booked passage on a Continental Air Services Pilatus Porter under contract to the U.S. Agency for International Development with particular support given to “The Customer.” Yes, that is the same Continental that flies the United Airlines flag today. The Pilatus is a handy aircraft in that it is fast and can land most anywhere. It is even better when you control where it goes and, more importantly, when it leaves.
The afternoon prior to departure, we were drinking beer and shooting pool in the pilots lounge at the Wattay Airport in Vientiane. There was a cacophony of sirens as Hmong casualties were being evacuated from a Hmong base near Luang Prabang. All of a sudden, my Continental aircraft of choice departed to begin continuous evacuation runs and I faced the option of giving the trip a pass or taking a commercial DC-3 flight on Lao Air Charter the next morning. Unfortunately, the commercial flight necessitated spending a few extra days in north central Laos while it was undergoing a North Vietnamese tank infestation. Oh well, Khun Seri, Khun Choochat and I bought tickets, got a laissez-passer to travel internally in Laos, a nicety not required in unmarked, non-commercial aircraft.
Accordingly, we prepared ourselves for the next day by closing all of the bars that evening and making our way to the lonely DC-3 on the tarmac as the sun rose. You always want to look and feel your best on a Lao Air Charter flight, particularly as you leave the refined civilization of Vientiane. There are no extant photographs of that particular DC-3 available at this point in time.
After I succumbed to a deep sleep, Khun Choochat shook my leg and pointed to the wing of the aircraft covered in oil. It was a bit disconcerting as we were flying through the mountains rather than over them. However, we managed to limp into Luang Prabang. Not long after our flight, the plane crashed into the mountains surrounding Luang Prabang on December 23, 1969. An aviation defense support contractor based in Arlington, Virginia had leased it to the Corsican controlled Lao Air Charter.
Once on the ground, I took comfort that there were helicopters continuously flying overhead looking for sappers. Moreover, I was impressed by the care the Lao pilots directed toward planning their T-28 attack missions. If you think they are small in stature, they needed wooden blocks on the T-28 pedals to reach them.
The morning fog surrounding the airstrip was particularly peaceful. However, I was somewhat distressed that the pilots would take off and return to the airstrip only minutes later. In fact, twelve miles is just a bit further than the distance from The Elephant Story location in Comfort to Zanzenberg Storyville in Center Point, Texas, home to the famous Aaron Meyer and Tim Ellis concerts in the Texas Hill Country.
I also realized the Force Army Royale Lao officer in charge of the base was looking at me with evil in his eyes as Khun Choochat calculated how much fuel had been stolen and I dismissed the Lao manager on the spot. It was obvious that the alleged good guy in the Lao military was in fact a bad guy. Very quickly, it occurred to me that I had no friends, no support system, North Vietnamese tanks were twelve miles away, and I was stuck in that lovely situation until the next commercial flight showed up in two days or a friendly Air America evacuation flight appeared if everything fell apart.
Obviously, it all worked out but that story requires more space than this blog can accommodate and some measure of prudence would permit. However, we can share more stories at the July 3, 2015 Strings and Gumbo concert at the Zanzenberg Storyville Event Center in Center Point, Texas. We will have Hmong vintage Vietnam Era jackets there and every purchaser will have the opportunity to taste the Jack and Jalapeno juice beverage of choice of our departed friend, Rocky.