Cold War Era

That time an Air America UH-1D Huey shot down a North Vietnamese An-2 Colt Biplane

This engagement marked the first CIA air-to-air victory and the only kill achieved by a helicopter against a biplane.

The UH-1 evolved from a 1955 US Army competition for a new utility helicopter. The Army employed it in various roles, including that of an armed escort or attack gunship in Vietnam. The initial Army designation was HU-1, which led to the common unofficial nickname of “Huey.” All US armed services adopted the model as did several other countries, and it was redesignated in 1962 as the UH-1 under a triservice agreement.

What the Huey wasn’t supposed to do was shooting down an aircraft, a thing that actually the UH-1 did during the Vietnam War.

In mid-1967 when Operation Rolling Thunder was underway the bad weather over North Vietnam made difficult to find and strike the assigned targets, so a radar was placed in a remote mountain inside the contrived neutral Laos on the northern Laos-North Vietnam border.

The site could be accessed only by helicopter or a tortuous trail winding up the near-vertical mountainside, so it was judged to be easily defensible. This radar station was called Lima (L for Laos) Site 85, while the fighter bomber crews called it Channel 97 (the radar frequency). As explained by USAF Col. (Ret.) Lawrence E. Pence in his article “Air Story” out of Vietnam “the Channel 97 radar system was an old SAC precision bomb scoring radar which could locate an aircraft to within a few meters at a hundred miles. In this application, the strike force would fly out from Lima Site 85 a given distance on a given radial, and the site operators would tell the strike leader precisely when to release his bomb load. It was surprisingly accurate, and allowed the strikes to be run at night or in bad weather.”

The same mountain was used for many years as a staging base for CIA-directed Hmong guerilla fighters and Air America, a CIA-proprietary, provided aerial support for the facility, the technicians, and the security forces.

On Jan. 12, 1968, the North Vietnamese decided to destroy this radar site because of the huge damages that the bombers guided by Lima Site 85 were causing during their attacks against targets in North Vietnam. The task to attack the radar was assigned to the North Vietnamese Air Force (NVNAF), that used three Antonov AN-2 Colt biplanes as strike bombers.

According to Pence “The NVNAF armed the AN-2s with a 12 shot 57mm folding fin aerial rocket pod under each lower wing, and 20 250mm mortar rounds with aerial bomb fuses set in vertical tubes let into the floor of the aircraft cargo bay.” These were dropped through holes cut in the cargo bay floor. Simple hinged bomb-bay doors closed these holes in flight and the pilot could salvo his bomb load by opening these doors.

This unusual strike package was formed by two AN-2s performing the attack role while one more Colt directed the strike acting as chase plane. The first AN-2 attacked the Air America infrastructures, but a Thai mercenary shot it down with his AK-47. After the first Colt crashed, the second one turned home heading towards north, but was intercepted by the unarmed Air America UH-1D Huey helicopter stationed at the radar site. As reported by the CIA website the helicopter, flown by Capt. Ted Moore with Glenn Woods as crewman, reached the AN-2 few miles inside North Vietnam unseen by the Colt pilot, then Moore flew over the AN-2 and the helicopter’s down-washed stalled out the upper wing of the aircraft. The pilot of the biplane was forced to reduce the speed and Woods fired an AK-47 rifle at the cockpit of the Colt which went into a flat spin and crashed.

This engagement marked the first CIA air-to-air victory and the only kill achieved by a helicopter against a biplane.

Lima Site 85 was instead destroyed two months later by North Vietnamese commandos.

Photo credit: Keith Woodcock via CIA website, U.S. Air Force and Julian Herzog (Website) via Wikipedia

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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