The Vietnam War is also known as the “helicopter war.” It was the first time in human history that a warring nation used large numbers of helicopters. Although helicopters had existed before the Vietnam War, it was only the technological advantages of the time that allowed their mass and effective employment.
The helicopter revolutionized warfare and introduced many new concepts. But it was particularly impactful for special operations units. And it was in a secret conflict during the Vietnam War that commandos and helicopters showed their potential.
MACV-SOG: The spec ops organization you’ve never heard off
The Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) was a covert joint special operations organization that conducted direct action, special reconnaissance, and unconventional warfare operations across the border in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and North Vietnam.
Related: MACV-SOG, THE ULTIMATE SPEC OPS UNIT
The unit was comprised of Army Special Forces operators, Navy SEALs, and Air Commandos. But MACV-SOG worked closely with local mercenaries, who provided the backbone of the recon teams.
During the eight years (1964-1972) that the organization was active, SOG special operators conducted some of the most daring special operations in U.S. history, mainly in and around the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. A ground and underground complex that stretched for hundreds of miles from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam, the Ho Chi Minh Trail fueled the insurgency in South Vietnam with men, arms, and supplies.
There was only one way to get to work for the SOG commandos.
The special operations helicopters they carried
Several conventional and special operations fixed- and rotary-wing units supported MACV-SOG operations during the eight years of the organization’s secret war. The Air Force’s 20th Special Operations Squadron, the “Green Hornets,” and the Army’s 101st Airborne Division’s “Black Angels” were two of the most active.
As the military’s primary air force, the U.S. Air Force got first dips on the latest and most advanced aircraft.
Initially, Green Hornets used the UH-1P Huey, which was essentially an “F” model modified with the “Lucky Tiger” modification that included additional mission-specific weaponry. The UH-1P used the General Electric’s T-58 engine, which could muster a powerful 1,300 horsepower.
“[The T-58 engine was] a lot more powerful than the Army’s T-53 engine. Unfortunately, its axial compressor (unlike the rugged centrifugal army Huey’s compressors) was prone to damage from the dust of the Central Highlands which led to several crashes,” Rivero said.
In 1971, the Air Force decommissioned the “P” model and replaced it with the newer UH-1N, which packed a twin-engine. Two engines offered Green Hornets increased horsepower, and thus speed, while the cabin was also larger, allowing for more troops. Having two engines also offered the special operations aviators more peace of mind since if one failed or was shot during an operation across the fence, they had a good chance of getting back to base.
But newer and more technologically advanced didn’t necessarily translate into more effective in the field.
“I did not like [the UH-1N]. First, for one inexplicable reason the ammo load held by the Gunship ammo cans was reduced to 9,000 rounds. In addition, the increased airspeed made our very tight ‘figure 8’ patterns to cover the Slicks in the [landing zone] impractical. Longer ‘dogbone’ patterns were used instead, which lessened our ability to provide constant cover to the Slick,” Rivero told Sandboxx News.
In comparison, the Army got older versions of the Huey. But, stealing the Marines’ motto, Army aviators went on the field with a “make do” attitude.
“My favorite aircraft was the Bell Huey Iroquois UH-1B & C Model Gunships that I was involved with. We were considered the ‘hired guns’ that could save lives by providing deadly amounts of aerial firepower on enemy forces when friendly lives were in danger,” Lockshier told Sandboxx News.
Special operations helicopters at war
It’s quite hard to distinguish the most memorable mission you’ve undertaken when you have logged hundreds or thousands of operations across the fence.
“I flew over 1,000 combat hours with the Hornets over my three years there. I do recall many Gunship missions where we had to ‘hot reload’ several times to get the team out,” Rivero told Sandboxx News.
“Our missions were handled by four Gunships and four Slicks. Two of each would conduct the primary insertion or extraction while the other two would be on ready standby to relieve the others if necessary. If a team got in trouble, two Gunships would descend and hopefully pacify the enemy and one Slick would descend and extract the team,” the former Green Hornet added.
If the helicopter gunships ran out of ammunition before they managed to suppress the North Vietnamese or Viet Cong, the backup pair, consisting of two gunships and two slicks, would come in to relieve them. The first pair that had run Winchester—or out of ammunition—would fly back to the forward operating base to do what today is known as a “Forward Arm and Refuel” (FARP). The special operations aviators in Vietnam simply called it “hot refuel without shutting down.”
For Rivero, one such “hot refuel” operation remains memorable even to this day.
“The [Special Forces operators] had crews of Montagnards [local mercenaries] to bring us the rockets to reload the pods and eight 1,500 round ammo cans that we just threw into the cabin and took off again heading to relieve the other Gun crew. We reloaded the minigun cans in flight, throwing the empty ammo cans out. We might have killed a few monkeys with those. I recall doing this three times on one occasion. It took almost seven hours. We were tired but got the team out eventually. The poor pilots could barely move afterwards due to the very uncomfortable armored seats,” the special operations aviator added.
The aviators primarily carried McGuire and STABO rigs for the extraction of recon teams from the ground. These are pieces of equipment specially designed to extract special operators from the ground without the helicopter having to land. However, sometimes the aviators were the ones who had to be extracted.
“My most memorable mission took place on 28 September 1968 when my helicopter was shot down deep in Laos while rescuing a SOG Recon team from certain annihilation. We were able to rescue the team but we had to be taken out of Laos in McGuire Rigs,” Lockshier told Sandboxx News.
As all special operations units should, the Army and Air Force aviators had extensive contingency planning in the event a helicopter went down across the fence in Laos, Cambodia, or elsewhere. The Army aviators had a three-part contingency plan.
“For my team, the contingency plan for being shot down across the fence was as follows:
First and best option was to be picked up on the ground by a chase ship (helicopter) that was part of the mission for that purpose.
Second option would be when the chase ship could not land due to the terrain or canopy, 125 foot long ropes with McQuire Rigs sewn onto the ends would be dropped and downed crew members would get into the rigs and be lifted out of the jungle and flown to a safe place to be put down on the ground.
Third and least desirable option would be to E & E (escape & evade the enemy) to reach a safe area,” Lockshier told Sandboxx News.
For the Air Force, things were slightly different. And a lot also depended on the geographic area and the ground and air assets available nearby.
“As far as contingency plans if we went down: we were on our own. At least while operating in Cambodia with [Command and Control South]. A deal had been struck between the U.S. and Sihanouk [the Cambodian leader] that no fixed-wing aircraft, other than forwarding air controllers, could operate in Cambodia.
So, if we went down, we had to use our own assets to retrieve our crews. If we had insufficient assets on site, Army assets or other units could assist. This was infrequent but did happen once that I know of. Sometimes the SF people could send in a ‘Bright Light’ team to effect recovery or rescue. At operations by CCN [Command and Control North] in Laos they had available air assets from SPAD units, fixed wing gunships or even fighter bombers. We didn’t,” Rivero said.
The legacy of these pilots remains alive to this day: A few years after the war, a special operations unit sprawled up from within the 101st Airborne Division.
As the years passed and the demand for special operations grew, that unit became a full-fledged regiment. Today, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the “Night Stalkers,” is considered the premier special operations rotary-wing unit in the world. Night Stalkers have participated in almost all major and minor special operations since their creation in the 1980s, including the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the Delta Force operations that killed the leaders of the Islamic State.
Similarly, the current rotary-wing squadrons of the Air Force Special Operations Command can draw the lineage from the brave Green Hornets and their deeds of valor in Vietnam.