T-28 Trojan Foundation

Allen Cates was recently honored as a hero at Hurlburt Field by the family of a pilot he rescued in Laos in 1970.  click here to read The Rescue of Bullwhip 01
In the fall of 1965, HMM-365 (Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron) left Vietnam and returned to the United States. Many of us were sent back to the Naval Air Training Command in Florida, but I asked my commanding officer if I could be stationed in Santa Ana, California. My reasoning was Santa Ana was close to El Toro where the Marine Corps jet squadrons were located, and I was determined to get into the jet pipeline if at all possible.
The old adage of being careful what you ask for came true to form. Santa Ana was deserted. There were no helicopter squadrons there because all had been sent to Vietnam. One VIP H-34 helicopter was all I could see, and for all intents and purposes, it appeared the Marine Corps didn't know I existed.
No problem, I thought, and as quickly as I was able, I drove over to El Toro and asked a squadron operations officer if I could join their unit. He told me he could not get his brother a transfer to his unit but did offer me a ride in a training jet, an F-9 Cougar.  I was able to secure the appropriate equipment, and the pilot I was flying with decided he would show me the ropes with a scheduled dogfight with another Cougar.  The trick is to know when to tighten your stomach muscles when pulling G-forces, but you need to know when that's going to happen, or you'll find yourself tightening up when you should be relaxing and relaxing when you should be tightening up. That's rather difficult in a dogfight and changing altitude rapidly.
I never saw the other aircraft and my sinus’s were whistling like an old freight train. I suppose there was disappointment I didn't upchuck, but it wasn't like I'd never pulled G-forces before, and the only regret was the guy took me for granted and made an ass out of himself. One thing was clear; I wasn't going to get into the jet pipeline at El Toro. I checked in every morning with operations and was told each time there was nothing to do, and I gathered they didn't care one way or another.
I discussed my situation with a kind senior captain, and he suggested I transfer to the training command with hopes of getting a jet position later down the road. I was reluctant because what was proposed was what I tried to avoid in the first place. Yet, the ghost town I was saddled with was not the answer. Some questioned why I wasn't in Vietnam like everybody else! Explaining I just left didn't seem to satisfy the inquisitors.
I finally caved in, but I asked the captain if he could swing getting me into the T-28 program. At least I would be flying fixed wing. He said he could handle the request and I turned my new black GTO east and headed for Pensacola without looking back.
I had a choice between basic and formation flying, and I chose the latter. The T-28 was easy to check out, and I was quickly riding in the back seat explaining how to use airspeed to control closure rate and hoping we didn't run into each other.
The T-28 is a fun aircraft to fly. It's not fast, but once you get to altitude, there's no difference between 500 knots and 250. The aircraft is powered by the same engine as the H-34 with slight modifications. It's a hot rod nine-cylinder radial that develops about 1425 HP at sea level. Takeoffs are a hoot, and it will set your ears back. You can land it on a dime, and it's fully acrobatic. You don't need a pressure suit with the T-28. Barrel rolls are conducted at a positive G-force and smooth as silk. A loop takes four Gs, and you have to tighten your stomach muscles at the top to prevent blood draining from your eyes and losing sight. Spins have to be induced and are somewhat violent with the nose pitching up and down with a lot of vibration, but all you need to do is center the rudder and stick, and it comes out by itself. A flat spin is something else altogether and if encountered your only choice is to bail out. The T-28 didn't have an ejection seat, and when bailing out in a flat spin you have to make sure you choose the right side, or you may find yourself stuck to the fuselage and riding it all the way down asking yourself why you didn't stay in helicopters. Fortunately, I never had to bail out, and due to the flat terrain around western Florida and Alabama, I'd probably stay with the aircraft with an engine failure looking for an old runway or a flat farmer's field. But, in a flat spin staying with the plane meant certain death.
Teaching formation became old hat after a while, and I transferred to night flying. I liked flying at night. It's colder than the daytime, and you can see surprisingly well at night even with no moon. The engine runs better at colder temperatures, and it's easy to get to 250 knots. The controls stiffen up at higher airspeeds, but the plane remains easy to control.
When all the students landed, I asked permission from the tower for a fast pass that was always granted.  I picked up 250 knots, broke at midfield and dropped the speed brake while holding the nose down to maintain altitude and landed right on the runway numbers.
I think I enjoyed night flying better than formation training, but when I was a student, they taught gunnery with planes equipped with 50 caliper machine guns. The instructor towed a target, and you flew alone with no instructor. High above the target, you started your run by rolling and descending and picking up speed and you recovered by rolling out and lining up with the target and squeezing the trigger. The guns made a quite a bit of noise and as you passed by you released the trigger and climbed back up for another pass. We only had six gunnery flights, but I could have spent weeks doing it every day.
Carrier landings was another enjoyable venture. We practiced for several weeks until we could land at a precise place on the runway and then it was off to the boat in the gulf. Two touch and go landings and six arrested and my God what a thrill! You don't need a catapult with the T-28. You held the brakes and added full power, and when directed you released the brakes and took off over the ocean registering a positive rate of climb. Takeoffs were conducted with the canopy open in case the engine quit, and you had to ditch into the water because it was easier to escape the sinking aircraft.
But all of that was when I was a student and now night flying was becoming tiresome. I did not want to go back to a helicopter squadron and jets seemed elusive, and I tried to resign my regular commission. I was offered an assignment to teach students basic in the T2-Buckeye in Meridian, Mississippi, and that may have been a path to what I wanted but no guarantee.
A good friend told me he had an interview with a company named Air America in Washington DC and I offered to fly him there in a T-28. We could take cross countries anytime we wanted. I went along for the interview and asked for a job but was told there were no openings in helicopters that my friend was hired for.  I wondered if there were any fixed wing openings and was asked what I was flying and when I told him T-28s he acted as if I had committed a felony. I quickly said I had some C-45 experience, which I did but limited when I was a student.
I was hired and terminated my career with the Marines and spent the next seven and one-half years with Air America starting as a co-pilot for six months in the C-47 and two years in the Pilatus Porter based in Saigon.
I really liked the Porter, but nothing lasts forever, and when flying activity was reduced, I could see I couldn't hold a captain position any longer and would have to settle for a co-pilot spot in one of the larger fixed-wing aircraft.
But there was an alternative. I was licensed and trained in the H-34, and my seniority was higher in the rotary wing division than fixed wing. I transferred to Udorn, Thailand flying the same H-34 helicopter I operated in the Marines. I heard it was a demanding job and I wanted to see if I could handle it and planned on staying one-year max. I ended up staying five more years, but that's another story.   


Me and My T-28  by Allen Cates

Air America Chalet LS20
Locked, Loaded, Ready to Rock and Roll.
Select interview then press play arrow

  • Allen Cates, Author Honor Denied12:03
  • John Wiren of Air America6:43
  • Larry Stadulous Air America8:39
  • Ben Densley Air America5:55
John Wiren with Hmong celebrating his book "Flight of the Erawan"  Milwaukee WI
Click on thumbnail photos to enlarge
Photographs courtesy of John Wiren
Recommended Books (click on covers)
1970 in the midst of battle at Long Tieng Air America pilot, Jim Russell,  delivers needed supplies.
The iconic photo by Hubert Van Es shows a last-minute rescue by Bob Caron, Air America helicopter pilot and CIA contract employee, O.B. Harnage (reaching for the people) before the North Vietnamese overran the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon April 29, 1975 on the Pittman Apartments in downtown Saigon, where senior Central Intelligence Agency employees were housed.  Photo rights Corbis.  Click on photo for video clip.
AIR AMERICA "the most shot at airline"
Honoring the 240 Air America pilots who lost their lives to hostile air fire
Air America  Memorial Plaque at UT Dallas McDermott Library
The Secret War in Laos and How I Got There 
by Warren Erickson
"Our motivation was hard to explain. It certainly wasn’t the money. I think we liked the freedom, the flying and overcoming obstacles to get the job done. CAT/Air America had a slogan  something like we deliver anything, anyplace, anytime.” These were not empty words, our government really got its money’s worth with Air America."  (For the full story click here)
Photo Albert Grandolini Collection
It Takes Five to Tango by John Wiren
"Early in May of 1964 I was instructed to go see the station manager.
I immediately wondered what I had done wrong this time but, when I found out that four other of my cohorts were likewise summoned, I was somewhat relieved. With the station manger was a customer type (CIA). We were ushered into the office, and it was immediately evident that this was a closed- door meeting.  We  were asked in the most strictest of confidence whether we would be interested in flying the T-28 (Trojan) for interdiction of roads, air to ground combat and SAR. To the man, we eagerly accepted the offer. It was our chance to retaliate after being shot at for several years in unarmed aircraft." 
(For the rest of the story click here).  Photos of John:
The lack of Lao pilots led the CIA to form in May 1964 the A-Team, a pool of Air America pilots trained to fly the T-28s. This unmarked T-28C, brought up to D standard, was seen taking off for a reconnaissance sortie with an Air America crew.  The A-Team was disbanded in 1967 when sufficient Lao and Thai pilots were available.   Credit: acig.org  and  National Security Archive

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