Tim with Hmong T-28 student pilot Ya Lee at Udorn
by Rev. Timothy McKeown
From my perspective there were basically three stages that the Udorn Det. 1 56th SOW went through:
1. From its inception to around 1972 the mission of “Det. One” as we always referred to it was to train a few
Hmong pilots and to fly a lot of combat with them as “Advisors”. The original guys were highly experienced pilots who usually already had some combat tour(s) under their belts. Their focus was more combat than training oriented. I crossed paths with a few of these men just as I was arriving in early 1973. They told stories of having flown many missions in blue jeans and T-shirts. Some times when they got word that a news person was snooping around they would lower their seats down and hide in the back cockpit until they were safely airborne.
2. This is the stage of Det. 1 where both I and Rich Ambrose and John Gunn were heavily involved. The shift is already taking place towards more of a training mission and less actual combat. In 1972 Nixon’s Vietnamization of the war was in full swing and Det. 1 focused more and more on training Hmong pilots (and mechanics, etc.) for VP. Somebody somewhere apparently had made the decision to start closing down Keesler and move the unit to Webb and the T-37’s. Of course nobody but the higher ups knew about this. But somewhere somebody made a connection and decided to see if Keesler Air Training Command Military Assistance Program pilots could be
used at Udorn. At a 3389th squadron meeting in 1972 a couple of men showed up one day and asked for volunteers to fly the T-28 in a Top Secret environment that they would tell us about only after we had volunteered.
I raised my hand and became one of the first to leave Keesler. I had only been there about two years, but I was bored with the place and my wife was divorcing me, so I volunteered. I therefore became one of the first in a long line of pilots to move from Keesler to Udorn.
As a young First Lt. with around 1,000 hours of flying (around 700 at Keesler in the T-28) and as I now look back at it I think they used me as a “test case”. Nobody, including myself, considered me a top notch pilot. I was an average pilot with my fair share of screw ups, a failed instrument check ride, etc. But I was an excellent instructor. So they put me through the mill: AT-28 upgrade training at Hurlburt where I learned to drop bombs, fire rockets, and strafe with the 50 Cal machine guns, and fly combat formations. At Hurlburt we even flew night combat sorties. I flew
one live fire night sortie flying formation off of the blue flame out of the exhaust stack of the lead AT-28 – no lights – along with an AC-130 gun ship that was also dropping flares. It was one of the scariest missions I have ever flown in my life and I was relieved to arrive at Udorn and find out that they were not flying any night combat missions.
Anyway, I made Captain while I was at Hurlburt Field. From there I had to go to water survival training in Florida, then the main survival training up at Fairchild AFB in Spokane, Washington. I enjoyed water survival – we got some free parasailing flights before that became a big tourist thing to do!
Survival training at Fairchild was horrible. There were four parts to that Fairchild AFB training. Classroom; Field training involving a long trek learning topography and how to use a compass and how to survive by building shelters, etc. Most of the men in my class were enlisted folks off of B-52 crews that were going to be flying combat missions over SE Asia, so, as a Captain I had additional leadership responsibilities during the whole training; Escape and Evading which had two components: a difficult night time obstacle course and E&E navigation around “enemy” to
get to a safe pick up zone where a helicopter picked us up; and a POW and interrogation experience. The POW experience including being in solitary confinement eating smelly semi spoiled fish and rice soup on Thanksgiving Day 1972. The Fairchild experience was so rough on me that I made 15 copies of the completion certificate
and salted them around in all of my stuff because I was going to make sure that I never had to go through that
again. I finally got orders to leave the US on January 1, 1973 to head over to Udorn. On the way I was ordered to make a stop in the Philippines Islands at Clark AFB and take the Jungle Survival Training. While it was tough it was not as bad as Fairchild. It did involve a rather interesting E & E exercise where the Air Force paid naked (G-strings only) Philipino natives with bags of rice to go out and find us in our hiding places. I successfully hid for almost
the entire time but was finally discovered when one of them stepped on me! I had laid down in an indentation, pulled leaves and brush up over me, and laid still for hours with lots of bugs and stuff crawling all around me. I passed but also learned some very important lessons from that training.
So, I finally arrived in Udorn around January 12th of 1973. I was not allowed to fly alone for the first two weeks because of my body clock and my need for local area check out rides, etc. I immediately learned that most of our missions were training flights flown inside Thailand. We took these Hmong men from never having driven anything larger than a motorcycle to being able to handle and fly the AT-28 D. They were smart, motivated, handsome, and fun students to work with. They learned fast. After basic flying we taught them just enough instrument flying to be able to save themselves when the weather crumped. We taught them formation flying and then taught them ordinance delivery using a “range” there in Thailand and the small blue “practice smoke bombs”.
Bombing and ordinance delivery were basically the same dive bombing tactics that had been developed and use in WW II and Korea. And finally we would carry live ordinance with them to the range in Thailand. Then we would
fly several live ordinance missions into Laos, work with a Raven FAC, etc. and then finally put them through their Top Gun competition right before graduation. We would also take our students and fly combat missions by flying helicopter escort missions across the Mekong. We would fly in slow flight low and slow for around four hours to give cover to Air American helicopters making drops and pickups. These were brutal missions because of the heat generated in the cockpits of the T-28. And we could not fly with the canopy open since the Yankee System ejection seats would not function with the canopy open. For these live ordinance missions across the Mekong river we Americans received combat pay and earned credits towards Air Medals (I earned the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters). These were my only “combat” sorties while I was in the Air Force and to my knowledge I was never
shot at! At least I never came home with any extra holes in the airplane! Therefore, the Air Force had proved to its satisfaction that they could take a young average pilot from Keesler and transition him to Udorn.
3. The shift to total training takes place. Stage 3 began with the peace accords, the return of the POW’s, etc. that all happened in 1973. For a while after the peace accords had grounded all of the F-4’s out of Udorn we were still flying live ordinance missions and really raising a lot of questions and pissing off the grounded F-4 jocks. That’s because VP was still flying and fighting in Laos in the “Secret War” that was not part of the peace accords. The Det. 1 56th SOW ramp was tucked away at Udorn behind the Air America ramp. Access was highly restricted to the Air America ramp and therefore also to our AT-28 ramp. But things started changing and somewhere along about June or July of 1973 (if my memory serves me correctly – I have lost my records in all the moves I have made all over the world) we stopped our “combat” flights across the Mekong.
Two fatal crashes – one at Hurlburt and the other at the Udorn range in Thailand – where the wings broke at the bottom of dive bomb passes when we were usually pulling around 6 G’s – also added to the phase three
development of Det. 1. By this time it was public news that Keesler was closing. We suddenly saw a lot of our former buddies from Keesler arrive at Udorn in November and December of 1973 right before I shipped out around
Dec. 20, 1973. A few had gone through Hurlburt upgrade but they had shut down that operation once they lost the two IP’s and that aircraft there at Hurlburt. So many of these new arrivals to Udorn in late 1973 and early 1974 (as Keesler is shutting down) arrived without ever having flown a D model nor learned to deliver ordinance. Rich Ambrose and others were then tasked with teaching these men what they would have learned had the Hurlburt
upgrade training still been operating. Most of these Keesler men never flew a combat mission across the Mekong.
Fewer Hmong pilots were being trained at Udorn but they saw a sudden influx of Cambodian pilots. Until it was shut down (1975) Udorn became a training base mostly for the Cambodians flying the AT-28. It was during this period of Det One that Brian Shul who went on to fly the SR-71 was “shot down” and badly burned in 1974. His version of the story leaves out a lot of details but it makes for a great story. He was flying a training mission inside of Thailand and was making an approach into a US Marine base runway that we often used called Nam Phong in Thailand. Some called it the “Rose Garden”. According to what Brian told me they had been briefed that there was insurgent activity around Nam Phong. He was on final when his engine quit. The crash investigation team reported that they found the engine had quit due to several bullets lodged in parts of the engine so he can legitimately say that he was “shot down”. The jungle he landed in was in Thailand and just off the end of the runway at Nam Phong.
USAF Stars and Stripes newspaper article on the "Meo" pilots at Long Cheng. circa 1972-73. Courtesy Arthur M. Kinchen Jr. who was stationed at Udorn at the time.
Tim McKeown's T-28 Checklist that he donated to the Nat'l Museum of the USAF, converted to Flipbook format. Click on cover and click arrows to turn the pages. Tim also donated many other personal items such as combat briefing sheets, ordinance delivery angles, bomb sight angles, aerobatic maneuvering speeds, and “instructor” notes.
We'll be adding his Dash One Manual and other notes soon.
John Gunn, Tim McKeown and Rich Ambrose in front of the Nat'l Museum of the USAF SE Asia Gallery "The Secret War" Exhibit. 3389th Reunion April 12, 2014.
Det. 1 56th SOW Instructor Pilot
Tim at Hurlburt Field, 2nd from left.
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