formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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February 22, 2011 Lance Borden, part 3

The Liberty Gazette
February 22, 2011
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Last week we left you in 1968, at the height of war in Vietnam. 21-year-old Lance Borden had found himself in the middle of neighboring Laos; his primary job, repairing and replacing radio equipment in the North American T-28s flown by Laotian and Thai pilots and the Cessna 0-1 Birddogs flown by the group known as The Ravens. If no radio work was needed, Lance helped load and arm bombs and rockets and aided in pulling the T-28 props through during the starting sequence of their big radial engines. He helped fuel airplanes, which at first was out of 55-gallon drums using hand pumps. The fuel truck was a welcome piece of equipment.

If a pilot returned from a mission and needed radio work, he signaled Lance by cupping his hands over his ears, and Lance, in his agile youth, would leap and grasp the plane’s big machine gun and flip himself up on to the wing. The pilot would tell him the problem with his radios and he’d fix it. This went on until December, 1968, when Lance went further “up country” to a special operation in Moung Soui, Laos.

Linda: Moung Soui was labeled Lima 108 on military maps. Its runway was made of Pierced Steel Planking (PSP). The metal mat made a quick-build runway overlaying red dirt where nothing grew because of the Agent Orange dropped there regularly. There was little shelter against the elements or enemy, just a couple small buildings and some bunkers in case of attack. The men spent most of their time on the flight line; Project 404 was the name of their program–code name: Palace Dog.

Leaving the base at Udorn before sunrise, Lance flew 30 to 40 minutes to Vientiane, waited for another C-46 that took another hour to arrive in Moung Soui. He worked all day as airplanes took off on sorties and returned to be refueled and rearmed, then did it all again. The fighting was close; the T-28s’ missions rarely lasted more than 30 minutes. The Birddogs might fly for a couple hours. Most of the U.S.-supported Hmong controlled the high mountaintop ground. The Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese controlled the valleys. At day’s end Lance and the others boarded another shuttle returning to Udorn. They’d worked all day in Moung Soui supporting the air operations. Returning to Udorn, they changed into their USAF fatigues, then once off base, changed back to civvies to go out partying all night – youth.

Mike: Every once in a while Lance rode along in 0-1 Birddogs on missions; the pilots even let him fly. He saw them fire their rockets; Birddogs carried 2.5” diameter FFARs – Folding Fin Aerial Rockets, two per side. U-17s (Cessna 185s) carried four per side. Then he watched the T28s diving in afterwards, performing their air strikes. He rode in the back of a T-28 once, carrying cluster bombs on a combat mission. They flew into a fortification, saw the shooting below, dove in, dropped their load, pulled up and rolled inverted to watch where they hit – impressive for an adventurous young man. But as he returned to his duties he knew the war wasn’t far away.

Next week we’ll tell of Lance’s final assignment in Laos before returning State side. Until then, blue skies.

February 15, 2011 Lance Borden, part 2

The Liberty Gazette
February 15, 2011

Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

July, 1968, Sergeant Lance Borden was transferred to Udorn AFB, Northern Thailand. “When I arrived in Thailand I sat in the Central Base Processing Office all day. All the other guys were being processed leaving another avionics tech from a B52 base in Mississippi and myself the only two left at closing time.” Very curious about their future, they reminded the men in charge that they had not been processed. “We know,” was the response.

Their 432nd Combat Support Group orders were replaced with new ones assigning them to Detachment 1, 56th Air Commando Wing there at Udorn. Voicing their concern, “We’re not Air Commandos, we’re electronics guys,” was only met with, “Yeah, I know,” and an escort to a waiting area where Sergeant Dennis, sporting an Aussie hat with the brim folded up on one side, with AIR COMMANDO emblazoned on it in large black letters, bloused fatigues and jungle boots would pick them up in a Jeep. Riding in the Jeep past the Air America ramp to the 56th Air Commando Wing facilities, Lance and the other tech could only imagine why they were there and what their assignment would be. On the flight line were T-28 Trojans and O-1 Birddogs used by the legendary Forward Air Controller group, The Ravens. Then they saw it: a full set of shops; sheet metal, engine, avionics. The Air Commando Wing’s flight school was training Thai and Laotian pilots to fly T-28s. Lance’s job would be to work on the radios in these aircraft.

Linda: Time passed, and while working at Udorn, Lance occasionally met fellow servicemen as they returned from “up country,” meaning Laos where the CIA was waging a Secret War against an estimated 10,000 North Vietnamese troops in Laos who along with the Pro-communist Pathet Lao, were protecting the Ho Chi Minh Trail, their main supply route to South Vietnam, the major portion of which cut through Laos. Stories of great adventure and even getting to fly with the pilots in the back seat of the Birddogs intrigued the youthful, adventuresome Lance. He gave it some thought: he, too, could go “up country,” but that’s where the fighting was; then again, the combat pay rate was tempting. He volunteered to go. A secret operation, Lance was briefed that he could not speak anything about it for 10 years.

Mike: In September 1968, Lance began taking the daily shuttle from Udorn to Vientiane, the administrative capital of Laos situated on the Mekong River across the border from Thailand. The shuttle, code name: Alley Cat, consisted of Curtiss C-46 Commandos, DeHavilland DHC-4 Caribous and C-123K Providers flown by Air America. In a process known as “Sheep Dipping”, every morning they turned in their identification and Geneva Convention papers and were given Embassy Attaché diplomatic cards. There was no protection if they were captured – and no one had ever escaped. Lance and the others changed into civilian clothes and traveled as civilians.

Linda: The operation, nicknamed the “Steve Canyon Program,” attracted Thai mercenaries, who flew the T28s, and American USAF O-1 Birddog pilots, pirate-type characters. There was indeed, much adventure ahead for Lance, as you’ll see next week. Til then, blue skies.

February 8, 2011 Lance Borden part 1

The Liberty Gazette
February 8, 2011

Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Over the last three weeks we’ve told a bit of the story of Inland Aviation and the designer of the Inland airplanes, Dewey Bonbrake. Dewey’s grandson, Lance Borden, is the proud owner of one of very few remaining Inlands, a Super Sport model. He happily shows it off in its present state of restoration, speaking of its history and of his beloved grandfather, and seems surprised by the interest in Inland since most people have never heard of it. But Lance, a pilot in his own right, has had some fascinating experiences himself.

Graduating from high school in Columbus, Ohio in 1965, Lance was always interested in aviation thanks to a rich family history. He’d seen the model for Grandpa’s Inland and heard stories growing up, which fueled his interest. Grandpa Bonbrake passed away when Lance was nine, but remains an inspiration to this day. So, like grandfather, like grandson, at 15, Lance built a hang glider from bamboo and plastic and stuff he bought at the hardware store. He laughs, “It even flew 100 feet or so.” Lance and his brother had already tried jumping off their parents’ two-story house using bed sheets as a parachute, which now brings the wise-with-age observation, “It’s a good thing we didn’t take the hang glider off the house!”

Maybe his love of flying also has something to do with his first airplane ride at 15, in an Aeronca Champ, which the owner offered to sell for $800. Lance mowed lawns trying to earn enough money to buy it, but $800 was a lot of money for a kid in 1961. Airplane ownership would have to wait.

Mike: Lance planned to enter Ohio State University as a pre-med student, but after a summer spent on a fishing boat in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina and returning too late to start classes he received a draft notice from the Army, which caused him to join the Air Force. Medical school would have to wait until after the service.

Meanwhile, his passion for airplanes and electronics (his grandfather having given him a crystal radio when he was eight) would forge his path in the service. Attending technical school at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, Lance learned how to repair aviation navigation aids. He began installing and repairing radio equipment on B52s and KC 135s while stationed at Carswell AFB near Fort Worth. A fellow who transferred into Lance’s unit after a tour in Vietnam got Lance’s attention when he told the guys it wasn’t so bad over there for avionics techs because they were working in the shop but received combat pay. So in the summer of 1968, Lance Borden volunteered for Southeast Asia duty.

Soon thereafter came orders assigning him to the 432nd Combat Support Group, an F-4 Phantom unit based at Udorn Air Force Base in Northern Thailand, but the surprise came when he was given a maroon-colored diplomatic passport, which was not normal practice.

Before heading to Thailand he was sent to Hamilton AFB in California for a crash course in hand-to-hand combat tactics and knives and guns. “I wondered why an avionics tech would be sent to a combat course,” he recalls.

Linda: Find out next week, to paraphrase Oliver Hardy, “What a fine mess he’s gotten himself into…”

February 1, 2011 Lawrence Dewey Bonbrake, Airplane Designer and Builder part 3

The Liberty Gazette
February 1, 2011
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Continuing last week’s story of Inland Aviation, financier Samuel Insull enjoyed financial success until President Roosevelt appointed Harold Ickes as Secretary of the Interior. Ickes was a foe of Insull’s, and when the Insull empire collapsed during the Great Depression, bringing about the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, he was indicted by the Federal Government for antitrust and fraud. They charged he had monopolies because he owned several utilities companies. When his empire went down in 1932, so did Inland Aviation. Later, Samuel Insull was found not guilty, but he had already lost everything.

Dewey Bonbrake, the Inland designer, also lost everything he’d worked so hard for after the company had produced somewhere between 35 and 90 airplanes. Lance Borden, Dewey’s grandson, has a letter from Arthur Hardgrave claiming they built 90 planes, but Lance hasn’t found documentation for that many. Although concrete evidence of an exact number has not been verified, Lance thinks the number is 46. Seven are registered with the FAA, one of them is owned by Lance and is under restoration in a hangar at Ellington Field.

Following the collapse of the Inland Aviation Company Dewey came to Houston to work as a security guard for Shell on the Ship Channel. Sometime in the 1930’s a kid whose father was a service manager at Bland Cadillac in Houston bought an Inland Sportster from a couple of Houston cops for $200. He learned to fly it and made money to pay them back teaching other kids to fly. Long after the demise of Inland Aviation that kid happened to fly over Dewey Bonbrake’s house one day. When Dewey saw the Inland he followed it and met the kid, Charles Walling, who grew up to be a WWII pilot, P-51 racer, and corporate pilot in Houston.

Linda: So where are the few surviving Inlands now? Besides Lance’s in Houston, two are in Kansas, owned by Chuck Hall, retired Kansas State architect professor. He has an Inland Sport and a Sportster–the only Sport that still exists and maybe the only Sportster. Harry Stenger in Florida has two Super Sports. There are two in Delaware with two different owners, one of which may be the one that broke all those speed and altitude records.

Lance tells us that during the Depression his grandfather was still designing airplanes. One he called the Osage, but it was probably never built. He went to Los Angeles to work for Lockheed and Consolidated, where he did design work on the Connie, then worked briefly for the University of Southern California in 1944. USC sent him to Los Alamos as the Chief Engineer on the Atomic Bomb on the “Manhattan Project,” where he designed the trigger mechanism for the Atomic bomb. Lance has drawings of projectiles for the gun bomb. Dewey was radiated on his belly and got skin cancer, but he left Los Alamos after seven months because of the dry air that caused bad nose bleeds, and went to work for Vultee, Consolidated, Lockheed, and then Fairchild. He was one of the designers on the B36, and then the Electra P3, Pogo, and C130, followed by the Fairchild F27 and C119s.

Mike: Lance learned a lot from his grandfather, which will result in a bucket of stories in the coming weeks. Til then, blue skies.