Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: 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.