news and events » smokejumper magazine

Smokejumper Magazine Header

Smokejumper Magazine Article

return to Smokejumper Magazine

Have Smokejumper Magazine delivered to you with an NSA Membership

Air America, The Ranch and The Veil of Secrecy

by Johnny Kirkley (Cave Junction '64) |

Air America, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and a secret air base in Takhli, Thailand, known as "The Ranch," have a storied history that merged during the Vietnam War. The U.S. military operated overtly and the CIA operated covertly from 1960 to 1975 at "The Ranch." Over 50 of the 100 former smokejumpers who worked for the CIA saw duty at 'The Ranch." Ten lost their lives. This is a disclosure of operations and events that killed some of those ten, plus others.

"The Ranch" had its beginnings in early 1950 when China began sending arms across the border to Ho Chi Minh's revolutionaries. The CIA concluded that the continued support of Civil Air Transport (CAT) as a covert operative was in the national interest. The U.S. Departments of State, Defense, and Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed that CAT was a secure, reliable source of transportation to move personnel and supplies and ideal for engaging in various clandestine activities. This action on CAT reflected Washington officials' concern about communist advances in Asia supporting their "domino theory" fearing all Asian countries becoming communist. In August 1950, a CIA team travelled to Bangkok and negotiated an agreement with the Thai National Police to equip and train 350 Thai police and military personnel as a counterinsurgency force. The aid was channeled through a newly created CIA proprietary, Southeast Asia Supply Company and thus began a unique governmental relationship between the US and Thailand that lasted 25 years.

The early history of CAT is complicated. In 1946, Claire Chennault and Whiting Willauer signed a contract creating Chinese National Relief and Rehabilitation Air Transport. It began operation in 1947 by carrying relief supplies from coastal ports into the interior of China. As the civil war in China expanded in 1948, CAT became more involved with Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fighting against Mao Tse-tung's Communist forces. When the Nationalists were defeated, CAT settled in Taipei, Taiwan, with part of the fleet financed by Chiang Kai-shek's Republic of China (ROC). In 1950, the CIA purchased CAT as a CIA proprietary airline. (US government-owned companies are required to go through congress. CIA's proprietary companies are not closely scrutinized or congressionally approved). CAT then became CAT Inc., an American company operating as a Taipei-based commercial airline (Civil Air Transport), according to a special permission (franchise) awarded to General Chennault and a Tachikawa, Japan, based contract carrier CAT Inc. Because the ROC insisted that only a Chinese company could operate out of Taiwan, the franchise question became a political football kicked back and forth between Washington and Taipei. After years of negotiating, a new structure came out in 1955 creating three companies:

1.CivilAirTransportCoLtd., a Chinese company
2. Asiatic Aeronautical Co Ltd., a Taiwan maintenance station, later Air Asia Co Ltd.
3. CAT Inc. (a CIA proprietary), in part owned Air Asia Co Ltd.

A directive by President Eisenhower in 1955 approved what was later to become known as the 303 Committee. It provided oversight and policy for covert activities initiated by the CIA, implying that the agency was an instrument of the U.S. Government, not the government itself. In March 1959 CAT was renamed Air America Inc.

Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base was built in the mid-1950s about 150 miles northwest of Bangkok, Thailand. In January 1958, there was nothing at the airport except a long Strategic Air Command recovery runway and fuel. At this time the Thai government began allowing the United States to use the base for covert operations in Southeast Asia. CAT took military C-118A and DC-6 flights from Okinawa and moved them to Takhli. This continued a decade of CIA covert support supplying food and ammunition to Tibet. At the urging of CIA point man, Garfield Thorsrud (MSO-46), CAT Tibet flights began using C-130s in July 1959.

In November 1959, reconnaissance missions over Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Tibet, and China were part of the "Fast Move" operation. Necessary supplies and personnel rendezvoused with a U-2 that had been ferried into Takhli. On April 5, 1960, a mission over China experienced mechanical problems. The U-2 was forced to make a crash landing in a rice paddy far short of Takhli. Since the area was inaccessible to large vehicles, the U-2 had to be cut into pieces to be moved. In appreciation for assistance by local villagers, the CIA funded a new school. After the U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Russia on May 1, 1960, all CIA planes were ordered not to violate international borders. U-2 missions were temporally suspended but later resumed and continued to be staged from Takhli throughout the 1960s.

USAF Major Harry "Heinie" Aderholt became the Senior CIA Air Operations Officer at Takhli and later was responsible for the construction of Lima STOL (short takeoff and landing) sites in Laos.

Takhli C-46s and C-130s used former smokejumpers hired by the CIA as Parachute Dispatch Officers, (PDOs). These jumpers included Roland "Andy" Andersen (MSO-52), Fred Barnowsky (MSO-42), Ray Beasley (MYC-52), Bill Demmons (MSO-51), Darrell "Yogi" Eubanks (IDC-54), Miles Johnson (MYC-53), Thomas "Shep" Johnson (MYC-56), Art Jukkala (MSO-56), John "Tex" Lewis (MYC-53), Dave Bevan (MSO-55), Richard "Pete" Peterson (MYC-47), Ray Schenck (MSO-56), Russell Kapitz (MSO-58), Don Courtney (MSO-56), Jack Cahill (MSO-58), Mike Oehlerich (MSO-60) and Jerry Daniels (MSO-58). PDO duties rotated between rigging and loading the planes one day, to flying and dropping loads of food, aka white rice, and military supplies, aka hard rice, the following day.

Secrecy required Air America personnel to refer to Takhli as "The Ranch." A special CIA area was fenced off in a remote corner of the base. Flight operations were conducted in the hanger, but the area where the U-2 was stored was off limits to Air America crews. Resembling a military officers club, the compound included air conditioned barracks, cafeteria, day room and bar. The food was exceptional, movies were current, and the beer was plentiful. As hard as he tried, Tom Greiner (MSO-55) was never able to eat them out of ice cream.

Air America, Southern Air Transport and CAT aircraft flying covert missions out of "The Ranch" were completely "sanitized," i.e., stripped of all markings including tail and serial numbers. A false FAA certificate of registration was put in the cockpit. In the event of a crash, the aircraft never existed. Air America crews were given special clearance for clandestine "black" missions. When these crews arrived to fly these missions, they changed into nondescript jumpsuits and removed all personal identification. Upon returning to "The Ranch" after a mission, the crew was given an envelope of cash, and the aircraft would go through a two to three hour procedure. Correct name and tail numbers were repainted, and FAA licenses and registration papers were put back on board to make the plane legal.

In 1961 Operation Millpond was a joint CIA-Pentagon covert operation designed to bomb the Plaine des Jarres (PDJ) in Laos. About 20 unmarked B-26 light bombers were stationed at Takhli. These planes were crewed by Air America and "sheep dipped" Alabama National Guard pilots. CIA "sheep dipping" established clean credentials for military pilots. The "Bay of Pigs" fiasco in Cuba resulted in President Kennedy cancelling "Millpond."

The CIA began to organize the construction of STOL strips on mountainsides in Laos. US Navy Seabees were sent to Takhli to extend the runway at Sam Thong (LS-20) in Laos. By the end of the war, there were approximately 450 STOL sites in the Kingdom of Laos.

In May 1961, President Kennedy sent a letter stating that the supreme US representative in all countries was the US Ambassador unless there was a military commander fighting a war in that country. Interspersed with the Tibet missions were missions into Laos to support General Vang Pao's Hmong guerrilla soldiers fighting against Kong Le's Neutralist/Pathet Lao troops. On August 13, 1961, C-46 (#B-136) crashed when a wing tip hit a tree while making an aerial delivery at Pha Khao (LS-14) to Vang Pao's Hmong army. Killed were Captain Norwood Forte, F/O Roger Sarno, PDO's Darrel Eubanks (IDC-54), David Bevin (MSO-55) and John Lewis (MYC-53). They became the first Americans to die in the Secret War in Laos. Eubanks, Bevin and Lewis were honored in 2017 when three stars were added to the CIA Memorial Wall. This event greatly impacted the CIA when a major Texas newspaper published the story revealing its secret operations in Laos. The result was an end to the direct hiring of PDO's by the Agency. Air Asia Co. Ltd. began hiring flight crews as contract personnel buffering CIA covert operations with "plausible deniability." CIA PDO's became Air America Air Freight Specialist (AFS), aka "Kickers."

In a coup d'etat on August 9, 1960, Kong Le seized control of Vientiane and insisted that the Lao government return to a "policy of genuine neutrality." In December Kong Le withdrew from Vientiane to the PDJ, after heavy fighting against pro-American Lao government forces, and joined his neutralist forces with the Pathet Lao. He stayed with Soviet support for two years. A disagreement ensued when they began denying his forces Soviet supplies. When an Air America C-46 resupplying his forces was shot down by pro-communist troops, a series of military clashes and assassinations on both sides started. Kong Le left the PDJ in 1963 to join Vang Pao whom he had been fighting against.

In response to threats along Thailand's border with Laos, Takhli was the first base to support combat-oriented recon missions. To carry out recon, a group of USAF F-100 Super Sabres was brought in from Cannon AFB, New Mexico.

In October 1961, two B-26s at Takhli flew photo reconnaissance missions on a demand basis. This project was called "Black Watch" and flown exclusively by Air America pilots. The pilots carried no identification and wore T-shirts, cutoffs, combat boots, 357 Magnums, and gold bracelets to exchange for food and safety if shot down.

Directed by Jack Manska (CIA), Pilot John Lee and AFS Bob Herald (MSO-55) flew several C-123 night missions from "The Ranch" into North Vietnam near Dien Bien Phu. Seeing the lights of Hanoi, they dropped loads of South Vietnamese soldiers into the jungle dressed in smokejumper style green canvas suits, helmets and masks. The soldiers monitored the roads for military traffic and gathered intelligence along the Lao border.

A "Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos" was reached in Geneva in July 1962. Instead of ending the Laotian war, both the US and Russia conspired to evade its official condemnations. Hanoi continued to send more troops into Laos while the CIA's Air America became involved in combat missions that went beyond its role of humanitarian aid. Also, Long Tieng (LS-98), later (LS-20 Alternate), was built to support military activities. "Alternate" became the busiest CIA base in Laos as the headquarters of Hmong General Vang Pao.

Starting in November 1962 until the 1970s, Southern Air Transport (SAT) flew shuttles from Kadena, Okinawa, to Takhli, to Charbatia, India, code name "Oak Tree." Projects included flying Tibetan tribesmen "insurgents," military aid and equipment for building up a Tibetan resistance force. Insurgents cut communication lines and mined the roads between Tibet and China in order to slow the flow of Chinese soldiers and supplies into Tibet. The Takhli radar system shut down for these departing and returning flights so they wouldn't be on record. A couple hours before landing 100-200 miles out of Charbitia, these aircraft descended to 500 feet above the water to avoid Calcutta radar detection. Voice radio silence was maintained while a telegraph operator reported flight progress. These crews included Pilots Doc Johnson, Joe Hazen, Cliff Costa, Jesse Walton, and "Kickers" Andy Anderson (MSO-52/CIA), Tom Greiner (MSO-55/AFS), John Manley (CJ-62/AFS), Karl Seethaler (MSO-55/AFS), Cliff White (AFS), Jim Moran(AFS), Bob Herald (MSO-55/AFS), Tom Butler (MSO-61/AFS) and others.

As a result of the Geneva Accords, operations in Laos declined sharply in 1963. Air America's flying was restricted to just resupplying the Hmong. Employees were laid off and planes were taken out of service. Hanoi continued sending additional troops into Laos, expanding its area of control by attacking Hmong villages. The Kennedy administration authorized the CIA to increase the size of the Hmong army to 20,000.

In response to the Geneva Agreement, Lee Gossett (RDD-57) and Karl Seethaler (MSO-55) recall Air America flights out of "The Ranch" developed a technique to avoid treaty restraints. When a C-46 loaded with ammo departed "The Ranch", a duplicate C-46 scheduled for "local training" would depart Vientiane and go into a silent holding pattern in northern Laos. When "The Ranch" plane crossed into Lao air space, it transmitted a code word letting the duplicate plane know it was taking over its call sign. Now flying as the local training plane, it preceded to its airdrop destination. When "The Ranch" plane crossed the Mekong River back into Thailand, it sent another code letting the duplicate Vientiane plane know it could resume its call sign and return to Vientiane.

In March 1964, North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces attacked across the PDJ. Full-scale fighting broke out in Laos. A special circumstance existed in Laos. It was declared neutral, yet the US was engaged in military activities without a military commander. Although the CIA was responsible for conducting paramilitary operations, William Sullivan, US Ambassador to Laos, became the de facto military commander of the Secret War in Laos. All decisions were made by him in order to maintain the charade of observing the Geneva Accords and adhering to Lao neutrality.

In November 1964, Vientiane "Kickers" Gary Palmer and Frank Oppel were flying out of "The Ranch" in a C-46 piloted by Jim Voyles and F/O Owen Jacobs. Their flight was to Phou Pha-Thi which is located near the Lao-North Vietnam border. At 5,800 feet it's the highest peak in the region, with steep karst cliffs on all sides, permitting observation of a large area. The French used Pha-Thi for suppression of the Viet-Minh base at Sam Neua. When America replaced France after Dien Bien Phu, the CIA developed "Site-85" (Phou Pha-Thi) into a fortified stronghold.

On the first flight of two missions a day, Captain Voyles decided to let F/O Jacobs fly left seat to train and practice aerial drops. The cargo was ammo being dropped to a small garrison of Thai and Hmong soldiers that had been under attack by the Pathet Lao. The drops were from about 400 feet above a helipad. Two pallets were dropped each pass.

They had made two passes and were preparing the load for the third drop. While Frank was untying the rope securing the next load, the right engine blew an oil line and then quit turning. While shutting down the engine and trying to regain control of the plane, a shout from the cockpit said, "Get the shit out!" Thinking it meant them, Frank immediately went running and, as he went out the door, shouted to Gary, "Jump!" Gary followed and their parachutes barely opened before slamming into deep brush alongside the helipad. Gary was greeted by one of the soldiers and asked if they came to help in the fight. Then a second soldier came down to the strip and told them that Edgar "Pop" Buell, Senior US-Aid official, was in the village and had invited them to come up to join him for lunch. They sipped on scotch while they waited for a flight to Na Khang (LS-36) and returned to Vientiane. In the meantime, Captain Voyles took over flying the plane while F/O Jacobs tried unsuccessfully to jettison the load. Fortunately, the loaded C-46 limped safely back to Vientiane on one engine.

Postscript: In 1966-67 a radar control station was set up on the summit of Phou Pha Thi to direct USAF bombing raids over North Vietnam. The radar site was manned by 16 "sheep-dipped" USAF technicians operating a tactical air navigational aid and a sophisticated all-weather navigational device that controlled air attacks into North Vietnam. John "Woody" Spence (MYC-58) and Howard Freeman were the CIA case officers assigned to the site. "Site 85" became a unique story in aviation history on January 12, 1968, when as part of a preparatory phase of the Tet offensive, two NVA 1946-vintage Antonov-2 "Russian Colt" biplanes attempted to destroy the radar site. When the attack began, an Air America Bell Huey Helicopter, piloted by Theodore Moore and crew chief Glenn Wood, was parked on the helipad. Moore and Wood sprinted from the CIA shack to the Huey and went after the "Colt" that had been hit by rifle fire from one of the Thai soldiers defending the site. After about a 20-mile chase, Wood fired his AK-47 at the crippled biplane, and it crashed into the mountainside in a ball of flame. Moore then spotted the second AN-2 and Wood shot it down about three miles from the first crash. On March 10, 1968, a midnight assault up the vertical karst by People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) commandos captured "Site 85". Over 50 US, Thai, and Hmong were killed. Only four technicians escaped alive while 12 were killed or presumed dead. The following day the USAF bombed the site. Twenty days later President Johnson called a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam ending "Operation Rolling Thunder." One Day Too Long by Timothy Castle clarifies this disaster at Site 85.

The USAF F-105 "Thunderchief " or "Thud" fighter-bomber came to Takhli in 1965. It participated in the first airstrike of a gradual and sustained aerial bombardment campaign called "Rolling Thunder." During the course of the war, 166 F-105s crashed across North Vietnam and Laos. From 1965 until 1971, Air America used two C-130s to fly 15-20 ton loads of munitions to Laos from "The Ranch" on a regular schedule.

The F-100 Super Sabres "Wild Weasel" aircraft came to Takhli in 1966. Using volunteer crews, the Wild Weasel concept was a method of countering the increasing North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile (SAM) threat. The mission was to eliminate SAM sites in North Vietnam. F-104 Starfighters also flew more than 3,000 missions, including 12,000 sorties. The increase in fuel consumption required the KC-135 refueling tankers to come to Takhli until 1967. Recently it has been revealed that herbicide spraying missions also took place from Takhli in 1966. Agent Orange missions defoliated areas of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and had the approval of both the Thai and Laotian governments.

In March 1968 the "Combat Lancer" program brought six F-111A "Aardvarks," new swing-wing, all-weather fighter-bombers, to Takhli. Three were lost the first month on 55 night missions against targets in North Vietnam: two to unknown causes and one to a manufacturing defect. Only a few aspects of the new aircraft worked as they were designed. The "Thunder Chiefs" from Korat replaced the three surviving F-111s. This move put all the "Thuds" in Southeast Asia at Takhli, where they stayed until December 1970.

In May 1968, I was scheduled to "The Ranch" for a special project. Ranch operations were always on a hush-hush, need-to-know basis. When hired by the CIA, all employees are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. You promise not to reveal any information relating to "intelligence sources or methods" without first securing authorization. The slightest violation would compel threats of prosecution and severe consequences. No copy of this document was given to the employee. Clearance levels were granted for special ops as you were vetted.

At "The Ranch" details of the mission were given when you arrived on site. We were told that the training was for testing the feasibility of making aerial deliveries into Tibet. This highly secret project was the first of its kind. We were to drop cargo and jump out of a Southern Air Transport "sanitized" Boeing 727 jet. The tail number was the only marking on this stark aluminum plane.

The team included Lou Rucker (OSS/CIA), T.J. Thompson (MSO-55/CIA), Bob Herald (MSO-55/ AFS), Fred Barnowski (MSO-42/CIA), Jack Manska (CIA), Bill Welk (727 pilot), Jim Rhyne (Volpar Turbo Beech pilot), Johnny Kirkley (CJ-64/AFS), Billy Bowles (RDD-57/AFS), and a couple other "Kickers."
The passenger compartment of the 727 was fitted with roller conveyers to transport the cargo out the rear for drops. The rear stairwell was removed and retrofitted with stainless sheet metal to make a sliding board. The cargo was loaded in large cardboard boxes rigged with parachutes and tied to pallets atop the roller conveyers. The process of aerial delivery was the same as in other aircraft. The load to be dropped on each pass was untied and moved to the rear against a nylon strap. When the pilot gave the order to drop, the strap was cut and the load was pushed out the rear.

The cargo drops went without a hitch. Then we suited up for our parachute jump. We leveled off at 1200 feet. The cabin was depressurized, flaps were set at about 15°, the landing gear was lowered to create drag to maintain 150 knots, and the exit ramp was lowered. When we got over the jump spot, the pilot gave the signal and we slid out the rear of the plane. Compared to jumping out of a prop plane, there was no noise or prop blast. It was quiet and there was hardly a jerk when the static cord released. We floated down with the greatest of ease. Knowing what to expect, we were all excited to make a second jump. The tests went well and the project was approved and ready to go. However, the funding was cut and the 727 Tibet project was cancelled, much to our chagrin.

Postscript: Fast forward to Monday morning, November 29, 1971. When I retired from Air America in August 1969, the "Call of the Wild" lured me to Alaska. I decided to put my University of Alabama Bachelor of Science business degree to use. I had just begun the second year of owning and operating the Polar Bar on East 5th Avenue in Anchorage. I was having a cup of coffee and talking with a customer when two suits walked through the door. They showed me their FBI badges and said they were investigating a Northwest Airline Boeing 727 skyjacking on the night before Thanksgiving. They knew I had jumped out of a 727 with Air America and wanted to ask me a few questions. Since their statement was correct, I assumed they had been talking to the CIA. First, they wanted to know where I was on Wednesday night. When I explained I was working the bar they showed me a drawing of Dan Cooper, asking if I knew him. I said it did resemble Lou Banta (CJ-51), a smokejumper I had worked with at Air America, but he wasn't on the 727 jump project in Thailand. As a coincidence, Louie happened to live in Oregon not far from where Cooper supposedly exited the plane. However, after being investigated, Banta was exonerated. We had a good laugh in Portland at the 2008 Air America Reunion. D.B. Cooper became a cult hero and remains the only unsolved skyjacking in American aviation history. In past years a standing joke at Smokejumper and Air America reunions was, "D.B. Cooper Lives!"

When President Johnson revealed the existence of a new reconnaissance aircraft, he called it SR-71 instead of RS-71, "Reconnaissance Strike." Thus, the name was changed to "Strategic Reconnaissance" to explain SR-71. Concern for the viability of the U-2 led to the establishment of "Project Oxcart." Reportedly flying out of Takhli in 1968, as part of "Oxcart" was the USAF dual-seat SR-71 and the CIA single-seat A-12. Keeping the CIA's extensive role in "Oxcart" secret wasn't easy; therefore, these missions rotated from Kadena to Takhli. The USAF SR-71 missions were separated from the CIA A-12 missions of "Oxcart." The A-12 traveled speed of sound, Mach 3.1 (2,378 m.p.h.), at 84,000 feet. A two-pass mission over Vietnam took 21 1/2 minutes.

On April 10, 1970, two C-130As were making trips from "The Ranch" to Long Tieng (LS-20A) carrying fuel and munitions. AFS Dan Gamelin recalled he was flying with Captain Don Wharton and Kicker Cliff White in the second C-130. They were departing LS-20A, after making their first trip, when someone in the cockpit was wondering why the first C-130, on its second trip, was so far off to the east. When they picked up their second load at "The Ranch" and headed back to Long Tieng, they were informed that the first C-130 had not landed at LS-20A and Air America aircraft were searching the area. Later it was discovered that aircraft #605 crashed into Laos' highest peak (9,250 feet), Phou Bia. The Air America crew included Captain Kevin Cochrane, F/O Huey Rogers, Navigator Roger McKean, Flight Engineer Milton Smart, Air Freight Specialists Gerald De Long and Billy Hester (MSO-58). They all perished in the crash.

During the rainy season of 1970, three Vientiane-based Air America C-123's reported to "The Ranch" for a special operation. Upon arrival the crews were told that new chemical slurry had been developed to make roadways more slippery. This was top secret because the CIA didn't want environmentalists getting involved. The mission was to drop this powdered slurry on the Ho Chi Minh trail to create erosion in hopes of interrupting the supply route. Captain Ray Jeffery, Kickers Cliff Hamilton (CJ-62) and Ed Weissenback (CJ-64) were in the lead plane. Captains of the second and third planes were Dick Jones and Frank Renigar. The slurry was in burlap bags on pallets, and the entire load was jettisoned on one pass at about 1,000 feet above the trail by all three planes. Hamilton said they were surprised that when the loads exited, the bags had not been tied to the pallets. As the load went out the back, the pallets went spinning off in all directions above and below the second C-123, just missing it. Then bullets started hitting their plane near Weissenback as they climbed out of the drop. All three planes safely returned to Vientiane.

Postscript: AFS Ed Weissenback, Captain George Ritter, F/O Roy Townley and Air Freight Dispatcher Khamphanh Saysongkham weren't as fortunate on December 27, 1971. Their C-123 #293 went missing in route to Xieng Lom loaded with 75mm, 81mm, and white phosphorous smoke rounds. Xieng Lom was near Route 46, (China Road) guarded by 400 antiaircraft guns.

On January 15, 1972, while dropping reward leaflets for information on the missing #293, Volpar 71C was hit by a 100mm antiaircraft round. Bob Main piloted while Jim Rhyne and Bobby Herald (MSO-55) threw leaflets out the cabin door. Herald recalled hearing six shells go off tracking them before an explosion hit under Rhyne blowing his right shoe (foot enclosed) across the cabin. The Volpar received severe damage with multiple holes, revealing wires and cables. After checking to see if Main was okay, Herald returned to attend to Rhyne. His leg artery was exposed pumping blood with each heartbeat. Herald pinched the artery between his thumb and finger while Main did a masterful job flying the heavily damaged aircraft to Udorn. Although Rhyne lost part of his leg, he returned as Fixed Wing Chief Pilot. All efforts to find #293 were unsuccessful. The crash site was not located until 1997. The site was excavated three times in 2017-18. Remains of Ritter, Townley and Weissenback were all identified through DNA.

On October 6, 1970, an airstrike in Laos was the last F-105 combat mission of the war. All USAF personnel left Takhli in April 1971.

In March 1972 when North Vietnam launched its Spring Offensive invasion of South Vietnam, the USAF responded by launching Operation Linebacker. This began the first sustained bombing of North Vietnam since November 1968. Takhli was reopened with 72 F-4D Phantom IIs. The move included more than 4,000 personnel and 1,600 tons of cargo. In addition, several AC-130 gunships were deployed to Takhli from Ubon. In November 50 F-111s came back to Takhli and started a bombing campaign on the Plaine des Jarres (PDJ) in Laos.

With the resumption of peace negotiations, the bombing in Laos and North Vietnam was suspended. By the signing of the cease-fire agreement in Laos, February 1973, Air America started a pullout. All operations, both flying and maintenance, were completely terminated on June 3, 1974. Operations at Takhli and "The Ranch" were finished when the base was officially returned to the Thai government on September 12, 1974.

Air America's ending was as convoluted as CAT's beginning. Basically, the loss of South Vietnam in April 1975 prompted the CIA to finish the orderly phase out of the entire CAT-Air America complex (The Pacific Corporation, Air America Inc., Air Asia Co Ltd, CATCL, and Air America Ltd.). The dissolution was completed in April 1976. Assets were estimated to be $25 million. A CIA check for $20 million was made out to the U.S. Treasury. The CIA for contingent liabilities retained the remainder. CIA bureaucrats denied the existence of Air America for years and accident reports were stonewalled. The employees were released unceremoniously without any retirement subsidies. Meager benefits were only given to families of employees killed in action and those who suffered long-term disabilities.

"The Ranch" was a beehive of activity during the Vietnam War. A rivalry existed between Air America and the USAF regarding Search and Rescue (SAR) work in Laos with both parties saying "that is our turf." Yet, the USAF, CIA, and Thai government worked closely to become the vanguard of special air warfare and covert operations during the Vietnam War.

For the most part, there were two reasons why the war in Laos was kept secret until the Vietnam War was over. First, the Thai government didn't want the US presence to draw attention to their air bases; little government information was made public until years after the war. Second, there was camaraderie among Air America crews. Keeping secrets was not a problem. Evidence from past wars has shown that under torture everybody talks, the debate being how reliable is the information garnered. If you were on a particular mission, you knew. If not, you didn't need to know. If captured, the less you knew, the better it was for all concerned. Social drinking was a response to the trauma of flying in a war zone. Off hours were spent partying in bars and pursuing careless romances; however we were loyal and committed not to jeopardize our job with loose talk. Air America's daily flights could be unpredictable, hazardous and at times excursions traversing the narrow bridge of fate between life and sudden death. Purportedly, 186 Air America flight crewmen were killed in action from 1960 to 1975. Still, we embraced the excitement of working and living in an exotic land on the cusp of calamity.