Asian Air Adventure from Cheryl’s diary (1971-1972)
The following story was taken from Cheryl’s diary, kept during our leaves-of-absence from Frontier Airlines, in late 1971 thru late in 1972.
“I was a stewardess with the historic Frontier Airlines. Billy, my husband of just 9 months, was a Frontier pilot. Our adventure began when Billy noticed a letter posted on the Frontier Pilots Bulletin Board. It was late November 1971.
The posting was signed by Ed O’Neil, VP Operations, it announced there were jobs available for Convair qualified pilots flying transport missions in Cambodia. Frontier was then furloughing some crews. Billy figured that opportunity was knocking. However, we would both soon learn the meaning of “serendipity!”
Billy called the phone number on Captain O’Neil’s letter. It was in Mena, Arkansas. A female voice answered and seemed not to know anything about an airline in Cambodia needing pilots. Billy figured it was an error of some sort. He shrugged his shoulders and grabbed the next jump-seat back to our home in Salt Lake City.
We were awakened by the phone ringing at three in the morning. The call was from Phnom Penh, Cambodia!
Apparently, the Mena Arkansas lady passed the message to her husband in Cambodia. We were waking up to the voices of Jim Zeigler and Cliff Neville. Zeigler was the manager, Neville was the chief pilot. Discussion ensued as to the type of flying along with pay and benefits. Before the call ended they wanted to know how soon Billy could be there!
They said that the company name was “Tri-9.” We would later learn that the parent company was Air-America. President Nixon and presidential advisor, Henry Kissinger, were publicly stating that there were no American’s in Cambodia. Therefore, they called the company Tri-9 coming up with the name by using the two Conviar C-131 registration numbers. N-999TZ and N-999JZ. Ah, those were interesting times.
Billy explained that it would be necessary for him to obtain a leave of absence from Frontier and acquire a passport and visa from the state department. Mr. Zeigler asked Billy to do his best and advise him of our expected date of arrival.
Billy neglected to tell the folks in Cambodia that he had FAA commercial certification and not the required airline transport rating. Nor did he mention that he did not have a type rating for the Convair!
We sat in bed opened eyed and silent just looking at each thinking of the call and what it might mean. Then Billy said “I’ll work it out to get the ratings and head over there to see what it’s like.” I said “if you are going, I’m going with you! No debating! If you go, I go!”
That morning we called Ed O’Neil. He was in a meeting but returned our call soon after. Billy explained that it would be necessary we had followed up with O’Neil’s letter and that a captain’s job was waiting for him in Cambodia. Billy said he’d need a leave of absence which, according to Mr. O’Neil, was no problem.
Billy then mentioned that he’d need to arrive with a type-rating in the Convair. Mr. O’Neil said “We will give you a type rating!” “Cool” thought Billy! However, he needed a piston Conviar type rating and Frontier no longer had any. Frontier was flying “The Mountain Master” a jet-prop powered Conviar.
Billy remained silent thinking he’d get the 580 rating and then worry about the piston Convair rating. Mr. O’Neil instructed Billy to tell the instructor’s he’d authorized it. Billy was able to get a simulator session in the left seat of the CV-580 with Jack Gardner. At the same time, Billy took an ATP ground school over the weekend. United ground school guru, John Darley, taught these on a regular basis. Darley, told Billy to send a pre-stamped envelope. We soon learned he’d scored a 94.
Next, Roy Williams set up a check flight in a 580 with the FAAs Ira Davis. Just like that Billy had an ATP and a Convair type rating. A problem existed in that the 240-340-440 piston Convair rating read differently than the Allison powered 580. Again, luck was playing a huge part in our budding marriage.
Billy’s type rating was the first one following a change in format for type ratings. The older 580 type rating spelled out, “Allison Powered 340/440.” Billy’s spankin’ new rating stated, “CV-340A/440A.” Billy looked at this and exclaimed “I think this will work OK the way it is!”
We both obtained leaves, obtained passports and visas, sold our home, stored our furniture, sold our pristine ’67 four-door T-Bird to Frontier pilot, Joe Rhoorda, quickly visited Billy’s folks in Phoenix, my mother in California and headed on to our big adventure.
We flew a PanAm Clipper to Bankcock stopping in Hawaii, Tokyo, and Hong Kong along the way. Then Air France into Phnom Penh.
We arrived in Cambodia just 22 days after the initial call with Mr. Zeigler. There just isn’t anyway to explain how it all came together with all the round pegs going into the round holes! Serendipitously! …or, perhaps, just luck!
We soon were getting settled and meeting new friends. Billy needed to qualify and be typed by the Cambodian DCA (their FAA). He was correct in that no one noticed the difference in his type rating from that of the other two captains. He was legal since the Cambodian DCA issued their own ratings based upon the US certificate. Legal with one glaring exception.
OOOps! Apparently, the FAA put in the wrong year’s date on Billy’s new Temporary Airman Certificate. He sweated out being discovered with the incorrect type rating. Not to worry, soon a telegram came back from the FAA noting the correct date but still with the incorrectly shown type rating..
We are still amazed that the difference was not noticed. A large operations board was in the flight operations office. It listed chief pilot, Cliff Neville, ATP #, CV-240-340-440. Below, Cliff’s name was Billy Walker ATP #, CV-340A/440A. Below Billy’s name was Jeff Croft, his ATP #, then: CV-240-340-440.
We later learned that the FAA made a mistake as the new 580 type rating should have read: CV-A340/A440. Billy wasn’t concerned about the different engines. He owned and was typed in a Douglas A-26C with very similar engines. Also, his favorite Frontier captain, Jack Schade, loaned him a Convair 340 flight manual. Billy studied the manual on our flight overseas. Other than the engines the same hydraulic, fuel, and pressurization systems were all the same along with the panel, switches and handles. The few differences were easily assimilated again thanks to Captain Schade’s CV-340 flight manual.
Billy with Captain Jack Shade
2014 Photo – Salt Lake City when Jack was 93 just months before he’d “Gone West.”
Other than our noticing the gun emplacements, our arrival into Phnom Penh, Cambodia was finding it so surprisingly peaceful given we were just minutes away from the on going fire fights in country and near by Vietnam and Laos.
We marveled at the oriental beauty in the geography, architecture and, especially, the people. Everyone we met were friendly and helpful. We were given the $2 buck tour and treated as “Honored Guests” at the Royal Palace. They entertained us with a ballet performance. Next we were shown magnificent art treasures dating from the second and third century B.C. The beauty of these treasures wold only be spoiled by my inadequate effort to describe them. I am hopeful, one day, Americans will be able to safely travel to see the Khmer people and their heritage.
Billy loved the flying and couldn’t get over the fuss made over him by the Cambodians (Khmer). He flew a beautifully maintained Convair C-131 (CV-44) with American first officers and even a flight engineer. In the cabin a Steward directed the two stewardess’ serving 52 passengers. The captain was treated like a “god” and was served Cafe’-au-lait and a cold oshibori before takeoff.
The type of flying was much the same as with Frontier – regular passengers and cargo. The exception was when, on a regular basis, the passengers would be deplaned and fully armed combat troops would be boarded. Then off to airfields near the front lines.
Domestic flights were from Pochentong Airbase near Phnom Penh to Kompong Som (Sihanoukville) a southwestern seaport and to Battambang to the northwest. International flights were mostly Bangkok, Saigon, Vientiane, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Billy flew one flight into Cam Ran Bay, Vietnam.
The name of the company was Tri-9. We would later discover Tri-9 was part of Air-America. However, in Cambodia there were supposedly no American operations. President Nixon and his advisor, Henry Kissinger had been publicly stating that there were no American actions in Cambodia.
Billy had, initially, been hired by H.H. “Red” Dawson to fly for Air-America, but with the on-the-phone hiring by Jim Zeigler we thought Tri-9 was a separate company. Unable to use the name “Air-America” in Cambodia, Tri-9 was derived from the aircraft registration numbers (N-999TZ and N-999JZ).
The “company” was on contract to the Cambodian national airline Khmer Akas and Royal Air Camboge. The Conviars were initially unmarked but soon had the Khmer Akas livery on the left side with Royal Air Camboge livery painted on the right side.
The wife of another captain, Carol Croft, and I went out looking for a villa to share. She arrived while I was in the hospital with a terrible bout of amoebic dysentery. One needed to be very careful of food. Water must be distilled and vegetables soaked in Clorox due to the widespread use of human fertilizer.
The villa we shared was beautiful. Jeff Croft and Billy estimated it to be equivalent of a very high end mansion in the US.
The villa we shared with the Crofts in 1972
Cheryl, Billy, Carol & Jeff outside our villa
We paid the equivalent of $250.00 per month rent. We paid an additional $100.00 per month for the rental of a nearly new Mercedes sedan that included our driver, Bahn. Also, included in the $100.00 was a gate guard, Ahn, and house girl, Setun. Amazingly, these people were well paid.
Bahn driving Cheryl (front); Jeff & Carol Croft in the back.
Setun outside our villa
It was becoming evident of the low value placed on human life in this part of the world. American’s, for sure, do not appreciate what we have at home. …including such taken-for-granted items such as the Bill of Rights and our Constitution!
Billy was fast learning the language. He could already communicate with the Cambodians. French is the second language, the result of the French domination of S. E. Asia for many years. French influence is still heavy.
Ahn, Setun, and me looking over our wall at some nefarious activity.
About a month after our arrival, our beautiful serene existence was halted suddenly by the horrendous sounds of large rockets blasting into Phnom Penh. From this rude awakening we could see the rockets hitting as close as a half-mile from our villa.
We would soon learn this attack was a joint effort of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, Viet Cong, and North Vietnamese commandos. Several of their 122 MM rockets and 40 MM rockets landed in the refugee camp less than a mile from our location. 112 killed and 281 wounded! The rest, once again, homeless.
Frightening! This was a horrific way to bring us to the reality that we were in a war zone. We could actually see several of the rockets scream overhead and then feel and hear those awful explosions; like a clap of thunder magnified several hundred times! Billy remarked “I’m gettin’ way behind on my worryin’!”
As we watched and wondered how all this would turn out the Communist fighters increased the pressure and, within an hour of the first rocket, a jeep arrived to evacuate us to the US Military post. This would prove to be the most frightening part of our journey. For as we rounded a corner, just down the street from our villa, we were brought to a sudden stop by the shapes of two men dressed in the traditional “black pajamas” of the VC carrying Russian AK-47 machine guns. They pointed these fearsome weapons directly at us! Fortunately, they turned out to be part of the home guard and NOT the VC.
By now the refugee camp was a blazing inferno. One of the home guardsmen told us that he’d just seen five members of his family perish.
Upon reaching our friends in the US military, we all huddled in the safest spot to wait out the attack. We spent the rest of the night there. At one point the attack quieted. So, a few of us went to the roof to observe with quite a good view of the city. We were beginning to relax some watching the AC-47 “Spookie” gunships pour .50 calibre machine gun fire down on the insurgents.
Suddenly, a rocket slammed into the next building and showered us with debris. Our exit to safer places would have proves faster than Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics!
After all this we acquired a Colt .45 automatic that Billy carried and a captured AC-47 with several additional clips for protection.
That’s me with the peeked look holding Billy’s .45 automatic pistol during the attack just a couple of blocks from our villa.
Below: Billy holding one of the AK-47s. Not a great deal of protection but some nonetheless…
The flying was still going well. Billy and Jeff said they had not received any ‘hits’ on either aircraft although they could hear small arms fire on nearly every takeoff and see tracers. Billy’s first officer, Morris Merritt, a furloughed TWA pilot saw tracers as did Frontier furloughed pilot, Dave Beckley.
Dave Beckley in 999JZ:
Dave Beckley was a furloughed Frontier Pilot. Dave went back to Montana and into business for himself. He’d had enough of airline flying especially the kind where they shoot at you!
Thank goodness they were flying good-performing aircraft. Several DC-3 (C-47) and DC-4 (C-54) aircraft were shot down by small arms fire.
These guys are smiling! It wasn’t their airplane shot full of holes!
L- MEDTEC team member / R – Morris Merritt & Jeff Croft Tri9 pilots
Billy’s MOS, or job description, was aircraft commander on the C-131 transports. He flew the unmarked AT-28D’s “for fun!”
When Billy saw his first T-28 during his short stint in the US Navy, he didn’t think it could get out of it’s own way! “Boy Howdy was I wrong. The T-28s were GREAT flying machines. The former USAF T-28As that the French converted were the best. They lighter and had a dash 80 version of the Wright 1820. The Dash 80 had 1535 HP which amounted to 110 more HP than the Navy’s “B” 1425 HP model. Both were converted to the “D” model. The FENNEC T-28D had square tip prop blades. It was capable of THREE Immelman Turns and still be flying. Not even a P-51 “Mustang” can do that!”
An Immelman Turn is named after Max Immelman, a German WWI Ace who developed it as a combat maneuver. It is a half-loop followed by rolling wings level at the tope of the half-loop.
It was during our time in SE Asia that actress “Hanoi Jane” Fonda became a traitor to our country. We remember how awful it was knowing someone with her public stature would do the horrible things she did many of which were harmful to the already suffering POWs.
We couldn’t say enough for the people in Phnom Penh. In Saigon, if you are driving and stick your arm out, to signal a turn, you will likely lose your watch and your ring! In Phnom Penh you can leave $500.00 in cash on your dresser and, although it might be moved during cleaning, it will still be there on your return. I hope the Khmer people never lose this unique part of the character. It is amazing that after a short while you can see the difference in peoples. All Asian people looked alike. Now we easily see the difference between, Chinese, Malay, Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese and others. It’s we who all look alike to them!
In April, Billy’s plane was fired on. His first officer, Ed Maxwell, said he saw some tracers go by. They did not receive any hits upon the aircraft although the airplanes suffered some damage from nightly rocket attacks while parked on the ramp.
One morning in May, while Billy was shaving, I was out in the yard gathering mangos and bananas for breakfast when I was suddenly knocked to my knees by a loud explosion. Billy raced downstairs to find me shaken but unhurt. A Khmer Rouge had tossed a plastic bomb into a food and ice stand on the corner of our block, killing two and leveling most of the buildings in the immediate area. Around this same time a number of people were killed in the movie theatre from this same kind of bomb. Billy and Jeff do not allow Carol and me to shop in the local markets so we send Bohn (our driver) and Setun (our housekeeper) for food and supplies.
One day in early May provided more excitement. Billy’s airplane returned shortly after takeoff due to a landing gear problem. We would be thankful later having learned that a DC-3 had been shot down arriving at Kompong Som, Billy’s intended arrival point and time.
An American C-130 transport was taking off from Kampot a seaside airport not far from Kompong Som. A communist 40 mm mortar round hit the C-130 square and blew it and it’s occupants to bits! Military aircraft, as you’d expect, were lost on a regular basis. The lure to be tested in combat was quickly diminished.
One morning, early in May, 122 mm and 107 mm rockets and mortar rounds jolted us from our sleep at 2 AM! No way to get used to something like this! We were again lucky as no hits came close, but we worried about the increase of small arms fire. We later learned that a Cambodian Colonel, his French wife and their children, after doing the worst atrocities to them.
At least eight of the insurgents were killed. Something we learned seeing eight heads ornamenting the gate posts down our street.
Some North Vietnamese commandos were trapped on the Mekong River at the southeast edge of the city. We expected new gate post ornaments the next day. Our growing complacency was bothering us, resorting to such “entertainment” as sitting on the roof watching the parachute flares and the tracers from the many gunships in operation.
The Cambodian air force operated the AC-47 “Spookie” gunships with three .50 CAL guns sticking out the left side. The pilot would find the right altitude then commence a turn-about-a-point, the target, aiming an electric gunsight mounted on his left sliding window, and then pushing a button on his control wheel to activate the guns. He would have co-pilot and several armorers in the back to load and secure the spent ammunition.
The AC-47 is like the old Frontier DC-3’s still in operation when I became a stewardess there in 1969. There were other gunships in operation as well. The RVN (South Vietnamese military) operated the Fairchild AC-119’s while the US military operated the AC-47 and AC-130.
The US AC-47 utilized a faster shooting albeit smaller calibre gattling gun with 7.62 mm ammunition. These guns could shoot up to 18,000 rounds of ammunition per minute.
The AC-130 “Spectre” was awsome! It sported the mini-guns, 40 mm cannon, and even an 105 mm cannon. One aircraft leveled a communist controlled city north of Phnom Penh. Obliterated is the word!
It was mesmerizing to watch the gunships at night. We would see a red dash-line for a few seconds followed by the sound of the .50 CAL guns and know it was an Cambodian AC-47. We would see a solid red line followed by a loud “burp” sound and know it was an AC-119. If we saw several solid red lines at the same time from the same source we’d know it was an AC-130. Occasionally, they would fire the .40 mm cannon or the 105 Howitzer and we’d definitely know that as well. We became good at discerning the difference between incoming and outgoing ordinance. Phnom Penh was a very busy place then…
In late May, during the hours normal people sleep, a Russian 122 mm rocket slammed in to the ground jus outside our big rock wall fence. It blew down the fence, blasted a four-foot hole in our roof, and shattered most of our windows. Some windows the glass was OK but the brass locks looked like a sharp knife sliced them through. The only causalities were two pot-bellied pigs across the street.
The Cambodian judge and his wife are likely still complaining of their ears ringing! The north wall of their home looked like the open end of a doll house. We could see the brass headboard of the bed they’d been sleeping on. Amazing, that they weren’t killed or injured. I will never forget being in awe seeing their home with absolutely nothing left of the wall.
Soon we were onboard Air France, seeing Phnom Penh for the last time, leaving many friends and taking many memories we would treasure the rest of our lives. The next few days were spent reflecting on our unusual adventure. We were lucky! Billy says “I wouldn’t trade the experience for a million dollars, or give a dime to do it again…”
One of the interesting sidelights about people in that part of the world is the way they fight a war. It frustrates ordinary logic in the superstitions and beliefs of even top military and government leaders. For example: The Khmer pilots would never fly their T-28D’s at night fearing a “Spook God” would get them on a night flight. Yet, the side firing AC-47 pilots did not worry about that. Also, day or night the Khmer pilots refused to fly over the city of Pushant to the northwest of Phnom Penh believing the “Spook God” lives there and has the power to knock their aircraft from the sky!
The AC-47 as mentioned, was a modification of the 1935 Douglas DC-3. Many still fly daily around the world. The C-47, according to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, was one of the three most important weapons of WWII. It went on to fight in two more wars, Korea and Vietnam.
Some 2000 still fly. Many names have been bestowed on this amazing relic of the skies: The Gooney Bird, Spookie, Puff the Magic Dragon, Dakota, and SST (Super Slow Transport).
Our Asian Air Adventure taught us one prime lesson: We live in the greatest country on earth. There is nothing to closely challenge the good ol’ US of A! Every country we’ve visited proves again and again how truly fortunate we American citizens really are.
We’ve some warts and pimples, certainly! Yet we enjoy the finest system ever known thanks to the foresight of those magnificent documents our great forefathers authored over two hundred years ago. Some don’t appreciate this. Billy and I always will. …much more having this SE Asian adventure.
My diary is filled with enough for a book. Perhaps, one day, I will write one. A day hasn’t gone by since the Communist takeover of Cambodia and Vietnam that Billy and I don’t wonder what has happened to our many friends in Phnom Penh and of all the beggars, cripples, and dirty uncared-for-children of Saigon who depended on foreigners for survival.
Celebrating during an R&R in Singapore 1972
Singapore was nice. It was clean and no one was shooting at us or firing rockets that were all too noisy.