Vietnam Overture - Project Field Goal
After the defeat and withdrawal of the French forces in Vietnam, the country was split in two, however, the communist regime in North Vietnam was determined to create unrest both in South Vietnam and also in their immediate neighbour to the west, Laos. As the Laotian government lacked any reconnaissance capability they asked the USA for help. Initially this was provided by installing cameras in the C-47 used by the US air attache in Saigon, which then photographed northern areas of Laos, particularly the Plain des Jars, when he made routine visits between Saigon and Vientiane, the capital of Laos. However, when the C-47 was shot down over the Tran Ninh Highlands on 11 Feb 61, President Kennedy asked that alternative arrangements be made to ensure the situation could still be monitored.
In April 1961 a call went out in the Pacific Air Force for recce pilots who also had recent experience on the T-33, the standard US training aircraft at the time. The two pilots who responded were Captain Bob Caudry of the 15th TRS at Kadena and Lt Fred Muesegaes of the 5th TRS at Misawa. In early April 1961 at 13th Air Force HQ at Clark AFB in the Philippines both pilots were briefed for three days on their mission, Project Field Goal, essentially to keep the US appraised on what was happening in Laos. Although it was suggested that both pilots might like to be ‘sheep dipped’ and join the covert CIA funded Air America for this project, they declined and remained with the USAF. Later both pilots were joined at Clark by Major Vermillion, who would command the detachment but not fly any sorties, together with a Crew Chief and four enlisted men who would maintain the aircraft.
The Project Field Goal aircraft was a single RT-33, an improved version of the standard T-33 trainer. The RT-33, 35347, was originally supplied to the Philippine Air Force, but was later exchanged for a standard T-33. The Project Field Goal RT-33 carried a 12-inch focal length nose oblique camera and 6-inch cameras in the left, right and vertical ‘tri-met’ stations. To give the aircraft maximum range, an additional fuel tank was fitted in place of the rear seat. Bob Caudry flew the aircraft direct from Clark to the Royal Thai Air Force Base at Udorn in a single three hour ten minute flight and on arrival had to make a low pass down the runway to chase away the local water buffalos and civilians who used the runway as a road. Originally built by the Japanese in WW2, in 1961 Undorn was still basic in the extreme and was barely capable of operating jet aircraft. The US had built a single 7,500 ft concrete runway but apart from a low-powered radio beacon, that was about it and the usual airfield support facilities simply didn’t exist. The remainder of the detachment arrived on 20 Apr 61, together with a force of US Marines equipped with mobile fuel bladders and numerous tents.
Fred Muesegaes flew the first local orientation sortie. First this involved towing the RT-33 to the runway threshold to avoid the engine being damaged by the stones and general debris that littered the airfield. Then when he took off in a temperature of 100 degrees, the RT-33 vanished in a cloud of dust off the end of the runway as it staggered into the air. On their orientation sorties both pilots practiced using the radio beacon on the airfield to fly a teardrop approach into Urdorn in the event of bad weather, although both knew that the likelihood of the ADF display in the cockpit working correctly in a thunderstorm was minimal at best. Before each sortie the pilots travelled by Air America H-34 helicopter to Vientiane where they were tasked and briefed by the US Military Advisory Group, who also processed their film. The briefings left both pilots fully aware of the risks involved in overflying Laos, particularly the Plain des Jars, where an Air America H-34 had recently been shot down. They both knew that if they were shot down over Laos and had to eject, the chances of rescue were slim, they were on their own. Nevertheless, the presence of Air America at both Udorn and Vientiane was particularly helpful to the Project Field Goal team and they made full use of whatever facilities were available.
On 24 Apr 61 Bob Caudry flew the first Project Field Goal sortie, overflying the Plain des Jars at 20,000, before descending to 200ft to take oblique photographs along Route 13. However, he also overflew Vang Vieng airstrip where he encountered AAA fire from quad 50mm guns mounted on Dodge trucks, luckily none of the guns scored a hit and Bob was able to return safely to Udorn. After landing the pilot would then carry the film himself to Vientiane and help with interpreting what had been captured on the film, before later flying back to Udorn. Between them Bob Caudry and Fred Muesegaes flew a total of 16 recce sorties over Laos in the Project Field Goal RT-33 before it was decided to halt the sorties on 10 May 61.