Monday, October 7, 2013


CIA built airstrip used during 'Secret War' in Laos from 1960's to 1970's 
Vang Vieng is the number one tourist destination for foreigners visiting Laos, so you would think that it would have an airport. It doesn’t. 

Not that an airport is needed; the capital Vientiane is less than four hours away by road. But those that enter Vang Vieng  on Route 13, are still puzzled to encounter a long, wide runway right next to the highway in the middle of town. 

An airstrip with no terminal and no planes, mean that this runway is a remnant from the war years when American agents were here. Known by the former code name 'Lima Site 27', this empty landing strip was built by the CIA, for the secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War era. 

Since the roads in wartime Laos were abysmal, the CIA needed to find a way to resupply the Royal Laotian Army and the Hmong soldiers, who were both fighting the communists. 

For this reason, numerous runways like this one were built all over the remote highlands of Laos. The logistical problem was solved, and the Americans were able to resupply their allied fighters quickly by air. 

Since the US military was not supposed to be conducting operations in Laos, the task of flying these often dangerous missions went to Air America, a civilian airline. The worst kept secret in Southeast Asia, was that Air America was really just a front company for the CIA. 
Air America plane on covert mountaintop landing site in Laos, 1970 (Photo:Wikipedia)

Wearing civilian clothes, daring American pilots flew helicopters and small cargo planes throughout the countryside. These skilled pilots often landed their unmarked planes onto remote, tiny jungle runways far smaller than this one in Vang Vieng. During the height of the war, Air America had more than 200 planes and 30 helicopters at its disposal, keeping the forces fighting against the communists in Laos resupplied. 

There's no doubt that the real Air America pilots were brave; their planes were sometimes shot down during their dangerous covert missions over Laos. Of those that were captured, very few were ever seen alive again. 

Hollywood even made a movie about those daredevil pilots. The 1990 film 'Air America', starred none other than Mel Gibson, and Robert Downey Jr. in his pre-Ironman days. 

Since 'Lima Site 27' has been left to the elements, the condition of this runway has deteriorated over the years. As I walk across the quiet old airstrip, I find the blacktop that remains is broken and cracked, slowly turning into gravel. 
Long runway in middle of Vang Vieng, is occasionally used by Laotian military

Looking past the north end of the runway, I see that it’s oriented towards the mountains beyond that have the lowest altitude. This made for safer approaches and take-offs for Air America’s aircraft. 

Turning to the other end, I squint trying to see the end of the runway, and I’m unable to do so. Nearly a mile long, the blacktop gradually turns into dirt as the airstrip extends into the next neighborhood. A herd of goats comes walking down the runway,  shepherded along by a local teenager on a motorbike. 

Most evidence of the formerly secret operations that took place here have been carted away. Besides the highway to the east of the strip, the rest of the former airfield is now surrounded by residential houses, tall grass, and a couple of cheap local restaurants. Out of sight only 100 yards away, is the main drag where Vang Vieng's popular bars and discos are located,  catering to the young backpacker crowd. 

The old airstrip isn’t used much nowadays. Locals tell me that on rare occasions, a government plane or helicopter still lands here, perhaps on missions to watch the Hmong communities in the nearby mountains. It may not get much use anymore, but it’s worth noting that the entire runway is now prime real estate in this tourist town. The fact that the government has not sold it or developed it for other uses, means that they probably want to keep it just the way it is. 

Perhaps the runway remains, out of concern that they may need it again. 

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