Original Officer Cadre of the 20th Helicopter Squadron - 1965 Photo provided by Dave Dorsey

The 20
th Helicopter Squadron was formed at Eglin AFB, Florida in November 1965 under the command of Lt. Col Lawrence Cummings. Training was provided by the 4401st Helicopter Squadron, under the “PONY EXPRESS” Project. The pilots selected were the most experienced CH-3B/C pilots in the Air Force at the time since the CH-3B/C had been operational with the USAF for a very short period of time.

Original Cadre of the 20th Helicopter Squadron - 1965 Photo provided by Harry House

To view the above photo in Adobe Acrobat which allows you to enlarge the photo and scroll through the members, click

After a month of training and checkout, the Squadron was deployed to South Viet Nam in November 1965. The Squadron initially was stationed a Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon. The CH-3C helicopters, which had been disassembled and flown to Viet Nam in C-141 aircraft, were then assembled and readied for duty. The Squadron was split into three flights; one stayed at Tan Son Nhut under the command of Major Richard Burdett. Another flight was sent to DaNang AB under the command of Major Herbert Zehnder with six CH-3C aircraft. The third flight was assigned to Cam Rahn Bay.

The flight at DaNang performed several missions in the six months they were at DaNang. One of the missions was to support the Forward Air Controller units at the Khan Duc and Khe Sahn Green Beret bases, which involved carrying 500 gallon fuel cells and Conex boxes of supplies on the cargo sling.

H-3 Carrying 500 gallon fuel cell

Loading Marine Air Transportable Jeep

Loading – pigs, chickens, and etc.

CH-3 delivering a 500 gallon fuel cell.
Note This photo and the next three were provided by Rick Wells

Loading up for a mission.

Marine UH-1 Huey on sling after being picked up from hill where it landed after being damaged by groundfire.

Crew Chief Rich Wells loading up.

Carrying a Conex Box full of supplies to one of the Green Beret/O-1 Bird Dog bases.

The flight performed many general support missions such as retrieving downed Marine H-34 and Huey helicopters from remote sites, slinging fully equipped radio jeeps to hilltop reconnaissance sites; and ferrying wounded soldiers to the hospital at DaNang or to the Hospital Ship Repose which was stationed off the coast of DaNang. One major mission was to work with the Marines to support Operation Double Eagle by emplacing 105 mm Howitzers at forward firing positions by carrying them on the cargo sling under the aircraft and placing them in position at the forward firing site.

The Marines at DaNang AB, RVN, needed a communications jeep to be placed on top of a mountain about 40 miles north of DaNang to serve as an observation post. The jeep was fully equipped to operate with radios and power. We carried it up there slung underneath the CH-3C. You can see the jeep in the center of the photo.

This is a Marine Huey that I picked up from the top of a hill and slung back to the Marine base. Our H-3 took one bullet hole in one of the blades on this mission. (by Don Damoth)

Refueling H-3 from 50 gallon drum

    20th Helicopter Sq. CH-3C at Kham Duc, RVN

20th CH-3 C on the deck of Hospital Ship Repose

20th H-3 carrying 105 Howitzer in support of Operation Double Eagle

Khamduc was a Green Beret base in remote central Vietnam about 60 miles southwest of DaNang. It also had a Forward Air Controller unit there which we supported.

This is the perimeter of Khamduc with gun emplacements for defense. There were also Claymore mines in the barbed wire area.

Maj. Dave Gish and Capt. Alford with a Green Beret officer in one of the mortar pits at Khamduc.

Beachhead for Operation Double Eagle

Operation Double Eagle staging base, Marine H-34s in the background.

Crews leaving for Nha Trang AB, of the 8 H-3s at DaNang, six were transferred to Nha Trang. We were all later transferred to Udorn in Thailand.

Our BOQs at DaNang. A mortar landed close enough to spray dirt on our roof. We were lucky though, out of 40 mortars fired at DaNang that nite, the VC forgot to pull the pins on 39 of them so they did not go off.

Whenever we landed at a Vietnamese village we always drew a crowd of onlookers. We quite often flew supplies to the Village of Dong Ha on the northern border of Vietnam.

Kids are kids, no matter where. On this trip we were trying to teach them the art of chewing bubble gum and blowing bubbles. Pattooie!. Hope it didn't drop in the buffalo dung.

One of the Pony pilots, Major Frank Kelly, was awarded the Silver Star when he was diverted on the way back from Dong Ha to evacuate wounded soldiers from the A Shau Valley which was under attack by heavy mortar and machine gun fire. He escaped ground fire after takeoff by immediately pulling up into the low lying clouds.

In late spring of 1966, the flights at Cam Rahn Bay and DaNang were assigned TDY to Udorn RTAFB, Thailand under headquarters 14
th Command Support Group, Nha Trang, SVN. The designated radio call sign was "Pony Express". There they again performed a number of missions including support of anti-terrorist operations of the Thai Army. During the monsoon season the CH-3C helicopters were used to fly critical supplies and medical personnel to outlying villages which were cut off from road supply by the muddy roads. The Ponies also had the mission of engaging in classified Counterinsurgency flights into Laos and North Vietnam. In 1968 the unit was PCS to Udorn.

Officer's Club at Udorn RTAB. As you can see the Honda 90 motorcycle was a popular mode of transportation. If you climbed on your Honda when you were a bit tipsy, you often were rewarded with “Honda Rash”.

This is an Air America plane landing at one of our mountain top landing strips in Laos. You landed uphill at the bottom of the hill and taxied up to the loading area.

The unit aircraft were basic CH-3C Sikorsky helicopters models with no armor. No armor was deemed necessary at this time since the mission was to be clandestine and the power/weight ratio was considered more important. Even then, with the equipped engines, power was sometimes very marginal. In early 1968, the engines were upgraded from the 1300 hp model to the 1500 hp models which was a vast improvement in the high temperature/humidity environment. With the upgrading of the engines, armor was installed on the engine cowling doors, the transmission doors, and around the tail rotor gearbox.

Camouflage Pony and Black Mariah over Laos heading home to Udorn - 1968

Due to the classified nature of their mission, the 20th CH-3's did not display any U.S. markings or insignia. They were equipped with slotted hangers to insert the USAF insignia when flying "in country". The pilots had no insignia on their flight suits and were “sanitized” in order to maintain deniability of U.S armed forces in “neutral” Laos. “We were not there”. The helicopters were painted the standard camouflage pattern, except one. CH-3C #63-09676 was painted flat black to determine the color feasibility for our mission. It soon was given the nickname of "Black Mariah", the Night Wind. It was the only black H-3 to serve in SEA and is now on display at the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Dayton, Ohio.

The 20th Helicopter Squadron "Pony Express" was one of the most extraordinary and outstanding combat units in Southeast Asia. They received many decorations in performance of their highly classified mission, including Silver Stars, Distinguished Flying Crosses and Air Medals. The Pony Express' primary mission was counterinsurgency. They flew their unarmed helicopters from Thailand to various friendly airstrips in Laos where they could refuel and await to launch their missions. They would fly indigenous troops into unprepared sites in Laos and North Vietnam to gather intelligence on troop/truck movements, etc. This information would in turn be forwarded to the appropriate Military agencies to select targets for air strike missions.

Air America Pilatus Porter airplane we used for many pre-mission recons.

Some Thai Army soldiers loading up for practice jumps, Thailand 1967

An entourage with AA Beech Baron, CH-3 Ponies and A-1 top cover.

Lima Site (LS) 36 in Northern Laos used for staging by Ponies and Jolly Greens - 1968

The infil/exfil site would be selected and studied. Previous to the flight an airborne "recon" of the site would be made, often using CAS Beech Baron or Air America Pilatus Porter aircraft. Since the Air America aircraft were constantly flying over the country, they would hardly be noticed. Air America UH-1's and even occasional H-34 helicopters would assist the Ponies in carrying troops on missions when the Ponies were short of aircraft during a large airlift requirement.

The mission tactics would usually include two helicopters. One would be the "high bird" and would orbit at a discreet distance to distract the enemy and to act as a rescue aircraft if needed. The "low bird" would fly in at low altitude to the selected site to offload the troops. This was usually accomplished at dusk to give the ground troops a chance to disperse if enemy forces were encountered. If any enemy ground fire was encountered on the "infil" approach, the mission would be aborted and the troops not put at undue risk.

20th Helicopter Squadron CH-3's.

Down and Dirty”- Infil in North Vietnam - 1967

As previously stated, the helicopters were not equipped with armor. The crew would wear the "flack vest" and place another flack vest under the pilot seats to provide personal protection. Their only weapons were the crewmember's personal weapons, an M-16 rifle and a .38 caliber revolver. The infil portion of the mission required secrecy and not a firefight. The "exfil" though might another matter. Sometimes the ground troops would encounter enemy forces and would require extraction while under enemy fire. The "Ponies" depended on "top cover" usually supplied by A-1 Skyraider fighter aircraft, call sign depended on where they were stationed and could be “Sandy”, Hobo” or “Firefly”, to provide close air support with their guns and bombs, if needed. In the early days at Udorn, the Ponies were sometimes accompanied by World War II twin engine B-26 Marauder aircraft callsign “Nimrod”.

Our “gunships”, A-1E Skyraiders. “Sandies, Hoboes, and Fireflies” flew top cover for us. God Bless 'em All.

B-26 Marauder “Nimrod”


In 1967, the NVA had 37MM anti-aircraft guns along the Ho Chi Minh Trail which were visually sighted and not too accurate above 10,000'. So any missions that required us to cross the Ho Chi Minh trail were either flown at tree top level or above 10,000'. After President Johnson stopped the bombing of North Vietnam in 1968, the NVA moved the 85MM guns from around Hanoi and placed them along the "Trail". These guns were radar controlled and accurate up to 30,000'. Since our H-3's couldn't fly that high, the crossings then were at low level and take our chances on ground fire. At least the H-3 was pretty quite compared to the Air America "Hueys" that you could hear for 20 minutes before they arrived.

The Pony Express other mission was in support of TACAN navigational sites in Laos. These sites were important in guiding fighter and bomber aircraft on strike missions into North Vietnam. The helicopters would deliver personnel and needed supplies, such as power generators and diesel fuel, to the remotely located sites. One of the most important of these sites was at Lima Site 85 on top of a 5800' karst mountain, a scant 12 miles south of the Laotian/North Vietnam border and 125 miles southwest of Hanoi. LS85 also was supplied with super secret equipment used to direct strike missions around Hanoi. (for related story on LS 85, see Timothy Castle's book, "One Day Too Long"). (The site was overrun by NVA forces in early 1968 with the loss of many American lives.)

Remote TACAN site in eastern Thailand.

Pony CH-3 Slinging a generator to TACAN site.

Landing pad at Lima Site (LS) 85 atop a 5800' karst mountain in Northeastern Laos, 100 miles from Hanoi.

In the spring of 1968, the "higher ups" decided to equip the Pony's helicopters with a .30 caliber M-60 machine gun in the cabin door. The pilots considered this just extra weight and it was probably never used in combat.

In the spring of 1968, some pilots and aircraft of the 20th HES were transferred to Nakhon Phanom (NKP) to start up the 21st Helicopter Squadron.

Our calling card. “S.E.A. Most Clandestine Airline.”

I. R. Gommer”

Our “Gommer Getter” logo on CH-3 cabin door.

In July 1968, four UH-1F's and 10 pilots from the Ponies' sister flight, “Green Hornets,” arrived from Nha Trang. The "new" Pony Express Hueys flew virtually all the same missions as the H-3's. There were a few of the H-3 missions in Northern Laos that the Hueys were not involved in due to the extreme distance and limited range of the UH-1. On occasion, the Huey would carry a 55 gallon barrel of fuel in the cabin. If the Huey required the extra fuel, the crewchief would hook up his safety strap, step out onto the chopper's skid and hold the refueling hose as the other crewman pumped the fuel into the Huey's fuel tank. This was done at cruising altitude. Somewhere in the wilds of Laos lies some empty, and probably dented, 55 gallon barrels.

20th Heli Sqdn UH-1F “Green Hornet” at Udorn - 1968


In August 1968 the 20th Helicopter Squadron was redesignated the 20th Special Operations Squadron (SOS). The Pony Express continued to fly many missions in support of DOSA (Director of Operations for Special Activities) through 1968 and into 1969. The Ponies flew 75% of their flying time as combat time and over 75% of their time flying their primary DOSA missions. The Pony Express always had two large and important missions, TACAN support and DOSA missions fragged by 7/13th AF in support of the secret war in Laos. The Ponies did not have sufficient helicopters and pilots to accomplish every mission adequately. Some of their large missions required the use of up to 20 CH-3E helicopters and they only had nine CH-3's and four UH-1's assigned. On many occasions the Pony Express called upon the 21st SOS at NKP to help with these large missions. (See the 21st SOS )

As early as June 1968, higher Headquarters began talk of merging the 20th and 21st began which would allow them to work more closely together and utilize the 21st flying time more for combat missions. (Consolidation). The Pony Express would remain at Udorn as a Forward Operating Location (FOL) with basically the same people, aircraft and mission. Little did anyone know of the problems to follow. Apparently the ego and petty jealousy of the Wing Commander at NKP who insisted that all assets be transferred to NKP created a severe demoralizing effect on all concerned. The Ponies crews still accomplished their mission in an excellent manner despite the difficulties.

On 5 Sep 1969, the 20th SOS CH-3E aircraft and personnel at Udorn were re-assigned to the 21st SOS at NKP. Without ceremony or fanfare, the “Pony Express” part of the 20th Special Operations Squadron ceased to exist. (see Death of the Pony Express)

The 20th SOS Hueys at Udorn returned to the “Green Hornets” at Nha Trang, SVN.

Let's see the fighter jocks get these!

The Forward Operating Location at Udorn lost three more helicopters to NKP and many pilot slots, which amounted to one-third of its capability. Yet, with only 4 helicopters, the FOL stationed at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand, still flew 63% of the DOSA missions and 60% of the TACAN missions and an amazing 53.8% of the overall mission of the newly formed 21st SOS headquartered in NKP.

Pony Express Song

 More Pony Pics

Pony Tailsstories of the Pony Express.

Thanks to Don Morrissey for the info on the Hueys.

20th Special Operations Sqdnfrom Air Commando website

CH3C/E #63-90676 – Black Mariah

Operation Barrel Roll – no mention of the “Ponies” but then “we weren't there”.

The fall of Lima Site 85 -

Pony Express – "Part Deux" -2009