DC-130 / CH-3 / DRONE OPERATIONS - Vietnam

The drone operations in Vietnam were deployed to Bien Hoa in 1964 and originally assigned to the 4028th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW). Initial Drone Recovery was by the Army Sikorsky H-37’s but the search had already started for a more advanced heavy lift helicopter.

In Feb 1966 the 4080th SRW became the 100th SRW and the 4025th was renumbered the 350th SRS.

At the start, the OL-20 operations were based at two locations in Vietnam with the two DC-130A's being at Bien Hoa and the two CH-3E helicopters at DaNang.

Both of these operating locations being designated OL-20. The drones were launched and controlled by the C-130s and after the end of their flight were recovered by the CH-3s.

The operations resulted in some very important Reconnaissance/ELINT gathering operations during the Vietnam War with first photos of SA-2 Missiles, Mig 21-Ds and intercepts of SA-2 arming and proximity fusing signals.

The Drones also accurately launched Maverick and other smart bombs long before the present day Predator/Reaper came on scene. Also dropped leaflets, these were nicknamed the “Bullshit Bombers’.

The reconnaissance for the attempt to rescue American POW’s at Son Tay was conducted by the 350th SRS drones.

All DC-130s and CH-3 crews were assigned to the 350th SRS.

AQM -34 drone (Buffalo Two)


Mid-Air Retrieval System

The MARS helicopter recovery crew consisted of a pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and winch operator. The ramp remained but the door behind the ramp that opened upward was removed. The winch was under the main rotor head and the cable extended down through a hole in the bottom of the fuselage. The cable then extended back under the fuselage to a harness and extended poles.

The CH-3E’s that are modified to perform this mission are called MARS birds. MARS = Mid Air Retrieval System. The name used in Vietnam for this operation was "Buffalo Hunters".


The drone’s main parachute controlled the AQM’s descent. Above it was a smaller engagement chute that the helicopter would snag to recover the drone. Engagement was done at 50 knots airspeed and rate of descent up to 1000 fpm. The drone was then reeled in to within about 20 feet of the helicopter and flown back to base.

The drone weighed around 2500 pounds so depositing it on to the ground put a full load on the CH-3.

Not all drones made it back home, some were shot down and others nearly made it home.


There were 4 helicopters in all that participated in the Drone Recovery mission. They were 65-12790, 65-12796, 65-12788 and 65-12794. (790 was nicknamed “the flying oil slick”). I don’t have available a list of the crewmembers involved but here are pictures of a couple.

Danang Crew

Crew at NKP

The CH-3E helicopter recovery helicopters relocated to NKP from 1970-75.

The 350 SRS/100SRW was moved to Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ and operational there from 5 August 1968 – 31 Dec 1968.