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U-10 Helio Courier Was Unsung Hero in Vietnam

Quick. What’s a U-10?

It wasn’t the most famous war weapon of the Vietnam War, but the Helio U-10 Courier utility aircraft was among the spookiest.

“I wanted a plane that could fly into airfields built by natives,” Aderholt said in a telephone interview. “That means an airfield they make with shovels.”

The man who transformed the Helio Courier from an oddity into a working combat aircraft was a cloak-and-dagger officer at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

U.S. Air Force pilot Lt. Col. Harry C. “Heinie” Aderholt despised desk work at CIA’s headquarters at 2430 E Street in Washington, D.C.

U-10A Super Courier

A U-10A Super Courier purchased by the U.S. Air Force for evaluation in 1958. Originally designated as L-28A liaison aircraft by the Air Force, they were later designated as U-10A Super Couriers. Robert F. Dorr Collection

Aderholt loved to fly. He was intrigued by counterinsurgency warfare. “I wanted a plane that could fly into airfields built by natives,” Aderholt said in a telephone interview. “That means an airfield they make with shovels.”

In 1958, Aderholt heard of a short takeoff and landing aircraft developed by Otto Koppen and Lynn L. Bollinger, who’d formed the Helio Aircraft Corp. Aderholt arranged for a demonstration at Friendship International Airport, Md. — today known as Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport — and test-flew the high-winged, fixed-gear Helio.

According to legend, an L-28A landed in the courtyard of the Pentagon.

“I knew immediately,” said Aderholt. “This was what the CIA needed to exfiltrate people from hostile territory and to support partisans behind enemy lines.”

On April 8, 1949, Koppen and Bollinger organized the first flight of a Piper PA-17 Vagabond as a proof-of-concept ship for their high-lift flap system. The extensively modified, re-engined Piper became known as Helio-1, or, in jargon, “the helioplane.”

U-10 Courier

U.S. Air Force psychological operations in Vietnam used loudspeaker-equipped aircraft like this U-10 Courier. Note the extended slats at the wing leading edge. U.S. Air Force photo

Before Aderholt, the first customer for the subsequent Helio H-391 Courier was the U.S. Army. It purchased a single airframe (52-2540) as the sole YL-24 liaison aircraft.

In part as a result of the efforts by Aderholt during his assignment at the CIA in the 1950s, the Air Force ordered three Helio H-395 Super Couriers (58-7026/7028) as L-28A liaison aircraft. Test pilots demonstrated the L-28As — with their  inordinate number of spoilers, slats and flaps for short-field performance — at the Pentagon building and at the CIA “farm” at Camp Peary, Va. According to legend, an L-28A landed in the courtyard of the Pentagon. Military and civilian officials, pondering operations in the Congo and against Cuba, were impressed by the ability of the Courier to fit into small spaces.

Soon, a handful of CIA Couriers belonging to the agency’s airline, Air America, were carrying out clandestine missions in the Laotian hinterlands.

 

Couriers in the Combat Zone

Beginning in 1962, CIA operatives Aderholt and Larry Ropka introduced the Courier to Laos, where the U.S. was increasing its military involvement. Aderholt’s biographer Warren A. Trest wrote that the Courier could operate from crude airstrips where the De Havilland L-20 Beaver (redesignated U-6 that year) and Westland Lysander could not.

Aderholt demonstrated that the Courier could land and take off in a village that had no runway or road of any kind. Soon, a handful of CIA Couriers belonging to the agency’s airline, Air America, were carrying out clandestine missions in the Laotian hinterlands.

U-10 Super Courier

The U-10 Super Courier was used by the U.S. Air Force and the CIA for liaison, light cargo, small supply drop operations, psychological warfare (dropping leaflets and broadcasting propaganda), forward air control (FAC) and reconnaissance missions. San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives photo

At least one CIA Courier was registered as belonging to the National Geographic Society, a very real organization that does no intelligence gathering.

The CIA operated no wings, groups, or squadrons. The agency’s Directorate for Operations purchased its Couriers. A small aviation unit headquartered on the U.S. East Coast employed an unknown number of Helios in operations in Latin America and against Cuba. Air America operated them in Southeast Asia. CIA Couriers apparently were used on clandestine operations in Eastern Europe.

“It was a sweet-handling aircraft.”

Retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Kenneth Lundeby was assigned to the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces detachment at Fort Bragg, N.C., and drew the job of picking up the Army’s first U-10 Courier (63-13166) at the factory in Pittsburg, Kan. in 1963 or early 1964. “It was a sweet-handling aircraft,” said Lundeby in a telephone interview. But the Army never used the aircraft in Southeast Asia. All were stationed initially at Fort Bragg, home of Army Special Forces, and later in the Panama Canal Zone, and in Germany.

Army Super Couriers in Panama initially were in natural metal with numbers painted on the fin, but no other insignia. Gen. Chester Johnson, commander in the region, ordered standard markings applied.

U-10D Super Courier

The Helio U-10D Super Courier (66-14374) is the next-to-last military version built and is on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. U.S. Air Force photo

Beginning in about 1970, a handful of the ex-Fort Bragg Couriers appeared in West Germany with an Army unit. During the Cold War era, there were rumors of operations behind the so-called Iron Curtain. Details of the Army’s use of the aircraft in Germany are elusive. A surviving photo shows one U-10B (63-18091) equipped with floats and psychological warfare loudspeakers, basking at Bad Tolz, West Germany. A date attributed to the photo, July 1966, is believed to be incorrect — but until more details surface about Army operations in Germany, little more can be added.

 

The Air Force

The Air Force ordered additional Super Couriers in 1962, the year the L-28 designation was changed to U-10. In July 1965, the Air Force formed the 5th Air Commando Squadron to fly the U-10B in Vietnam. The squadron was a component of the 14th Air Commando Wing.

“We had 30 pilots flying 20 airplanes, but it wasn’t a pretty sight. Most ground looped the airplane at least once.”

Pilots chosen for the squadron trained in U-10B Super Couriers at Forbes Air Force Base, Kan. from August through October of 1965. The training unit was Detachment 6 of the 1st Air Commando Wing. Retired Col. Harvey Taffett said in a telephone interview that the 5th ACS “flew its first Vietnam mission on my birthday, Nov. 23, 1965, over the Ia Drang Valley” — site of the classic battle, that month, between American air cavalrymen and North Vietnamese regular troops. “We had 30 pilots flying 20 airplanes, but it wasn’t a pretty sight. Most ground looped the airplane at least once.” In one early action, Taffett used the mere presence of the unarmed Super Courier to bring about a surrender. “I got 60 people to walk out of a cave and give themselves up.”

After Vietnam, U-10A/B/D Super Couriers served in four Air National Guard Special Operations Squadrons. A Rhode Island squadron operated Super Couriers on floats.

U-10B Super Courier

A U-10B Super Courier from the 5th Air Commando Squadron in South Vietnam, Dec. 12, 1968. Robert F. Dorr Collection

The Air Force’s connection with a larger cousin of the Courier, the Helio H-550A Stallion (first flown on June 5, 1964) was limited to funding the aircraft. The service purchased 15 Stallions under the military designation AU-24 with hard points beneath wing and fuselage, for armed reconnaissance, close air support, and forward air control. All but one of these aircraft were transferred to the Khmer air force. All were eventually destroyed in fighting in Cambodia.

 

Helio U-10D Super Courier

Type: Six-place utility/special operations aircraft

Powerplant: One 395-horsepower Lycoming GO-480 six-cylinder horizontally opposed piston engine

Performance: Maximum speed 180 miles per hour; cruising speed 160 miles per hour; rate of climb 1,150 feet per minute; ceiling 20,500 fee; range 1,100 miles; takeoff distance 342 feet

Weights: Empty, 2,080 pounds; maximum takeoff,

Dimensions: Wingspan 39 feet; length 31 feet; height 8 feet 10 inches; wing area 231 square feet

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...