Short Takeoff and Landing
With the fall of Kabul being compared to that of Saigon, fears grow of Afghans facing a fate similar to those left behind at the end of the Vietnam War. From Pittsburg, Kansas, to Padong, Laos, the story of the rise and demise of the Helio Courier, the CIA’s ‘Litterbug’ airplane, intertwines with those of many of the human casualties of that earlier conflict.
PITTSBURG, Kan. — In the mid-1950s when Gary Gleason was seven years old, his father Bill moved the family from Parsons, Kansas to nearby Pittsburg, taking a job at the new Mid States Manufacturing plant just outside of town.
“And it wasn’t too well-known,” Gleason says of his father’s nondescript place of employment. “There was one other person that we knew out there and that was dad’s best friend Jim Brown.”
The Browns lived just a block away from the Gleasons. Both families attended Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. Bill Gleason was a decorated airman and veteran of numerous World War II bombing missions.
Brown “always was interested in flight,” says his daughter Kathleen Brown-Cecora, “although he couldn’t be a pilot because of his vision.” Instead, he had worked on a B-24 bomber maintenance crew in the Pacific during the war.
Gleason and Brown each found a way to continue making a living from their shared interest in aircraft in their work at Mid States, which manufactured a unique plane called the Helio Courier. At the time they started working there, neither could have predicted the circuitous trajectory the aircraft they helped create would take in the coming years.
To the untrained eye, the small plane manufactured at what is now a UPS facility just west of Pittsburg looks little different than a typical Cessna light aircraft, or the Piper Vagabond, from which the first Helio prototype evolved. It might seem an unlikely subject for a story of clandestine intrigue.
Yet the Helio Courier’s incredible capabilities made it attractive not only to the military, but to the Central Intelligence Agency. The relationship that developed between Helio Aircraft Corporation and the CIA, in turn, allowed the new entrant into the aircraft manufacturing arena to take off as quickly as its planes could — but also seems to have doomed the company to a fatal crash landing when what was then America’s longest war came to an end.
Like a hawk riding a thermal
The name Helio “was coined by its creators to suggest that this new aircraft combined the virtues of the helicopter’s landing and slow flight speed with the relatively high speed and simplicity of contemporary conventional aircraft,” writes Frank Joseph Rowe, author of The Helio Courier Ultra C/STOL Aircraft: An Illustrated Developmental History, probably the most comprehensive study of the plane.
The most notable feature of Helio’s planes was they “were made to take off and land very quickly, like less than the length of a football field,” says Brown-Cecora, who still lives in Pittsburg and works as head organist at Our Lady of Lourdes after retiring from elementary school and university teaching.
One Helio model popular with the CIA and the military during the Vietnam War era was known as the U-10.
“Incredible as it may sound to pilots taught never to make steep climbing turns at low speed and low altitude, the pilot of the U-10 can pull the stick back as far as it will come immediately after the wheels leave the ground, apply as steep a bank as he desires, and spiral upward like a hawk riding a thermal,” according to a release from the US Army Special Warfare Center.
The Helio “was known as a STOL airplane, which stood for Short Takeoff and Landing,” says Gene Corsini, who test piloted some of the later Helio models. The Helio Courier, however, was not just any STOL airplane.
Though the term has apparently been removed from the latest version, up until recently the Defense Department’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms defined STOL as the ability of an aircraft to clear a 50-foot obstacle within 1,500 feet of taking off or landing. The Helio Courier, however, was built to use runways a fraction of that size. With the right wind conditions, a Helio could get airborne within 30 to 40 feet, says Corsini. “It was amazing.”
Tennis Court Airplane
Far from southeast Kansas, where most of the planes were built, the idea for the Helio Courier originated in New England as the brainchild of two university professors at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“The concept of STOL grew out of a report Lynn Bollinger prepared for a leading aircraft manufacturer on the entire small plane business just after WWII. At the time, Bollinger was on the staff of the Harvard Business School as an expert in production and management in the aircraft industry,” Bill Hazeltine and Frank Mirer wrote in a 1971 article for alternative newspaper Boston After Dark, at least two copies of which the CIA kept in its archives for nearly three decades before finally “declassifying” one of them.
During his studies, Bollinger met Otto Koppen, director of MIT’s Aeronautics Lab, who came up with the design for the plane. Unable to sell it to existing aircraft manufacturers, they decided to start their own company.
Koppen and Bollinger’s test flights taking off from tennis courts alongside Harvard Stadium earned their new plane the nickname the “Tennis Court Airplane.” Other aliases would come later, with the Helio’s more extensive use by the military and CIA, but it appears that even at this early stage, both these arms of the government were involved in plans for the plane.
“Maj. Harry C. Aderholt, a US Air Force detailee with the CIA, had supervised the development of the Helio Courier while serving with the Agency's air branch,” writes historian William M. Leary. “Convinced that the aircraft could survive the short, rugged airstrips often found in remote areas, he became the foremost advocate for Air America's adoption of the Helio Courier.”
In addition to the ostensibly private airlines it secretly controlled such as Air America, however, by the early 1960s, “the CIA ran its own air force within the official U.S. Air Force,” according to the Washington Post. “The clandestine air corps numbered as many as 200 planes of all types and thoroughly confused regular Air Force bureaucrats who were not told of its existence.”
Mid States Manufacturing
Though its point of origin was on the East Coast, the Helio Courier did not really get off the ground in terms of production until Helio opened its Pittsburg, Kansas plant in 1955.
Originally, Mid States Manufacturing was incorporated in 1951 as a subsidiary of the McNally Pittsburg Manufacturing Corporation. By the end of the year, it had secured a deal with Lockheed Aircraft Corporation and began fabricating B47 landing gear doors in the basement of the local Memorial Auditorium, which Mid States rented from the City of Pittsburg, according to The History of McNally Pittsburg by Ernest Mahan.
“In the years when Mid States was fabricating landing gear doors for the B47, it was a profitable business,” writes Mahan. “However, the arrangement of a truce in Korea in June, 1953 was to lead to a phasing out of this business with Lockheed. Mid States had a well-equipped factory for making aircraft parts and a labor force of about 130, but might be left with nothing to do. It had no proprietary products at all.”
Over the coming years, the proprietary arrangements of the business that began as Mid States would become a matter of some controversy. But when Bollinger and Koppen first approached the McNally Manufacturing subsidiary about having it assemble their new plane, the proposal seemed a good fit. In January 1955, Mid States agreed to spend $60,000 to build a new plant and office building on West 4th Street, just outside Pittsburg’s city limits.
“The timing was right,” writes Rowe, “and Pittsburg, Kansas, presented itself as a progressively evolving center of industry well suited and enthusiastic to support future Helio production.”
The Secret War in Laos
Bollinger’s Harvard Business School credentials notwithstanding, the Helio’s designers significantly underestimated what the plane would cost to produce. They initially hoped to sell it for $3,500, or what they calculated to be $500 more than a $3,000 “comparable aircraft.”
A basic model of an actual “comparable aircraft” really cost closer to twice that much in 1949, however, according to Rowe. By the time the Helio Courier finally became available to the public in the mid-1950s, it cost $24,500 — a prohibitively expensive price for many pilots and organizations that might otherwise have been interested.
“Luckily for Helio there was one customer with a need for the STOL capability,” write Hazeltine and Mirer. “In the mid 1950's, the Central Intelligence Agency foresaw a need for this type of plane. Eisenhower policymakers decided that if the U.S. were to retain a foothold deep within Laos, it would have to work with the hill tribes, bring them food and weapons in the face of Pathet Lao opposition.”
Unlike other aircraft, Helio’s planes could land along the nearly inaccessible ridgelines of mountains, where the ethnic minority Hmong tribes that the CIA hoped to recruit lived.
“All airstrips in Laos were classified as ‘Helio’ or ‘Others,’” writes Christopher Robbins, author of the book Air America. “Landing is a very fixed procedure for most aircraft, but the Helio Courier could land while turning, which meant it could use curved or ‘boomerang’ shaped strips on the top of mountain ridges.”
CIA support enabled the Hmong leader Gen. Vang Pao to organize opposition forces to fight the Pathet Lao.
In January 1961, writes historian Alfred McCoy, the CIA began sending operatives to Vang Pao’s mountain headquarters at Padong, south of the Plain of Jars, which gets its name from the megalithic jars that dot the landscape. From Padong, Vang Pao’s officers flew with CIA agents in Helio Couriers and helicopters from village to village offering rice, guns, and money in an effort to recruit the Hmong.
While CIA aid may have helped the Hmong fighters in the short term, their cooperation with US forces in the “Secret War” in Laos ultimately ended badly for many of those who weren’t able to flee the country when it fell to the Pathet Lao in the 1970s. Today, many fear history is set to repeat itself in Afghanistan.
Given their prime position within the region known as the “Golden Triangle” — a term reportedly coined by the CIA — that then supplied the majority of the world’s opium, many of the Hmong had long made a living as poppy farmers. It should come as no surprise, then, that the CIA-backed “despotic warlord” Vang Pao had by the early 1970s, according to McCoy, also become “an increasingly notorious entrepreneur in the Laotian drug trade.”
Though the military Helio U-10s were mostly used in Southeast Asia, an “interesting and little-known exception was the use of Helio U-10s by the U.S. Army to police large tracts of territory in Alaska to enforce an anti-drug-smuggling campaign,” writes Rowe. “The Helios were used to counter the flow of drugs (most notably heroin) coming from the Soviet Union and Red China via the 50-mile-wide Bering Strait.”
Even as he notes the use of Helios in these anti-drug operations, though, Rowe also writes that rumors of the plane's use in heroin trafficking in Southeast Asia are likely true.
“With references being made to Air America as ‘Air Opium’ by correspondents at the time, it can be considered a plausible scenario during a difficult time,” he writes.
Though they may at times have been involved in enabling drug traffickers, the pilots who flew Helios in such operations may have also been oblivious that they were doing so.
Corsini, who himself served as a dive bomber pilot stationed on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam during the war, points out that missions Helio pilots flew for the CIA were typically compartmentalized on a “need to know” basis.
“I mean these guys were courageous,” he says. Landing at night with nothing to guide them but the flashlight of a waiting Hmong guerrilla, the pilots themselves would have no idea whether they were picking up a person or a package whose contents they weren’t supposed to know.
“They said they’d get a message to pick up a package at a certain longitude and latitude or a certain point, and they wouldn’t know what the package would be,” Corsini says. “They would fly in there and the guy would just shine a flashlight up in the air and they would bring the thing to zero airspeed — and it could hang there in the air at zero — and start a descent and let it just drop straight down and plop onto the ground.”
Ranch Hands and Litterbugs
In addition to likely carrying opium on some of their flights, some Helio planes in Southeast Asia were equipped with a variety of armaments, including cluster bombs, rockets, napalm, and 20mm machine guns, as well as chemicals used in the controversial defoliation campaign Operation Ranch Hand, which began in early 1962.
“The primary goal of the spraying was to clear the jungle along roads and around bases, although later missions included crop eradication,” writes historian Mervyn Edwin Roberts III. “Although such operations were possibly tactically sound, they presented constant fodder for [North Vietnamese] propaganda.”
Not to be outdone, the military and CIA used Helio U-10s for psychological warfare operations of their own, broadcasting hundreds of hours of tape recordings and dropping millions of propaganda leaflets over enemy forces. It was this use of the Helio Courier that earned it the nickname the “Litterbug.”
Typical leaflets used in Air Force operations of this kind in Vietnam included “safe conduct” or “surrender pass”-style leaflets of the sort used since at least World War I. In Laos, meanwhile, where the CIA controlled Litterbug propaganda operations, Helios were used to airdrop millions of dollars in forged Pathet Lao currency in an attempt to undermine the economy.
Fake Laotian money was not the only counterfeit item involved in the saga of the Helio Courier that would ultimately serve as a source of controversy about how the US government used the aircraft. The CIA is also said to have manufactured its own version of the plane, initially without the knowledge, and never with the permission, of Helio Aircraft Corporation.
“There was a lot of rumors going around,” says Corsini, “and one was that the CIA actually had a little Helio factory over there somewhere in Southeast Asia and copied them and were making some.”
Potential locations proposed as the site of this clandestine factory include CIA facilities at Udorn, Thailand, or the agency’s Air Asia facility on Taiwan, writes Rowe. Being able to make completely unmarked Helios would have been an attractive prospect for an agency so concerned with “plausible deniability” and secrecy.
“The ultimate goal was to create an aircraft for covert mission work that, on paper at least, never existed,” writes Rowe. “While it is difficult to determine the exact number, if any, of unauthorized ‘knock-off’ Helio Couriers alleged to have been built by the CIA, it has been surmised that about thirty aircraft may have been constructed.”
This unauthorized competition from the CIA took its toll on Helio Aircraft Corporation, which was already winding down production at its Pittsburg plant.
“At the end of the Vietnam War, I know their military orders dropped drastically if not ceasing altogether,” says Brown-Cecora, whose father moved to a job with McNally Manufacturing when Helio shut down production in the 1970s.
It was not only the end of the conflict in Southeast Asia, however, that doomed Helio. Another conflict — between the aircraft maker and the CIA over the knock-off planes the agency allegedly built, among other issues — arguably drove the final nail into the company’s coffin.
CIA Air Proprietary Complex
In a series of lawsuits in the mid- to late 1970s, Helio, by then renamed General Aircraft Corporation, made a wide range of allegations about CIA interference in its business. These included not only failing to pay royalties on its fake Helio Couriers, but CIA agents “posing as GAC employees in foreign countries while conducting illegal and immoral covert operations” and making threats against the company.
In a 1976 complaint addressed to then-CIA director George Bush, GAC alleged that “agents employed directly by the CIA or its proprietaries, representing themselves as Helio employees, carried on activities frequently using Helio aircraft, which involved the smuggling of illegal drugs, the murder of indigenous people and clandestine operations against existing governments or gorilla [sic] movements.”
According to GAC, the CIA ruined the company’s reputation and conspired to push it out of potential markets in the developing world. “The conspirators employed tactics which prevented the development of free and open competition in those markets,” GAC alleged. “Indeed, the facts demonstrate that unless Helio was willing to turn its marketing activities over to the CIA and its proprietaries, that is, unless it was willing to join the conspiracy, it could not effectively compete in these markets.”
While these lawsuits incidentally revealed for the first time many details about what the plaintiffs called a “CIA Air Proprietary Complex” consisting of roughly 100 ostensibly private airlines secretly controlled by the agency, they ended unfavorably for GAC, and certainly did not help it win any additional government contracts. Though there would be some later attempts, with limited success, to restart Helio production, for the most part it had ceased by 1976.
A significant factor in Helio’s demise, it seems, was the cancellation of a major contract the company had to make hundreds more planes for the government. Helio had already begun investing in the necessary improvements to its plant when the deal fell through.
“My understanding was that they had a big government contract to build a bunch of these things and the government pulled the contract on them and left them hanging and that’s why they went out of business, and the Vietnam War was winding down anyway,” says Corsini. “Most of their production was going to the military.”
As Helio was going through its death throes in the mid-1980s, the City of Pittsburg sued the company for $17,000 in unpaid hangar rental fees, utility and fuel bills, and chained down two planes the company was still storing at the local Atkinson Municipal Airport.
In a fitting footnote to the Helio story, these last two planes are said to have ended up in the hands of some shadowy characters who showed up at the airport one day claiming to be high-ranking Nicaraguan military officers. Though the timing of their arrival — when the CIA was actively working to topple Nicaragua’s government through support of the Contras — suggests they may have been embellishing their official credentials, they nonetheless got what they came for.
“They come to the airport; they want their airplanes, so they fork over the cash,” says Airport Manager Bill Pyle. “They pay off the debt, and they take the airplanes.”
From the Plain of Jars to the plane of JAARS
Helio had briefly reopened its Pittsburg plant in 1983, before shutting down again within a couple of years. Afterwards, longtime Helio employees Larry Montgomery and Dean Tremain started a business buying and selling the planes and rebuilding them at a shop at Atkinson Airport, which lasted until the mid-1990s. It was through Montgomery that Corsini first got involved with flying Helios.
“I was a pilot hanging around the airport,” Corsini says, “and he was getting too old, so he would sell them and then he would hire me to deliver them.”
Montgomery constantly advertised a Helio for sale, even when he didn’t have one. If someone took him up on the offer, he’d find one.
“He had a book where he kept track of every Helio that was ever made, and he knew where they all were,” Corsini says. “It was a pretty slick operation.”
Other than brokering sales of the planes, Montgomery was also involved with another notable use of the Helio, namely the evangelism efforts of the Jungle Aviation and Radio Service (JAARS).
“They were flying missionaries,” says Corsini. “And they would fly Helios down in South America that had huge speakers attached to them. They would preach, I guess, from the air as they’d fly over little remote villages.”
JAARS has worked for decades to translate the Bible into the native languages of people living in such remote villages all over the world, which are often nearly inaccessible.
Although the CIA is known to have used missionary groups in furthering its own agenda, William Cameron Townsend, the founder of JAARS’s parent organization, decades ago denied charges that the airborne missionary group had ever worked with the CIA.
"My institute has no relation with the CIA," Townsend said in 1979. "If any member cooperated with the CIA he would be dismissed."
Something along those lines may have happened in the case of Montgomery, however. In 1961, Montgomery “was still officially serving as JAARS’s chief pilot even though he was on the CIA’s payroll,” authors Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett write. Though he was on unpaid leave from JAARS at the time and officially resigned the following year, his “relationship with the CIA, whether as a witting or unwitting contracted agent and asset,” continued.
While still employed by Helio around this same time, Montgomery reportedly continued cooperating with the agency even after catching a CIA officer he was working with taking pictures of company documents with a miniature camera.
Pittsburg’s claim to aviation
Larry Montgomery’s CIA connection is news to Corsini, he says, but isn’t unbelievable.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” he says, “but I don’t know anything about that.”
When the local Helio factory was still operating, the planes frequently flew back and forth between the plant and the airport, and Corsini, who grew up in Pittsburg and still lives here today, says most people from his generation would remember when Helio had a significant local presence.
“When I was a little kid in the ‘50s, I’d see them flying around town,” he says.
Pyle isn’t so sure it’s common knowledge, though, when it comes to younger residents.
“I want to say that the actual people in Pittsburg, the majority, don’t realize that there was an airplane factory here,” he says, adding that this is unfortunate. “My take on it is that the Helio Courier being manufactured in Pittsburg, that’s Pittsburg’s claim to aviation.”
Well-known or not in the southeast Kansas town where they were built, Helio’s planes were used in an amazing array of ways all over the world.
Though he wasn’t involved with JAARS, Corsini recalls some trips of his own to South America to deliver Helios for Montgomery. The “most exotic,” he says, was an 11-day journey from Seattle, Washington to Iquitos, Peru, that took him through the Isthmus of Panama, over the Andes Mountains, and across the Amazon River.
“It was quite a trip,” Corsini says. “It was quite an airplane.”