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‘USAFSOS Presents’: Vietnam-Era Predecessors to CAA Mission

U.S. Air Force Special Operations School hosted two Vietnam-era U.S. pilots, two Hmong pilots and Dr. Chia Youyee Vang, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor and author of “Fly Until You Die,” during the latest ‘USAFSOS Presents’ event on Oct 18.

Air Commandos with the 492d Special Operations Wing stand with retired veteran pilots who were part of “Operation Waterpump” in front of a retired AT-28A Trojan during a visit at Hurlburt Field, Florida, Oct 18, 2019. During “Operation Waterpump” a group of Hmong people were trained by U.S. agents to fly T-28 military aircraft in support of the Vietnam War in an effort that is similar to the mission of the 492 SOW’s Combat Aviation Advisors. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Caleb Pavao)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. --

U.S. Air Force Special Operations School hosted two Vietnam-era U.S. pilots, two Hmong pilots and Dr. Chia Youyee Vang, University of Wisconson-Milwuakee professor and author of “Fly Until You Die,” during the latest ‘USAFSOS Presents’ event on Oct 18.

Vang’s book focuses on the true events of “Operation Waterpump” in Laos and Vietnam, where a group of Hmong people were trained by U.S. agents to fly T-28 military aircraft in support of the Vietnam War. This effort is not a far cry from the mission today of the 6th Special Operations Squadron Combat Aviation Advisors. The visiting veteran pilots — U.S. trainers: Tim McKeown and Lt. Col. (ret) John Gunn, Hmong pilots: Ya Lee and Yia Kha — were participants in the operation.

“Operation Waterpump” is part of [Air Force Special Operations Command’s] history in general, and part of the 6 SOS and Combat Aviation Advisors’ [history], specifically as a precursor of guys doing air advising before it was called air advising,” said Michael Grub, USAFSOS dean of academics.

Included in the event was a panel where Vang and the pilots spoke on stories from the book to pass lessons on to the Air Commandos who carry on the mantel of their mission.

 “It wasn’t just about me telling [the Hmong pilots’] stories, but [USAFSOS] were interested in hearing from them too,” said Vang. “I think that’s a big motivating factor to come down here.”

During the panel Vang and the pilots passed advice to current CAAs. While current CAAs undergo much more training to prepare for the specific situations of air advising than those of “Operation Waterpump” had, the panel focused on remembering that, in the air advising business, you are working with people not just projects.

“A key part is about the human component,” said Vang. “[CAAs] are putting their lives at risk, going out to the field, but you’re also bringing an important impression on people: that you’re there to help.”

This visit was also an opportunity for the Hmong pilots to see how their work has affected current operations.

“Something we could give back to them is to say, ‘thank you for what you did, and look at what your hard work accomplished’,” said Grub. “In this business you do a lot of things, but you never see what the fruits of your labor are. To me this was a neat way to close the chapter on that part of their lives, and say ‘hey, this is the rest of the story’.”

The idea to invite Vang and the pilots came from Maj. Daniel Jackson, a CAA with the 6 SOS.

“Dan came to me and said, ‘hey, this looks really cool. I think this would be neat to bring these guys down, and let our community of Combat Aviation Advisors have a little bit of a taste of their past.’,” said Grub.

This visit carried history and meaning for all parties involved.

“This is a very important visit for our group,” said Vang. “I think it’s homecoming for the two American instructors, but then it’s also a full circle for me to think about how these guys’ lives were touched over there. Being here at this particular place, I think it’s very meaningful.”