Air America Flier Writes About Secret War in New Book

Wilmington retiree Ben Van Etten has written a memoir, "50 Years Before the (Rotor) Mast," about his half-century as a helicopter pilot, much of it for the U.S. Army.

If you weren't an English major, you might not catch the pun in the title -- a reference to "Two Years Before the Mast," Richard Henry Dana's 1840 memoir about the rough life of a common sailor in the age of sail. ("Before the Mast" referred the forecastle, the part of the ship near the bow, where ordinary seamen bunked.) The rotor mast, of course, sits on top the helicopter, to which the rotor and blades are attached.

Van Etten, 78, who retired as a Chief Warrant Officer 5, logged a total of 14,000 hours of flight time, accident-free, often in such garden spots as Iran and Bosnia. He was inducted into the Army's Aviation Hall of Fame in 1998.

Some of his wildest adventures, however, were from 1968 to 1972, when he flew out of Thailand and Laos for Air America, a secretive private corporation that was a front for the CIA. Officially, U.S. military forces were not supposed to be in Laos under treaty provisions. The CIA used Air America to fly food and supplies to Hmong (Meo) tribesmen, who were U.S. allies battling the North Vietnamese, who used the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos to reach South Vietnam.

Air America flight captains like Van Etten also ferried diplomats to various locations and sometimes rescued U.S. pilots who'd been downed over Laos.

It was an eventful life. Early on, staying in a rented house just outside the small town of Udorn in Thailand, Van Etten happened to spot a king cobra, "the largest snake I had ever seen," stalking and gobbling a toad in the yard. (His wife soon moved the family to quarters inside town.)

On another occasion, Van Etten and a flight mechanic had to crash-land in Burma, where they were by captured Burmese soldiers. Burma was not a U.S. ally at the time, and the officers were convinced the two were U.S. Air Force personnel on a spy mission. Van Etten and his mechanic spent two weeks as guests of the Burmese before being released without incident.

Published by WaveCloud, "50 Years Before the (Rotor) Mast" costs $15.95 in its paperback edition. Copies are available through Amazon.com, which also offers a Kindle edition.

Reporter Ben Steelman can be reached at 910-343-2208 or Ben.Steelman@StarNewsOnline.com. ___

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This article is written by Ben Steelman from Star-News, Wilmington, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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