Michael Cavanaugh Flew in a Secret Air Force
The Ravens directed air strikes in Laos
In a seaside resort town on the coast of the gulf of Thailand an old warrior lives out his days, separated from the battles of his past by the insurmountable barrier of time but physically near their setting.
Retired U.S. Air force colonel Michael Cavanaugh, 77, was a pilot during the Vietnam War and participated in one of the United States’s most obscure and fascinating forays during the Indochina conflict — the secret war in Laos.
A member of the Ravens, a classified group of airmen operating as forward air controllers, Cavanaugh flew in combat missions in Laos illegal under the Geneva Convention during the Laotian civil war between the Pathet Lao communist forces and the Royal Lao government.
Practically speaking, the Ravens answered to no one and operated independently of the chain of command, flying in civilian aircraft and training hill tribe villagers unexposed to modern technology how to fly fighter-bombers and constitute a local CIA air force.
First flying in combat in Vietnam, Cavanaugh was growing disenchanted by the ineffective way the war was being fought. “They tried to court martial me twice when I was a captain and a lieutenant,” he said. “I was violating some pretty stupid rules. I was putting air strikes in below 1,500 feet in order to save some of my troops on the ground. They we said we’re gonna give you a letter of reprimand and I tore up the letter and threw it back into his face.”
“I came to fight a war. In Vietnam we were fighting an impossible war.”
At top — a Cessna O-1 Bird Dog, one of the planes often flown by the Ravens. U.S. Air Force photo. Above — Vang and Cavanaugh in the early 1970s at Long Tieng in Laos. Photo via Cavanaugh
Cavanaugh had already finished his tour when the opportunity to join the Ravens presented itself. He was summoned by Gen. Scratchley Brown of the 7th Air Force.
The battlefield in Laos was unlike that of Vietnam in every way — a proxy war testing the vested interests of the United States, the Soviet Union, China and North Vietnam. “(In Laos) we were on offense, we could take it to the enemy,” Cavanaugh said. “That is what made us able to use our creativity and imagination to fight.”
“The North Vietnamese had to use Laos to resupply their activities (in Vietnam). Our activities were always classified secret … due to the Geneva Convention.”
Cavanaugh — known by his callsign “Raven 48″ — and his fellow Raven FACs were tasked with directing fighter-bombers to their targets. “The most combat flying hours I logged in one day was 12 in the cockpit.”
Afforded no back-up and little chance of rescue if shot down, Ravens suffered a 20-percent casualty rate over the course of the program.
Supporting the hill tribe “secret army” led by Gen. Vang Pao, the Ravens primarily from five locations in Laos. Cavanuagh operated from Long Tieng in Xiangkhuoang province, often referred to as “the most secret place on Earth.” In the late 1960s the Long Tieng airfield accommodated 40,000 people, mostly hill-tribe fighters and their families. During daylight hours it was the busiest airstrip on Earth.
Vang was the only ethnic Hmong to attain the rank of general in the Royal Lao Army. “The central part of the Laotian war was General Vang Pao,” Cavanaugh said. “He was the heart and soul of what we did because he was an outsider to the Laotian government, he was a Meo [Hmong]. The CIA recognized that he was going to be our man. The whole CIA operation was centered on him and his troops.”
Cavanaugh in 2018. Photo via the author
The Ravens resisted any attempt by their superiors to rein them in. “We were independent, which was never to be done again,” Cavanaugh said. “They had all kinds of rules down in Vientiane that went out the window … they were completely oblivious to what we were doing.”
During one combat mission Cavanaugh was forced to land on an enemy airstrip to refuel. He was in the direct line-of-sight of a Pathet Lao anti-aircraft gun. A fellow Raven was able to knock it out at the last moment. Under heavy fire, Cavanaugh managed to find fuel. He used the butt of his sidearm to open the cap of the container and replenished his plane’s fuel tank before making a swift escape.
In 2003 Cavanaugh returned to Laos for the first time since his service. He found an old bomb crater and filled it with dirt. The locals asked him what he was doing. “Its symbolic,” Cavanaugh explained. “I made this hole.”
“I spent enough time in war to know there are no winners. It is loss of life and destruction on both sides. I lived with the local people, ate their food and fought along side them to save … Laos. We bonded deeply with the local people like one big happy family. When the war was over we were told to leave and we were on the losing side, so all the people we fell in love with were overwhelmed by the enemy and became refugees or got killed. That loss is still painful to this day.”
“So I live here with my family and I won’t leave them until I die.”