SPADS WITH A LOAD
The video above was produced by Gary Bain and published on 27MAY2015 for 1LT Don Engebretsen USAF, A1 Skyraider and retired FedEx pilot. It is also for the members of SOG (Special Operations Group that made forays into Laos) and the OLAA pilots that piloted the Skyraider in support of SOG teams during the Vietnam Conflict. This is the OLAA pilots' song they created while serving in Southeast Asia. These pilots and SOG teams were a fearless group of brave warriors and are unsung heroes of that war. Only mature audiences should view this as there are a couple of descriptive terms in the song that were uttered by the fighter pilots. Thanks to all of our service members.
Spads with a Load has a history that is nearly 50 years old. I love to see this recent revival of the YouTube production that has now passed through the 129,000 plus views level…let’s make it go viral😊. For the record, my role in the production of the song and the YouTube revival was minimal. Please allow me to tell my version of the events that have led to this discussion.
The “creator” of the song is Warren C. “Doc” Blanchard who was a USAF pilot training graduate. Doc finished high in his class and was awarded an A-1 Skyraider assignment as a Lieutenant in Class 69-12 at Hurlburt Field in Florida. For the record, Skyraider assignments in previous years had generally been granted to higher ranking Air Force pilots with more experience due to the demands of Search and Rescue (SAR) missions and the extreme close air support demands of Spad missions. The number of Lieutenants (Lts.) being sent to Skyraider combat units rose in 1969, as the pool of experienced pilots began to dry up. The many USAF Skyraider Lts. acquitted themselves well, but nowhere more than those assigned to OLAA. Doc showed up at Pleiku AB in the 6th SOS in the fall of 1969 about a month prior to my arrival as I was in the 69-13 Class that followed. Neither of us realized that we had been ordered to dead end assignments with a unit and base that were slated to close on 15Nov1969. All in-country Skyraiders were moving to Nakhon Phanom (NKP, Thailand) as part of the Vietnamization program that was basically a numbers game. The proposed removal of USAF Spads would have hindered some SAR efforts but would have been devastating to the support of the brave men fighting in the MACV-SOG Area of Operations (AO), in general. For slow movers, NKP was a long way from the Tri-Border/DMZ and in-country operations. In the end, sanity prevailed and after about half of the continuing 6th pilots transferred to NKP on 1Nov69, the USAF was dictated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) or above to provide adequate support to fulfill SOG support requirements and a SAR presence needed by the USAF, as well. That process resulted in 10 A-1H/J aircraft with 12 pilots in a unit named Operating Location Alpha Alpha (OLAA) being hastily assembled at PKU and DNG without a break in critical coverage. In mid-December the unit combined at Da Nang for a year longer of service to our nation.
These Air Combat Lyricists (ACL) (Circa 1970) during an early Spads With a Load recording session in their Da Nang barracks: Doc Blanchard (Front Row Center); Jax Roberts (Back Row Left); Don Engebretsen (Back Row Center); and Jim Seith (Back Row Right).
Doc had a musical background and an interest in creating a song about the Skyraiders. OLA was the perfect breeding ground because of the nature of a small unit that was on-call for long duty days. Doc was responsible for the concept of a Spad tune based on Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”. This became a project of Doc’s that involved nearly all Lieutenants and lots of liquid refreshments over the months. The lyrics tended to change and develop from various inputs as time progressed. Prior to a huge OLAA turnover in personnel in Jun/Jul70, the project somehow never developed into a final work of art. The song had been sung in various drunken versions at Hooch parties and impromptu room gatherings that some of the Covey FAC’s and Jolly Greens recall to this day.
Doc had assumed that his work had evaporated after he returned (DEROSed) home. My return song related role happened when my wife and I obtained a large Suite at the A-1 Reunion in 2013 and reunited many of the original and later OLAA A-1 pilots. During yet another gathering involving alcohol and “war stories” on a Saturday afternoon with Doc present, the subject of Spads with a Load came up. Doc expressed some sadness about “unfinished business” when subsequent OLAA pilots Larry Warren and Levy Rentz told Doc that the tradition had indeed continued. Then, much to the amazement of all present, the two of them sang a wonderful rendition of what is now the finished product. I will never forget how moved and shocked Doc was and the electric atmosphere in the room. Later, Larry Warren produced a set of final lyrics for all to share. Spads with a Load had been “born again”.
My interests in OLAA history then took several of us to Las Vegas later in 2013, for our first-time attendance at the Special Operations Association Reunion known as SOAR. It was transformative for all OLAA pilots attending to finally meet so many of the MACV-SOG warriors who had been supported by A-1’s during the war. While the 6th SOS had the distinction of being the first Spad unit specifically formed to support SOG teams, OLAA was a complete reversal of a pending disaster to nearly totally abandon fast responses for SOG in the AO (Area of Operations). As a percentage of total flying, no USAF unit ever flew more SOG missions per pilot than OLAA pilots. We were sworn to the same secrecy requirements as all SOG team members (face prison sentences, if we talked within 20 years at a minimum) and we developed our own methods to optimize effectiveness with our limited resources. On the first visit to attend SOAR, I felt compelled to encourage six additional OLAA pilots to attend based on my gut feelings about what was to happen. One of the men who attended was quite struck by what we then experienced. That OLAA pilot was Lt. Jackson AJ “Jax” Roberts and after the event he told me that SOAR had changed his life. Actually, I believe that has been the case for any A-1 pilot who ever attended a SOAR event. But, OLAA pilots were the first to do so… without question. No OLAA pilot had ever discussed or written anything about our MACV-SOG missions for nearly 40 years, but that all changed at SOAR.
In 2015, Jax decided that he wanted to honor me for my efforts to get him to SOAR and all that followed. He knew that I had a Vietnam F-4 pilot friend capable of producing a YouTube video based on a song. That friend is Marine pilot Gary Bain who was shot down on Mother’s Day in 1969 over Tchepone, Laos. Oh, don’t go to Tchepone…
Gary and I had become friends indirectly because of Gary’s appreciation of how 12 A-1 pilots and a host of other Americans had assisted in prying him away from almost certain death. After his “successful ejection" on 11MAY1969 put him within 50 meters of enemy bunker complexes with a broken arm and leg in perhaps the most dangerous place on earth at the time, Gary was saved. So, when Jax asked me for Gary’s contact info, I had no idea that a plan was afoot. Jax arranged for his Virgin Island drinking buddies (Garden Club) to sing the song and sent an audio copy to Gary as part of the project. Some will complain about the quality of the singing, but I for one believe it to be perfectly appropriate. If it sounds a bit off tune and like a bunch of drunks singing…IMHO it is perfect. The plan was to get a DVD to SOAR in time to surprise me. Just like many of our Vietnam exploits, plans generally require some improvisation. Gary called me just prior to the final days at SOAR and needed some favors to make it happen. Jax will learn of this only now. I helped Gary with a few questions, details, and shipping account info to facilitate a “just in time delivery” on the Thursday morning prior to shutting down the Vendors Area. I laid low in the bar area, while my projector and computer were “fired up” and the sounds of Spads with a Load filled the large room. I then witnessed a most rewarding sight of men literally tripping over each other to get to the OLAA tables for the premier showing of the work of my two friends. It was wild and continued over and over again. What an honor for me, but what a great tribute to Doc Blanchard and OLAA Spad pilots who gave their all during combat to save American lives.
Three years ago, Doc provided the following explanation of the lyrics to Spads with a Load. To better enjoy and understand the video, it might be helpful to read and review the following:
‘Spad’ is the generic name for the A-1 series of aircraft the A-1 H &J were single seat models, E & G models were two seaters with a “Blue Room” aft of the cockpit that the Navy used for various tasks. The A-1 was a prop aircraft with a Wright 3350 Engine (18 cylinder 3,350 Cubic Inches displacement) producing over 3000 Horsepower. The empty weight of the airplane was 12,000 lbs. and it could carry up to 14,000 LBS. of various ordinance loads. During the Vietnam War, the Air force had four combat Squadrons, The 1st Special Operations Squadron (SOS) call sign Hobo, The 602nd SOS, Firefly, 22nd SOS, Zorro and the 6th SOS, call sign “Spad”. OLAA was a separate detachment assigned to the 56 SOW (Wing HQ NKP,Thailand), but based in-country like the 6th.
GLOSSARY TO LYRICS
Generally, when we had a mission, we were assigned to a Forward Air Controller (FAC) who worked that mapped area, day after day and knew what the target was and where friendly and enemy forces were. When we checked in with him, we relayed what our bomb load was and how long we could loiter, that is the gist of the first stanza.
"NOW YOU KNOW THE REST OF THE STORY…". Paul Harvey
"Spads vs. Jets" Don's Version 05FEB2020