Places To Go – Alternate

No… this isn’t an alternate place to go. This is a place that was most often called “Alternate” by Americans “visiting” there…. Lima Site 20a.

“Alternate” was the epicenter of the Royalist war against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Army in Northern Laos. “Epicenter” hardly describes the place at the height of the war. It was the heart and soul of the Hmong armed forces. Their leader, Vang Pao (often just VP), and all his senior officers lived at “Alternate.” VP and the officers had their houses along the runway. There are stories of children playing right by the runway.

Seems the Laotians now spell it “LONGCHENG.” Photo courtesy of Don Duval

Long Tieng, with a variety of other spellings including Long Cheng, was the town that grew up around “Alternate.” At least 50,000 civilians and refugees lived there. Families of the Hmong army and air force also lived in Long Tieng. By 1968 VP had recruited 40,000 Hmong infantry. At one time, Long Tieng had the second largest population next to Vientiane.

LS22a layout
Long Tieng layout with major buildings shown. Note #22 (circled in red) was VP’s house/compound and 34 was built for the King. (Click on image for a view in a new tab)
Legend for Long Tieng map (click on image to open in a new tab.

When the fighting in the north and PDJ wasn’t going well, Long Tieng was the safe haven where the soldiers could withdraw. Since “Alternate” was just south of the PDJ, it was the center from which Vang Pao’s forces would launch their counterattacks against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Army.

For the US, it was officially Lima Site 20a… the “a” was for “alternate.” But Americans using it as a CIA and USAF forward base just called it “Alternate.” Just to add to the confusion, “Alternate” also had two other Lima Site designations: LS-30 and LS-98 (LS short for Lima Site)

The confusion was an intentional misdirection. Nearby Lima Site 20, at Sam Thong, was a humanitarian aid, and a refugee center. Outsiders were told that LS-20a was just an alternate runway. They took American and other visitors to LS-20 where they toured all the hospitals, schools and relief operations. No outsiders, especially journalists, were taken to “Alternate.”

Landing direction at LS-20a. Dirt (laterite) runway was about 4000 ft. long. Notice the karst at the end of the runway that made “go-arounds” problematic.

Make no mistake about it, “Alternate” was a “full-on” military operation. The CIA had their “Sky” operation there. It was also the home base of the Ravens (Forward Air Controllers replacing the Butterfly FACs in 1967.) When other areas weren’t available, the USAF used “Alternate” as the forward base for rescue helicopters. And of course, it was Air America’s primary base in Laos. During the war, it was one of the busiest airstrips in the world.

Aircraft parking area at “Alternate.” You can see T-28s, a couple of Porters (I think) and an O-1 are in this shot. There’s also a Jolly Green or H-34 at the karst end of the runway

Every effort was made to keep even Alternate’s existence secret from the world. One account called it, “the most secret spot on earth.” Another of its nick-names was the “Secret City.” According to the book, “Fly Until You Die,”, the secrecy was exposed when three reporters sneaked into the area and reported what they saw. That’s when President Nixon had to admit we were flying around more than just chickens and rice for humanitarian aid.

“Alternate” sits in a valley with mountains on three sides. Toward the end of the war, Skyline Ridge, seen to the right in this pic, was occupied by the NVA and a raging battle followed. The NVA withdrew under massive US bombing to save LS-20a.

For most of the last forty-five years, if you tried to go to “Alternate,” a Laotian soldier with an AK-47 would stop you. Then, after perhaps hours of interrogation, he would demand you leave. That seems to have changed in the last four or five years. Now it’s something of a tourist attraction.

You can now find numerous pics and videos on the internet from folks who have recently visited “Alternate.” Of course, The Midnight Mapper (Don Duval) has been there. Here are a couple of video he has posted.

This video is a view of “Alternate” from Skyline Ridge. Taken by Don Duval… aka The Midnight Mapper.
Here’s Don Duval’s video of getting to Long Cheng (note his spelling). A fast trip down the runway starts at about 45 seconds into the video. Watch out for the karst “back-stop.”
Long Cheng then…
… and Long Cheng today.

As the two pics above show, the twin karst peaks at the end of the runway are a prominent feature of landing at “Alternate”. These were often called the “Vertical Speed Brake”… or, the titty-karst for obvious reasons.  The top of these two pics shows a loaded T-28 taking off. If you look carefully, there is livestock of some kind grazing in a field off to the right midway down the runway. 

“Alternate” is likely to be the last stop on our northern loop. I say “likely” because there’s no reason it couldn’t be first. If we make the whole loop to include LS-85 and maybe the area around Sam Neua, the distance would be about 800 miles. Don’t think of that as a long day’s drive on the interstate. Rather that’s likely to be 26 – 28 hours driving (riding) time. That’s not counting stops for fuel, etc.

Except for maybe the first day out, I would try to keep the riding time to under four hours a day. There are also a few other places of interest we might want to see along the way. So for now, I’m considering the Northern (Lima Site) loop will take eight-days.

Contact me for more information.

2 thoughts on “Places To Go – Alternate

  1. First time there was in 69 and spent lots of time there in 70/71 with the 21sos dustdevils. Spilled a giant box of walking fish right in the middle of the runway. Not a good day. Great place and great air America friends. Miss you all

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