The Mysterious EC-97 Night Lark

Before you get too excited, yes this aircraft is still shrouded in the annals of a certain Virginia based agency. But through some intense investigation, I’ve pieced together the necessary bits and pieces to accurately model  the EC-97 Night Lark. I’m still in the early stages of construction, I managed to get the necessary domes and blister installed as well as the wings and fuselage mated. Next I will install the engine nacelles and other components to get this clandestine aircraft looking like an aircraft should.

During the Vietnam War, Project Igloo White used EC-121s in various configurations to transmitted and or relay sensitive information about the doings of the North Vietnamese Army along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. That was fine for ops below the border between North Vietnam and China, but what the Intel community really was hungry for was China’s participation. U-2 spy planes were overflying Southern China and North Vietnam as often as they could but one needed something bigger and capable of flying lower, following the same flight profiles as other aircraft operating within China’s airspace.

ecc97camobwThe CIA contracted with Boeing to modify a B-50, but it proved to be inadequate for the amount of equipment set forth in the plans the aircraft would have to carry. So the CIA exercised a clause in the Civil Aviation Agreement with Pan American Airlines for them to transfer a Boeing  Model 377 from the airline’s roles back to Boeing. In return Pan Am got a sizable contract to haul GI’s to and from Southeast Asia.

A Boeing flight crew flew the aircraft to some remote air base believed to be located in Montana. There the aircraft was tucked into a hanger never to be seen again until its secretive departure in the middle of the night during a rather nasty thunderstorm.  During its time at this secretive location, technicians worked feverishly to convert the plane from an airliner into a spy plane. They worked around the clock virtually going unnoticed by the local personnel. In those days there was a lot of activity at the bases in Montana, most of it of a classified nature so one more project wouldn’t even be noticed.

Then one summer night as a series of large thunderstorms rolled over the base, the EC-97 made her initial flight, wearing an indescript camouflage scheme applied using scrounged paints mixed together to protect it while it operated in SEA. It taxied out of the hanger and onto the runway. The crew wasn’t 100% sure the aircraft was going to get off the ground as it rolled down the runway. Both pilot and copilot had their control yokes pulled back against their chests. The aircraft lumbered into the air as a heavy down pour of rain fell and lightning struck around the base. The claps of  thunder were even noticeable inside the already vibrating and shaking aircraft as it crawled for speed and altitude. The pilot had the pitch trim almost full up as they leveled off just high enough to clear the nearby mountain peaks. She was definitely nose heavy, something would have to be done about that before it could operate off a hot and humid runway somewhere in SEA.

The crew flew it to another secret location landing just before the sun brought forth the dawn. The approach and landing were as hair raising as the takeoff. Being noise heavy she sunk like a homesick brick. The aircraft made a rather hard but successful landing and taxied into another hanger secretly tucked away in the middle of a deserted wasteland.  Technicians again took on the task of removing equipment and relocating it to better balance the aircraft. Here they had the proper equipment on hand to do the job right. In a matter of a few days she was ready again to take to the air to test the array of electronic devices crammed into its fuselage. Crew accommodations were skimpy to say the least. It did however have a decent galley and latrines, something left intact from its Pan Am days which the aircrew members would turn out to be the most comfortable seats aboard, with the exception of those on the flight deck.

For several weeks, each and every night the crew would take to the sky intercepting aircraft as they flew published routes. Tucked in tightly behind commercial and military flights as closely as they could totally covert with no exterior lights on. Inside however the crewmembers in main bay were listening to anything and everything that broadcast a radio signal. The last two nights of their training they were given an even harder task. A map was handed to them with a line drawn on it to a distant airfield taking them one route there and a different route back. Seemed simple enough, until the were told…”You are to not to exceed 900 feet above the ground at any point during this mission unless safety of the aircraft and crew are in jeopardy.”  Looking over the map the flight crew thought to themselves “When won’t we be?”

The rest of the crew also had a task, to monitor and gather as much information as they could from several targets. Frequencies were provided, though they weren’t exact. They would have to find those themselves as the mission progressed. Scattered along the route were mobile transmitters which would broadcast specific messages at varying strengths and directions. The crew would have to chart and record that information. The success of the mission would be two fold, get the aircraft back in one piece and have as much of the information collected as possible…fail either and they would have to do again until they did. Of course that is what they were going to SEA to do anyway, doing it here only meant they had a better chance of being buried at home if they crashed. Plus the fact that no one was looking to shoot them down.

The crew readied themselves and their aircraft. The takeoff was completed following normal mission profile no exterior lighting and no radio transmission were exchanged between the aircraft and the tower. They used light gun signals only. Once airborne they headed out the predetermined heading which the base air traffic controllers knew was free of air traffic and settled into their low level flight course and altitude. Over the desert legs this was easily done, but everything changed when they started into a mountainous stretch.

As the crew started into their tasks, someone on the intercom said, “Well at least no one is shoot at us.” No sooner than he uttered those words, one of the “targets” along the route, a truck mounted radar station started shooting off Roman Candles into the sky. To the flight deck crew it looked like anti aircraft fire. The initial instinct of the pilot was to pull up to a safer altitude, but the copilot reminded him they were already two hundred feet below their maximum. No room to go higher.

The crewman at the directional receiver station had the cross hairs in line with the centerline of the aircraft as it approached the mobile radar station. The pilot dropped to just 50 feet above the truck passing over it at 200 knots IAS. The guys around the truck who were shooting the fireworks didn’t hear the aircraft over the sound of the generators until it passed directly overhead. The sudden sound of those big radial engines and the slipstream of the aircraft scared the crap out of them. Inside the van the radar operators could feel the vehicle rock, they knew the aircraft was coming but didn’t expect it to be that LOW!

Tracking the electronic emission from the target on the ground required turning the DF antenna 180 degrees as the plane passed it. The recorders were working and everyone on board had their headsets turned up to hear anything being said by the target. What they heard had the entire crew laughing…”Oh Shit! That guy was LOW!  The rest of the mission wasn’t as eventful but the mission did have its intended purpose. The EC-97 settled down on the runway and quickly taxied to and disappeared into its hanger all before the dawn broke. The next time it would emerge would be to begin its long classified journey to its new base of operations somewhere in SEA.

Continued in Chapter II

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