by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
In 1965, the U.S. Army sent a prototype for a combat tree house to Vietnam. Had the far-out project worked — and it most certainly didn’t — American troops would park their helicopters on portable landing pads high above the treetops.
It was supposed to be a practical solution to a vexing problem.
Three years earlier, the Army’s first helicopters had arrived in the country and begun shuttling South Vietnamese troops to and from the battlefield. Realizing that helicopters still needed large, open spaces to land, Viet Cong guerrillas routinely escaped detection — and destruction — by fleeing under the protection of dense jungle canopies.
“The jungle environment often negates the military advantages available to those nations utilizing modern technology,” one test report noted. “It would benefit the technically-advanced nations if they could utilize the vegetation of the area to their advantage rather than be limited by it.”
The Army’s Limited War Laboratory in Maryland—a.k.a. LWL—quickly came up with just such a novel solution. The engineers proposed placing a flat surface on top of the trees so helicopters could land and soldiers could get out.
“This platform would serve as a base for on or off-loading of troops and materiel, evacuation of casualties, observation post, installation of a remote listening station [and] bivouacing [sic] in the jungle canopy for increased security,” the laboratory’s staff explained in a 1964 progress report.
LWL hired Geometrics, Inc. to build the new Jungle Canopy Platform System. Its main components were two stainless steel wire nets and a hexagonal platform made out of aluminum tubes covered with a nylon mesh.
Here’s how the whole contraption fit together.
First, helicopters would assemble the basic pieces from the air. With a dispenser dangling underneath, UH-1B Huey choppers would unroll the steel nets in a cross pattern. Another UH-1 would then swoop in and plop down the actual base in the middle.
Next, troops would secure the arrangement in place to the trees. The Army even thought a plane might be able to drop the platforms on top of the jungle as a way to create the impromptu heliports faster.
From the platform, troops would finally rappel to the jungle floor or use a powered hoist. Attach a basket to the hoist, and the mechanism could pull up wounded personnel to waiting medevac choppers.
The engineers estimated that the platform could support up to 10,000 pounds of weight — enough for a full command post with radios or even a mortar emplacement to lob shells at the enemy.
Last but not least, the team envisioned putting a fuel tank near the platform’s base so choppers could top off for the trip back home. Before sending the systems to Vietnam, LWL practiced setting up the platforms at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and in rainforests near Hilo, Hawaii.
The experiments proved the system worked … to an extent, but the generator equipment was far too noisy — and it was too unstable for a mortar team. The testers also found that getting casualties from the basket to a waiting chopper was complicated and could be potentially harmful to the wounded soldiers.
And with no guard rails, troops ran the risk of falling—or being pushed—off the platform. During one test, the mechanical hoist fell off the platform. Thankfully, no one was riding it at the time.
With these results in hand, the Army figured the platforms were ready for field tests. However, after training troops on the new equipment, the Army Concept Team in Vietnam couldn’t seem to find anyone who actually wanted to use them.
The evaluators halted their studies. But as the testers planned to ship the gear back to the states, the 1st Cavalry Division and 4th Infantry Division asked if they could try again. The two units wanted to see if they could construct the tree houses with their larger CH-47 helicopters.
After tracking down the prototypes still in Vietnam, the Army handed them over to both divisions.
With the new information from troops in Vietnam, LWL worked on improving the basic design. Three years after its first trip to Southeast Asia, engineers sent a new version back to Vietnam.
But despite the initial burst of interest, the troops remained apathetic about the whole proposition. In the meantime, the Army had first renamed the project the “All Terrain Portable Heliport” and then dubbed it simply “Platform, Air Transportable.”
In addition to sitting in the tree tops, the new designs could sit on the ground, too. The raised platform could provide a stable surface for pilots to land in marshes and other soft ground.
But by 1969, the project was effectively dead. The Pentagon had decided to take an entirely different route to carve landing zones in the jungle.
In a project nicknamed Combat Trap, the Air Force started dropping massive bombs to simply knock over trees and create open fields for choppers to touch down. The flying branch originally used huge World War II-era M-121 bombs for the task.
As the supply of these dated 12,000-pound weapons began to run dry, the Air Force cooked up the new 15,000-pound BLU-82 to fill the gap. Commonly referred to as “Daisy Cutters,” the massive bombs were too heavy for normal fighter jets.
Instead, four-engined C-130 transports dropped them into the Vietnamese—and later Cambodian—jungles. The Army’s CH-54 flying crane helicopters then lugged them to the target areas.
The Pentagon has bought newer heavy-weight bombs to replace the Daisy Cutters, but it never found a workable version of its landing pad in the sky.