When you think of the air war in Vietnam, what probably comes to mind are things like the fighter bombers, the A-4s, F-4s and the like, or B-52 bombers, or the various forms of helicopters, Hueys and 34s, 46s and 47s, Apaches, et al. But there was one other platform that those on the ground came to know and love, the low and slow Cessna 0-1 L19 Birddogs, and other variants flown by Air Force or Marine Corps Forward Air Controllers (FACs).
This video is about the pilot FACs and the machines they flew that became one of the most important air assets to the troops on the ground when they found themselves in contact with the enemy.
These Cessna 0-1s were simply the typical, one engine, single seat or two seat planes, that you can see at any small airport in the country. They are like the Volkswagen or smart car of airplanes. They are sturdy fliers, but are slow and covered only with a thin skin of aluminum. They are not what you would think of as war birds, but compared to the swift and deadly fighter jets that were so important to ground forces in Vietnam, these seemingly fragile “tortoises” proved to be the eyes that those mightier fighter bombers couldn’t have flying over a target at 450 miles per hour.
These FACs were able to fly low and slow and to identify the exact locations of enemy troops, or bunkers in the triple canopy jungles below. They were armed only with target marking rockets to mark the exact targets for the fighter jets to drop their loads on, or to strafe. The pilots were armed with an M-16 and an M1911, .45 pistol. What is crazy is that, in a pinch, they were not averse to taking a run on the enemy firing their M-16 out the window with one hand and fly the plane with the other.
Yes, these FAC pilots were crazy, thanks be to God!
Follow us on Instagram
Get deals on patriotic items from The Veterans Site store each week!
Their mission was to protect troops on the ground by calling in air and artillery support. They used any of hundreds of airstrips all across the country. Because of this, they often knew the troops they were flying above. They had met them and become friends with them. They were motivated to protect those troops when they found themselves in the middle of trouble. These FAC pilots were the go-between between the troops on the ground and the aerial and artillery support.
FAC pilots often operated on their own and supported ground troops in a variety of missions. Their primary job was to identify and mark the enemy forces. They had access to all kinds of aerial and artillery support, and would literally orchestrate any and all of these assets, flying in circles over a battlefield. They were the conductor of a vast and powerful combination of firepower in defense of the troops on the ground.
These light, slow moving planes had no armor plating. Their engines were too small and their frames were too light for such extravagances. The pilots were issued flack jackets, but rarely wore them. Instead they sat on the jackets because the fire they would take from the ground would be coming from that direction. But they were all aware of how vulnerable they were. A single lucky round, something they euphemistically called, “the golden bee-bee,” could take a pilot out and drop those tiny planes from the sky.
This was one of the most dangerous jobs in Vietnam, and one of the most important. It is said that these “Ravens,” as they were called. had one of the highest casualty rates in that war. Half of these FAC pilots never came home from the war. When they were overhead, though, it gave the troops on the ground a connection to support and defense from a variety of assets. The grunts knew that their was someone watching their backs.
This video will let you see how important these FAC pilots and planes were.
The Veterans Site honors and respects the unspeakable courage of these FAC pilots. Those who fought on the ground in recon units, infantry units or at small outposts in the mountains and jungles, who benefitted from your courage and skills will never be able to thank you enough. OooRah!!
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.