The O-1 "Bird Dog," the toughest dog in the fight, "our little flivver"
March 26, 2006
The Bird Dog in the Vietnam-Laos Wars
The "Covey" FACS and Capt. Cal Anderson, USAF, 20th TASS: The Covey FACs, while stationed in the RVN, were assigned mostly DMZ and out-of-country missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. At the risk of over-generalizing, the Coveys mainly supported air interdiction against enemy logistics movements over the trail and insertions and extractions of US special operations forces inside Laos.
The 20th TASS was located at Da Nang AB, RVN and, unlike the outfits discussed thus far, had as its main mission to fly the DMZ and the Ho Chi Minh Trail in support of air interdiction operations against the logistics flow. By the way, flying the DMZ included flying over North Vietnam to points within certain limits.
In Laos, 20th O-1s flew over areas known as Tiger Hound and Steel Tiger, mainly Steel Tiger East. Steel Tiger was designated as an operational area for the southern half of Laos, the panhandle, in April 1965. After analysts had determined the bulk of the enemy's supply and infiltration was being accomplished through the southern part of the Steel Tiger area, General Westmoreland, in December 1965, divided the area and called the southern half Tiger Hound. We have placed a red line on the map --- roughly speaking, Tiger Hound was the area below that line in eastern Steel Tiger. Note Da Nang AB is on the east coast of the RVN, south of the DMZ, in the northern I Corps, Marine country for much of the war, the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF).
The 20th TASS FACs assigned the mission in Laos were called Covey FACs, and they used Covey as their callsign. In discussing the 20th TASS, we want to first highlight an issue that was so important to the squadron that it prepared a training manual which was published by the Pacific Air Force in March 1967. It was entitled, Visual Reconnaissance (VR) manual. It is an interesting read. It was assembled because most of the FAC's airborne time was spent on VR, but few pilots had much training on how to do it. As you'll see in a moment, it's not an easy business, even flying low and slow. So let's talk a moment about this VR challenge.
The manual was to be used as a training manual. While its recommendations might seem simplistic, we all can be accused of overlooking the obvious. For example, the manual suggested pilots take along some good binoculars and that they use their feet and rudder pedals to circle the aircraft 360 degrees while they hold on to those binoculars looking for targets. Here is an example of why.
Even at low altitude, it's pretty darn hard to spot that enemy truck hidden off the side of the dirt road. Even when you look closer, that truck is hard to find:
This photo was presented by Jim Gordon, a former Covey intelligence specialist in his "Tigerhound Memoir." You might comment, "Whoopee, one truck." Well, this photo was taken during a daytime mission. The NVA knew it was too dangerous to drive their trucks down the trail during daylight, so they hid them and moved at night. The Coveys hoped that where there was one, there were many, to wit, a truck park, and that would be a very worthy target, especially if carrying ammunition and fuel. Quite often truck park areas were guarded by anti-aircraft artillery, posing a threat and a presenting a target at the same time. And, of course, where there are trucks, there are enemy troops and support areas. Finding these trucks also helped track NVA movements and logistics throughput, which, in turn, helped assess whether air interdiction was working or not, and where improvements needed to be made. To be sure, destroying enemy trucks on the trail was a big business.
In the jungle, the FACs were told to look at main trails leading into villages and search for stacks of supplies. They were also told to look for smaller trails branching off, where command posts or rest areas might be, and major trail intersections which show many small trails. Take a look at the manual.
Former Captain Richard Allen "Magellan" Strong, an O-1 pilot with the 23rd TASS in NKP, Thailand, tells us about a technique used to spot trucks on the trail, known as "getting the eye." He describes it this way:
"The spotter learned all about the natural flora and foliage so as to know exactly what looked natural, then, by the process of elimination, learned to see what was unnatural. This often required weeks of acclimatizing and several frustrating flights with the old heads. In the author's case, it was a matter of combining the usual seeing with 'The Eye,' plus some Extra-Sensory Perception. Using The Eye required staring for a period of several seconds, which then required slow flying."
He would comment separately that the pilot had to be very careful not to over-concentrate. He said he tried one day to "see sideways beneath the trees and, at the last split-second, looked forward to see a huge rock outcropping directly in his path." While we mentioned in our aircraft walk around that the Dawg could not climb rapidly, Strong says his "maximum force climb" did save him from that rock.
But other FACs must have employed a similar technique. Robert J. "Mo" Moberg, 281st Assault Helicopter Squadron, "Hell from above," was part of an effort in 1966-1967 to locate an Army recon team which had been out of contact for too long; they had been looking for two days, wanting to extract it. Moberg says:
"The FAC spotted the team through a small opening in the canopy."
Glen C. Davis, a retired Army major who flew with the 21st RAC out of Chu Lai , RVN, has reported this about SFC "Eagle Eyes" Johnson, 1968:
"Either Johnson had the best eyes or the best imagination of any air observer I ever knew. He saw things from the air no one else seemed to see, but we never did prove him wrong and his pilots always backed him up. The pilots loved to fly with Johnson because he always found the action."
Bird Dog in the pit at Khe Sanh. In the summer of 1967, 20th TASS Bird Dogs were parked in a below-ground revetment. Bulldozers had carved a long pit with one side sloping up toward Khe Sanh’s narrow, metal runway. Walls of dirt filled barrels divided the pit into five sections large enough for a Bird Dog in each section. Pierced Steel Planking (PSP) was laid to provide a hard stand and a pathway up the sloped side. This photo was taken in late July - early August 1967. Frequently, the clouds were only a few feet above the pits. Photo credit: Jimmie Butler, Col., USAF (Ret.)
Let's switch away from the VR challenge and talk about an important 20th TASS mission, support to special operations forces operating inside Laos.
A group of Covey FACs were assigned to Khe Sanh from mid-1965-mid 1966. Their task was to fly over central Laos, mostly the northern part of Steel Tiger East, the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We have done a thorough report on Khe Sanh from its beginning in the war through to one year before the 1968 siege It is entitled, "RT BReaker Patrol, the Hill Battles of Vietnam," March 1, 2006. We commend it to you.
Northern Quang Tri province showing the locations of outposts and cities near the DMZ. Presented by Khe Sanh Veterans Home Page.
During its early years, Khe Sanh was an Army Special Operations Group (SOG) outpost. They used it as a jumping off point to go into Laos to conduct ground reconnaissance of enemy logistics movements. Capt. Cal Anderson, Hound Dog 56, was there when a SOG team called in to be extracted from Laos immediately. A group of Army gunships and extraction helos, USAF A-1Es, and Anderson and his O-1 Bird Dog launched in response. When Hound Dog 56 got there, he saw over 30 enemy troops firing at the 11-man SOG team, and he himself was receiving fire. His Dawg took a number of hits, but he still had control. Anderson fired his M-16 out the window at the enemy force until the A-1s and gunships arrived.
Smoke marker identifying friendlies. Presented by Delta15.com
Anderson marked the team's location with smoke, and arranged the A-1s and gunships so they would come over the enemy on alternate passes. One helo made it in and picked up half the team, but the fire became so intense a second helo could not get in there.
Then, the second helo decided to go in and hover, and dropped some ropes. The remaining SOG team grabbed the ropes, hung from them firing at the enemy, and the helo pulled out of there with these guys dangling and firing. Everyone made it out with no friendly losses.
It's blurry, but you get the idea. The U.S. Army's Special Operations "STABO" Rig was an emergency extraction rig using special web gear that converts to a harness for attaching to a rope lowered through the treetops from a hovering helicopter. To rig this required the SOG troop to unfasten the straps (2) from his web belt at his back, swing them forward under his crotch, between his legs and back over his shoulders and snapped them in the front. When he got to the STABO RIG, he snapped into two rings, one on each shoulder and this left his hands completely free to fight or assist his wounded teammates. In this SOG photo, two men are assisting a wounded team member. Presented by popasmoke.com
Here's a different look at the same kind of thing:
HH-53 callsign "Dimmer" from HMH 463 extract crew and passengers from a downed aircraft, all on a full string. Op Tailwind. Presented by macvsog.org
Now you know that if you've got to pull guys out this way, you're in a mighty tough neighborhood.
Go to Capt. James L. Taylor, USA, 184th RAC