Talking Proud --- Military

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 Ravens: No discussion about Bird Dog FACs in the Vietnam-Laos Wars is complete without addressing the Raven FACs of Laos. This was a covert, clandestine operation. The aircraft were American O-1s, the pilots were USAF pilots, and together they lived in and flew out of and over Laos supporting Royal Laotian military and indigenous militia forces against the North Vietnamese invaders and their Pathet Lao militia.

This handsome dude is Larry Williams, and Air Force officer, Raven 72. You cannot see his outfit, but it is not a USAF uniform, he is not carrying a USAF ID, there is nothing with him to indicate he is in the USAF.

The aircraft were American O-1s, the pilots were USAF pilots, and together they lived in and flew out of and over Laos supporting Royal Laotian military and indigenous militia forces against the North Vietnamese invaders and their Pathet Lao militia. On occasion some Army O-1 pilots would go into Laos on temporary duty to fly with the Ravens for a couple months.

We would prefer not to go into details about why this all had to be so covert. It has something to do with the Geneva Accords of 1962 and the Government of Laos declaring itself neutral in the Vietnam War. The Laotian government was by no means neutral, and was fighting against North Vietnamese invaders and a Pathet Lao communist insurgency. The history is absorbing. Some will argue it was complex and sensitive. Editorially, we disagree; politicians made it that way, but that's a debate for another day.

In 1965, Air Commandos, mostly enlisted men, flew with CIA contracted aircrews to provide control of tactical airpower being brought to bear against enemy forces in Laos. US airpower by this time was mightily engaged in both Laos and Vietnam. These enlisted crews were known as the
Butterfly FACs.

In 1966 the USAF leadership found out that enlisted aircrew were controlling USAF attack aircraft and insisted these be replaced by officers who were themselves pilots, preferably fighter pilots. So began the Steve Canyon Program and the covert Raven FACs. The Ravens were all rated pilots who had flown FAC missions in Vietnam. describes them this way:

RLAF U-17B “69-7306” taken by Tom Lum, probably at Udorn in the early seventies. Note the Laotian national markings. It was a USAF aircraft, operated under the control of the US Ambassador Vientiane, Laos, flown by Raven pilot Ed Gunter, Larry Sanborn out of Luang Prabang, Laos, and then by Erik Carlson out of Long Thien, Laos. It was maintained at Udorn, Thailand. Presented by The Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University, with kind permission from Steve Maxner.

"The Ravens used three different airplanes to accomplish their mission: the small, light O-1 observation aircraft, armed only with white phosphorous smoke rockets; the heavier, slightly faster U-17 (Cessna 185), with the same armament, but longer range and loiter time. Some Ravens got to check out in the 'Cadillac,' the T-28. This was heaven for a Raven --- bombs, napalm, high explosive rockets, and 50 caliber machine guns for strafe. Now, you didn't have to wait for jets when you had a fast-moving target. The common denominator was that they all flew low, slow, and were highly vulnerable to ground fire.

This is a Raven T-28 dropping two bombs that we can see, marked by the red arrows. This kind of operation would soon be used by FAC aircraft throughout the Vietnam-Laos-Cambodia theater: find 'em, shoot 'em, check to be sure you destroyed 'em or shoot 'em again. Presented by

"The missions were as varied as the personalities of the Ravens. Some carried a 'backseater,' a local who translated, talked to ground troops, and helped locate targets. Others were essentially deep interdiction missions, aimed at stemming the flow of troops and supplies into this neutral country. Some were basic visual reconnaissance looking for targets. Many were 'troops in contact,' providing life-saving tactical air strikes in support of ground troops being fired upon."

Gene Hamner, a Raven FAC, mostly in T-28s, but sometimes in O-1s, describes his experience as a Raven FAC superbly, and we commend it to your attention. We've taken a few excerpts to whet your lips.

"On August 15, 1971, I was standing in front of the commander getting a quick briefing of what he expected from me. He told me this was the last time I would wear an Air Force uniform until I left the program and arrived back in the States. I was to send anything military home, and my military ID would be taken from me when I reached the embassy in Vientiane, Laos ...

"When we volunteered for the program, few of us knew what we were actually volunteering for. We signed out of the Air Force and became civilians. Most of us were in our mid-twenties when we gave up our uniforms and were given airplanes, told what the objective was, and then turned loose with very little supervision.

"We spent months as Ravens, finding targets, supplies, enemy troops, and boats; seeing fellow Ravens get killed because they went beyond the reasonable limits; and working with CIA people who passed targets on to us over beers at night. The list goes on and on. We volunteered to help the Laotians, Hmong, and other ethnic groups, because they were helping the U.S. That is a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of a few guys in their twenties.

"We often experienced problems when we encountered uniformed people. They took umbrage at the fact that we fought the war in Levis and t-shirts. They didn't like our hair, which we'd let grow way beyond military standards. Many didn't like the fact that we answered only to the embassy in Laos ..."

Rather than telling war stories, we'd like to show you some of the men, their machines, and the "bases" in Laos from which they operated.

Three Raven Bird Dog FACs flying in formation over Laos. Note they are grey fuselage, small numbers on the tail, no national markings. They are flying over Pakse, a southern base for the Ravens. Larry Ratts, Dunc Duncan and Jim Hix. Photo credit: Frank Kricker. Presented by

Most Ravens were "stationed" at Long Thieng Lima Site 20A in northeastern Laos, known as LS20A or 20-Alternate, on the southern edge of the Plaines des Jars (PDJ). We'll show you several photos of it. Please note the ridge at the end of the runway, it turns out, the northern end. It was about 300 ft high. Raven pilot Charles W. "Buddha" Hines says he and his colleagues called it the "vertical speedbrake." He went on to say:

"Karst formations rose on the right at the south end, making approaches a hair-raising event, especially when the weather was bad."

Long Tieng, Laos, Lima Site 20A (LS20A) taken out the side door of an HH-53. Photo courtesy of The Pararescue Association, presented by The Official A-1 Skyraider Site.

This is a nice shot of the field, 1969. You can see three Raven Dawgs parked, along with a lineup of T-28s, some of which might have been for the FACs, others of which might have been for USAF (with Laotian markings) or Royal Laotian Air Force (RLAF) attack missions. A USAF 21st Special Operations Squadron (SOS) CH-3E has just landed on runway. Presented by

Raven O-1s parked at LS20A, early 1969. Photo credit: Chuck Baird. Presented by University of Texas at Dallas.

There were "Lima Site" airfields all over Laos, and the Ravens would frequently use them when they ran low on gas or experienced aircraft problems. There were four other main bases: Luang Prabang (northwest); Vientiane, the capital; and Pakse (LS11, lower panhandle) and Savannakhet (LS39, upper panhandle) in the south along the Mekong River.

Savannakhet Airfield (LS39) taken from a flight of Sandy A-1s in 1971. Thailand is across the Mekong River, or, to the pilots, across the fence. Photo credit: Alan Young, A-1 pilot. Presented by

The "Bandito" photo of Raven pilots, posed and taken following the visit of an USAF major general who did not appreciate what the Ravens did or how they operated. Drawn from "Portraits in Courage," by Don Moody, a must-read story to understand the Ravens and this photo.

Ravens with loaded O-1, we believe, at Lima 20A. Norm Crocker's T-28-RLAF Site

O-1F #957 from Savannakhet in late 1968. Raven FAC George Williams was flying with one of the radio operators in the back seat. The two right rockets appear to have been employed. Photo courtesy of Thomas E. Lee. Presented by

Major Edward Ernest "Hoss" McBride, USAF, Raven 30, before he went flying. He was known as the "Singing FAC." Major McBride was KIA in Laos by enemy fire November 27, 1968. Photo credit: Thomas E. Lee. Presented by

Discovery Times did a special on the Raven FACs, entitled, The Ravens: Covert War in Laos. It identified the photo on the left as that of Fred "Magnet Ass" Platt, a Raven pilot, who we have since learned was an USAF captain and indeed a Raven. Why "magnet ass?" He was shot down 10, perhaps 11 times. Finally, we have learned he is presently the post commander, China Post 1, one of the oldest American Legion Posts in the world. It's history and activities are riveting. In any event, we have a photo of Fred taken in April 2002 in Hawaii, and it's to the right of old "Magnet Ass."

Wattay International Airport, Vientiane, Laos, the capital, shot in 1967. Both the Soviets and US used the airport, the former to supply our enemies, the latter to supply our friends. Presented by

This is an interesting photo. I thought it was a Bird Dog with Laotian national markings. However, Paul Moore has, I think correctly, told me it is a Cessna 185, called a U-17 by the CIA and the Ravens. The nose is a real give-away. My mistake. I obtained this photo from the University of Texas Dallas which had prepared a statistical summary of O-1s that it said were part of Air America. The Dawgs listed for the most part were maintained by Air America at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand, but they are Raven FAC aircraft belonging to the USAF. The university report identifies tail number and, on occasion, the pilots who flew them. The report said this is RLAF-Raven O-1F tail number "2776" in a photo taken by Tom Lum at Udorn in the early 1970s. Apparently that is not correct. Neat to look at any way.

Go to Late arriving Bird Dog photo gallery