The O-1 "Bird Dog," the toughest dog in the fight, "our little flivver"
March 26, 2006
An aircraft "walk-around"
Marine OE-1 "Bird Dog" flying over the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Provided by Bob Lyons. Presented by International Bird Dog Association
The L-19 “Bird Dog” was a two-place aircraft developed by the Army from the commercial Cessna Model 170 in 1949. The pilot sat in the front, his observer in the rear. Jimmie Butler, a former FAC pilot and now a retired USAF colonel, has highlighted for us a paper written by Major Donald K. Schneider for the Air War College in 1979 which provides a nice introductory description of this aircraft.
"The light craft was often buffeted by gusty winds and turbulence, and the cockpit was noisy, cramped, and uncomfortable. Without the benefit of air conditioning, and surrounded by his survival kit, M-16 rifle, sidearm, knife, and maps, the FAC sweltered in the tropical heat and humidity. The Bird Dog had no offensive firepower, and its thin metal skin offered little protection. His skill in maneuvering the tiny craft was the only defense against enemy ground fire. The unsophisticated machine was anything but glamorous, and the FAC would never love the Bird Dog as he did the sleek Super Sabre or the swift Phantom. Though he often looked forward to a return to jet fighter duty, the FAC knew that his job was vital and challenging."
In the book Operation Pat Hand, Donald Rube Waddell wrote this:
"There wasn't much to preflight on the O-1. (The pilot) would check to see if all the cowl fasteners were secure; he would check the oil level in the engine; he would check all control surfaces for freedom of movement. As he approached the wings, he would check the Willy Pete rockets, underslung on the wings, to make sure the 'pigtails' were securely attached. Assuring himself the rockets were firmly loaded and secure, he would pull each of the safety pins attached to a long red streamer, and give the crew chief the entire fistful of pins and streamers. Everything completed, he went back to the door, pulled out the 781, signed off his acceptance of the aircraft for flight, and handed the 781 back to the crew chief."
You'll see many paint schemes for the Bird Dog in the Vietnam-Laos Wars. Jimmie Butler noted this about paint:
"One of the big events during the first month I was there (Hurlburt Field, Florida for training) was that an A-1 Skyraider collided with a camouflaged Bird Dog over one of the Eglin Ranges. In SEA (Southeast Asia), I was assigned to the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS) at Nakhon Phanom (NKP) Royal Thai Air Force Base in northeast Thailand for missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I learned that the first Bird Dog the squadron lost over the Trail had a mid-air collision with an F-105. I understand that Captain Karl Worst was flying a camouflaged Bird Dog on that mission.
"As a Forward Air Controller, I directed scores of air strikes often with F-105s or F-4s diving through my altitude at about 500 knots. So, we preferred our Bird Dogs (and later O-2s) to be bright and shiny for the other pilots to see. This also was helpful in South Vietnam where being very visible speeded up rendezvousing with attack aircraft/helicopters in situations where a couple of minutes often meant the difference between life and death for American troops in contact on the ground.
"In South Vietnam and Central Laos, of course, we weren't up against any threat from enemy air, so there was no downside to having a Bird Dog that could be easily spotted by other pilots."
The covert USAF Raven FACs operating from fields in Laos had no national markings, though we have seen at least one that had Laotian national markings. They were painted grey, with abbreviated tail numbers.
The engine powerplant - 213 horses
We're not sure what these guys are doing with this Marine Bird Dog, but you get a nice look at the engine. The prop blade looks bent. Provided by Bob Lyons. Presented by International Bird Dog Association.
Her six cylinder, air cooled piston engine was a Continental O-470 with 213 horses. She could cruise at 100 knots to a service altitude of 18,500 ft. Her climb rate was about 1,150 feet per minute, and she had a range of about 530 miles with a 43 gallon gas tank.
Paul Brevard, writing "Continental's O-470 series" for the 1996 edition of Light Plane Maintenance, said:
"(She) idles like a six cylinder Harley Davidson, roars on takeoff like a dragster, and has the best bottom end in the business."
This is another photo of the engine receiving maintenance, either in Korea or Vietnam, we're not sure. Presented by US Army Motor Transport Corps, Ft. Eustis.
Brevard went on to say that it was a rugged six-cylinder engine that produced dependable power.
That said, as far as the FAC pilot was concerned, the Bird Dog was underpowered. The FACs almost always had to fly at or above designed gross weights. The manual said 2,400 lbs was the max. She weighed 2,250 lbs with a full load of fuel. That meant the pilot and all his belongings could, theoretically, only weigh 150 lbs. If the FAC carried an observer in the back seat to help out, well, you get the point.
Brevard added that the engine ate a lot of oil, and the front two cylinders ran excessively rich.
￼Another pilot, then Capt. Richard Allen "Magellan" Strong, 23rd TASS, in his paper, "The Lost war that Never Was," has said that the engines were maintained with regular non-detergent oil. Told to land at another base, the troops there put in detergent oil, which on a mission the next week, loosened a great deal of accumulated dirt in the engine which in turn deposited in the propeller pitch control, causing the control to stick in the low rpm position, not good as he was wanting to beat feet away from a threat.
He further commented:
"The high temperatures and humidity also degraded engine performance significantly."
We have seen several instances where rough running engines created problems, though the pilots seemed to have a knack to baby them with some loving care and a few prayers. Covey 15, an USAF O-1 FAC out of Danang, had been working in the very dangerous A Shau Valley. He could not maintain altitude, losing 200 ft per minute altitude starting from "Angels 7.5" (altitude 7,500 ft). His problem was there was no way he wanted to land in the valley, sure to be captured and/or killed, and he had a hefty ridge-line to get over to the more safe eastern side. He asked for a strike fighter to cover him. Mofak Lead, a Marine A-8 Crusader, was five minutes away. The ridge-line was about 6,000 ft, Covey 15 was two miles away and already at 6.5. Together Covey 15 and Mofak Lead found a little hole in the ridge that was about 5.0. There was the risk of being so low that the Covey FAC would be vulnerable to a six-shooter, but he had no choice. Mofak Lead reported the Covey making it through with 200 ft. to spare! In their oh so professional way, once through the gap and within gliding distance of Phu Bai, the Covey "released" Mofak lead to conduct other business, to which Mofak lead responded:
"I'll escort you another fifteen miles closer to Phu Bai. You are the only business I have."
Rough running engines were not always so easy to handle, however. The big problem was the pilot lost power. Capt. Bob Freck, USA, a 219th RAC Bird Dog pilot, got a rough engine while flying cover for a Marine company out of Con Thien in the summer of 1967. The Marines were well dug in and, for the moment, under no threat. The winds were blowing just right and Fleck decided he could land on the dirt road running through the Marine company, then get a helo ride back to safety. Just as he was on short final approach, the engine started running smoothly, so he pulled up and turned for Dong Ha. As he turned, his engine quit. He was so low and going so slowly that he crashed and died.
Modified superstructure - 360 degree view and more
Having the wing on top the aircraft substantially enhanced the view down below. The Cessna 170 superstructure was modified to provide a clear view rearward. A transparent panel was placed in the wing above the seats to enhance the view upward. There was already plenty of window on the sides. If there was an issue, it was that the observer in the back seat could not see out the front. The pilot sat high while the observer sat low. Of course, the two would develop work-arounds for that.
This is a nice photo provided by Bob Lyons, and presented by International Bird Dog Association. Note the windows, 360 degrees around the cabin. They are hard to see, but there are also windows within the wing above the crew, like a "sun roof."
Oh yes, each aircraft was issued a pilot like this proud Marine. That's why they call them GIs --- government issued!
This is a real nice shot of the windows aft and in the wing. The observer sat in this rear seat. Image from the July 3rd, 2004 Forward Air Control Event - Planes of Fame Museum, Chino, California. Photo credit Britt Dietz, presented by warbird-photos
Short field takeoff and landings - She took off herself and landed anywhere
A slotted high-lift flap along the trailing edge of each wing increased performance during slow flight and short field landings.
Capt. Ben Witterman, commander, advanced party, Operation Cricket, inspecting his Bird Dog's high-lift flap, we assume, at NKP. From "The Origin
Tests demonstrated that the Dawg could take-off and land over an obstacle 50 feet high in as little as 167 yards. The aircraft was designed for low maintenance and good short-field capability from unimproved sites.
This is a 220th RAC Bird Dog parked on the pierced steel planking (PSP) next to the dirt and sand, not quite like Chuck Galbach's story below, but you get the idea. Presented by 220th RAC.
Chuck Galbach, a USAF O-1 pilot out of Danang, May 1967 - May 1968, callsign "Bully 09," has mentioned that one day he flew up to Phu Bai, RVN, and saw a bunch of O-1s parked in sand next to some PSP (pierced steel planking). He remarked:
"I watched as an O-1 cranked up and sure enough, a small inverted tornado like thing formed right behind the propeller sucking sand right up to the air intake. We sent a bunch of extra filters up to Phu Bai and had them wash, oil soak and drain the filters after each flight. Those fixes ended that problem (magneto failure) and as far as I know the O-1’s were able to continue flying out of Phu Bai."
It turned out that sucking in the sand through the air intake tore up the magneto. The magneto, something most of us have on our gas lawnmowers, is an electrical generator that creates a periodic high-voltage pulse, 20,000 volts or more, that causes a spark to jump across the spark plug's gap and ignite the fuel in the engine to get 'er started.
What you see here is a Marine OE-1 Bird Dog from VMO-2 taking off from the deck (bow) of the USS Princeton LPH-5 Amphibious Assault Ship bound for Soc Trang, to be part of HMM-362, in April 1962 (photo presented by popasmoke.com). We're not sure from what point on the deck the lad started, but he has her in a turn just a few feet above the deck, his horizontal stabilizer within inches of the deck. You can see he has his trailing edge flaps down quite a bit.
We've had trouble finding a photo of a Bird Dog taking off, but we found a great description, written by Chuck Houck, an experienced ex-Army utility pilot. He was commenting that the pilot does not take-off a Bird Dog, the Dawg takes itself off:
"The (Cessna O-1) Bird Dog is the only other airplane (other than a Russian An-2) I've ever flown that takes off three-point. With 15 degrees of flap, by the time you have advanced the power and monitored it sufficiently to set 950mm of manifold pressure --- 1,030 is the maximum allowable --- the thing is off the ground like an Acapulco parasailer showing off to the girls on the beach. The yoke never moves."
Army Major Robert J. "Mo" Moberg, callsign Bandit 26, a helicopter driver, was in a jam at Ban Khar near Moung Soi, Laos in June 1969 while working as a senior advisor to the Lao Neutralist Army, whom he irreverently called the "Neuts." He was also working with Thai forces in the same area. To make a long story short, an Army Attaché helo flew in, picked up Mo, and dropped him off at Lima Site 20A where he was going to try to organize some help for his beleaguered forces.
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.
He was dropped off at the wrong end of the strip, close to where there was some fighting going on with the NVA on the perimeter. In any event, he noticed a Thai OE-1 Bird Dog tied down to a revetment. He describes what he did next:
"(I) ran back to the Bird Dog. My pre-flight consisted of cutting the tie down ropes with my trusty K-Bar as I ran to the door, climbed in, and held the start button on while screwing in the battery connector. It kicked over after a couple rotations. I ran up the engine and checked the oil pressure as I lowered flaps and took off from the revetment 45 degrees to the runway, and flew 20 feet over the heads of the NVA in the rice paddies. I then did a recon of the whole area trying to locate the tanks that had been reported and landed on a little road back in front of Ban Khay stopping just before hitting the front gate ... I took off again, with an anxiously tight rectum, barely clearing the building at the other end of the road."
This photo shows the "Trail FAC" operations ramp on the southeast end of the Hué Citadel Airfield runway. We assume Bully 09's story below talks to the grass area in he upper right. Apparently he felt better using that than the 2,300 ft. runway. "Trail FACs" supported the 1st ARVN Division operating out of the MACV Compound in Hué. Photo courtesy of Jim Wilkes, Bilk 24, presented by Thomas Pilsch.
Returning to Bully 09, he maintained he could land in the Hue Citadel area anywhere he saw the most visibly used part of the runway inside the walled area, never worrying at all about the 10-20 ft wall; he said he did the same for takeoff:
"I just taxied out to where the grass got pretty thick, turned around, and took off. I never even noticed the wall. It was way down when I crossed it."
One Army O-1 FAC pilot lamented following the war that he felt like he landed at every "two-rut" landing strip the Army had in Vietnam.
O-1D Bird Dog. Photo credit: Philip Treweek. Presented by the family of Lt. Colonel James Ramsey, USMC, at the time, Captain, 3rd Marine Division. O-1D pilot, USMC, down in North Vietnam, January 21, 1968.
Oh yes, we must point out that the O-1 was a "tail dragger," which meant that a third wheel was located on the centerline of the fuselage aft, all the way back. On takeoff, that part of the aircraft would lift off first, meaning that the pilot had to work his rudder to stay on a straight course down the runway. This is as opposed to what's known as the tricycle, which has a nose wheel.
Jimmy Coffman flew the Dawg for the Army 183rd RAC in Vietnam in 1968-69 at Phan Thiet and Nha Trang. He had flown the OV-1 Mohawk but hurt his back in a punch-out and had to switch to the Dawg. He described the transition to the tail dragger as "difficult." He commented this way:
"Just landing the tail dragger was very difficult, very finicky in the wind, very critical in cross wind landings. It will ground loop. If the nose of the airplane or the tail, however you want to look at it, gets past 30 degrees off center, at this range more than 30 degrees, then it will go on around. You are a just a passenger at that point. It will ground loop on you which means when it comes around, the right landing gear breaks off, the right wing goes down in the dirt, and you usually don’t get hurt but you’re awful embarrassed. Your pride’s hurt a lot."
Well, those renditions provide a pretty good idea of what takeoffs and landings might be like!
The cockpit - Pilots strapped the Dawg on!
The cabin, especially the cockpit, was small, very small. It often took a few crew chiefs to force the pilot and his stuff in there. (Image from the July 3rd, 2004 Forward Air Control Event - Planes of Fame Museum, Chino, California. Photo credit Britt Dietz, presented by warbird-photos).
Karl Polifka, writing "Treetop Warfare" published in the February 1999 edition of Flight Journal, described a Raven FAC O-1 cockpit like this:
"To enter the Dog, put your left foot on the fuselage step and your right hand on the windshield brace; pull yourself upward into the front seat with your right hand --- a move that requires a quick duck and swivel ... The cockpit smells like old zinc chromate, engine oil and sweat that oozes from the ancient olive-drab seat cushions --- the only fabric in the airplane."
If we might have a bit of fun here, while preparing this report, we ran across a race car photo which reminds us a lot of Polifka's description of getting into a Bird Dog.
What you've got here is American golfer Tiger Woods climbing into a stock car at Huntly Speedway where he was learning to drive them in Huntly, New Zealand. While he's going in with his right foot, if you look closely, his caddie, New Zealander Steve Williams, is behind him and helping shove him in there! (Photo credit: Iain McGregor, Waikato Times, AP). You kind of sense that the Tiger and a Dawg FAC pilot might understand each other here.
This is a nice photo because you can see a pilot sitting in there at the controls. (Image from the July 3rd, 2004 Forward Air Control Event - Planes of Fame Museum, Chino, California. Photo credit Britt Dietz, presented by warbird-photos). He already looks cramped, and he has no flight gear on, like flight suit, holster, and survival vest. If you look at most photos of pilots at the controls in the O-1, you will see them sitting up very straight, very close to their controls, sometimes even bent forward. Some pilots explain this by saying they were sitting "high."
Here is George Goff, US Army 203rd Recon Airplane Company (RAC), callsign Hawkeye 37, and his Bird Dig preparing for a mission in Vietnam in 1968. He's not tall, but you can see the stuff he is wearing and the size of the map he is carrying (Photo presented by Vetfriends.com)
This handsome aviator wearing all his gear is then Captain Rhodric K. Patrick, 2nd Flight Platoon, 184th RAC, out of Phu Loi. As you can see, he is a healthy specimen of a guy and you can see him sitting there, having strapped the Dawg on (Photo presented by the 184th RAC). As an aside, his platoon commander, Billy Hibbs, Nonstop 26, said Patrick learned to fly as a teenager and was a superb Bird Dog pilot.
Unlike this pilot, many, perhaps even most, did not wear their parachute and some did not even wear their survival vest.
Returning to the book Operation Pat Hand, Donald Rube Waddell described climbing in like this:
"Hollison (the pilot) took a last minute stretch (outside the aircraft), adjusted his shoulder holster, then climbed into the aircraft. He strapped himself in with both seat belt and shoulder harness and began his quick left to right venture around the cockpit. He used no checklist. It was all too routine and too simple. This O-1 Bird Dog would be his for the next three to four hours."
We have read an account entitled, "Ravens of Long Tieng," by Ralph Wetterhahn. Wetterhahn wrote about Raven FAC pilot Lt. Fred Platt, who flew the O-1 out of various air strips in Laos (we'll talk more about the Ravens later). Platt's aircraft was hit by a 12.7 mm anti-aircraft gun causing oil to blow out of his cowling. He had to shut down his single engine and depend on the winds to get him and his Laotian backseater to safety. As he was trying to set her down, his aircraft stalled and struck a lip in a depression he was trying to fly over before setting down. Wetterhahn describes what happens when you crash like this with a small cockpit:
Fortunately both men were rescued by a CIA helicopter driver and survived, though Platt endured pain for the rest of his life.
Air Force Captain Walter Lehman, FAC with the 25th Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade, makes pre-flight checks of his O-1 before take-off. Presented by 25th Infantry Division's Tropic Lightning News, September 16, 1968, "FAC's - Air Force Eyes - Bring smoke on Viet Cong."
It's worth noting that Capt. Lehman, shown in the photo above, is not wearing his parachute or survival vest. We have seen many references to their not wearing them because they were too bulky They might drape it over the back of their seat or stuff it someplace in there. They would have little chance to put it on if in a crash mode; we suspect they figured they could grab it and their M-16 on the way out after a crash landing, if they survived it. Many talk of their confidence, saying they could glide a banged-up Dawg in safely to just about any location that was at least a little bit flat. For many, this was the way they saw it if they got into deep trouble --- glide her in, get out, grab their stuff and wait for help to come. If help didn't come, many said they were prepared to shoot it out to the death rather than be captured.
We believe this to be a real Vietnam era Bird Dog cockpit. If you see cockpits of the Dawgs being flown today, you will see a lot more gadgetry and switches. Here's a closer view.
Cockpit instruments of a Bird Dog flown by the 185th Recon Aviation Co. "Pterodactyls." Presented by Pterodactly 185.
Cockpit instruments and lighting were not good. The aircraft was unsuitable for night missions, though many night missions were flown. The instrumentation was for a light aircraft of the 1940s. This is the view out the front over the pilot's shoulder. (Photo presented by the 184th RAC). Visibility for the pilot out of the front of the aircraft was not good. Visibility out the front for the backseater was almost nil They both obtained their best views of the outside by looking out the side of the airplane.
Oh yes, let's not forget the back-seater! You would use an American if supporting Americans, and Vietnamese or Laotian if supporting their forces.
This is Frank Ledford, callsign Country Wonder 27, from the 74th Recon Airplane Co., Phu Loi, working the back seat of a Bird Dog running an artillery fire mission in 1971 northwest of Tay Ninh. Photo credit: Frank Ledford. Presented by 15th Field Artillery Regiment
Lieutenant Commander Tom Glickman, the operations officer, Commander, River Patrol Force at Binh Thuy, flew the back seat of an Army O-1 piloted by Lt. Fred Lakeway, USN. They borrowed the Dawg to give Glickman an air orientation of the Mekong Delta area. Glickman described his experience getting in this way:
"I was in the back seat of the tandem seat arrangement, and somewhat overfilled the space available. To give me more room, the crew chief removed the back seat 'stick.' I received a strong admonition to keep my feet clear of the back seat’s rudder peddles. Fred had a .45 as a side arm but also brought along an M-3 "grease gun" sub-machine gun. I have no idea where he got it. Fred stowed the M-3 in a well to the left of my seat. Fred and I communicated through the ICS. It also allowed me to hear all radio transmissions."
Highly maneuverable - She turned on a dime
O-1 Bird Dog honing in on his prey, low, slow, around and around, spinning on a dime! Presented by Thomas Pilsch.
Overloaded and underpowered, the aircraft had limited performance, though the O-1 was highly maneuverable. She could turn on a dime over her targets, giving the pilot a special ability to keep his eyes on the target. She was especially good at maneuvering inside the tight valleys.
John L. Frisbee, a contributing editor for Air Force Magazine, in an article entitled, "The One-Man Show at Bong Son," published in the November 1999 edition, talked about USAF Major William McAllister, known as "Mac the FAC."
Bong Son bridge. Note the mountains and ridges in the background. Photo credit: Robert Plumtree, Hq New Zealand V Force, 1967. Presented by Photos of Villages in the Vietnam War.
Frisbee wrote that on March 25, 1965, Mac came to the aid of a detachment of Vietnamese Marines pinned down in a "narrow valley surrounded by 3,000 ft mountains near Bong Son." He came in under a low, 1200 ft ceiling, to direct air attacks against the enemy. He was called on by the Marines again at 11 that evening and returned, flying again under a low overcast that extended up to 8,500 ft. Mac found the valley, despite the weather. Frisbee reported that the "valley was barely wide enough for tight 360-degree turns." He called for C-123 flares but the flare-ship could not get into the valley, it was so small, so the 123 climbed above the weather and dropped his flares "in the blind" with Mac hanging down in there, calling for needed adjustments. After himself being lit up by the flares, luckily none of them striking his aircraft, Mac climbed into the soup and continued orbiting in this narrow valley, ducking down in there to fire rockets and his M-1 carbine out the window. He would receive the Air Force Cross for his gallantry.
Men on the ground always talked about seeing the Dawg circling around overhead. An RB57 crew, Major James W. Johnston, pilot, Major Philip N. Walker, navigator, Det 1, 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, bailed out 15 miles east of Dau Tieng. One of the first things they saw was the little Dawg circling around above them.
This is a photo taken by helicopter crew from Alpha Company, 2-12 Infantry coming into a clearing near Dau Tieng, Vietnam, in the late 1960s. The photo of the terrain and jungle, then is real. We added what a mirror flashing off the sun might look like amidst all those trees, left of center of the photo. Original photo credited to Lt. Jim Olafson, A/2/12. Presented by the Alpha Association.
Major Johnston, his survival radios not working, pulled out his mirror and successfully signaled the plane. The FAC spotted the flashing from the mirror and brought in an Army UH-1D Huey to make the pick up.
Pilots say the Dawg could loop and roll with ease as well. Chuck Galbach, a FAC at Danang AB, RVN in 1967-1968, said he received ground fire on one of his early O-1 missions:
"I shoved in the rudder and slipped and zigzagged my way out of there."
We mentioned earlier that the little Bird Dog could get thrown around by the winds. Galbach recounts his approach into Hoi An, RVN with a "pretty strong direct crosswind from the north --- it had a 30-knot sock standing straight out steady across the runway line." He went on to say:
"I landed and had to work pretty hard to keep the thing on that dinky runway (500 ft. PSP metal planking, another 500 ft. gravel). A few minutes after I left, another FAC called the radio operator and said he was coming in. I told him the winds were pretty bad, but I guess he assumed if I made it he would. A few minutes later, on landing, he ground looped the thing right over into the cemetery to the north, broke off the entire rear end of the fuselage from his seat back and came to a rest with his seat (and butt) hanging out the front half of the airplane."
The Dawg could dive all right, to a maximum speed of 165 knots, but when the time came to pull up and get out of there, well, she would lose speed as one would expect, but she struggled and grumbled about gaining any altitude.
This next account is most interesting. Two F-4B Phantom Black Knights of Marine Attack Fighter Squadron 314 (VMFA-314) were locked and loaded on the hot pads at Chu Lai ready for scramble should the launch order come. On May 16, 1967, after sitting in the hot pad van for two hours, the call did come:
"Emergency Mission. Troops in contact with .50 Caliber Machine Guns. North of Con Thien at the north side of the DMZ. Contact Landshark Charlie on button yellow passing Phu Bai."
The two F4s were off within minutes and on their way. A Bird Dog FAC was already orbiting the area, had the .50 cals in sight, and briefed the two Black Knights that the Marines on the ground were hunkered down by this gun and the gun had to go. Following their coordination, and confirmation that everyone had everyone in sight, including the target, the Black Knights reported the following (Extract from "Valley of Death Escape"):
"The Bird Dog pilot rolled upside down, pulled the O-1's nose down to the target, quickly rolled upright and launched a Willy Peter (WP White Phosphorous) 2.75 inch rocket to mark the target. The Birddog pilot then rapidly bent his spotter plane back around to the safer airspace south of the enemy gun position. The FAC described the clock position and distance of the target from the WP smoke rising from the pock-marked jungle terrain. The Phantoms called the target in sight and were immediately cleared in 'Hot' by the FAC."
Now that's maneuverability
Limited "armament" - Her rockets, a .38 or .45 pistol, an M-16 or something better you might have "borrowed," and your on your own buddy
In the mountainous areas of Laos, The O-1's slow speed helped the pilots find their enemies. But these advantages made her a sitting duck for enemy fire. Even the enemy's AK-47 was a major threat. Many pilots preferred to fly low, some liking it at treetop level rather than the recommended 2,000 ft. The "low-fliers" felt they gained a "relative speed to the would-be shooter" advantage. That said, one pilot noted that he had been taught at transition training for the Dawg that at low altitude, like maybe 25-50 feet, his aircraft was within easy rifle range for about 13 seconds. That's long enough to click off a bunch of rounds.
Speaking of shooting, take a look at this.
This is a rare photo of flak coming up at a Marine O-1 (provided by Bob Lyons, Presented by International Bird Dog Association).
The aircraft had no armament, except a few rocket tubes on the wings for marking targets, a six-shooter or .45 caliber in the survival vest, and an M-16 the pilot would bring with him, shown in this photo. Some pilots would "borrow" even better fire power than the M-16, but at the end of the day, their armament remained limited. (Image from the July 3rd, 2004 Forward Air Control Event - Planes of Fame Museum, Chino, California. Photo credit Britt Dietz, presented by warbird-photos).
There are countless instances where the pilot would use his M-16 to fire at targets out the window. The truth is they would use their rifles, carbines if they had them, their side-arm, smoke bombs, and grenades if they had them. They used anything they could get their hands on and fit in their cockpit.
Stationed at Nha Trang, RVN, Wilbanks flew a Bird Dog FAC mission near Dalat on February 24, 1967. His job was to fly ahead of a South Vietnamese Army Ranger Battalion and alert them to any enemy force it might encounter. He spotted a well concealed and numerically superior enemy force waiting in ambush. The enemy spotted Wilbanks' aircraft and realized Wilbanks had spotted them, so they opened fire on the approaching Rangers. The enemy then advanced against the Rangers' forward elements.
Wilbanks knew it was going to take a bit of time to get friendly air on the scene to take this enemy down, so he flew over the advancing enemy at tree top level firing his M-16 out the window of his Bird Dog and marking the enemy's location with his rockets. He made his M-16 strafing runs at about 100 ft altitude. He made a number of such passes, reloading between passes, and was able to divert fire away from the allied Rangers and interrupt the enemy advance.
He ruined the enemy's surprise ambush plan, and he slowed down their advance. Wilbanks' aircraft was riddled with enemy fire, and, on his third pass, he crashed between opposing forces. An Army advisor with the Rangers, Captain Gary Vote, ran to him and pulled him from the wreckage. Just then, a flight of F-4 Phantoms came in strafing the enemy force with their 20-millimeter canons while a helicopter came in, under heavy ground fire, to pick up Wilbanks. He died on the way to the hospital. The allied battalion withdrew safely from the area while the Phantoms finished their business with this enemy force. Wilbanks died, and so did a lot of enemy, but the force he was there to serve got out with minimal casualties. That's called "Service and Sacrifice."
Lt. Col. Daemon E. Hobbs has said in a blog that he once saw a Bird Dod rigged with a sidefiring M-60 machine-gun. We have also read a blog report that Marine 1st Lt J.K. Ford and his back seater sunk VC boats and crews in the Soc Trang River with their .45 cal. grease guns.
On occasion, the marking rockets could be used as an offensive weapon against caches of explosives, fuel and ammunition. The rockets were fondly known as “Willy Petes.” They were usually 2.75 inch white-phosphorous marking rockets carried on four pylons under the wings.
This shows a "Willy Pete" on its way to mark a target (provided by Bob Lyons, Presented by International Bird Dog Association). You can see the Dawg has been here before; note all the craters where fighter-bombers were brought in.
John L. Frisbee, a contributing editor for Air Force Magazine, in an article entitled, "The One-Man Show at Bong Son," wrote this about USAF Major William McAllister, who flew out of Qui Nhon as a FAC in support of the 22nd ARVN Division in 1964:
"Some FACs would fire their rockets from an altitude of a few hundred feet. Not McAllister, known to the fighter pilots and ground troops with whom he worked as 'Mac the FAC.' He went in on his target at treetop level, and although the O-1 was not equipped with a sight, McAllister developed uncanny accuracy, often attacking a target with his four rockets before the fighters arrived. He was, in short, one of the best in the business."
Then Capt. Rich Strong of the 23rd TASS gives an interesting description of the aiming mechanism for the rockets. He says it this way:
"The aiming system for the rockets was primitive and ineffective at the beginning. Calibration procedures consisted of inserting brooms into the rocket tubes on either side of the plane, under the wings. A string was then run between the brooms and a grease-pencil mark was made on the windshield where the string crossed over it. The rockets often were several hundred yards from the aim points. The effect of this was that the FACs used two rockets to mark a target and then hoped to find the target somewhere between the smokes. The author was appointed as Maintenance Liaison Officer and discussed the problem with Captain Sanford 'Sandy' Kozlen. The author recommended that all of the rocket racks be moved so as to be precisely aligned with the factory breaks in the wing skins between the inner and outer panels. The maintenance troops made the modifications and the results were very good. The author was rewarded by putting two rockets into the cab of a truck from a distance of almost a mile away."
On the one hand, an O-1 could be brought down by small arms fire, most certainly rifle fire. She was very vulnerable to anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) guns. Many a Dawg with crew was shot down and lost. But there was another side to the O-1 --- there were many instances where she took a beating and the pilot babied her to safety.
This Bird Dog was flown by Lt. Col. Edward A. Abserold (spelling might be incorrect). She was hit while flying within DMZ airspace. She reportedly went into a spin, the pilot pulled it out, said he had the stick pulled as far back into his crotch as it would go, and he crash-landed her at Dong Ha, RVN, August 1, 1966. She's pretty beat up, but she got her man home. Background by John Thorogood, in the bottom photo, standing to the right of the guy in the shorts. The guy in the shorts is Capt. Cal Anderson, a O-1 FAC at Dong Ha. Photo contributed by Bob Thompson. Presented by 1st MOB.
This is Major Richard H. Defer's Raven Dawg at Pakse, Laos. Defer, Raven 20, carrying his Laotian backseater "Phanthy," was hit by NVA 37mm AAA fire in March 1971 near Attapeu. Another Raven pilot, Larry Rats, Raven 41, has reported that "Dick crabbed the aircraft, which should have been unflyable, back to Pakse with his rudder pedal jammed to the floor." Both Major Defer and Phanthy would die later that year, killed in action. Presented by Ravens.org
The hole in the leading edge of this O-1 can get your attention. Presented by Air Force Magazine.
But here's Capt. Richard Wright's Dawg following his flight supporting the ARVN invasion of Laos, Lam Son 719. Capt. Wright was with the 220th RAC "Catkillers" out of Phu Bai, RVN. You gotta wonder how the lad brought this Dawg home.
That concludes our "walk-around" of the O-1 Bird Dog for now.
Let's now move to more stories from the Dawgs of Vietnam, known to many Marines as TWA, or "Teenie Weenie Airlines."
The Bird Dog in the Vietnam-Laos War