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

A Forward Air Controller O1-E "Bird Dog" aircraft is shown here in reconnaissance role near a Special Forces Camp in the Republic of Vietnam. USAF Photo, presented by Air Force Link.

The Air Force, the Army and Marines worked the Dawg heavily in the FAC role in the Vietnam and Laos Wars.

International Bird Dog Association lists 11 Army Aviation Companies flying the O-1 in Vietnam in a FAC role, five Air Force Tactical Air Support Squadrons (TASS), four of which flew from bases in Vietnam, one from a base in Thailand, and one clandestine unit flying from bases in Laos. Marine VMO-6 was the main Marine outfit to fly the O-1 in a FAC role. The squadron had a mix of O-1s and helicopters. Our allies, including the Republic of Korea and Republic of Vietnam also flew them, and we know that Royal Australian Air Force pilots flew them with American units.

Close Air Support (CAS) air strike in Arizona Valley. Close enough for you? These kinds of attacks actually did come closer, whatever it took to kill and destroy the enemy before they destroyed our troops on the ground. Presented by

Our FACs in the Vietnam-Laos Wars flew many different kinds of missions. For ease of understanding, we have grouped the kinds of missions they flew into two main groups: close air support (CAS) and air interdiction.

In the main, the majority of FAC CAS missions were flown from bases in Vietnam over Vietnam, though some were also flown from Vietnam, Thailand and Laos to support Laotian and US special operations activities in Laos. The kinds of support included bringing in helicopter gunships, helicopter slicks for medevac and extraction, and calling in and adjusting artillery and fixed wing air attacks. We lop all these together as CAS, knowing full well that to this day professionals argue about what that means technically.

This is Interdiction Point Alpha of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in central Laos. As you can see, plenty of air interdiction strikes have been conducted in this area. Photo and interpretation presented by Jimmie Butler.

One Air Force squadron in Vietnam, the 20th TASS out of Da Nang AB, RVN was assigned "out-of-country" missions over Laos and against the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Another, the 23rd TASS at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai AFB (NKP) in northeastern Thailand, also flew missions against the trail. These missions were mostly to support air interdiction operations against the enemy's logistics lines. These two squadrons also supported troops on the ground in Laos, especially American special operations forces. As a general rule, all operations in or over Laos were held as sensitive, most especially in the early years.

The USAF's clandestine unit in Laos, known as the Ravens, did both those missions, CAS and air interdiction support. The CAS missions were largely in support of Laotian irregulars, mainly the Hmong, and Laotian regulars.

It is also worthwhile to note that units from the RVN and Thailand flew over Cambodia, which the enemy was using as a safe-haven sanctuary.

We want to convey some war stories about the men who flew the Dawg in Vietnam. This will highlight their enormous ingenuity, courage, love of the men they supported, and love for their Dawg.

The stories we have selected are designed to cover a broad range of events, situations and challenges our pilots faced with their Dawg. Each story will focus on a different aspect of the job and the challenges.

We are going to present our mission example summaries one per page to make it easier for you to view. Please remember we have bounded the report talking only about the O-1 Bird Dog.

Capt. Hilliard A. Wilbanks, USAF, 21st TASS: The only O-1 FAC pilot in the Vietnam-Laos Wars to receive the Medal of Honor. Knowing fighters were a distance away, and time was of the essence, he ran three strafing runs firing his M-16 out the window before the enemy got him. He saved an ARVN Ranger Battalion and some American Rangers in the process.

The Army's 74th Recon Aviation Company: A striking characteristic of the 74th RAC was the breadth of missions it flew. We'll tell you about these to reflect the great versatility and flexibility shown by our FAC pilots across the board.

1st Lt. Rob Whitlow, USMC, VMO-6: This is the story about Mike Company, 3-5 Marines, in grave danger during Operation Swift in the Que Song Valley, RVN, and a VMO-6 Bird Dog crew, Fitzsimmons and Whitlow, who choreographed and coordinated more air power than you can shake a stick at to set Mike Company free.

The "Covey" FACS and Capt. Cal Anderson, 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. The Coveys mostly supported air interdiction against enemy logistics movements over the trail and insertions and extractions of special operations forces inside Laos watching those movements on the trail.

Capt. James L. Taylor, USA, 184th RAC: Having been adjusting artillery in a fierce battle near Loc Ninh, putting it as close as 35 meters from friendly forces of the Big Red One Infantry Division, this FAC's Bird Dog's engine began missing, operating on four instead of six cylinders. The pilot kept the Dawg aloft while his observer kept laying in the artillery. On a lighter note, Capt Earl R. Kelton and SSgt Joe Holloway began a "Non-stop Paradrop" program for the kids in the Phu Loi area.

Capt. Tom O'Toole, USMC, VMO-6: During the onset of the famous 1968 enemy siege of Khe Sanh Combat Base, RVN, this FAC backseater found enemy artillery way inside Laos firing its big guns at the base, and had to use Close Air Support (CAS) aircraft to mark the targets with bombs. What was alarming about this story is how much freedom the enemy had to carefully place very heavy and long range guns in Laos, yet the suits in Washington would not allow American ground forces to go in there and cut them off at the knees.

23rd TASS, USAF: Shrouded in the secrecy of operating over Laos from a base in Thailand, confronted with a tough and challenging air interdiction support role, environmental obstacles galore, and threatening guns, the Air Force's only Thailand-based TASS.

Capt. Jimmy N. Coffman, USA, 183rd Recon Aircraft Company (RAC): Stephen Maxner interviewed former Army Captain Coffman for the Texas Tech University Vietnam Archive Oral History Project on June 16, 2000. In reading the text, Coffman provides some down-to-earth, no-nonsense insights about multiple facets of flying the Bird Dog. It's fun to read and we commend it to you.

Raven FACs, USAF: 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.

Go to Capt. Hilliard A. Wilbanks, USAF, 21st TASS