FACs piston

I served as a Forward Air Controller (FAC) in Southeast Asia, flying the North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco from Thailand as well as from bases in South Vietnam. I flew 165 missions over North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Join me now on one of those missions.

During the Vietnam War, FACs flew day and night at low altitudes, and in every sort of weather. Operating from Jeeps, FACs also deployed in support of ground forces.

FAC by Jeep

Not all Forward Air Controllers were in the air.

We directed air strikes flown by US and Allied warplanes in support of embattled ground units, searched for targets, interdicted enemy lines of communication, and coordinated rescue operations for downed airmen. We also struck targets by directing artillery strikes and naval gunfire. We were the eyes, ears, and voices above the battlefield providing a vital link between troops in the field, the various command and control agencies, and US and Allied warplanes.

A few “Fast FACs” flew F-100 Super Sabres and F-4 Phantoms. The more numerous “Slow FACs” flew slow, propeller-driven aircraft, as their low-speed maneuverability and endurance were ideal for locating and maintaining visual contact with targets across the battlefield.

Some Slow FACs flew T-6 Texans or T-28 Trojans, but most flew either Broncos, O-1 Birddogs, or O-2 Skymasters. Both O-1s and O-2s were off-the-shelf Cessna aircraft modified for the FAC mission. The OV-10 was developed specifically for counter-insurgency combat, but its primary mission was the FAC role.

With a target identified, FACs had to describe both it and its location to attacking aircraft. This was referred to as “marking the target.” A valuable tool in marking targets was our forward-firing rockets armed with white phosphorous warheads (hence their name Willie Petes). Upon detonation, Willie Petes created a distinctive white plume of smoke and, using that smoke as a reference, we ‘talked the eyes’ of attacking pilots onto the target. To make our job easier, and the mission quicker, we endeavored to get our “smokes” as close as possible to the target. Hitting the target was considered the perfect pass and, when you pulled it off, you could simply direct the attacking aircraft to, “Hit my smoke!”

For FACs to mark targets and for the fighters to deliver their ordnance, we had to finesse our respective airplanes through aerobatic-like maneuvers in order to get the nose of the airplane pointed at the target. We called this rolling-in, because it oftentimes required rolling the airplane nearly inverted while pulling the nose toward the target. Once pointed at the target, you would fine-tune your flight path to align the aiming reticle (called the “pipper”) onto the target.

Winds, dive and bank angles, g-loading and airspeed all played a part in final placement of the pipper. Maximizing your chances of hitting the target required having your aircraft perfectly coordinated before firing/releasing your ordnance. Clouds, sun angles, and especially potential gunfire from the enemy were other factors that came into play while maneuvering to get the pipper in the right place at the right time. As you might imagine, extreme maneuvers were often required.

FACs piston

Not your typical warbirds.

Now, climb into my back seat to experience such a time on a mission to find and interdict enemy forces and/or supplies in eastern Cambodia. I was conducting visual reconnaissance near the Vietnamese border over some very dense, triple-canopy jungle rising over 100 ft above the terrain below me. Through a small break in the jungle, I spotted a wooden bridge, approximately 50 ft long, spanning a river. It was only possible to spot it when either directly overhead or else looking upstream to the north or downstream to the south.

In an area where there were no signs of civilization, I thought, “Who would be using this bridge?” Through my binoculars, I could see vehicle mud tracks on the bridge and assessed it was likely being used to supply the North Vietnamese. Referencing my map, I plotted the bridge’s coordinates and reported them to the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center, callsign “Cricket.” Cricket quickly called back validating the target and clearing me to strike it. They also informed me fighter aircraft were already headed my way.

Within minutes, a flight of two Air Force F-4s checked in on my radio frequency. They were already headed in my general location and we used a radio direction-finding procedure, known as a “DF steer,” to give them a more precise heading to my location. Soon thereafter, my Radar Homing and Warning scope lit up indicating they had “locked me up” with their air-to-air radar. That’s when the adrenalin started to flow; in a few moments, they would be in my area and under my control!

As they neared, the flight lead passed me their “line-up,” including the weapons they were carrying and their “play time” (how long they could stay with me). They were both carrying six Mark-82 General Purpose bombs (500 lbs apiece), which were perfect for this target. However, their play-time was short—they had only enough gas to make a single pass.

Unfortunately, the flight lead also informed me their bombs were fitted with “daisy cutters,” an extended fuse designed to ensure the bomb detonated on contact (even with foliage) rather than going deep into the earth before going off. Earning their name because they would cut down everything above ground level, they are not the preferred fusing when striking a hard target like bridges or bunkers. I thought they might just blow the dust off the bridge, but it was the hand I was dealt, so I briefed them on the target and that it would only be visible using either a north or south run-in.

Bomb

Not the right fusing, but sometimes it’s all you have.

I was orbiting the bridge at roughly 6,000 ft AGL in a counterclockwise direction when the flight lead radioed he might have me in sight. So, I started rocking my wings and turned on my smoke generator, which produced a smoke trail from my aircraft and highlighted me against the jungle below.

When I spotted the F-4s several miles west and some 10-12,000 ft above me, I radioed “Lead, I’ve got a tally on you.”

The flight lead immediately, replied, “I’ve got you smokin’ and rockin’ FAC, if you can mark the bridge now, I can roll-in behind you.”

I had just passed the downstream view of the bridge but, because of the fighter’s low fuel state, I had to roll-in now. So, I radioed, “FAC’s in to mark!” as I instinctively went full throttle, pulled the nose up, and rolled right, away from the bridge. With about 30 degrees of turn completed and with my aircraft nearly 60 degrees nose high, I stopped at about 45 degrees of bank and continued to pull my nose to the horizon. Inverted, I sliced through the horizon with my right wing about 30-45 degrees low and maintained back-pressure. Still inverted and nearing 45 degrees nose low, I tilted my head back and picked up the target through the top of my canopy. I was now on my back heading south toward the bridge, so I leveled my wings with the horizon and continued pulling back pressure until I was once again right side up, but still diving earthward.

As I approached about 30 degrees nose low, I released a little back pressure on the stick to slow the pipper’s movement across the ground. When the pipper reached the bridge, I stopped its movement by unloading to about a half-G and fired a Willie Pete. I immediately pulled out of the dive and, as soon as my nose was above the horizon, I rolled 80-90 degrees left to see where my smoke would hit. When the plume of smoke blossomed dead center on the bridge. I smiled and radioed, “Lead, HIT MY SMOKE!”

Lead immediately responded, “One’s in hot from the south, FAC in sight.” The “…in sight” call was important as it meant we were deconflicted during an especially perilous time.

I saw him as well and replied, “You’re cleared hot,” meaning he was cleared to drop his bombs.

FAC dive

To get bombs on the target, the FAC first has to get smoke on the target.

I watched him dive down, release his bombs, and then climb away. The bridge was quickly enveloped by a geyser of mud and water flung high into the air. There wasn’t much smoke from the impact of lead’s bombs, which worried me that they had landed in the river – ‘washing’ rather than ‘blowing’ the dust off the bridge. As the water and mud fell back to the earth and the little smoke present had cleared, it became apparent lead’s bombs had landed under the bridge and the Daisy Cutters had worked as advertised; several trusses were blown out and the bridge had partially collapsed.

Meanwhile, #2 had circled around to the north and he radioed, “Two’s in hot from the north, FAC in sight.”

I answered, “You’re cleared hot, aim where lead hit!” I watched #2 dive down, release his bombs, and climb away. His bombs exploded in the same place lead had struck. As soon as the bridge was again visible, I saw it had completely collapsed with parts of it being swept away in the current.

The F-4s were already heading homeward when lead asked, “FAC, you got our BDA?” (bomb damage assessment report).

Their BDA included the time on and off the target, the target coordinates, and ended with, “Bridge destroyed.”

Lead responded, “Copy,” then added, “Hey, FAC, can I ask a favor?”

I replied, “Shoot.”

He said, “I’d like to see that marking pass again.

Laughing, I answered, “I’ll see what I can do next time.”

The rest of the mission was routine—hours of utter boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror. However, the best part of the mission—seeing my Willie Pete strike that bridge dead-center following my aerobatics to put it there—sticks with me today.

38 replies
  1. Skip Stagg
    Skip Stagg says:

    Great story, really took me back. In 66 and 67 timeline I worked with a FAC with a call sign of Sidewinder 12.in a O-1 bird dog. (or as it was said sidewinder one two) I never met the gentleman.This was in the Southern part of Nam but I am not sure where he was based.
    If you knew him or knew him Just say hello for me.. What was your call sign, if I may I ask

    Regards

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      Skip, I looked at a database of FACs and found one name associated with the callsign of Sidewinder 12. This individual was an O-1 FAC from Dec ’66 to Oct ’67 based out of Nakhon Phanom (NKP) Thailand, the same base I was at from Oct ’72- Oct ’73, so that’s before my time. The database says this guy is now living in Peoria, AZ. The name is Max T. I hesitate to put his last name in a public forum, but let me know if the name Max means anything to you.

      Dale (Nail 49)

      Reply
  2. John Stipetich
    John Stipetich says:

    HI Dale:
    My name – John Stipetich
    I arrived (2nd tour) at NKP in Feb 1971 worked 4B most of the time.
    Major Sanborn and McPherson were trying to get me killed sending me there, ha, ha!
    Best fishing hole on the trail.
    Then to DaNang when 4B area was transferred to me.
    Call let us make contact – 713-385-7825
    My email – [email protected]
    I live in Houston, Texas.
    After my 2nd tour was over, I went to fly the C5 at Dover.
    I had asked to do a 3rd tour flying the A7 or F4.
    See how well Randolph works! (smile)
    And they wonder at the Pentagon in their secret committees made out of non flying personnel why pilots after their 10 year commitment leave…(smile)
    After the US taxpayers have invested how much in their education, yet the AF leadership casts them aside or treats them how? Add up what it cost to give me the flying experiences which totaled over 30,000 hours and so many types in which I was privileged to be the Captain of.
    But in my case, with hindsight, it was good in not being sent to fly the A-7 and that career path.
    I became an AC at 26 years of age and then a Flight Test C5 guy at Kelly AFB.
    Left active duty at my 10 year point, joined the reserves, flew the C-130 and then back to the C5 again putting 17 years averaging close to 100 days each year plus holding down an airline job – 727, 737, 747, 757, 767, DC10, MD80 & A300 airbus with ATPL from the USA, Japan and United Kingdom. Think there are a few stories there?(smile) Now, at 74 just an old guy, did I really fly once??? (smile) Or was that just a dream?.Call or send me a com so you can communicate directly if you’d like. Your choice. I have a few tales and would like to listen to you. I am working on writing a book on aviation and really enjoy talking to others who have been there, done it, not pretend personality types, you sound like the real deal?

    JOHN STIPETICH

    PS. Want to learn more about what happened after 1975? Of all FAC’s who flew over all those years I maybe the only one to know the time and adventures which followed. An interesting story, maybe? But hey remember, I am “just a pilot” so I may be totally wrong? By the way, my first Vietnam tour was flying defoliation out of Bien Hoa in the UC-123/K and then hauling trash around III and IV corps. So, I’ve had an interesting set of adventures during my 74 years. (smile)

    Reply
    • JTStrong
      JTStrong says:

      Hi, John! I’m a 75 year old retired Air Force nav/WSO. My Dad, Earl Strong, was the Squadron Commander who brought the first C-123 squadron to VN for, originally, the trash hauling mission. He later returned as a squadron commander of the defoliation mission. One of these was Ranch Hand. I’m just curious: did you know if you Earl Strong?
      If you can, please reply to [email protected]
      Thanks!

      Reply
  3. RR
    RR says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. Reminded me of a book I read years ago, titled “A Lonely Kind of War”, which was written by a bronco driver about his Vietnam experience.

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      RR, I’ve read that book and it ‘tells it like it was’!

      I would recommend another FAC story by an author I know and flew with. Tom Yarbrough wrote DaNang Diary and it too ‘tells it like it was’.

      Glad you like my short tale.

      Reply
  4. John Zink
    John Zink says:

    First…. Thank you Men for your Service. Great story. In reading it I felt like I was in the mission. As a side I served 24 years in the Navy.

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      John, Thanks you for YOUR service. I got to go aboard the USS Hancock in the back seat of an A-4 before my tour was over. I came to appreciate a runway that didn’t move as we were skirting the edge of a typhoon and were taking green water over the bow!

      Glad you enjoyed the ‘mission’ with me. I have some more articles in the works and hope you will enjoy them as well.

      Reply
  5. Paul Tagliero
    Paul Tagliero says:

    I enjoyed your story. Thank you.
    I look forward to read your book. Please let me know when it will be published. Paul

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      Thanks, Paul.

      Don’t know if I’ll write a book, but I have submitted a few more stories to the Air Journal and I hope you enjoy them as well.

      Reply
  6. Tim Kavanaugh
    Tim Kavanaugh says:

    I flew LOH ( OH-6A) scout missions out of Chu Lai and used those fabulous USAF FAC’s on a daily basis. Most of the aircraft were flown by Australasian pilots attached to the unit. Their quick coordination for fast movers (F-4s) and aerial support was life saving many times over. On one mission we were working two target sites at the same time. The F-4s mistook my willie peters for the FACs and dropped bombs on my location. I was about 30 feet above the ground engaging enemy when I saw the bombs (Snake & Nape) descending upon me. I never pulled as much pitch as I did that moment. ( must have over torqued the hell out of that engine ). The Cobras covering me thought I was a goner when the smoke cleared. I radioed that I was safe way above them. I had not thought about that experience till I read the article. Thanks for cover and great read. Warlord 12

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      Tim, Thanks for your comments. Have you read the book ‘Low Level Hell’? I thoroughly enjoyed it and really came to appreciate what you LOH-drivers did.

      I like your callsign, Warlord 12.

      Nail 49, Out!

      Reply
      • tim Kavanaugh
        tim Kavanaugh says:

        Thanks Dale. Yes I have read “Low Level Hell” by Hugh Mills. He was my commander in Germany a few years later when we were defending the Fulda Gap in Germany against the Soviet hordes of tanks. I flew the “trace” or border back then as well as the newer AH-1S TOW Cobras with him. Those were times and techniques we may never fly again with drones and satellites and cyber warfare all the norm now.
        ‘R-T-T inbound’ Warlord 12

        Reply
  7. John Scherer
    John Scherer says:

    Dale, great article. My T-37 IP at Pilot training (Reese. 1975-76) was a Nail Fac by the name of John Alexaitis. He was married to an Air Force officer by the name of Judy. He was a great IP. Have lost touch with him. I stayed in 26 years and retired as a Colonel as well. T-37 IP, T-38 IP and a bunch of time in the C-5.

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      John,

      I know Jon Alexaitis as he was in SEA with me. He is currently living in Hurst, TX and is remarried. His current wife is named Janice. If you want, I can provide you an address, but I hesitate to do that in an open forum.

      One of my first students as a T-38 IP was a guy named Joe Klutts (I think that’s how he spelled his first name).

      Boots

      Reply
      • Dale Hill
        Dale Hill says:

        Klutts was the first UPT student to get a C-5. We used to kid that he would need to bring a phone book to sit on so he could see over the glare shield.

        Reply
  8. MICHAEL KLEIN
    MICHAEL KLEIN says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your story. You are a true wordsmith and your detailed syntax allowed me to “pull some G’s during your banks, turns and inverted attitudes.” I retired from the USAF Medical Corps in 1998. I got my private license in 1985 and have remained active since, flying Cessna 172s, 182s, a Debonair and a Seminole. I was in a partnership with three other experienced pilots and we purchased a 1981 Cessna Chancellor II 414 in 1984. We sent it to RAM in Waco,Tx for engine and avionics upgrades, winglets and a new paint job. I loved that airplane and flew it to Florida, Mexico and Canada. When the annuals began approaching $10K, my partners wanted out and we sold it in 1989. My consulting work takes me all over Northern California and frequently to Redding,CA.
    CalFire acquired 15 OV-10s from the Dept. of Defense in 1993. I see two or three of them at the CalFire Air Base in Redding,CA when I taxi to runway 16. They were used extensively during the terrible fire seasons we have had for the past two summers. I’ve seen them arriving and departing. They can really climb and disappear from sight quickly.

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      Thanks for the kudos. I just try to tell a story in a manner that will keep people engaged.

      The OV-10 is a delightful little airplane. It was underpowered for what we did as the AF loaded it up with a 230 gallon centerline tank and we carried three pods of rockets on a normal mission. I would give my eyeteeth to get in one today and go flying.

      Reply
  9. R.Lopaka
    R.Lopaka says:

    Great article! FACs the unsung Heros! A belated Welcome home and thanks for your service!! Any opinions on the Bronco II AHRLAC? I was hoping for a modernized OV-10 Bronco. Perhaps too heavy. Thx!

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      Thanks for the feedback and the welcome home! I would have to fly the AHRLAC to give an informed opinion. I loved my Bronco, could have used a few more SHP out of those turboprops. But, I could do all the acro I wanted and even got into a couple of furballs with other Broncos when nobody was looking, but that’s another story!

      Reply
  10. Alfaa Alfar
    Alfaa Alfar says:

    Hifi Dalfelfe
    Alfaa Alfar selfelfnds Refegalfalfds
    Great article my friend … Miss you and Frank and Charlie and always
    wondered where you all ended up – my elfenghilfish ain’t what it was
    23rd TAS rules
    Drop a note – would love to reconnect

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      A.R.? Great to hear from you, Bud!

      Watching my Razorbacks playing Nebraska in BB. I’ll get back to you tomorrow.

      Dalfale

      Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      A.R. Been out of town, send me another email so I can connect. I talk to Frank all the time, bad news re. Charlie, I’ll tell you more when you write. Over…

      Reply
  11. Cal W. Tax
    Cal W. Tax says:

    I flew Thuds out of Takhli in 1967 and worked with many Covey and Nail FAC’s whenever we could not get North because of weather or such.
    One mission I remember well was over the PDJ (Plain des Jars) where an O-1 FAC directed me in on a lone truck stuck in the road. Our bombs were 3000# bridge busters and we had two each on a flight of two Thuds. Kind of overkill for a truck but we could not bring them home…..too dangerous. So, we spotted the truck and rolled in for a dive bomb attack and when those bombs went off the FAC thought we NUKED it!!!! The concussion turned him upside down and he was well clear because we warned him not to get too close. When he recovered he saw an engine block go sailing by!!
    Needless to say he was impressed! There was no sign of the truck left except four new swimming pools where the road was.
    One of the few fun missions I had during my Tour. I miss my good friend Craig Morrison who was a Raven FAC and was featured in a great book “The Ravens” which is a must read. Another book I recommend is one by Wayne Warner is “One Trip Too Many”.
    I’m 78 now and still flying my 1941 Stearman biplane and gliders in Cumming and don’t plan to quit!

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      Cal, Flew the ‘J’ a lot and knew it like the back of my hand. Worked with Ravens myself as we handed off targets to one another. Several of my contemporaries served as Ravens.

      Never worked with Thuds, but have some good friends who flew them. You a member of the Daedalians? Here in our Flight in Atlanta we have a former Thud driver who spent 6+ years as a guest of the North Vietnamese.

      I’m jealous ’cause you get to fly a Stearman!

      Reply
      • Cal W. Tax
        Cal W. Tax says:

        I know Wayne W. very well and he has been trying to drag me to the Daedalians for years. Just too busy with being retired!!
        Send me an email and we will talk more. I have a Stearman ride reserved for you! I am pretty close by in Cumming.

        Reply
  12. MICHAEL KLEIN
    MICHAEL KLEIN says:

    I meant to include this information in my initial response. It may be of interest to all of you who were pilots during the Vietnam War.
    One of my partners in the River City Flying Club, Ron Lamb, ([email protected]) is a past president and still very active in the
    Red River Valley Association, Inc. It is a national organization that has local chapters and a annual meeting. It is open to all pilots, active and retired, from all branches of the military, some of whom flew in Vietnam. Obviously, those numbers are slowly diminishing.
    Ron’s description of their meetings, focusing on camaraderie and sharing stories is good healthy stimulation for the brain and the soul.

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      I’m a member of the Order of Daedalians and, until about two years ago, we had a WWII fighter guy as a member.
      We currently have a smattering of Korean War vets, lots of Vietnam vets and now are getting GWOT vets. We even got our first flight surgeon this last month and she is a hoot!

      Reply
  13. John Kramer
    John Kramer says:

    Dale..VERY much enjoyed reading your story. Brings back all sorts of memories from 1966-67 when I was enlisted USAF stationed with the Army 2nd Brigade 25th Infantry at Cu Chi. I was a FAC Radio Operator, spending most of my time in the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) talking to my pilots in their Birdog 0-1’s looking for targets or putting in strikes to suspected encampments.
    About once a month my Lt. Colonel would invite me to fly back seat in the 0-1. I LOVED it..even though I had to wash the airplane each time I flew with him. I’m sure you know why. Flying with the Colonel is what got me started in General Aviation, even though it was 33 years later.
    Any chance you would want to speak to our Silver Wings group to tell your story? We meet every Wednesday at lunchtime at the 57th Fighter Squadron Restaurant on DeKalb Peachtree Airport. We are part of a national organization of pilots that soloed at least 25 years ago. Please let me know…I’ll put you in touch with the President of our group.
    BTW..”Welcome Home Sir!”
    Sgt John Kramer

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      John, Thank you for your service in supporting the FAC mission. Have you ever heard of the FAC Association? It is a group of those who were involved in the mission in Vietnam and one of my good friends served for a while as VP (a role I now fill). He was an O-1 crew chief out of Bien Hoa and we called him C3B (Combat Crew Chief Bob) and he frequently flew with his boss too. I might take you up on that opportunity to speak to the Silver Wings in the future. Tell me more!

      Reply
  14. Henry Kuhlman
    Henry Kuhlman says:

    Well said Dale. Some OV-10s from Thailand ended up in Germany in 1973. Coming from the F-4, I was the first pilot in the new squadron. We had slightly different tactics, since our opposition was high threat defenses supporting tank battalions of the USSR. All done at low altitude with fighters flying in the weeds until they popped up just short of the target. Timing was tricky. Yep, not having Gs on the OV-10, was the trick to shooting smoke rockets. What a fun plane to fly. Thanks,

    Reply
  15. Jack Morris
    Jack Morris says:

    Dale:

    Really appreciated your story and service to our Country. It is a shame that the political atmosphere at the time completely overshadowed the struggles and acts of heroism that deserved to be told.

    I just finished a book by a pilot who flew for Air America. It is a great read and provide a look at the part of the war that remained hidden from public view. The book is called FLIGHT and is written by the Capt. Neal Graham Hansen.

    Jack

    Reply
  16. Craig Bixby
    Craig Bixby says:

    Great Article!!! As a Huey Crew Chief we got to listen in on the radio calls between the FAC’s, Ground Units, other Helicopters, as well as with the fighters. One day as a FAC was on his run-in to mark a target we heard a very urgent call …. “Get Down Here Big Brother they just Stung My Ass” Kudos to all the FAC’s!!!! You saved many lives.

    As a side note, while in the vicinity of a FAC mission one day, the fighters were called in on target. I can tell you, that you haven’t lived until you have had two F-4 Phantoms from out of nowhere split one above and one below your Huey as they go blasting past!!!! I firmly believe they were laughing to themselves all the way to the target!!!!

    Reply
  17. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    Craig, Thanks for the comments. I had some close encounters with F-4’s either as they rolled in on a target or as they pulled off. Having dropped a few bombs in my life, I know that you first want to make sure you are getting lined up for a good drop and then, after you release the bombs, you look back over your shoulder to see where your bombs actually hit — because you usually have a bet with others in the flight as to who gets closest to the target. Those are the times when I was nearly run over as a FAC.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *