Combat Flying in Vietnam

#1 – Combat flying in the Cessna O-1 Bird Dog by Bob Worthington

In November 1966 I was the senior combat advisor to a Vietnamese Army 330- man infantry battalion. We had just completed an eight-day battle against a North Vietnam Army regiment. We won the fight. Now the battalion was posted in an old French Army fort, comprised mostly of underground bunkers. Our mission was twofold: protect the nearby village and seek out and destroy enemy.

To do this, we needed information on the enemy location, strength, and capabilities. One way to collect this intelligence is by aerial reconnaissance.

I was able to get some USAF pilots to fly recon missions over Que Son Valley with me as an observer. The first time up was a unique experience. The pilot, a captain, flew into an airstrip maintained by U.S. Marines where I met him. As he exited his plane, I walked over to meet him, saying I was Bob Worthington, his passenger for this afternoon.

He said he would be my guide for the next hour or two, asking if I had ever flown in a Bird Dog before, and I replied “no” (my military flying experience had been limited to larger cargo and transport planes and of course, helicopters). He said he would show me the plane. When we reached the Cessna O-1, he proudly walked around and explained the tail dragger plane to me, being a two-seater (fore and aft), powered by a 213 horsepower Continental 0-470, air-cooled piston engine. We would fly low and slow, he continued, with a max cruising speed about 115 miles per hour but we would fly about 90 to 100.

The O-1 Bird Dog is a newer version of the WW II fabric covered, high wing, small liaison airplanes. In 1949 the Army wanted a high wing, all metal liaison plane. Cessna, re-engineered the civilian C 170 aircraft, creating a Cessna 305, with the military designation of L-19 (L means liaison). Cessna’s military plane began production in 1950, just in time for the Korean War. The name “Bird Dog” refers to its ability to seek out and locate enemy on the ground. At the beginning of the Vietnam War (1962) the L-19 was used primarily for observation and forward air control missions, so it became the O-1 (O for observation).

The pilot gave me the capabilities of the Bird Dog stating it can loiter over a target area for five to six hours. Under ideal conditions, the plane can reach 20,300 feet, but Vietnam is too hot and humid, and this Korean War vintage aircraft is too worn out to do that. He said we would fly at 3,000 to 4,000 feet above ground (above small arms range) until we get to our recon area, then drop down, closer to the ground, if we must, to see what is there. I asked what armament the plane had. Pointing, he noted the weapons it carried (his M-16 and several hand grenades) and the plane’s four target marking phosphorus rockets.

Opening the door on the right side of the fuselage he said I would sit in the back, while he would be up front. Pointing to a stick in a holder lying flat on the floor, he explained if he got shot to place the stick in the hole on the floor and I would then be the pilot. I prayed he would not be shot or incapacitated, I was not a pilot. I climbed into the back seat. After he made sure I was strapped down, he stood beside me and pulled out a map. Turning it over and around to find the right place, he pushed it in front of me. Putting a finger on the map, he pointed out the air strip we were now sitting on. Moving his fingers southeast he tapped Que Son Valley, where we would go sight-seeing. He climbed into the front seat and shut the door. Priming the engine, he yelled “clear” out his window and turned the starter over. The prop in front began to slowly turn and then spun quicker as the engine belched to life.

The air strip, controlled by the marines and, because of the level of aerial activity, had its own control tower, a rickety wood structure rising thirty feet above the ground, topped with a sandbag-covered platform. The rainy weather had induced the controllers to erect a framework over their heads which they had covered with transparent plastic.

The pilot contacted the tower requesting departure instructions. He was cleared to back-taxi the runway for departure. Glancing at the aircraft’s instruments he adjusted a couple of knobs, set the altimeter, set the slotted flaps at 30 degrees, looked up and down the runway, and pushed in the throttle. Kicking the right rudder, the diminutive, dull olive drab green; high wing tail dragger bounced and skidded into a right turn onto the runway. Bouncing along we quickly came to the end of the runway where he gave the plane more throttle and kicked the left rudder to spin us around, facing into the wind, down the runway.

Checking the altimeter, he pushed in on the brakes, and revved up the engine. Turning the ignition, he checked both magnetos, adjusted the gyro to the compass, and pulled the throttle back out to ease off on the power. Wiggling the stick fore and aft, he seemed satisfied with everything, telling the tower he was ready for departure.

The pilot smoothly pushed the throttle forward, released the brakes, and the little plane lurched forward, bouncing down the runway. At thirty miles an hour, he pushed the stick forward, lifting the tail off the ground. At sixty miles an hour, he eased back on the stick slowly as the plane began to lift off the ground. At seventy miles per hour, it was completely airborne. Easing the stick forward again, the small plane, level with the runway, picked up speed. At eighty miles per hour, he pulled back on the stick and we began to rise again at six hundred feet per minute. In a few minutes we were cruising toward our target doing a hundred miles an hour at four thousand feet, above the ground.

This was quite a change from the Hueys I was used to. The UH-1B helicopter was a large, massive metal craft that looked and sounded like a powerful war machine. By comparison, this Bird Dog was a small and fragile plane. The Plexiglass windows all around and the narrow sides gave me the feeling of being suspended in the air rather than being inside a plane, a sensation enhanced by the knowledge that the thin aluminum sides of the plane were no thicker than a soda can. It was frightening to realize that my very life depended on such a flimsy airborne vehicle.

Soon, however, my attention was diverted to what I could see. For the first time I was able to study the ground from above, in the Que Son Valley, where we had recently fought for over a week. Speaking to me through the headset, the pilot discoursed on how he been here many times before for the marines and had seen the valley was full of VC Main Force units. He explained that we could go lower, and they would not shoot at us because they’re afraid we’ve got some air force F-4 Phantom II fighter-bombers just waiting to unload on them. Then we went down as both the plane and my stomach dropped out from under me.

Pulling back on the throttle, the pilot pushed the stick forward and to the left as he gave it hard left rudder. The Cessna tipped over on its left wing, the nose dropped, and it went into a tight spiral down to about one thousand feet above the ground. Twisting and turning to get me the best view, he pointed out enemy trenches, machine gun positions, and enemy soldiers trying to hide. It was amazing to me to be so close to the enemy, watching them working and moving about in their encampment area, watching me as I observed them, with no shots being exchanged. This was a ridiculously hard part of my war to understand, just watching each other. We flew back and forth, making steep and abrupt turns for an hour as I made notes, diagrams, and maps on what I saw. I completed my chores at about the same time my stomach was getting ready to vomit my lunch in my lap. I pleaded for the pilot to return home as I was finished. He pushed in the throttle and we slowly rose back to four thousand feet and leveled off for a smoother flight home.

Our landing, though, was another frightening experience. Because of the high probability of enemy ground fire on a normal approach, the pilot flew high, over the airstrip, set the flaps at 60 degrees, and then spiraled down, very quickly, over the end of the runway. At one thousand feet he dove for the ground and flared abruptly, diminishing airspeed rapidly for a perfect three-point landing.

As I climbed out, relieved to be back on the ground again, I thanked the pilot, who gave me a thumbs-up sign, as he taxied back to depart to Da Nang. I had to sit in my jeep for several minutes to calm down before driving off.

Later, after going over the data with Major Van and his intelligence people, we realized I had not learned much different because we knew where the enemy was. I had, though, confirmed that the VC unit was still there and a potential threat to our area. Besides, I was able to watch the enemy accomplishing their normal work from a vantage point I never imagined possible.

Flying in Vietnam on the first tour was not a favorite pastime of mine. Getting shot on the ground was one thing, as the furthest I could fall was five feet, ten inches. In a plane or helicopter, though, getting shot was only half the problem. Getting down safely was the other half. Flying in combat was too risky for me. Ironically, though, during my second tour of duty in Vietnam I enjoyed flying and did it as much as possible. And when I finally got shot, where was I? Flying in a helicopter on a special ops mission!

Thanks to my two wing ladies, Lucy and Kathi, for keeping me honest.

This article was adapted from my book: Under Fire with ARVN Infantry, published by McFarland & Company, Inc, Publishers. www.mcfarlandbooks.com/product/under-fire-with-arvn-infantry/