By Shelby G. Spires
Streaking along, strapped into an F-4, above a Southeast Asian river, in 1972,
L.D. Johnston noticed something was out of place. An off color had caught his eye, and as a good fighter pilot/forward air controller the then first lieutenant decided to check it out.
He flew multiple passes through
the deep canyon looking for something out of the ordinary.
"I kept getting lower, and I could tell with each pass that something was going on " I could see a little bit more detail to it," said now
Brig. Gen. Johnston.
Flying as low to the river as possible, Johnston had seen a small barge on the river. When he returned from a pass, the barge was gone. The barge was his clue that the enemy was hiding something
off the side of the river.
"In a couple of minutes it was gone, and I knew there was a pull off somewhere along the river. As I flew down the river and I went right by this great big cave."
The cave was
well camouflaged and the boat and possibly other war materiel was in it, said Johnston. "So I pulled up and came back around to mark it as a target," the general said. "I fired the first rocket and it went into the cave and no smoke appeared. It went
to far back into the cave. So I came back around figuring that would never happen again, but it did. The smoke rocket again went too far into the cave."
The F-4 carried a wide range of munitions, making it an
excellent choice for FAC work.
On the third marking pass, threading his way between canyon walls and riverbeds, Johnston fired a rocket which hit the side of the cave wall
putting up a wall of smoke so the target could be bombed.
"Two Navy A-6s came in and put some thousand pounders on it. It was one of the best bombing passes I had ever seen," said
Johnston. "These guys laid these thousand pounders right inside that cave."
The 1,000 pound bombs did the trick -- pulverizing the barge
and the contents of the cave. "There was ammo in there too, and it blew along with the barge. The top of the cave was blown off, and the sides just disintegrated. There was nothing left."
During the Vietnam War, Johnston's was the job of a jet fighter pilot blended with a forward air controller, or Fast FAC, he marked targets, controlled air strikes and found targets all from
the front seat of an F-4. Finding the cave, marking it and setting loose two Navy aircraft on it is a prime example of what a forward air controller did on a daily basis.
In Southeast Asia, the FAC had two general roles: support troops on the ground who were fighting off enemy soldiers and try to find targets to destroy with air strikes.
The basic concept of Fast FAC was fulfilling the requirement for forward air controllers in a high threat area. Many FACs during the early part of the war and in the lesser threat areas used
smaller, single engine propeller driven aircraft such as the O-1, O-2 and OV-10, which were very vulnerable to just small arms fire.
"Well that worked find in the lesser threat areas of South Vietnam
and Laos," said Johnston. "When you would get into North Vietnam when the threat was very high from ground fire, anti aircraft, surface-to-air missiles and even MiG aircraft, then you
really couldn't put one of these slow moving propeller aircraft into that arena, but you still had the requirement for targets to be found and marked."
What was needed, Air Force planners surmised, was an aircraft that would be
able to take on gun and SAM sites, and either hold its own or be fast enough to run from the MiGs. Naturally, that would be a jet fighter and not a prop observation
plane. To fill the need the Fast FAC concept was born. Named Fast because of the speed of the jets and beginning in 1965, aircrews used two seat versions of the F-100 "Super Sabre," but
as the war progressed another platform was needed, and the Air Force turned to their newest fighter the McDonnell Douglas F-4 "Phantom II."
"What made the F-4 an ideal platform for this, somewhat like the two seat F-100, was because the F-4 having both a pilot in the front seat and a navigator in the backseat gave you two sets of
hands, eyes and brains to effect the kind of target search and coordination with the other fighter bombers."
In World War II the goal for fighter pilots was to become an ace "
shoot down five aircraft. In Vietnam there was little chance of ace status happening for pilots and aircrews because of political restrictions and a '69-'72 North Vietnam bombing halt which kept
North Vietnamese and American fighter pilot battles to a minimum. It was only natural that the fighter pilots would gravitate toward something with a challenge. The Fast FAC program was just that.
The program was an elite set up, said Col. Billy Diehl, who flew as a navigator in the back of the two man F-4 during the Vietnam War. "There were a lot of guys who wanted to get into the
program," he said. "It was something where you felt like you made a difference in doing it. You were contributing to the war effort in that you were putting a lot more ordinance on targets
than just what was on your particular aircraft."
The FAC programs, or shops, were installed at most fighter bases in Thailand. Johnston and Diehl worked out of Korat Royal
Thai Air Base, Thailand and were Tiger FACs. Other FAC shops were the Wolf FACs at Udorn, Thailand, the Laredo FACs at Ubon, Thailand and the Stormy FACs who worked out of Da Nang, South Vietnam.
The wings would pull the best pilots and navigators out of the three squadrons.
Being a Fast FAC meant a aircrews were noted as some of the best in the theater, and the sentiment meant a lot to some of the
FAC crews, said R.C. Gravlee, who flew as a Laredo Fast FAC as a pilot/navigator in the backseat of an F-4 in 1970.
"The satisfaction level of doing that, of contributing to the war
effort was immense compared to some missions where you would just go to a place where a supposed truck park was and blow up a few trees," said Gravlee, "You were doing something."
The FAC shops tagged five pilots and four navigators to work in the programs, said Johnston. "You had small cadres that was selected from the squadron and they were able to concentrate on
certain parts of the theater and be knowledgeable about what went on in those areas from day-to-day," said Johnston.
In Johnston and Diehl's squadron, the older more experienced
FACs were given the nickname of "Papa Tiger" and as such was the official leader of the FAC shop.
"You wanted guys with experience. Experience flying the aircraft
and flying in combat," said Gravlee. "Generally, it took about six months of flying to even be considered for the program."
Diehl and Johnston, who command the 347th Wing, flew as a
team on some of the FAC missions. Although they were not teamed together permanently. "You didn't always work together with the same people," said Diehl. "And we didn't always do
FAC work. Sometimes we would be used on a regular strike mission."
The FACs flew in the same areas doing what they called VR work, or visual reconnaissance, and as such kept a mental, daily
picture of what was suppose to be where, said Diehl.
"The beauty of the Fast FAC or any kind of FAC program is that you get so familiar with your area and you will notice what is out
of the ordinary," said Diehl. "That's why you had guys working the same places all the time. They had to know the surrounding terrain in order to realize what was out of place."
Diehl added a favorite target of many pilots were the antiaircraft sites, which dotted important targets. Dueling with the guns was a fools errand in many situations, no matter how personally rewarding. "Most guys liked to attack guns ... but it didn't do much for the war effort," he added
The Fast FAC missions were some of the longest and most dangerous Johnston and Diehl ever encountered, the two military
pilots said. "They were exponentially more dangerous than a regular strike mission," said the general.
The life expectancy of a Fast FAC wasn't a positive figure.
Because they worked in high threat areas, and initially worked with just one aircraft, the FAC program was very dangerous. "The figures I heard at the time was that you were 25-times more
likely to be shot down as a Fast FAC than doing a regular job," said Johnston. The dangers were readily apparent to the general. On his first Fast FAC mission Johnston was shot down.
To counter the threats, the FACs developed survival guidelines, said Diehl. "We had a rule of fives " 5-gs on the aircraft, 5,000 feet altitude and keep about 500 knots speed," he said. "Due to
the job, of getting low and identifying targets you couldn't always keep to those, but it was a benchmark."
The benchmarks meant pilots kept pulling the plane into tight
turns -- 5-gs, flew above small arms range -- 5,000 feet, and flew fast -- 500 knots, all of which kept them safer from the ground gunners.
"To counter those guys on the ground you just kept pulling into a
tight turn, and jinking " varying your altitude," said Gravlee. "They couldn't get you. It would spoil their aim."
The missions were not only dangerous, but were also longer than
the normal 90 minute or two hour strike flights pilots normally pulled, said Diehl.
"Sometimes we would refuel five times, and there was a lot of communication back and forth between us and the airborne
central command and control aircraft (ABCCC) ... the back seater would free up the front seater to look out and see what the target was and who was shooting at him basically we worked the
maps and navigation and coordination with ABCCC and we did a lot of secretarial work with all of that."
The guy-in-back was responsible for keeping up with navigation
charts, strike data and generally monitoring a lot of details associated with getting from point A to point B. "The back seat sometimes resembled an office full of papers," Diehl said and
laughed. "We had to keep up with a lot of things in the aircraft."
Did the hard work, dangers and frustrations bother Johnston and Diehl?
"We were young lieutenants. I never gave it much thought. We
wanted to get down amongst them and do our jobs," said the general.
"It was our job," echoed Diehl. "Sure you were scared sometimes, but ours was the life of a soldier. My country was at
war, and this was my job. I never thought about it outside of mentally preparing myself for the technical side of what it was I had to do."