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
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.
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
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.
would pull the best pilots and navigators out of the three squadrons.
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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
The missions were not only dangerous, but were also longer than
the normal 90 minute or two hour strike flights pilots normally pulled, said
"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."