Imagine for a moment flying a small fixed-wing aircraft just feet over the jungle canopy. Enemy anti-aircraft and small-arms fire is ripping through the air around you. You begin to “jink,” that is, entering into a run of constant banks and turns to throw the gunners off. In your ears is the blaring of three different radio frequencies: the men on the ground; the soldiers at the nearby base; and friendly aircraft whizzing around you. Your only navigation is a small topo-map and what you can recall of the topography from memory. You have no weapons except your trusty CAR-15, which you thrust through the window of your plane and blind-fire at the enemy below. It’s a turkey shoot, and you’re the turkey.

All the while your thoughts are latched on the U.S. Green Berets on the ground you’re there to support. They’re pinned down by enemy mortar fire. You and your O-1 Bird Dog are the only links between them and friendly artillery fire. You call in hastily-read coordinates and pray that your math is right.

This is the life of a U.S. Air Force Bird Dog pilot in Vietnam. The O-1 Bird Dogs, small fixed-wing planes, are deployed across the country to provide aerial reconnaissance and direct air support. It’s “long hours of sheer boredom, interspersed by moments of stark terror.”

For men like Mike Leonard, it’s all in a day’s work. Or as he would say: “You do the job you were trained to do.”

Air Force Reconnaissance pilot in Vietnam Michael Leonard
Vietnamese Village on Fire, viewed from the airfield. March 1970. An image from Michael Leonard’s new book An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot: From the Battlefield of Vietnam and Beyond.

About Michael Leonard

Mike Leonard is a retired Air Force officer and highly experienced global business executive. He was a USAF Command Pilot with a military career spanning 20 years, including two combat tours to Vietnam in 1965-1966 and 1969-1970. Leonard spent four years flying the VC-140B Special Air Mission aircraft during his time with the 89th Military Airlift Wing, the “Home of Air Force One.” His combat decorations include three Distinguished Flying Crosses, nine Air Medals, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.  

Leonard’s book, An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot is a compelling look at the life and times of a member of the Silent Generation.

An American Reconnaissance Pilot in Vietnam Michael Leonard
Author Michael Leonard standing next to an 0-1 Bird Dog named after new Baby Teri. 1969.

Sitting in the Seat of a Bird Dog Pilot

Mike Leonard’s story chronicles not only his breathtaking combat adventures but the unforeseen perils that nearly sidetracked him during his time as an international sales executive. This spellbinding narrative paints a vivid portrait of a man — as the Chinese proverb clearly states — “living in interesting times.”

Not many Vietnam veterans can lay claim to as many harrowing moments in combat. Leonard recounts flying a small, unarmed USAF spotter plane — called an O-1 Birddog — near ground-level risking life and limb just feet above the jungle canopy.

The recollection of the life and death struggle on Thanksgiving Day in 1969 with North Vietnamese forces hell-bent on capturing or killing the crew of a downed chopper near the Cambodian border is about as hairy as it gets. Then the final straw — and the catalyst for the book — which took place more than 40 years later: Leonard made contact with one of the crewmembers from that chopper.

Their bond is emblematic of the brotherhood of warriors that can only be formed among those that have actually lived it. That phone call and the incumbent flashbacks by themselves, not counting his myriad additional exploits recounted throughout the book, will force you to keep reading.

Surviving combat instilled a chameleon-like sense of innovation in Leonard and a kind of “challenge accepted” attitude you might expect from someone used to taking risks and operating on a wing and a prayer. Eloquently presented, the author’s story continues in a captivating fashion. Leaving military career behind and venturing into the uncharted waters of civilian life came with the ultimate realization that this new life had its own set of risks and rewards.

Michael Leonard Reconnaissance Pilot in Vietnam

When you finish this book, you will smile and walk away with the realization that, as the author suggests, you’ve witnessed someone that’s lived a charmed life and indeed lived in “interesting times.” Rubbing elbows with people, visiting places, and doing things that most people will only imagine.

Michael Leonard’s book is now available on Amazon in both paperback and ebook versions. Don’t miss this chance to ride shotgun with one hell of a pilot.

This article was originally published on February 2, 2021.