Mike Leonard is a Vietnam era combat FAC pilot. He has numerous distinguished service awards including the Flying Cross and was hanging it out there when most modern Warfighters were in diapers. I’m proud to call him a friend and glad to share this interview with all of you.
Brandon: Mike, a lot of readers don’t understand that Forward Air Control (FAC) started in the air not on the ground! Can you expound on this for our SOFREP readers?
Mike: Battlefield’s morph over time based on a variety of drivers, including; technological innovation, the tactical environment, and dollars (aka cost/benefit). The enemy we face today has forged major changes in US military doctrine. I believe the official term used to describe how we fight today is “asymmetric warfare”. Maybe a more descriptive way of stating these changes goes something like this; you’d better be as agile as your enemy, highly flexible in dealing with them, and able to take the fight to their backdoor (notice I didn’t say front door). One of the tactical changes that interests me most is the use of USAF enlisted Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) specialists imbedded with front line troops, including SOCOM and USMC units. Their primary mission is to control tactical air assets in support of our guys when engaged with the enemy. The job is simply to bring overwhelming firepower, in the form of airstrikes and/or artillery, to the battlefield. My interest in this terrific group of young men stems from the fact that in my past, I also performed this role. There were, however, some differences in how we executed that mission 40 plus years ago. The Vietnam (VN) battlefield of the 1960’s and 1970’s may have been the first time that the US military confronted “asymmetric warfare” on such a large scale. To confront the enemy in the jungles and mountains of VN, the US Military reached back into its bag of tricks and brought back with a vengeance the airborne Forward Air Controller (FAC). I say reached back because the job of controlling tactical air on enemy targets really dates back to the advent of aviation. Space doesn’t permit a history lesson about the origins of this mission; so please trust me when I say that over the course of history this role has vacillated from above the battlefield to on the battlefield and back again. In VN job of controlling tactical air assets occurred above the fray. What may be of even more interest is this. While the VN FAC’s role was to direct airstrikes onto enemy positions in support of US forces, the FAC was also an expert in Visual Reconnaissance, Artillery Fire Control/Adjustment, Bomb Damage Assessment, Search and Rescue, and in my case Defoliation Mission Support (aka Agent Orange).
Brandon: What was it like in your initial flight training?
Mike: My Air Force (AF) career started out of necessity. At 21 years of age, married with my first child on the way, and just graduating college, I needed a job, and fast. Low and behold the solution to my problem arrived in the form of an AF recruiter. He promised me that Uncle Sam would take care of pregnancies, housing, and even pay me $217 dollars every two weeks. Heck, who wouldn’t join up. Fast forward a couple of years and a lot of training later, and I’m running an airborne radar crew directing MIG intercepts off the coast of N. Vietnam from the back of an EC-121 (a commercial Lockheed Constellation with large radar domes on top and bottom and predecessor to today’s AWACS aircraft). On one mission over the Gulf of Tonkin cruising along at 50 feet off the deck, the pilot tells me he earns an additional $150 a month just for being a pilot. Heck again; who wouldn’t want that extra cash. And all you had to do was be a pilot; piece of cake. Let’s fast forward again. It’s 1968 and I’ve completed my flight training having been found competent in a T-41 (Cessna 172), T-37 (twin engine subsonic jet), and a T-38 (twin engine supersonic jet). I walked out of Vance AFB, Oklahoma with pilot wings, and additional $150 dollars, another little one running around the house, and an assignment back to fly the EC-121 Constellation (only this time as a pilot). As an aside, during my flying career, I logged time in the following aircraft: T-41, T-37, T-38, C/EC-121, C-47, O-1 Birddog, 0-2 Super Skymaster, OV-10 Bronco, C-5A Galaxy, C-140 Jetstar, Boeing 707, and was even allowed to ham-hand a couple of helicopters compliments of the Army and Navy (UH-1 Huey, and a CH-53 Sea Stallion).
Brandon: Can you tell us what it was like with your first couple of mission in Vietnam?
Mike: Now going back into the EC-121 was fine if you liked punching holes in the sky over the N. Atlantic during a mid-winter Nor’easter, but there was a war going on in SEA and I knew there was no way they were going to win that war without me, and; as luck would have it, they actually gave you an additional $110 a month combat pay. Heck again! I decided the best way to get in the action was to volunteer to be a FAC. So off I go to VN to fly the venerable O-1 Birddog (aka the “old woman” – aptly named by NVA/VC). After training stops at Hurlburt Field, FL (O-1 Aircrew Training), Fairchild AFB, WA (Basic Survival School), Clark AB in the Philippines (Jungle Survival), and in-country check-outs at Phan Rang, Cam Ranh Bay, Ban Me Thuot, here I am loping along at 65 MPH over the lush VN jungles admiring the verdant landscape. By the way, that “loping along” is also referred to as Visual Reconnaissance (VR). And it just so happened on that mission I also learned the hard way about “jinking” (constant turning of the airplane to make it harder for the bad guys to get a bead on you). Next thing I know, I get a large caliber round through the bottom of plane. The round travels through the flooring, into the aircraft battery positioned between the rudder pedals (and my legs). The top of the battery is blown off and in its upward trajectory behind the instrument panel proceeds to knock my direct reading oil pressure gauge into lap and starts spewing hot oil over me and everything else in the cockpit. Fortunately, just off of my left wind a couple of kilometers away is the runway at the Special Forces (SF) A-team camp at Ban Don. After an engine out landing, an MRE for lunch, a lot of duct tape, a new battery courtesy of the maintenance guys at my Forward Operating Base (FOB), I was off and homeward bound. Jinking all the way.
As any combat veteran will tell you, humor (at your expense or someone else’s) is a necessary counterweight to the stress and trials of the battlefield. One incident comes to mind that I would have preferred to keep to myself, but the more I thought about it, the funnier it became and I knew I had to share it with the guys in my TACP. It was another of those VR missions, but this time in a fairly “hot” area of our AO. The area I’m VR’ing that day abuts the Cambodian border near the Bu Prang SF camp. We had just completed a 3-4 week long battle with a large NVA regiment determined to destroy the camp. Bu Prang was situated practically on the border, and astride one of the NVA’s main infiltration routes south into III Corps. As I’m patrolling over the steep rolling hills, and alternating fingers of jungle ravines and forests, I catch movement in the left rear quadrant of my flight path. (By the way, we usually conducted our VR missions looking over our shoulders to the rear of the aircraft as the enemy had learned to freeze in position as you were coming toward them and only move after you passed by.) Anyway, as I turn to focus on the movement to left rear and bank sharply to my left, I observe between 25-30 enemy troops emerging from the tree line and starting to run up the hill. I immediately radioed in to my TACP asking for any tactical air (fighters or helicopter gunships) that might be in the area. As I’m setting up the attack scenario (type of ordnance, run in heading, etc.) something strikes me as not being quite right. The entire group had stopped in plain sight for about 15 seconds, and then started running again. About the time I decided to drop down lower for a closer look, a flight of 2 Vietnamese AF A-37’s call in on guard channel asking for my frequency and were on the way to assist with my “Troops in the Open” call. As I come in on a low level pass (“jinking” for all I’m worth), I now realize that what I’m seeing is a Troop (yep, that what they’re called) of Baboon’s high tailing it from one jungle clearing to the next. To my embarrassment, I now had to call in a cancel what could have been an expensive event.
Brandon: Our readers would love to know what a typical mission profile looked liked back then. Can you share a bit with us?
Mike: The classic comment concerning being in war goes some like this; “….interminable periods of sheer boredom, interspersed with moments of stark terror…” So in answer to the question of what a typical mission was like, it would go something like this. An early morning team brief with the intelligence and operations folks, where they would provide a position locations of any recon teams scattered about the AO, along with any new intel gathered by these teams. I’d typically be scheduled for two flights a day, one morning and one afternoon. The mission could range from a straight VR, a road watch, convoy escort, a pre-planned airstrike on a suspected enemy location, or covering a Ranch Hand C-123 defoliation mission. Often our sorties would change in mid-stream, usually caused by a friendly unit calling “Troops in Contact”. That’s all it took to drop everything and head straight for the friendly’s coordinates. Once on scene, you’d try to quickly assess the situation, differentiate the location of the good guys and the bad guys. After you had all that sorted out, you’d grab some “fast movers” (aka fighter-bombers), and start wreaking havoc. For the information of readers, there was a very good documentary about FACS and their mission broadcast on either the Discovery or National Geographic TV channels back around 2003. While it told the over-arching FAC story quite well, the real stories lie in the recesses of the mind of anyone that flew the FAC mission. There are literally hundreds of stories, one more harrowing than the next.
Brandon: What was your best memory of flying in Vietnam?
Mike: I guess simply put my best memory is summarized in a single mission on a single day in November 1969. It boiled down to being a part of an effort that saved the lives of the crews of two Huey gunships. My dawn patrol flight out of Ban Me Thuot took me west to within a couple of kilometers of the Cambodian border. We had received frantic calls all night from the SF camp a Duc Lap. The enemy had been mortaring the outpost from positions along the SF airfield and from the nearby jungle. Occasionally artillery would also be fired from the Cambodian side of the border. The ceiling was less than 500 ft and so we couldn’t get tactical air on the enemy positions in the area. I called in fire support from an Army 105 MM artillery battery, along with a couple of 175 MM guns, and started adjusting fire along the runway and around a banana plantation. About 2 hours into the mission, I get a call from two flights of (4 in total) gunships wanting to join the flying circus. After briefing them on the very significant anti-aircraft fire and telling which areas to avoid flying over, and telling them to where to put their ordnance, they proceeded to do their own thing. Within 5 minutes of joining the battle, I was faced with two helicopters shot down (crews were still alive, but were now in the infantry and engaged in their own firefight), one shot up and on his way back home, and one still fully functional. The remaining helicopter and I devised a plan to try to get them out. Me on a unloading my remaining White Phosphorus (WP) along the enemy position, followed by a return trip shooting up the enemy position long enough to allow the smoke to obscure the downed crewmen and hopefully getting them to keep their heads down. Right behind me comes my intact Huey on a running snatch and grab of the downed crew. Well it worked, and as we climbed to altitude, the Huey flew by me with a lot of happy faces waving out the door giving me the thumbs up. As I leveled off about 2,000 feet, I happened realized that I’d been airborne about 15 minutes longer than the aircraft manual said was possible. I held my breath and headed East. As the runway at Ban Me Thuot slipped under my nose, I pulled her to idol and pointed the nose at the end of the runway. Landing went well, and I managed to taxi off the runway about 100 ft when the engine quit. I remember that mission today as though it happened an hour ago.
Brandon: What lesson learned can you pass on to our viewers?
Mike: Lesson for your SOFREP viewers….. Follow the money and your likely to find yourself on one hell of a ride, and with some great stories to tell the grandkids.
Brandon: Thanks Mike, glad to have a true brother on SOFREP