In July 1966, USAF FACS began flying reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam's lower southern panhandle. Like their counterparts in South Vietnam, FACs in the North flew continual daily reconnaissance flights over the same terrain to become familiar with activity down below. When they located a military target, they directed air strikes against it. This picture shows the light, unarmed O-1 Bird dog spotter plane flying over North Vietnam in August 1966. The growing enemy air defenses soon became a serious threat to the slow flying FACs. (U.S. Air Force)
DAYTON, Ohio - Party Suit worn by Capt. Tim Eby (call sign Covey 540) at Pleiku AB. He also flew with the Rustics on temporary duty for a short period. The party suit on display in the Southeast Asia War Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)
DAYTON, Ohio - Black flying coveralls worn by Maj. Tracy A. Scanlan (later Lt. Col.) on night FAC missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1968. Flying an O-2 with the 23rd TASS, he normally would not have worn the bright major’s insignia on night missions. This uniform is on display in the Southeast Asia War Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)
The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam initially prevented the North Vietnamese from sending troops and military supplies directly to communist forces in South Vietnam. So in 1959, they began building a secret road system through neutral Laos and Cambodia. Named the Truong Son Road - but known by Americans as the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" - this supply line consisted of a network of roads and hiding places concealed by the jungle.
Laos Laotian neutrality prevented the overt use of American ground troops to block the Trail, but the U.S. obtained permission from the Laotian government in 1964 to conduct aerial interdiction strikes along the trail. Stringent rules of engagement (ROE) over Laos necessitated the use of FACs, who ensured that no mistakes occurred that could have resulted in Soviet or Chinese involvement.
In 1965 the air war over Laos expanded into two different operations: OPERATION STEEL TIGER provided aerial interdiction along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in central Laos, and OPERATION BARREL ROLL provided aerial interdiction and CAS for the Laotian forces fighting the communists in northern Laos.
In 1966, the USAF activated a fifth FAC squadron, the 23rd TASS, at Nakhon Phanom AB in Thailand. Operating under the call sign Nail, the 23rd's FACs patrolled the Ho Chi Minh Trail and called in air strikes on enemy trucks and supplies. The Nail FACs, with support of the Covey FACs of the 20th TASS, provided CAS for friendly forces throughout Laos.
The war in Laos brought about the creation of one of the USAF's "unique" units. Since the U.S. could not legally send military personnel to Laos, the USAF initially used enlisted Combat Controllers, with the call sign Butterfly, to direct air strikes from civilian aircraft, but Headquarters Seventh Air Force preferred that officers who were pilots perform that mission. So, USAF volunteers with FAC experience in South Vietnam went to Laos to fly secret missions in direct support of Laotian ground forces in 1966. With the call sign Raven, these pilots flew unmarked O-1s, wore civilian clothes - often tee-shirts and cowboy hats - and carried no military identification.
Technically assigned to the 56th Special Operations Wing at Udorn AB, Thailand, the Ravens generally operated from small airfields throughout Laos-with some located close to the Chinese border. They supported indigenous troops in Laos who opposed the North Vietnamese invaders, and they flew with "Backseaters" or "Robins" provided by local commanders. One indication of the Ravens' unique situation was their authority to attack any target in Laos. The other FACs operating over Laos - Covey FACs from Da Nang and the Nail FACs from Nakhon Phanom - could only attack targets in their assigned areas.
North Vietnam In 1966, the U.S. increased its interdiction efforts into and above the DMZ, and FACs - from the 20th TASS and designated Tally Ho-were assigned this mission. Flying O-1s and later O-2s, they directed air strikes and gunfire from U.S. Navy ships if a U.S. Marine artillery spotter was flying with them. The success of these air strikes quickly forced the communists to improve their air defenses in that area.
Cambodia The communists stockpiled large amounts of military supplies in Cambodia that they had brought down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and up the Sihanouk Trail from the port of Kompong Son (or "Sihanoukville") on the Gulf of Thailand. Also, they had attacked South Vietnam from sanctuaries in Cambodia. In 1970, at the request of the Cambodian government, the U.S. and South Vietnam sent ground forces into Cambodia to destroy communist supplies and sanctuaries. Although American ground forces withdrew from Cambodia, the air interdiction campaign continued, and USAF FACs were there to support the effort. At first flying from Tan Son Nhut AB, South Vietnam, in O-2A and OV-10 aircraft, a detachment of the 19th TASS patrolled Cambodia in support of the Cambodian troops and used the call sign Rustic. To communicate with the Cambodian forces, the Rustics flew with French-speaking interpreters. In July 1970, the Rustics moved to Bien Hoa AB and began 24-hour operations. Flying O-2As equipped with flares and Starlight night vision scopes, they directed air power against the communists at night. In November 1971, the Rustics moved to Ubon Royal Thai AB.