Flying as a Raven pilot in the secret war in Laos was a challenging and an unorthodox experience.
During the Vietnam Conflict the U. S. Air Force called pilots back to flying status who had staff jobs for a combat tour in South Vietnam. I was a development engineer at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico when I received my orders. The policy at the time was to train pilots in the F-100 Super Sabre jet fighter which flew at about 500 knots cruise speed and the single engine, propeller driven Cessna 0-1 Bird Dog which flew at about 110 mph. When you got to South Vietnam you were assigned to either aircraft as the need existed. You had to be a combat qualified fighter pilot to control air strike in the 0-1 near troops.
My first training began in the F-100 jet fighter at Luke Air Force Base where I was trained in bombing, strafing targets and mid-air refueling. The next phase of training was at Hulbert AFB in Florida where I was trained as a Forward Air Controller (FAC) in the 0-1 aircraft. The training in the 0-1 consisted of locating targets by ground maps and the directing of fighters onto the target. At the end of my training I got a big shock when my orders were changed to a classified location in Laos to fly as a FAC pilot in the 0-1.
I knew then that I was going to have an interesting experience. I didn't exactly know where Laos was but I found out that it paralleled North and South Vietnam. I left the U. S. in civilian clothes and traveled directly to Vientiane Laos the capitol in August 1967 for a year tour. I was given a post office box number in Thailand for correspondence with my family but no mentioned was to be made about my military status.
` I was one of the first pilots that went directly to Laos at the beginning of the Raven program. Later pilots had six month’s experience in the 0-1 in South Vietnam before coming to Laos.
Laos was supposed to be neutral country but the North Vietnamese infiltrated it to take over the country and to send supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the eastern part of Laos to support the fighting in South Vietnam. Because of this the U. S. gave Laos secret military support.
The Raven pilots were under the control of the U. S. Ambassador in Laos. We worked under the attaché office in the Embassy but we were totally on our own in conducting our operation in the assigned regions. Usually each region military combat activity was different.
The Forward Air Controller (FAC) pilots in Laos used airborne call signs as Raven with a number after the call sign that designated the pilot and his location. The country was divided into four military regions. I was assigned to operate in the fourth military region at Pakse In southern Laos near the Cambodian border. I flew the unmarked 0-1 in civilian clothes controlling air strikes on enemy targets. The fighting was fierce at times from ground fire. I got bullet holes in the 0-1 but unlike some Ravens no major damage. Many Ravens were shot down, injured or received major damage to their aircraft. Out of the 200 Ravens that served over a ten year period about 30 were lost. The flying in Laos was very demanding in directing air strikes, flying in all kind of weather and terrain and staying away from enemy fire. There were little or no navigation aids in Laos. Most of the flights were "dead reckoning" and ground map reading. The rendezvous with fighters was done by the airborne command post directing the fighters to my location and they could home in on radio signal or my red flashing light on top of the 0-1. Flying over a solid jungle area there was no way you could spot anything on the ground at high altitudes or high speed. That was why a FAC was needed to spot the target and direct the fighters to it. I would fly a distance from the target until the rendezvous with the fighter so as not to alert the target area. The fighters would spot me several miles out and when they did I would fly directly to the target and mark it with a smoke rocket. Then I would direct them throughout the strike. During a strike, me and the fighters could receive heavy ground fire resulting in battle damage or being shot down.
There were two weather seasons in Laos, wet and dry. For six months there was no rain and that was when most of the fighting occurred. In the six month wet season there was so much rain and flooding throughout the country that troop and vehicle travel were very difficult.
My mission as a Forward Air Controller (FAC) consisted of checking in with the airborne command post flying over Laos 24/7 and requesting fighters for specific targets. The command post would direct the fighters to my location and when we joined up I would fire a smoke rocket into the target and direct the fighters where to drop their bombs. During the strike I would fly at a few hundred feet altitude near the target in an orbit to observe and direct the fighters on dropping their bombs on the target. The 0-1 had three sets of radios that you could talk to the pilots during a strike, to friendly forces on the ground and to the airborne command post. You were a busy Aerial Combat Commander during an air strike. Each air strike was recorded by coordinates on the map and reported to the airborne command post along with battle damage from the air strike. The fighter aircraft used for air strikes came from Thailand, South Vietnam and off Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. I always had backup targets so if the strike missions in North Vietnam or South Vietnam were unable to strike their targets because of weather or other conditions I could use them on my backup targets in Laos.
Some areas I was free to strike any target. Other areas I had to coordinate with the Laotian military.
Some of my missions were to insert Laotian watch teams near the Ho Chi Minh trail to watch and report on enemy activity. Sometime on an insertion mission I would come in contact with the enemy and have to direct air strikes on the enemy to safely get the watch team out. The insertion mission consisted of helicopters carrying the insertion team and I would have fighters to rendezvous at the insertion point in case we ran into hostile activity. An extraction or pick up of the watch team consisted of the same procedure. This mission could get very challenging when you ran into the enemy. On one watch team pickup I had to control air strikes near the pickup point while the helicopters picked up the team.
My intelligence came from the Embassy, the CIA, making reconnaissance flights around the region, villagers, Laotian military and troop detachment in the region. The Laotian commanding general assigned me an interpreter to fly with me to make contact with the troop located throughout the region. Sometimes I would land at detachment locations in the region if they had a landing site. Throughout Laos there were many dirt landing site some just cut out of the jungle. They were called Lima site with a number to identify where they were located. Some were not much longer than football field.
When I was in Laos there were only four Raven pilots in the country. I was the only Raven pilot in the Pakse area for most of my tour. I flew 2 to 3 missions a day during heavy enemy activity during the dry season.
The Embassy rented a house in Pakse where I lived with my radio operator who maintained contact with the Embassy, the airborne command post and with me when I was flying. I had a 0-1 mechanic that serviced my aircraft. Major repairs and battle damage were done at a base in Thailand. Our food and supplies were flown to us in the Embassy C-47 aircraft on a regular basis. We did purchase some local food and we had a Laotian cook and housekeeper to take care of our quarters and prepare meals.
The 302 combat missions that I flew in Laos were a demanding experience. I was very sad for the gentle and friendly Laotian people for the fate that they would suffer when the communists took over. Laos was a very beautiful country and the people were very appreciative of our effort.
The surviving Ravens are a close knit group of warriors holding annual reunions since the early 1970s at Randolph AFB in San Antonio, Texas.
Huey O'Neal is a Life Time member of The American Legion having served as Louisiana post 13 and 5th district commander. He chaired a coalition of different veteran organizations in getting a Veterans Home built in Monroe, Louisiana. He also served as public relations representative during his command positions in working with the media and promoting The American Legion. O'Neal served 20 years in the USAF as a fighter pilot and engineer, retiring in 1970.
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