Air Force FAC

20th TASS

After the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the United States committed large numbers of ground forces in South Vietnam, or “in-country.” To support these growing numbers, USAF FACs began flying missions in direct support of the U.S. units.

To supplement the 19th TASS, the USAF activated the 20th TASS at Da Nang AB, the 21st TASS at Pleiku AB (later at Nha Trang), and the 22nd TASS at Binh Thuy AB. These four squadrons were assigned to the 504th Tactical Air Support Group at Bien Hoa AB for logistical and administrative support. However, to remain in close contact with the troops they supported, the FACs also operated from numerous forward operating locations (FOLs). As a result, the FACs used different identifying radio call signs, like Barky, Covey, Jake, Copperhead, and many more. Another group of volunteer FACs-selected from the TASSs and identified by the call sign Mike-worked directly with special operations teams.

Visual reconnaissance formed the core FAC mission in South Vietnam, and they flew light aircraft slowly over the rough terrain at low altitude to maintain constant aerial surveillance. By patrolling the same area regularly, the FACs grew very familiar with the terrain, and they learned to detect any changes, such as fresh tire tracks, that could indicate enemy forces hiding below. Of course, flying low and slow over enemy forces was very dangerous, but the enemy usually held his fire to avoid discovery.

Once he spotted enemy forces, the FAC radioed for fighter bombers and marked the target with smoke grenades or white-phosphorus rockets. After directing the fighter bombers’ attacks, the FAC would fly low over the target to assess the damage, and the surviving communists would then shoot at the FAC with everything they had.

Forward Air Controllers, or FACs, in the Southeast Asia conflict were rated pilots whose job it was to coordinate air-ground operations.   FACs could be ground-based with the troops they were supporting or airborne above the battlefield.   The key to success for this air-ground team was and remains today a close relationship between the FAC and the supported unit.   For this reason, FACs usually were assigned to support specific units and live with them.   This arrangement has been used in every U.S. military operation since World War II when airpower has supported ground forces.

Placing the FAC in an aircraft above the battlefield has proven most effective and has been used whenever the tactical situation permitted.   In Southeast Asia, Air Force FACs used three main aircraft: the Cessna O-1 Bird Dog, the Cessna O-2 Skymaster, and the North American OV-10 Bronco.   These aircraft provided the low-speed maneuverability and long endurance required for locating and maintaining visual contact with targets over the battlefield.   They also possessed the short, unimproved airfield operating capability needed to live close to the Army.   Each FAC aircraft was equipped with three different radios to coordinate with all the players in the air-ground battle.   An FM radio was provided for communications with the ground forces, a UHF radio to talk to the fighter aircraft, and a VHF radio for contact with the Air Force Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) to coordinate approvals and requests for air support.

The low performance O-1 and O-2 worked reasonably well during most of the Vietnam War when the threat consisted primarily of small arms and light machine guns.   Later in the war the threat increased with the introduction of larger caliber guns and man-portable surface-to-air missiles, and the higher speed OV-10 became the aircraft of choice.   In higher threat areas in Laos and southern North Vietnam, jet aircraft (the two-seat F-100F Super Sabres, call sign Misty, and later the F-4 Phantom II, call sign Wolf ) were used as fast FACs to direct air strikes against trucks and other targets of opportunity.   The Army used spotters in the O-1 and helicopters, and the Marine Corps employed FACs in the O-1 and OV-10 to control their air assets.

Forward Air Controllers in Southeast Asia were drawn from a variety of sources.   Through an agreement with the Army, all FACs assigned to support U.S. units had experience as fighter pilots delivering air-to-ground ordnance.   Other pilots were assigned to support Free World forces (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN, and the Republic of Korea — ROK — army) or as sector FACs with a geographic responsibility.   All FAC candidates attended the Air-Ground Operations School (AGOS) at Hurlburt Field in Florida (also known as FAC U.) to learn procedures for coordinating and managing the air-ground battle.   Checkout in the O-1 and O-2 was accomplished at nearby Holly Field.   Because final unit assignment was not made until arrival in the theater of operations, some pilots trained in the O-1 at Holly were assigned to O-2 units and received training in that aircraft after arrival in Vietnam.   I received my in-country O-2 checkout at Phan Rang AB.  

All USAF crew members were required to accomplish Survival, Escape and Evasion Training at Fairchild AFB in Washington as well as the USAF Jungle Survival School (“Snake School”) * at Clark AB in the Philippines.

Air Force FACs were assigned to Tactical Air Support Squadrons (TASS) for administrative purposes but served in locations across Southeast Asia.   There were four TASS in South Vietnam (19th thru 22nd, one for each Corp area) and one (23rd) assigned in Thailand.