This story, although having aspects of fairy tales similar to those found in Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, or Alice in Wonderland, is not a fairy tale. It recalls some of the events encountered by a unique group of USAF Aircrew members who were veterans of intense in-service skirmishes even before they could engage the enemy.


In the latter part of 1967, a cadre of experienced navigators was assigned to the 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron’s (TASS) Out-of-Country Operations (OCO). This was a Forward Air Control (FAC) unit whose mission was to provide sector reconnaissance, gather intelligence on troop and supply movement through the Tigerhound Area of Operations (AO) and to control air interdiction strikes to cut the lines of communication (LOC) of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Their operational call sign was Covey.


The mission aircraft was the O-2A, military version of the Cessna 337. The O-2A is a twin-engine (push-pull) propeller-driven aircraft that seats two side-by-side. The aircraft contains no sophisticated navigation equipment; the UHF, VHF, and HF radios were its mission essential equipment. All other navigation equipment and cockpit lighting was powered by a small 26v inverter situated beneath an access panel in front of the windscreen. With even a hint of moisture rolling down the windscreen…the inverter shorted out…depriving the crew of what little instrumentation they had available to them.


The navigators arrived at the 20th TASS with little advance notice. Their arrival caused several questions to be asked…Who were these guys? How did they get here? Why are they here? What do they do? Obviously, there was speculation whether the assignment of navigators to an operational FAC unit was made was made with an awareness of what the navigators operational contributions would entail. This determination was left to the unit of assignment. HHQS provided little guidance regarding navigator utilization. The navigators were also uncertain of their expected operational contributions to the mission. They were routinely advised they would receive a detailed briefing on their flight duty requirements in support of the mission at the unit of assignment. The Squadron Commander had been advised the navigators would arrive with manpower utilization materials and job descriptions that would clear up some of his routine concerns. The Squadron Commander was in a quandary…his immediate need was for FAC pilots, and HHQS sent him a bunch of navigators. This scenario would bring tears to the eyes of any peacetime Squadron Commander. For this situation to occur during a “shooting war” not only brought tears to the eyes of the Commander…but, also a string of invectives questioning the hereditary traits of those involved in personnel assignments at HHQS.


Navigators assigned to a FAC unit were collectively referred to as Forward Air Navigators. However, this was a misnomer since it did not represent the duties of navigators as FACs; it did provide a separation point between pilots and navigators. Once identified as Forward Air Navigators, the acronym FAN was soon to follow. The acronym sounded good and kept the distinction between pilot and navigator FACs in the forefront…FACs were FACs and FANs were FANs and never the twain shall meet. The acronym was soon embraced by everyone…except the navigators.


Indeed, the arrival of augmentation crews during armed conflict was always a welcomed event…but when the navigators didn’t augment...they became an immediate problem that affected all echelons of the Squadron. The initial concern was a custodial problem causing further demands on the already cramped living space. Covey FACs were not living in the high rent district; it was apparent they were at the end of a very long logistical line...there were shortages. Solving the custodial problems was easy compared to operation’s challenge to determine the navigators’ role in support of the Forward Air Control mission. The Squadron commanders had no choice but to assimilate the navigators into the squadron’s daily operating procedures. This was accomplished by assigning them duties traditionally filled by navigators as additional duties in other units…often referred to as house cleaning jobs. This stop-gap approach did not sit well with a lot of people…including the newly assigned navigators.


Navigators assigned to a FAC unit brought with them a series of unique situations not anticipated by local or HHQs commanders; these situations would not just go away nor could they be ignored. For example, the crewing of junior-ranked FACs with more experienced senior-ranked navigators virtually guaranteed to create a source of friction. The young pilot was often resentful of the higher-ranked navigator. The older, more experienced, and higher-ranked navigator was often resentful of squandering his hard-earned technological expertise in an aircraft not meant to carry navigators and flown by a relatively inexperienced pilot. The unusual mission requirements, for which there was little traditional navigator involvement, often resulted in a degradation of crew integrity. The experienced navigator, who was conditioned to plotting out precise mission profiles, was more than a little unsettled by what seemed to be an ad hoc approach to planning FAC missions on the trail. Another latent source of friction was the routine assignment of operations slots to junior-ranked pilots without consideration being afforded to more senior-ranked navigators. However, the main problem area centered on the perception that navigators were not capable of performing their flight duties with a degree of competency comparable to that of the pilots they replaced. Others viewed the navigators as representing yet another encroachment into the eroding realm reserved for pilots. There were other areas concerning navigator utilization in the FAC role that were simmering just under the surface; all of which caused an unwanted and uneasy tension to exist. The Squadron Commander was already fighting a war…dealing with the egos and emotions of self-generated problems was something he could do without.


It is noteworthy to mention the only relief afforded navigators from an almost continuous barrage of questions and criticisms concerning their job came from the Seagulls…20th TASS’s infamous Stan-Eval group. Stan-Eval’s credentials to assist navigators to transition as expeditiously as possible into contributing combat aircrew members was belied by these observations; they did not have a navigator on their staff, were not aware of the Out-of-Country mission requirements for navigators, were not in possession of navigator training manuals, checklists, or even a job description.

Stan-Eval viewed the presence of navigators with benign neglect, evidently supremely confident in their assessment that navigators’ tenure in FAC operations would be a fleeting one. Accordingly, the only checks Stan-Eval performed on navigators occurred when a field grade Seagull rode their personal jeep to the take-off end of the runway to visually ensure FAC aircrews were taking-off with their sleeves rolled down and were wearing their flight gloves. There is no lack of irrefutable sources to confirm that navigators, during the take-off roll, routinely and flagrantly, removed the glove from their right hand and rendered the esteemed member of the Seagull Flight a “three fingered salute”…with emphasis placed on the middle finger.

How did it all come to this?


All organizations operate on a hierarchical basis…or pecking order…; the Air Force is no exception. To understand the hierarchy is to understand the inner workings of the organization. Understanding the inner workings of an organization gives one an edge in understanding organizational behavior patterns. Using this knowledge can make one’s job within that organization much more tolerable…you get a feel for recognizing where the power lies.


Early in my AF career, an old timer took time to explain his view of the power structure in the Air Force…I never forgot what he told me. My own experience confirmed his basic assessment and while there have been some modifications because of time and circumstance, his assessment can still be viewed as valid. Allow me to pass it on. “To find the real power in the Air Force you’ve got to narrow things down by making some separations along traditional lines and concentrate on the resultant power group. For instance, the AF is made up of two separate and distinct groups, officers and enlisted. For our purpose, we separate them along traditional lines and concentrate on the officers as the power group. The officers can then be separated along traditional lines into non-rated officers and rated officers. We can now concentrate on the rated officers as the power group of this separation. The rated officers can be separated along traditional lines into pilots and other-than-pilots. The power concentration of this separation is now focused on the pilots. Again, using traditional lines pilots can be separated into multi-engine and single engine…referred to as the fighter pilot.

Here is where things get a little fuzzy depending upon the perceived threat…but consider one more traditional separation point…Command and Staff. Fighter pilots are considered more aggressive and opt for Command positions. Depending on the force make-up, multi-engine pilots assert their power base and challenge for Command positions also. However, it must be said, multi-engine pilots are more comfortable in Staff positions than a fighter pilot.” These two groups have been alternating power positions since the Air Force was formed. The SEA conflict with its heavy reliance on Tac Air tipped the balance of power in the Air Force to Tac Air …the real source of that time.


This power structure began to change after the Korean War when the multis (Strategic Air) presented a serious and eventually successful challenge to the existing order of things. Strategic Air displaced Tac Air from its lofty position; fighter pilots were no longer Number 1, and that hurt. However, involvement in the SEA conflict quickly propelled Tac Air back into the predominant position. After regaining their once lost ranking, Tac Air quickly assumed new defensive postures designed to counter any future challenge to their position. They attempted to rope off their turf by generating a plethora of inclusive and exclusive regulations as a method designed to purge the unwanted and improve organizational quality. These regulations also served to tighten the reigns of operational and organizational control.

Until the SEA conflict, jockeying for position within the power structure was predominantly an in-house struggle…single engine vs. multi-engine, props vs. jet. As the emphasis on the TRIAD concept expanded, navigators and others began to compete with pilots for command positions available in the rapidly expanding missile force. The SEA conflict’s drain on the pilot pool created openings in PME schools, considered to be a pilot enclave and normally viewed as a preparatory phase to a Command position. Not surprisingly, experienced and highly competent senior navigators began filling this PME void. Soon PME schools began to graduate large numbers of navigators who had operational experience, command experience, PME certification, and were ready to compete with pilots in a rapidly evolving modern Air Force more dependent on technological astuteness rather than pilot oriented skills.


In the FAC hierarchy, there were Fast-FACs and Slo-FACs anyone familiar with both would immediately recognize that Fast-FACs were the dominant force where FACs were concerned. While the AO for both FACs often overlapped, there was little or no coordinated attempt to complement their efforts. As a result, an exclusionary relationship developed between the two. Fast-FACs tolerated Slo-FACs until crisis developed, then Slo-FACs were nudged away by the “more qualified” Fast-FAC. The inclusion/exclusion regulations placed Slo-mover FACs in the center of controversy regarding capabilities and limitations while performing their forward air control duties. Regulations required FACs to be classified as “A” FACs or “B” FACs. The “A” FACs possessed a fighter background and deemed qualified to control air strikes. The “B” FACs identified FACs devoid of a fighter background and as such not deemed qualified to control air strikes. “B” FACs were limited to performing “sector area reconnaissance and intelligence gathering” missions. It was difficult to determine why fighter experience was such a critical factor in controlling air strikes along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Certainly, in isolated instances, a fighter background might be nice-to-have but it never attained the status of need-to-have. These regulations, while never rescinded, were rendered useless by the universal disregard for their relevance.


By mid-1965, pilot requirements to satisfy SEA requirements had dramatically increased. Concomitantly, navigators with command experience who had completed PME assignments were becoming available in increasing numbers. Many of these navigators were actively seeking opportunities to get their last hole punched in their career ticket…combat experience. And despite advances in technology, there were few assignments where the pilot and navigator career fields were considered interchangeable.

The exact method MPC used to address this problem is not known…but given the circumstances and nature of the problem the results proved more than acceptable. What follows is speculation on how they were able to address a complex problem and make an enormous contribution to the war effort and expand the parameters of a somewhat restricted career field. It’s reasonable to assume that a task analysis of pilot and navigators flight duties was compared to determine areas of similarities and dissimilarities of various SEA assignments. A detailed analysis would show a noticeable similarity between Slo-moving FACs who were not piloting the aircraft and tasks similar to those performed by a navigator. The next question to be answered was the necessity of two pilots for a night mission…or could a navigator be used in that capacity. A review of the task analysis would suggest…the skills required of the non-flying pilot and a navigator were interchangeable. But, regardless of the task analysis, the organization behavior patterns, the traditional guardians of the status quo, which held that only pilots could function as FACs would have to be dealt with. Changing behavior patterns doesn’t come quickly, easily, or without costs.


The problem was a shortage of pilots…particularly in SEA. Any solution would require a short pipeline and would not involve degradation of combat crew members requiring extensive periods of technical training. Additional considerations were the exclusion/inclusion parameters of involved commands. Another factor was the abundance of navigators…many from PME schools who had not been in an operational unit for an extended period of time. Sending navigators back to extensive and costly crew training programs was not a viable option. Ideally, an assignment to a crew member position not requiring an extensive training program provide the best solution to the navigator surplus. The war in SEA was escalating; in-country supply aircraft fleet, C-123s (Provider), C-7s (Caribou), and the C-47 (Gooney Bird) provided an opportunity for navigators as crew members. The need for navigators on short in-country flights was speculative, but, in 1963, navigators were being assigned to those units. As one C-123 navigator described his job…”there was no need to flight plan for a series of several flights less than an hour away. My crew position was on a bicycle seat that was folded behind the co-pilot’s station…my only navaid was a map.” In 1965, Navigators were to be assigned to the ancient but lethally effective B-26 (Commancheros) who were active in Laos. In mid-1965, extensive corrosion problems resulted in the immediate grounding of the B-26 fleet eliminating a potential area for navigator assignment.


The grounding of the B-26 fleet came at a bad time for MPC… but, all was not lost…they began to focus on the growing interdiction effort in Laos. Laos represented the secret war; it was on the outer fringes of restrictive regulations. There was a growing awareness of the need for Slo-moving FACs…the out-of-country mission was vastly different than that of in-country FACs. Since there was no ground war in Laos, the restrictions for directing strike aircraft in support of ground troops did not appear to be a factor. The pipeline for Slo-movers was conveniently short; the one year tour represented an almost continuous need for personnel. Slo-moving FACs proved critical to the Air effort against infiltration occurring along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. And the task analysis suggested there was a place for navigators in that effort

In 1967, the 20th TASS was the first to receive new FAC aircraft, the 0-2A, mainly to support the out-of-country mission. The 0-2A replaced the venerable 0-1E and one of the advantages of the new aircraft was its side-by side-seating arrangement. The seating arrangement made crew coordination considerably easier and facilitated the use of the starlight scope for night missions…time and circumstance had provided an opportunity.


The heaviest traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail started at sundown and continued until
sunrise. While night interdiction missions had an effect on the rate of infiltration, the effort was not an efficient one. The starlight scope, developed by the Army, amplified available light enabling the operator to see movement on the ground at night, was the primary instrument used to locate targets during night missions on the Trail. Night missions generally scheduled two pilots to fly the mission; one flew the aircraft, the other used the starlight scope out of the right window to acquire targets. Crew coordination for controlling the air strikes was accomplished by either one or both. Nonetheless, the procedure, at best, was ragged. Pilots’ unfamiliarity with the starlight scope compromised its efficient use.


Navigators were already flying daytime area familiarization flights and were provided with ample opportunities to monitor air strike control procedures and techniques. The navigators were given Covey call signs using no numbers…in lieu of numbers they were assigned a phonetic alphabet designator, i.e. Covey Alpha…Covey Bravo etc. They were ready to fly night missions; it was not yet certain what they would accomplish. Night missions were difficult…to get ordnance to impact in the immediate vicinity of the target was ….to say the least, challenging. However, navigators quickly adapted to the nuances involved in using the “eye in the sky” starlight scope. There is a similarity between the starlight scope’s imagery and those of a radar scope. The navigators were able to transfer radar scope reading skills to interpret the starlight scope’s imagery rapidly and with precision. The application of these skills made the rudimentary starlight scope a more precise night-viewing instrument. The assignment of an experienced navigator to night missions clearly became an extension of the starlight scope’s capabilities by maximizing its use in target acquisition.

The navigator also became adept at providing target location and bearings to the strike pilot…. in effect they were performing duties of a Forward Air Controller. There is no question the addition of navigators to night missions increased the effectiveness of the interdiction effort. A comparison of BDAs prior to using navigators with BDAs with navigators shows a dramatic increase in effectiveness. Navigators increased their contributions to mission effectiveness by assisting the pilot in many other ways thereby allowing the pilot to concentrate on flying the aircraft and keeping a sharp eye out for the ever present AAA salvos. It may even come as a shock to Da Nang’s Seagull Flight to know that sometimes, after a hard night on the Trail, the navigator assumed control of the aircraft for the RTB…and at times even performed the landing (wearing of gloves and position of sleeves were not a consideration). Navigators continued their welcome contribution to the interdiction effort until technological advances in night vision devices enabled specially equipped OV-10s to assume the night mission role.


The assignment of navigators to a Slo-mover FAC outfit was not received with much enthusiasm. The Slo-mover FAC outfit was already at the end of a long supply line…they had to make do with what they were given. Now the ultimate challenge…..they became a FAC outfit with a majority of young relatively inexperienced pilots and older more experienced navigators…this personnel mix would require some changes be made. It is often said…the bridge to change is guarded by 1,000 custodians of the past. To gain acceptance and make some changes, navigators had to confront each and every one of those 1000 custodians.

The assignment of navigators had an immediate effect on pilot numbers; every navigator assigned to a crew displaced a pilot. ANTICIPATED +

Navigators transitioned to using the starlight scope in a minimum of time. They used it with greater precision and with greater flexibility. NOT ANTICIPATED ++++

Navigators showed a remarkable ability to maintain a situational awareness even in the most stressful of times. NOT ANTICIPATED + +

Navigators demonstrated the ability to control air strikes. NOT ANTICIPATED +++

BDA numbers rose dramatically as the utilization of navigators increased. NOT ANTICIPATED ++++

Pilots began teaming up navigators who demonstrated exceptional prowess with the starlight scope. NOT ANTICIPATED +++

As the BDA numbers increased, crew coordination also increased; the young pilot and the seasoned navigator formed a synergistic relationship...all that was ever expected was a symbiotic one. NOT ANTICIPATED +++

Navigators were being assimilated into the unit…they were even assigned to assistant operational slots. NOT ANTICIPATED +

Select navigators were sent TDY to train pilots in the use of the starlight scope.


The senior ranked officer (pilot) who once showed disdain for your (navigator’s) very existence in his squadron, requests you, prior to your DEROS, develop a training manual and checklist on the use of the starlight scope…so he could increase pilot proficiency in that area.


The squadron commanders were not privy to the decisions made regarding navigators being assigned to Slo-moving FACs; yet he received the initial negative impact of this decision. MPC took the gamble and it paid off handsomely. But prior to paying off there was a period of “attitude adjustment” or of “confronting the custodians”. During this adjustment period one cannot ignore the persistence of the navigators, the young pilots grudging but growing professional respect for the experienced navigator and vice-versa. HHQs beamed at the BDA results. None of this would have happened without the leadership demonstrated by the squadron commanders during their ordeal. So, who was responsible for turning the perceived liability into a demonstrable asset ?….that’s easy to figure out….THEY ALL WERE.

As in the Fairy tales mentioned earlier, everything turned out fine; Cinderella got her Prince Charming…the Ugly Duckling became a beautiful and graceful swan…and Alice…well, Alice married Dan. What happened to the navigators? They are still trying to shed the misnomer FANs and be referred to as navigators who functioned as FACs…they were FACs. FACs are FACs whether they are pilot FACs, navigator FACs, ground FACs, Fast FACs, Slo-FACs, Lt. FACs, Capt. FACs etc.. Their performance at night over the Ho Chi Minh Trail earned them their spot in the history of the Air War in SEA…they also earned the right to be called what they want to be...and what they are…FACs.

Written by Dr. Dan Skutack; reviewed by Hall Elliott and Dr. Bill Scannell





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