What had started as a routine reconnaissance mission changed dramatically when the call came in, over the radio, from a Prairie Fire team somewhere in the southern part of my area. The Special Forces team leader on the other end of the conversation was out of breath and talking fast. They had been discovered by a small force of NVA regulars while scouting the trail, and were now on the run with the bad guys in hot pursuit. The jungle would soon be crawling with troops. The team was trying to make it to a clearing where helicopters could get in and pick them up. What they needed most, right now, was for me to get the rescue in motion and to be available with air cover if things turned sour before they could get to an “LZ.” I requested their best estimate of their position and headed in the general direction, while calling Hillsboro to start coordinating the extraction process. The team was as tough as nails and could put up a heck of a fight, but with each hour that passed, they would become more outnumbered and eventually surrounded. The NVA knew of many of the old LZs and would probably send troops to cover the likely ones. Time was critical because the longer it took to extract the team, the greater the chance of getting into a really nasty fight, and possibly either losing the team or some of the support helicopters and aircraft.
Once in the vicinity of the fleeing team, I set up a random orbit to keep from giving away the team’s position and direction of movement. The team would check in every thirty minutes or so to keep me posted on their movements. Hillsboro called back with the plan of action. It would be at least two more hours before the Army’s “Slicks” and the “Cobra” gunships would be on station. “Spads” out of Pleiku would be the close air support with “nape,” CBU, and “guns.” Another Covey FAC was on the way to relieve me. Since I would be out of fuel by then, I suggested my soon-to-arrive “regular” replacement take over my communications watch on the team while I flew to Dak To to refuel. I would then return to watch over the team until the extraction force arrived.
Hillsboro approved the plan, as I was the only Prairie Fire qualified FAC available at the time. My replacement had just checked in with Hillsboro and was sent to my frequency. I hastily briefed the team on the plan and filled in the new FAC on the situation, while “pushing” the O-2A as fast as it would go to the Dak To airstrip. The field was coming into view as I signed off with my replacement. Scanning the Dak To area for helicopters, I broadcast that I was landing for immediate refueling. I was pretty much “on fumes” by then and couldn’t mess around in a landing queue. I flew low to scan the runway before pulling up into a tight closed pattern. “Tower, are those rocks on the end of the runway?” “Negative, Covey, just cow-pies from some local bovines.” With the gear locked down and full flaps, I touched down just beyond the malodorous mounds and stopped well before the end of the runway. The engines sputtered and were silent as I switched them off and rolled to a stop next to the fuel bladders. In a few minutes I had the little Oscar Deuce fueled and ready for flight.
The engines restarted and I taxied to the runway in a cloud of dust from the spinning props. Heavier now, the Cessna “push-pull” lumbered down the runway at maximum power, staggering into the air as the end of the runway disappeared under the nose.
Back on station, I took over the watch of the team until the extraction FAC arrived. After briefing him on the situation, I signed off and headed home to Pleiku for a cool shower, hot meal, and a soft bed. I was not, however, prepared for the reception I got from the crew chief as I taxied smartly into the revetment. The look of disbelief on his face rapidly turned to disgust and dismay!
Dismounting my trusty O-2A, I turned to look at where he was waving his arms and pointing. The smell hit my nostrils just as my eyes beheld the specter of the poor little Cessna camouflaged with cow manure from the belly to top of the tail! The props, at full power on takeoff from Dak To, had picked up and flung the fresh deposits all over the bottom, sides, and twin-tails of the aircraft! What a MESS! What a SMELL!
The crew chief was practically apoplectic! I apologized profusely and offered to do the wash down, but the crew chief sputtered, “Aw Lieutenant, just get out of my sight. We’ll take care of itjust go!” I hastily withdrew into the OPS building for my debrief and, I suspected, a heaping dose of “poo-poo” jokes at my expense. The team? With darkness approaching, they were able to shake their pursuit and settle into the jungle for the night.