The crew chief is just finishing up his final checks of my O2A “Super Skymaster” as I walk into the revetment. “Skymaster” is overly optimistic and “Super” can only refer to two engines instead of one. I weigh barely 125 pounds, but with parachute, flak vest, survival vest and gear, I approach twice that. Add the 14 “Willie Pete” rockets slung under the wings in two pods, radio gear on racks behind the pilot seat and a full load of fuel makes “Skymaster” a prayer rather than a declaration. I finish my pre-flight checks and start the two engines, one in front and the second a “pusher” in the rear. Glad for the prop-induced breeze, I taxi out of the fortified revetment area to the runway.
Full power and down the runway! The over-loaded “Oscar Deuce” reluctantly staggers into the air and slowly accelerates to flap retract speed. Pleiku is seven hundred forty three feet above sea level and the thinner air only reduces performance. Crossing the field boundary, the airplane is clean and flying decently enough to turn northwest toward Kontum. At night, I would bank the struggling O2 into as much a turn as it can stand to remain within the patrolled area of the base and spiral up to 6,000 feet to avoid any close-in snipers before heading out toward my patrol area. Climbing to 7,000 feet, the cooler air is welcome and I lean the engines back to a fuel-conserving cruise of 120 knots. Overhead Kontum, I check out the airstrip and Special Forces camp area and turn northwest, following the road to Dak To. From Dak To, the road west to Laos seems to vanish into the jungle. Practically on the Vietnam border with Laos, high on a Kharst pinnacle is a Special Forces radio relay site, surrounded by jungle and the enemy. The only way in or out is by helicopter. I check in by radio with the site for any information they may have and to help break their monotony.
“Hillsboro, Hillsboro, Covey 535 crossing the fence.” Hillsboro is a C-130 orbiting somewhere over Laos coordinating all air traffic and assigning fighters to targets as they are discovered. The next four hours stretch out in front of me and I mechanically start zigzagging slowly along the route I want to inspect. With the airplane trimmed level, I fly the plane with my feet pushing the rudder pedals. My hands are full of heavy Army binoculars as I try to find even the smallest clue to indicate enemy positions or activity. The first mission or two using this technique made me immediately and violently airsick. Do NOT try to vomit by sticking your head out the window; it doesn’t work, even backwards toward the tail! The turbulence around the head whips everything you bring up back into your face!
For those gung-ho tigers who thought FACing from 5,000 feet above the terrain was useless and determined to prove the tree-tops were safer and more effective, the “trail” was a tough lesson and not many lasted more than a few missions. Unlike Vietnam, where small arms fire was the rule, Laos was deadly to low, slow-flying FACs. We greatly respected and avoided quad-mounted 50 caliber machine guns and Soviet-made 23mm and 37mm anti-aircraft artillery. The small arms and 50 cal. were effective up to about 5,000 feet. The 23 and 37mm “triple A” were deadly at the shell’s bursting altitude, about 8,000 to 10,000 feet above the ground. That meant we flew in the middle altitudes where only a direct hit from AAA would get you and the small arms couldn’t reach. While we probably did reduce our effectiveness, the binoculars helped offset that somewhat. In the final analysis, there are few things more useless than a dead FAC and a destroyed airplane. With that said, we did take chances and exposed ourselves to great risk when the situation called for it during a rescue or to take out a particularly aggressive and accurate AAA site.
Periodically, I check the engines and switch fuel tanks to keep the engines droning smoothly. The cough, sputter and silence of an engine out of fuel will stir even the calmest of pilots and will greatly improve your priorities of in-flight fuel management!
My radio comes alive. Another Covey has crossed the fence; my replacement has arrived. We exchange information; I brief him on the current situation and check out with Hillsboro. Today was quiet, tomorrow, who knows.