Filename:   8-70 Eby-2

Author’s name and call sign: Tim Eby, Covey 540

Author’s unit: 20th TASS, 1970-71

Author’s mailing address: XXXXXXX, Hico, TX 76457

Author’s phone number: XXXXXX

Author’s e-mail address: XXXXXXXX

Submittal date: 2/27/01

Author’s title of submittal:  FACS AND FIGHTER PILOTS

     During my tour as a Covey FAC, the Navy and the Air Force had an informal exchange program.  It allowed the Navy fighter pilots to fly in a FAC’s backseat for three days, and in return the FAC would go out to the aircraft carrier to fly in the backseat of the Navy F-4s for three days.  Supposedly, we were each to benefit from the experience of seeing the mission from the other guy’s perspective. 

     The bureaucracies thwarted my attempts to go to the carrier, and I never saw a Navy fighter pilot at Pleiku.  Likewise, no Air Force fighter pilots voluntarily submitted themselves to the indignity of our propeller-driven flight, save two, and they both “volunteered” under severe duress.

     Pilots of high performance fighters operated from the assumption that “speed is life.”  In Vietnam they considered anyone who would fly in harm’s way for several hours a day in a low and slow airplane without afterburners, let alone equipped with propellers, to be quite suicidal.

     High speeds have at least two consequences germane to this story.  The first consists of the much greater altitude required to pull out of a dive, such as a bombing or strafing run.  The second consequence is that high speeds tend to produce straight lines and predictable turn radii, in obedience to the laws of physics.  Gunners liked the laws of physics. 

     We slow flyers possessed a measure of unpredictability and maneuverability that the fast fighters could not achieve.  Nevertheless, we FACs rarely met fighter pilots clamoring to go with us on our missions.

     During my tour, a wing of F-100s returned to the states.  The Air Force required their pilots with less than six months in country to stay behind in various non-flying jobs.  Two of these hapless souls turned up at Pleiku as liaison officers, assigned to II DASC, (pronounce “two-dask”, the II Corps Direct Air Support Center), living with, and working for the Army.

      For these supersonic fighter jocks, flying an Army desk was a fate worse than death!  They gravitated over to our FAC hooches, where they could at least talk airplanes, and elicit sympathy from us fellow pilots.

     I never heard such whining and moaning about their terrible non-flying fate--- before or since!  They complained so loudly and continuously that my sympathy soon turned to something much less benevolent.  In a friendly attempt to quell the noise, I said, “Simple solution – my backseat is empty tomorrow, who wants to go first?”

     “Er…uh.”  My offer was met with much clearing of throats and hastily contrived excuses.  Day after day, though, the moaning continued unabated. 

     After three or four such exchanges, I got in their faces.  “Okay, you whiners, either you fly with me, or you shut up about your desk jobs, got it?”

      A dominant trait of fighter pilots is a preference for dying, rather than being embarrassed.  True to their character, they agreed that if one would, they both would.  They flipped a coin to see who would go first.

     Before dawn the next day the loser showed up to meet his fate.  As I fitted him with survival gear, I noticed in my friend a slight trembling of hand and voice, and an unusual contrite spirit. 

     I briefed him on bailout procedures, and reminded him that our area of operations contained no safe areas.

     “Load your pistol with six rounds rather than the regulation five.  Here are some small grenades that the Special Forces guys gave me.  Don’t let the safety officer see them.  Our area is crawling with bad guys.”

     As I familiarized him with the very subsonic backseat of the OV-10, I saw that his eyes were as big as saucers, and that I had a truly fearful fighter pilot on my hands.

     We launched.

     Fortunately, that mission was quiet and uneventful. A beautiful morning bathed the war zone over the Ho Chi Minh trail of Laos in pastel hues.   I don’t even remember drawing the usual fireworks.  By the time we returned to Pleiku, my passenger was quite elated at the prospect of surviving.

      A very relieved and relaxed fighter pilot crawled down from the cockpit to the welcoming queries of his compadre.  I overheard bits of their conversation, which included phrases such as, “piece of cake”, “no sweat”, and “we had it all wrong about these FACs”. 

     Fast-forward to my next dawn patrol and the next fighter pilot, who was the cockier of the two.  This one was full of confidence and courage.  No trembles here, or signs of fear.  As we stepped to the OV-10, he said, “All right!  Let’s aviate!”

     We launched off into a beautiful sunrise over the mountains, reveling in the still, smooth morning air.  My thoughts celebrated the wonder.  “What a great day for flying!”

     My fighter pilot pal was finally out from behind his desk, back in his element! 

     All the dancing on laughter - silvered wings was immediately forgotten, however, as soon as we approached the Trail. 

     A chilling, desperate call on the FM radio brought me abruptly back to the war.

     “Covey, Covey, Covey, do you read?”  The voice belonged to the team leader of one of our Special Forces (SOG) teams. 

     “Covey, we’re in deep trouble!”  He was winded from running.

     “This is Covey 540, what’s going on down there?”

     “We’ve been running for most of the night, we’re nearly surrounded, and we’re completely lost.”  He paused to catch his breath.

     “We’re in continues contact, we’ve got casualties, and the bad guys are everywhere!”   He was shouting.  “They’ve got us completely surrounded now, GET US OUT OF HERE!” 

     The teams normally whispered on the radio, since their survival depended on stealth.  If they were shouting, it was a sure sign that they were compromised, and in serious trouble.  This guy was yelling, and the desperation was evident in his voice.

     Only another FAC can fully appreciate how busy I became at that moment.  I had to find the team and get lots of help immediately.  While searching diligently from low altitude I was transmitting and receiving on four radios.

     On VHF: “Hillsboro, Covey 540, Prairie Fire Emergency, send fighters right now, anything you’ve got.  Rendezvous is the Dog’s Head, hurry!”

     An instantaneous flip of the transmitter selector to FM:  “Covey Alpha, alert the Prairie Fire bird, we have an emergency!” while Hillsboro responded with fighter information.

     As Covey Alpha was responding, another flick of the selector to UHF to launch the Army helicopter assets from Dak To, twenty miles east, while copying the incoming fighter lineup from Hillsboro on the canopy in grease pencil.   

     Meanwhile, the team leader was giving me urgent instructions from the sound of my engines.  “Turn right Covey, turn right!  You just went past us to the east!”

     Only during such moments is the human brain capable of assimilating so much input.  I was talking on one radio while simultaneously absorbing critical information on three others; flying on the treetops, map reading, and coordinating strategy.  

     “NOW, NOW, NOW, Covey, you just passed right over us!”

     Then the most desperate call of all came through my earphones: “Covey, here they come, they’re coming in for the kill, I’m popping smoke – strafe me –strafe my position!”   The sound of automatic weapons on rapid fire provided a chilling background to his transmission.

     Additional adrenaline pumped through my body.  My hair stood up.  The enemy could also hear the sound of my engines, and knew that big bombs would be coming soon.  They needed to overrun the team quickly, and depart.

     I tried to pop up as high as possible for a vertical strafe pass.  The OV-10 was armed with four M-60 machine guns-- hardly enough wallop to do much damage shooting at an angle through thick triple canopy jungle.  When things became serious, I preferred to shoot straight down. 

     This was serious. 

     My little airplane clawed for altitude.

     I called, “Tally your smoke.  Confirm that you want Covey to strafe your position?”

     The answer was immediate “There are more of them than us, so shoot!  Shoot!  Shoot now!”

     My little steed rotated just short of a stall at 3500 ft above the ground; just at the minimum altitude an F-100 would need for recovery in order to miss the ground.  I pulled the power to idle so that the props would act like speed brakes.  I hung in the air going straight down, firing all my guns at once. 

     My machine guns clattered like erratic snare drums. 

     The trees grew bigger in the windscreen. 

     As I kicked the rudders back and forth to spread the joy around on the ground, my over-saturated brain began to register some very strange sounds in my earphones.  Amongst the urgent radio calls, the guns clattering, and the pleading from the team, my intense mental concentration almost, but not quite blocked out a strange, unexplained sound.  What IS that?  It’s like the wail of a stricken animal!  Or from deep down in the gut of a very scaredHoly Cow!  I had completely forgotten about my cocky fighter pilot passenger!

     The trees seemed to be practically inside the windscreen. 

     I snatched the stick back and crammed the power in, slapping on five or six instantaneous gs. 

     The little OV-10’s nose snapped up and we cleared the treetops, hopefully with no green stains on the belly tank. 

     Quite a few more minutes passed before the situation on the ground stabilized and we had a chance to talk. 

     Finally, in a weak and shaky voice he said, ”I was completely sure that you were going to kill me.  I grabbed for the ejection handle but missed, because at that instant you snatched the stick and produced that heavy, instant g load.  My hand hit my crotch instead.”

     At that, my blood ran cold, my knees got weak, and I had the most frightening moment of the whole engagement.  You idiot!  You came within a split second of causing your worst nightmarean unauthorized passenger punching out of your airplane over a desperate firefight in Laos.  (Where there wasn’t even any ground war, right?)  He would have hung in his parachute in the trees, a helpless target, as well as a major impediment to the air strikes necessary for saving the team. 

     My hands trembled.  Would the force of his ejection have been enough to push me into the trees in my last-second pullout? 

     I don’t remember much about the rest of that mission.

     I do remember that neither of our fighter pilot friends ever went flying with a FAC again—or uttered another word of complaint about their non-flying desk job.

     What became of the SOG team?  Eventually another Covey FAC and the Army helicopter assets successfully extracted them with their dead and wounded.  My strafing had broken the enemy’s immediate attack, and heavy air strikes kept them at bay until the extraction. 

     Did my strafing cause any of the friendly casualties? 

     I don’t know.  I didn’t ask.     







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