To some, the Southeast Asia War was a single conflict; in truth, the war had many facets. Most historians agree that the "Air War" had four major subdivisions: The strategic and interdiction war over North Vietnam; the war of interdiction and close air support over South Vietnam; the war of interdiction throughout the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam and in central and southern Laos and Cambodia; and, the other war of interdiction and close air support war fought in support of the people of Laos.
USAF Forward Air Controllers controlled the air war in Laos with unique rules of engagement and a totally different command and control structure than that found anywhere else in Southeast Asia. Beginning in 1965, Air Commando volunteers, in Temporary Duty status, or TDY, worked with the CIA and CIA contracted pilots and aircrews to train and assist the Laotian Army and Air Force in the use and control of tactical airpower. These Air Commando, Combat Controllers used the call sign Butterfly and were deployed to strategic locations in Laos. In 1966, General Momyer, the new 7th Air Force Commander, discovered the truth, that enlisted Combat Controllers were controlling USAF jet fighters. He insisted that USAF FAC pilots replace the Combat Controllers, thus the Ravens replaced the Butterflies in the same role.
Officially, no US combatants were in neutral Laos, in accordance with the 1962 Geneva Accords. Officially then, the Butterflies and Ravens didn't exist. In fact, they wore civilian clothes and carried no identification as US servicemen. There is very little, if any, ‘Official’ written history of the Butterflies and Ravens. With permission, the following description of the Ravens is taken from the un-official Raven Website Home Page.
"During the course of American history, there have been many covert military operations. None, however, reached the scope or intensity of the war in Laos during the Viet Nam era. The backbone of this war were the Ravens-Forward Air Controllers (FACs) who flew small, slow propeller driven airplanes. The mission of the Ravens was to support indigenous forces in Laos in their fight against invading forces from North Vietnam.
The Ravens were all volunteers who had previous experience as FACs in South Viet Nam. Due to international treaties, the Ravens were "divorced" from the USAF. They wore only civilian clothes, and operated out of generally small fields at different sites in the Kingdom of Laos. They had cover stories to explain their presence in Laos, but I don't think anyone believed the stories other than USAF headquarters types. Most Ravens knew little or nothing about what they were volunteering for, other than it was classified, exciting, and was far removed from the bureaucratic battles and political rules of engagement in Viet Nam.
The Ravens used three different airplanes to accomplish their mission: the small, light 0-1 observation aircraft, armed only with white phosphorous smoke rockets; the heavier, slightly faster U-17 (Cessna 185), with the same armament, but longer range and loiter time. Some Ravens got to check out in the "Cadillac"-the T-28. This was heaven for a Raven, bombs, napalm, high explosive rockets, and 50 caliber machine guns for strafe. Now, you didn't have to wait for jets when you had a fast-moving target. The common denominator was that they all flew low, slow, and were highly vulnerable to ground fire.
The missions were as varied as the personalities of the Ravens. Some carried a "backseater"-a local who translated, talked to ground troops, and helped locate targets. Others were essentially deep interdiction missions-aimed at stemming the flow of troops and supplies into this ‘neutral’ country. Some were basic visual reconnaissance looking for targets. Many were "troops in contact"-providing life-saving tactical air strikes in support of ground troops being fired upon."