Talking Proud --- Military

The O-1 "Bird Dog," the toughest dog in the fight, "our little flivver"

March 26, 2006

The Bird Dog in the Vietnam-Laos Wars

Capt. Jimmy N. Coffman, USA, 183rd Recon Aircraft Company (RAC): Stephen Maxner interviewed former Army Captain Coffman for the Texas Tech University Vietnam Archive Oral History Project on June 16, 2000. In reading the text, Coffman provides some down-to-earth insights about multiple facets of flying the Bird Dog. It's fun to read and we commend it to you.

Capt Jimmy N. Coffman graduated in 1966 from Oklahoma State University earning a BA in political science. He was a four-year ROTC graduate. He thought about going to law school, which a lot of men his age did during those years, to avoid service, but instead went on active duty, infantry. He did basic combat arms training, infantry basic, ranger school, served in Germany, went to flight school and was in fixed wings in Vietnam by August 1968.

Let's first show you the fixed-wing aircraft he flew in flight training and then in Vietnam.

His flight training at Ft. Stewart started with the Cessna 172 for basic flight training. Note it is a tricycle configuration on the wheels.

Cessna 172 military version used for flight training, called the T-41 Mescalero. Presented by wikipedia

He then moved to the T-42 Cochise (he called it the Baron) for instrument training. Note this is also a tricycle, with retractable landing gears.

T-42 Cochise military version for instrument flight training. Presented by wikipedia.

They then went to tactics training using the O-1 Bird Dog. The Dawg was their first exposure to a tail dragger vice the tricycle configuration. The wheels are on struts.

Cessna L-19 Bird Dog for tactics training. Presented by wikipedia.

He then went to OV-1 Mohawk transition because that is what he was going to fly in Vietnam. She could carry a three-man crew, and fly 305 mph to 25,000 ft with two turboprops. So Coffman ended up in a super-charged aircraft.

OV-1 Mohawk, designed for battlefield surveillance, employing visual and photo-reconnaissance, side-looking airborne radar and infrared systems. Presented by wikipedia.

He started his tour in Vietnam flying the Mohawk, but had to punch out, causing him to hurt his back. He was then switched to the O-1 and assigned to the 183rd RAC out of Phan Thiet and then Nha Trang. So much for having a super-charged bird.

Coffman was on orders to train to fly the C-7 Caribou, but the C-7 was transferred to the USAF as part of a contest about who should fly fixed wing aircraft. Displaying some frustration, he noted that just after the USAF took the Caribou, it made a rule that USAF pilots could not land on anything less than 3,500 ft. As a result, there were whole bunch of Army guys previously served by Army C-7s who were now stranded. He said that he frequently used his Dawg to drop off mail, supplies and coca-colas.

During his time with the O-1, he encountered mostly small arms, 20 mm, 50 caliber, "nothing sophisticated." Speaking for himself, he said that he was shot down several times, but he was always in an area where there was intense airpower on the scene, and he was picked up almost immediately every time. He did have to spend a few hours in the jungle, had 60 rounds for his M-1 carbine, and decided that if approached by enemy, he was going to have a shoot-out. He feared capture and the torture that went with it more than dying by gunfire.

His missions included supporting MACV outposts threatened by being overrun, the 101st Airborne Division, and "a lot of Vietnamese Army." When supporting the latter, he'd carry a Vietnamese in the back seat. The 101st would supply him with an observer when flying for it. He also worked with the South Koreans and South Vietnamese Bird Dog pilots.

We noted in our walk-around that the O-1 was primarily a daylight FAC, but, as we have said in other sections, Coffman tells of flying plenty of night missions.

This is a photo of an Army Bird Dog landing at Khe Sanh in August 1966 to work with some Army special forces. He landed, briefed with the special forces, and accompanied the insertion force in. Presented by popasmoke

Asked how he approached night flying with the Dawg, Coffman responded, "Very carefully."

Night strike over Vietnam, from "Of planes and men, US Air Force wages cold war and hot," by Kenneth F. Weaver, photographers Emory Kristoff and Albert Moldvay, National Geographic, September 1965 edition.

In commenting further, Coffman said most of his night flying occurred at places where there was considerable fighting, so there was already a lot of light, mostly from flares, but also explosions and tracer fire. A big challenge was to stay out of the way, given the Dawg's low altitude.

MACV Team 21 Compound Pleiku, Vietnam May 1969. Photo credit: Thomas M. Zangla, Spc 5, 525th Military Intelligence Group

For example, AC-47 gunships would be firing, explosions occurred sending up a lot of shrapnel and fire, flares were parachuting down and fighters, sometimes high altitude bombers, were all unloading their wares.

Xenon searchlight illuminating "the wire." Photo: 15th webmaster. Presented by 15th Artillery Regiment

Coffman said he would operate at about 800-1,000 ft, mostly looking for enemy approaching the wire of the compound under siege At that altitude, with all this other stuff going on, the FAC could spot the enemy and mark them with his rockets. He was really taking a chance doing this because of all the fire coming down and going up.

Coffman was very happy with the maintenance his O-1 got. He said they got people to do the work at platoon level, instead of from the company. The platoon guys could handle the job because the aircraft was easy to maintain.

Coffman's day usually started at about 4:30 - 5:00 am and ended at dark. The standby pilots got the night flights, and standby duty rotated amongst them all. He'd usually fly anywhere from eight to 16 hours per day. They had rules where you had to see the flight surgeon if you topped certain hour milestones, like 90, 120, 150 and 175, but they normally were approved to keep flying.

Training pilots to transition to the Bird Dog was hard. The trainer sits low in the back seat while the student sits high in the front seat, so the trainer cannot really see out the front. He said the instructor was at a disadvantage, and it was like rolling the dice. The brakes in the back were not very good, so the student was really in full control of those. Coffman said:

"The only way you could control the student was to reach up on his harness and choke him to death to get him off the controls sometimes. You didn’t have anything to hit him with, which I would have liked to have had a club, but if he wouldn’t listen to you, if he’d get locked on the brakes and we were going in strips out there, the Bird Dogs, after we taught them to land, we were going in strips with 200 foot pine trees around so once you descend below…I mean, you’re landing on a little narrow sliver of road or something like that. There’s not any room for error."
Coffman complained that helicopter pilots were especially hard to train. For starters, many of them had already flown in Vietnam and were not easy to train just because of that. But from a technical standpoint, Coffman says they did not pay enough attention to air speed, because in a helo they really did not have to. They tended to let their air speed fall too low, to stall levels. If you yelled at them to give her some power, they would jam the throttle and then would start to flare at 100 ft. Coffman would then have to order him to go around.

Go to Capt. Ray Caryl