Blind Bat, Yellowbirds, Willy the Whale, the "Night Intruders" on Uncle Ho's trail
July 13, 2005
Blindbat in her FAC role, a few "war stories"
As we have indicated in the previous sections, C-130A Blindbat crews played an important role in the forward air controller (FAC) business in Vietnam. This too is a significant and little known mission.
What is a FAC? The best definition we have seen was written by Jan Churchill, in the book, Hit my smoke. He said, this:
"(The FAC was the) hub around which the delivery of all in-country ordnance is dependent."
FACs in Vietnam were rated pilots whose job it was to coordinate air-ground operations. FACs could be ground-based with the troops they were supporting, or airborne above the battlefield.
The three principal aircraft used by airborne FACs. Photo entitled, "These are the aircraft we flew," presented by the FAC Association.
For most of the war in Southeast Asia, three principal aircraft were used by FACs. All three are shown in the photo above:
- Cessna O-1 “Bird Dog” (lower center)
- Cessna O-2 “Skyraider" (upper right)
- North American OV-10 “Bronco" (upper left).
Each of these aircraft was small, low speed, highly maneuverable, and had the long endurance required for locating and maintaining visual contact with targets on the battlefield. Each also possessed the short, unimproved airfield operating capability needed to live close to the Army. They were also armed, limited, but armed. Each FAC aircraft was equipped with several different radios to coordinate with all the players in the air-ground battle.
An F-4C of the 391st TFW, 12th TFW, out of Cam Ranh Bay, dramatically rolls in on a target in the wooded hills of Vietnam in the late 1960s. No doubt, his attack is being coordinated with a FAC. Photo presented by Boeing.
A web site at Georgia Tech University described the FAC's role this way:
"During the Vietnam War, when a forward air controller (FAC) was directing an airstrike and had briefed the fighter aircraft, and all participants had identified the target and the location of friendly forces, the FAC issued this clearance to strike the target ... You're cleared hot."
The low performance O-1 and O-2 worked reasonably well during most of the Vietnam War when the threat consisted primarily of small arms and light machine guns. Later in the war the threat increased with the introduction of larger caliber guns, radar controlled guns, and man-portable surface-to-air missiles. These defenses increased because North Vietnamese infiltration of the South had increased over time. The bad news about these intense defenses for the North Vietnamese was that their presence gave away their critical targets on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and elsewhere. As a result, the higher speed OV-10 became the aircraft of choice.
37th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) F-100F "Fast FAC" parked at home base, Phu Cat, Vietnam. The F-100F was used in this role from about June 1967 through May 1969. This is a two-seat version of the F-100, designed as a trainer. In its FAC role, it normally used two pilots, one in the front to fly, the other in the back to fulfill the FAC role. Presented by Lackland AFB, Texas.
In higher threat areas in Laos and southern North Vietnam, jet aircraft, the two-seat F-100F Super Sabres, call sign "Misty," and later the F-4 Phantom II, call sign "Wolf ," were used as fast FACs to direct air strikes against trucks and other targets of opportunity. F-4 Fast FACs also flew out of Danang, "Stormy" and "Gunsmoke."
This is "Chico the Gunfighter," F-4E-37-MC 68-0339 at the Danang arm-dearm area prior to her special Fast FAC mission. The 366 TFW Commander, Col. George W. Rutter, is aboard. Presented by "Chico's Story."
One of the more well known F-4 FACs out of Danang was F4-E 68-0339 of the 421st TFS, 366th TFW, nicknamed "Chico the Gunfighter." Chico was a single aircraft selected in 1972 to be a free-roaming and heavily armed strike-reconnaissance aircraft. Chico was allowed to roam around by herself, unescorted, and take care of the business her crew found. By contrast, Stormy and Gunsmoke would often fly as a strike lead, flying with a heavily armed F-4 on her wing waiting to attack what her Fast FAC F-4 lead found.
The stories of daring, consummate courage, and bravery that accompany the men who flew all these machines as FACs are among the most spine chilling that can be told. Army troops on the ground, aircraft crewmembers who found themselves on the ground in enemy territory, and attack aircraft and artillery crews will tell you that these FACs were and are among the most noble and gallant of our warfighters.
You have now been introduced to a variety of aircraft employed in the FAC role. Little has been written about the C-130A Blindbat in her FAC role. Perhaps the easiest way to tell you about the Blindbat FAC is to relate a few war stories provided us by Blindbat crews.
On September 10, 1969, a Blindbat crew was scheduled to conduct a night flare and FAC mission over Laos. The aircraft commander was Major George Nadler. It was tasked to search for targets, arrange for aircraft to attack these targets, direct the attack aircraft to the target, and light up the target with flares for the final attack run. The crew launched at 2330 hours (11:30 PM) with weather forecast to be good in the target area, but with thunderstorms on their way.
While proceeding to the target area, number three propeller began to malfunction. The flight engineer, Sgt. Lee, followed standard corrective procedures to control the malfunction, but reported the propeller operating beyond normal limits. The propeller was overspeeding or turning too fast, and could become a runaway propeller, meaning the revolutions per minute (rpm) might accelerate at a rate the pilot could not control.
You are looking into the cockpit of an actual Blindbat C-130A, over the shoulder of the flight engineer. The flight engineer sits to the rear of, and in between the pilot and co-pilot. If you look carefully in the yellow box, you will see two red lights on. These are located on the T-handle for Number 2 engine (of four). That they are lit indicates a fire in the engine. This is not exactly what happened on the mission we are presently describing, but we wanted you to get a feel for the indicators in the cockpit. Photo credit: Bill Tkacs, CMSGT, USAF (Ret.)
Major Nadler began air abort procedures and requested a heading back to home base. His co-pilot, Capt. Mims, was communicating about the target area with the Airborne Command and Control Center (ABCCC), also a C-130 with a command module and command and control operators inside. The ABCCC understood Blindbat's propeller issue but advised that friendly troops were engaged in the target area and had an urgent need for a flare drop or risked being overrun. Remember, all this is happening at night.
Based on that report, Nadler changed his mind, instructed Sgt. Lee to keep number three engine operating as long as possible, and advised the crew they were going to the target area to assist the troops in contact. While all this was going on, the cockpit crew discussed that they might have to feather number three engine.
This is an actual Blindbat combat mission photo of the number 2 engine "feathered," or shut down. One of the Air Force's design requirements for the C-130 was that it had to be able to fly fully loaded with one engine out. Lockheed's design engineers were most worried about meeting this requirement, given the loads the aircraft could carry. In the story we are telling here, the pilot did not have to shut his number three engine down, but we wanted to show you that it does happen, and what it looks like. Photo credit: Bill Tkacs, CMSGT, USAF (Ret.)
Feathering an engine basically means shutting it down, but the propeller needs to be shut down so that the blades are at a pitch where they will impose minimum drag while the aircraft continues flying with the other engines. Complicating all this, thunderstorms were now showing on the aircraft's radar.
C-130 (model unknown) navigator position. The navigator sits on the right side of the aircraft, directly behind the co-pilot. This photo was taken by wbread99, who was a guest on a short flight from Spangdahlem to Ramstein, Germany. Presented on webshots.com
The navigator, Major Parks, worked with the pilots to fly around the thunderstorms as best they could and still get to the target area with dispatch. The co-pilot then contacted the troops fighting on the ground.
This is Bunker 051 at Tan son Nhut Air Base, outside Saigon on January 31, 1968. Commencing at 0320 hours, the bunker was struck by an intensive barrage of mortar, artillery and rocket fire as North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong guerrillas prepared to launch a massive assault against the air base. We show this photo to give you a sense for what it is like on the ground when all hell breaks loose. Presented by the USAF Security Police Association.
Enemy incoming artillery targeted against US facility. Presented by 29th Field Artillery Photo's from Vietnam
The ground forces reported enemy approaching from all sides, within 50 meters on one side. In addition, they reported heavy casualties, dead and wounded, and requested flare light immediately. The ground troops provided their exact location, the navigator pointed the aircraft in that direction, and the pilot took the aircraft down to minimum allowable altitude to maximize the effects of the flare drop.
Then the autopilot malfunctioned, which complicated the need to maintain an almost continuous bank required to lay down a good pattern of flares. The flight engineer continued working with his controls to keep number three engine operating.
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.
Blindbat arrived over the target area and the extensive ground fire was clearly visible. Blindbat was sufficiently low to see mortar rounds coming at friendly positions.
Without delay, the loadmasters, Sergeants Jacoby, Izzo, and Taylor did a flare run, loading and launching the flares, illuminating the sky. That's what the guys on the ground wanted, but it gave away Blindbat's position and track, and enemy forces opened fire on her. The air crew now put their aircraft into a continuous flare pattern, turning the night on the ground into daylight.
This is a combat photo of a Blindbat mission taking 37 mm anti-aircraft fire from enemy forces on the ground. What you see are tracers, which the enemy uses to get a sense for its direction of fire. Photo credit: Bill Tkacs, CMSGT, USAF (Ret.)
While it did not happen on the mission we are describing, these are photos of Blindbat battle damage after being struck by 37 mm anti-aircraft fire from enemy forces on the ground. Just wanted to be sure you knew 37 mm is nothing to sneeze at. Also wanted to show you that the C-130 is a durable workhorse, and could take a beating and still fly. Photo credit: Bill Tkacs, CMSGT, USAF (Ret.)
The Blindbat was unarmed, so it had to depend on Lady Luck, success of the ground forces in occupying the enemy's attention, and some flying skill to avoid getting shot down.
"Moonbeam" ABCCC capsule
The ABCCC advised that fighter bomber aircraft were on the way. But then another malfunction struck, this time with the flare launcher in the back of the aircraft. A flare malfunctioned, was hung up in the launch tube, and its timing mechanism had been activated, meaning it would go off automatically at a prescribed time. One of the loadmasters, Sgt. Jacoby, reached into the tube, dislodged the tangled lanyard, and the flare released out of the aircraft to do its job. Despite this malfunction, the crew kept loading the tubes and maintained the continuous flare pattern coverage without missing a step, all while under hostile fire.
This is a photo taken in 1971 by Captain Al Andzik at a place known as Landing Zone (LZ) Vandergrift. We have adjusted the darkness and contrast of the photo to show what a night bombing raid might look like. Presented by 1-82 Field Artillery Veterans.
Attack aircraft arrived, and between the troops on the ground and the Blindbat, these were directed to their targets. The Blindbat crew kept the night alight with flares for two and one half hours while the attack aircraft did their job on the enemy forces surrounding the friendlies. Finally, the friendly ground force was able to drive off the enemy force and break the attack.
The C-130 flareship remained on the scene for five hours total and dropped 200 flares. The terrain demanded the pilots keep their aircraft above 10,000 feet, the crew was not on oxygen, so the air was thin. In addition, the nearly continuous banking stressed the flare crews with sufficient “G” forces to tire them out, and the flares grew heavy.
An H-34 from HMM-361 sits in a LZ awaiting the boarding of wounded Marines. The picture was taken in early 1967. Presented by USMC/Combat Helicopter Association.
The aircraft returned home safely, as did the fighter aircraft, and the ground force was able to regroup, take care of its wounded, and get rescue aircraft into the area to pick up the wounded and dead, similar to what is shown in the previous photo.
Blindbat C-130A in the foreground, with a F-100 parked nearby. That F-100 was shot down the evening this photo was taken. Photo credit: Bill Tkacs, CMSGT, USAF (Ret.)
A call came in to Blindbat requesting help in trying to save the special operations team trapped on the side of a mountain. The team was under hostile attack. The team was fighting back, but several were wounded and the enemy was closing in.
This is a photo taken by one of HML-367s "Scarface Hover Cover" UH-1E Huey Gunship crewmembers as they were picking up a six man U.S. Army "Special Operations Group (SOG)" team from Laos and returning them home to Phu Bai, Vietnam. Note one SOG member in the upper yellow box, and at least two in the lower left box. There might be more we cannot see. Helicopter crews always said these SOG guys were hard to find, they were so well camouflaged. Sometimes the helicopter crew didn't see the SOG member until he was about ready to jump on the helicopter or grab the line. Presented by USMC/Combat Helicopter Association.
The team had only eight men. One among the team, if caught, could have caused diplomatic problems for the US. Blindbat was told that the team had to be extracted The Blindbat crew hooked up with two Army helicopters and they came up with an impromptu plan on how best to retrieve the special operations team.
The tactic called for the Army pilots to put together two, one hundred foot ropes and dangle them below their helicopters. Blindbat would then launch flares over the side of the mountain, the Army pilot would drop down and pick up one man, and then dash to the valley about four miles away. Blindbat would then race to the valley location and light up the ground below the helicopter. Since the man on the end of the rope was 200 feet below the helicopter, it was vital that the Army pilot was able to see the ground, so he didn't descend too fast and kill the man he was trying to rescue. Blindbat's flares burned for two and one half minutes, so it was necessary to dash back to the mountain before the last flare went out. The helicopter pilot back at the mountain needed constant light to hold his position and not clip trees sticking up beside him. Hovering next to trees in the daylight is hard enough, and becomes extremely difficult at night. Blindbat had to keep the mountain lit up all the time, or the hovering helicopter would surely crash. If the area went dark, then the Army pilots would not know where they were in relationship to the trees, and, since they were hauling a special operations troop at the end of the 200 foot rope, the pilots could not just lift upward and leave.
So what the two aircraft ended up creating was a choreographed dance that demanded perfect timing. The helicopter would hover off to the side, waiting for Blindbat to light up the mountain side. Then the helo would dash to the target, drop the 200 foot line, wait for a trooper on the ground to grab it, and then lift off to clear the trees and make an escape to the nearby valley. The Blindbat would follow, light up the valley so the helo crew could set the troop at the end of the line safely on the ground, and then they both had to scurry back to the mountain, with the Blindbat once again lighting up the side of the mountain. That round trip had to be done in a couple of minutes. The concept worked, everyone involved did their job, and the special forces team was extracted.
The Blindbat crew did all this work flying at 4,000 ft. and 140 knots. Each time the Blindbat turned at the valley to return to the mountain, the enemy broke loose everything it had trying to shoot the C-130 down. Blindbat was painted black, which helped. But by flaring in two places in close proximity, the aircraft was visible to the naked eye each time it turned over the valley. An enemy 37 mm gun would have taken the aircraft down early on. Incredibly, Blindbat made eight passes over the same route, giving the enemy eight chances to shoot her down. How the enemy missed shooting the aircraft down is a miracle. What is not a miracle is that Major Nadler and his crew risked their lives flying slowly, unarmed, in a large aircraft with a kind of courage matched by few.
What makes this rescue effort special is that three Navy SEAL teams were positioned in the area and waiting for the next day. Had the rescue not been accomplished, they were going in to try to save the Rangers. Major Nadler would one day run into one of the SEALs prepared to go in. His name was Johonni Patton, SEAL Team 1. Patton remarked that he saw Nadler’s C-130 doing its thing and taking heavy hostile fire. He told Nadler he was amazed the C-130 was not shot down. Even the SEAL teams, hidden in the foliage, could see what was happening because of the refracted light from the flares. Thankfully, because of Blindbat’s steadfastness, the 21 Navy SEALs did not have to go in and risk their lives. They lived on to fight another day in another battle.
This next mission, flown in January 1970, demonstrates the persistent need for close coordination in a “business-like” way when under intense hostile fire. It is worth noting that for many, perhaps even most missions, the Blindbat crews did not know exactly what they would have to do that evening until they checked in with the ABCCC for instructions. They understood their mission area, but the details depended on the action on the ground at the time. On this night, the Blindbat was directed to conduct visual reconnaissance of a major enemy infiltration route. That was not going to be easy because the weather in the area was marginal at best. But by this time, Blindbats carried night observation device (NOD) gear and could get a good bit of visual night reconnaissance done even in lousy weather.
The crew understood the route structure in the assigned area, so the NOD operator began looking for targets. He spotted six hostile trucks moving toward friendly positions. That's the good news. The bad news is these trucks were operating in an area heavily defended by some pretty good enemy anti-aircraft artillery positions, AAA, known popularly as triple-A or just “guns.” The really bad guns were the ones that used radar to find their targets as opposed to employing visual sighting.
This daylight picture shows some of 130 trucks photographed on February 9, 1967 just north of the border with Laos in the Mu Gia Pass on the Ho Chi Minh trail. In the mission we are describing, there were six trucks on a trail like this, and using the NOD, Blindbat found them, at night. Photo presented by Jimmie Butler.
The aircraft commander, knowing that his crew had spotted the trucks, decided to head into the area, mark the moving targets, and call in fighters to attack the trucks. Just as Blindbat set up her orbit area and began marking the targets, the AAA opened up. The NOD operator had his targets in sight and began directing in attack aircraft. The Blindbat crew had to lay down the flare markers as close to the target as possible, describe the setting to the incoming fighters, and help lead them to their target.
The AAA intensified, so the C-130, having put down its flare markers, withdrew for a moment.
A pair of A-1Hs from the 1st Special Operations Squadron (SOS) "Hobos," tail numbers 134-472 and 134-609, on their way in. Remember, these guys on our mission did this at night, against that kind of jungle canopy, with the Blindbats flaring and directing traffic. Photo contributed by Rob Mignard, presented by Skyraider.org.
The strike fighters, in this case A-1s, started arriving, so Blindbat went back into the area and briefed the A-1s on exactly where the targets were. In the mean time, the flight engineer positioned himself so he could watch his engine instruments and help the pilots locate the AAA positions, which were now letting loose everything they had to try to bring down the C-130. The loadmasters held position in the rear of the aircraft, helping to identify the gun positions and ready to launch flares as required.
As the A-1s did their attack runs, the Blindbat crew also helped them adjust their aiming points. The attack lasted about an hour. Six trucks were struck, there were two secondary fires, three secondary explosions, and two 23mm AAA guns were put out of business. Three of the trucks were destroyed and the area fell silent. Together the Blindbat crew counted over 1,000 rounds of AAA fire from five gun positions.
The demand for coordination intensified on this next mission. Blindbat was once again directed to proceed to a general target area for a night flare FAC mission over Laos. On arriving in the briefed target area, she was instructed to assist a friendly outpost that was under attack by enemy forces. As luck would have it, Blindbat lost all its navigation radios, so the radar navigator used precise dead reckoning procedures to guide the aircraft to the besieged outpost.
The outpost was an important defensive and supply position for friendly forces. Flare illumination was requested. The terrain was very mountainous and the winds were high, increasing the degree of difficulty in accurately dropping flares. The radar navigator studied the area, did his calculations, and briefed the crew on terrain, wind conditions, and recommended flare drop headings. The aircraft commander focused on placing the aircraft in the desired positions, the co-pilot called in gunships and fighter aircraft, and the loadmasters, who had to work in black out conditions, readied their flares and launchers.
The battle on the ground intensified, and out popped 23mm and 14.5 mm AAA guns that tried to keep the C-130 away from the area. Blindbat had to orbit a precise area in order to accurately drop its flares, and with each orbit the AAA guns became more and more accurate. As a result, while orbiting, the C-130 would have to make multiple defensive maneuvers and then get back on the desired orbit track.
View of an AC-47 mini-gun firing at twilight in Vietnam. Presented by 1stCavmedic.com
An AC-47 “Spooky” gunship, also known as "Puff the Magic Dragon," arrived on station and Blindbat kept the area fully illuminated so the gunship could send its wrath to enemy forces on the ground. AAA rounds kept coming up. The NOD operator coordinated the target's exact position with the pilots and navigator, together they set up target briefings and set initial strike headings. The aircraft commander then briefed Spooky on recommended attack tactics and coordinated the final ground marker headings to the target. Remember, the C-130 is unarmed, and was out there marking AAA gun positions that were shooting at it. AAA fire intensified even more.
As usual, the flight engineer's job was to watch all the fuel and engine instruments to assure the airplane was working properly and simultaneously alert the pilot crew to AAA tracers on their way up. The co-pilot kept his eyes focused on the target, helped keep the aircraft lined up, and coordinated drop warnings and aircraft turns with other crew members.
The loadmasters would spot the AAA locations, notify the pilots, and then drop ground markers whenever the AAA was observed directly below the aircraft. The ground markers provided superb reference points for the incoming strike aircraft. The aircraft commander briefed Spooky on the locations of enemy fire and Spooky laid down her fire.
Time delay photo of a night time fire mission of an AC-47 around Saigon. You get the idea. The red lines are tracer rounds and there are 5 bullets between each tracer round. Presented by 1stCavmedic.com
Blindbat could see that the friendly garrison was being hit with mortars and fires were breaking out. Then, Blindbat lost communications with the garrison. Once reestablished, Blindbat learned that the garrison evacuated its position and large quantities of its supplies and ammunition were now under hostile control. At that point, the aircraft commander directed his crew to mark the stock of munitions and supplies. Spooky directed his fire at the markers and pulled off the target area when he ran out of ammunition. But he had done his job, because the entire area was on fire with hundreds of fuel barrels exploding. The friendly forces, under constant attack, made their way away from the area.
A second AC-47 Spooky showed up to join the battle. Blindbat briefed him. The friendly force on the ground directed Spooky's fire at a gully near the field. Enemy forces were massing there, preparing for a final attack on the retreating friendly forces. Spooky took care of them in short order. Blindbat got some F-4s assigned to the battle and brought them in to completely destroy the area, which they did, leaving behind hundreds of secondary explosions that continued for hours. Blindbat and both Spooky gunships endured many hundreds of rounds of AAA fire, Blindbat counting over 675 rounds.
Illuminating the night with flares became a very important business in the war. Blindbats saved hundreds of lives by turning night into day, when outposts were being overrun. Large amounts of enemy ammunition and equipment, antiaircraft guns, and trucks were destroyed each night. When pilots were shot down, Blindbats, due to their extensive time on station, played a major role in locating them. By making many passes over a downed pilot the onboard radar could get an exact fix on the pilot's location. Many rescues were completed due to this vital information. If not for this, rescue aircraft would have had to hunt for the downed pilot, subjecting them to added risks. Since one plane had already been shot down in the area, the antiaircraft fire was usually hot and heavy and hundreds of rounds being shot at the Blindbat aircraft was not uncommon.
The next section describes one man's recollection of the loss of Blind Bat 01, by Harold W. Lowe, former Blindbat pilot, known to his friends as "Smokey".