The day began like many others. Hoss McBride is up early as usual. He fires up a fresh cigar and heads for the bathroom. I awake to the smell of cigar smoke. How can he smoke one of those things so early in the morning? Hoss clumps down the hall and descends the stairs to the first floor. Jungle boots make such a sweet sound on wooden floors. That is my signal to get up and dress. I am still tired from the Air America crash earlier in the week.8 The target validation fiasco with MOONBEAM last night didn’t help either. Maybe it was a new guy on the ABCCC who sent just a coordinate for validation.9 Normally the night guys are real good; it could have been a bad night for them too. I visit the bathroom for a quick shave and follow McBride down to breakfast. Mr Hai, our venerable Vietnamese cook, brings in the coffee pot so we can jump start our hearts.10 He takes our orders for eggs - a stirring motion means scrambled, a flip of the hand means fried over easy. Those were the breakfast egg choices at the Green House diner, take um or leave um.11
We hold our breakfast operations planning meeting. Discussions center on what is going on in the southern part of MR III. We are uncomfortable about not knowing what the bad guys are doing. Our concern is that they might get organized and mount a counter action to the Fa Ngum One offensive last August when Muang Phalane was retaken by a joint SGU/FAR operation.12 Another possibility is a move west along the Sé Bang Hiang (River) to the Keng Kok region, or even to the Mekong, cutting the country apart near the MR3 and MR4 boundary. We do not know.
With breakfast complete we go our separate ways. The FACs go to the base, and I drive to the morning meeting at MR3 headquarters.13 Concern at the morning meeting also centers on activities in the south. Both the FAR and CAS sources seem to agree that something strange is occurring. It concerns a multi-unit troop activity near the Sé Bang Hiang.14 Coordinates are passed. No change from yesterday. The meeting adjourns. Thankfully short for a change. Bureaucrats worldwide are the same. They can take a 30 minute meeting and cram it into hours.
Hoss will take the morning flight with a Lao observer. FAC preflight preparation is relaxed; nothing like the formal USAF briefings of our brethren across the river. There is no intelligence prebrief since the intelligence is the information from the MR3 meeting. The AIRA site did not try to maintain an enemy ground order of battle due to the tenuous stream of intelligence and our one deep level of manning. In 1968, there were no known anti-aircraft defenses in this area so there was no threat brief. Ground fire was always a possibility and everyone knew that. Radio frequencies of the air and ground contacts were already in the check list. This will be a visual reconnaissance (VR) flight with the possibility of action depending upon what is found in the target area - a typical FAC flight in MR3 at this time.
Hoss gathers up his flight gear from the Intel Shop's storage area behind the map stands. He takes his survival vest, map case, flak jacket, binoculars, AR-I5, and .38 caliber sidearm.15 The RAVENs in Savannakhet do not wear flying helmets nor did they have them. For the most part they do not wear long sleeved flying clothes like their USAF compadres. Most wear flying gloves. On his way out of the building Hoss stops to fill his canteen with fresh water from the water cooler. Usually he leaves his signature straw hat at the site for safekeeping or in his jeep which is brought back to the site from the flight line. Today, it is the site. He leaves the hat on my target validation map table just to jerk my chain because he knows that I will have to move it to use the maps underneath. This is one of the comic relief gotcha games we play.
Hoss picks up his Lao observer from the new AOC building before he goes to the flight line. Preflight of an O-1 is not exceptionally complicated; A walk around of the bird, a check of the armament (Willy Pete rockets), check the flight control surfaces, a fuel and oil check. Everything looks OK.16
Load up the aircraft. Lao observer and AR-15 in back plus other gear. Map case and binoculars in front. Put on the flak vest, climb in and readjust the front seat to the big boy position. Hoss is the biggest man flying these airplanes at L39. All Clear. Crank the engine. The little Continental engine coughs and then roars to life. Systems stabilize and instruments look good. Contact SMOKEY Control for radio checks - victor, uniform and fox mike. Radio checks acknowledged. Ground crew removes the safety pins on the rockets. The wheel chocks are pulled. Time to go.
Throttle applied, the engine responds and the Birddog begins to move.
A 180 degree turn toward the taxiway. Dust billows across the PSP as the
little bird taxis. Onto the the asphalt surface of the taxiway. The dust
stops. Side windows are open to get a little cool air in the aircraft.
Stop at the runway. Call the tower. What a joke! If the tower is manned,
and if its radio works, it serves only as a lookout for landing aircraft.
But it is an attempt at air traffic control. Little things are important
in Laos. Visual check the approaches to insure there is not incoming traffic,
regardless what you are told by the tower. This is do it yourself Air Traffic
Control. Taxi onto the runway. Heading 220. Run up, release brakes
and go. Call airborne to SMOKEY, bank left over the Air America ramp and
then head southeast following Route 11 toward Keng Kok. Soon
after getting airborne, the ever present cigar is lit. Ah! The flight departs
L39 about 0845 (0145Z). This allows for a three hour operational flight
and recovery by Noon. That schedule permits a minimum maintenance turnaround
if that aircraft is needed in the afternoon. The flight from L39 to the
target area takes about 45 to 60 minutes given Hoss is observing the road
and activity along the way. He is over the search area by about 0945 local
(0245Z). The cigar goes out and the work begins.