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Article: The Forward Air Controller in Vietnam

The Forward Air Controller in Vietnam

A poster depicting the Cessna O-1E Bird Dog in Vietnam War livery.

As a pilot myself having flown some of the civilian versions of the aircraft flown by forward air contollers in Vietnam, I can tell you that could very well have been one of the scariest missions in Vietnam!

The Job

Forward air controllers (FACs) in Vietnam flew low and slow over Vietcong forces to help American ground forces locate the enemy and engage them in battle.

The FACs were an important link between U.S. Air Force attack aircraft and Army ground forces. Most of the FAC pilots were attack fighter jet aircraft pilots who were chosen because of the knowledge of attack fighter aircraft.

When a FAC crew would spot the enemy they would mark the target area with smoke grenades or rockets allowing the attack aircraft to use their weapons without endagering the ground troops.

This allowed the attack aircraft to deliver their bombs and other weapons with maximum precision on the enemy forces while protecting the ground pounders who were only a few meters away in the jungle undergrowth.

Once the attack was over, the FAC would fly back into the area to access the damage to the enemy was successful or if more firepower was needed to finish the job.

These FACs were respected and also feared by the Vietcong. The enemy troops knew that when an FAC aircraft circuled above them that the jungle could erupt any moment from the devastating firepower at his command.

Elusive Enemy, Undefined Battle Lines, Difficult Terrain

The FAC provided both protection and offensive firepower for the ground troops who were often outnumbered when the enemy decided to attack.

The fighter and attack pilots were on aroud-the-clock alert, ready to scramble whenever the friendly troops required immediate close air support.

The Vietcong under attack by FACs and attack fighter aircraft in Vietnam.

The Aircraft

The O-1 Bird Dog built by Cessna Aircraft:

Because its mission was to search out the enemy, the 0-lE observation aircraft was named the Bird Dog. Built by Cessna, it resembled a Piper Cub in both appearance and performance. The Bird Dog was basically a civilian light plane carrying extra communications gear and four smoke rockets.

O-1 Bird Dog like the one flown by Captain Hilliard A. Wilbanks, Congressional Medal of Honor recepient


  • Wingspan: 36 feet;
  • Length:25 feet 9.5 inches;
  • Height: 7 feet 3.5 inches;
  • Seating: 2 persons in tandom;
  • Empty weight: 1,614 pounds;
  • Gross weight: 2,400 pounds'
  • Cruise speed: 104 mph at 5,000 feet;
  • Maximum speed: 151 mph at sea level;
  • Range: 530 miles;
  • Service ceiling: 18,000 feet;
  • Armament: Generally none except smoke rockets.

It's thin metal skin offered little protection against enemy ground fire. The best protection came from the skill of the pilot in manuevering the small aircraft.

The OV-10 Bronco built by North American Rockwell:

The OV-10 Bronco was modern forward air control aircraft with significant improvements over the O-1E Bird Dog. The Bonco's twin turboprop engines gave her a top speed of 280 mph, and she carried enough fuel to remain aloft for over four hours.

OV-10 Bronco similar to the one flown by Capt. Steven L. Bennett, Congressional Medal of Honor recepient.


  • Wingspan: 40 feet;
  • Length: 41 feet 7 inches;
  • Height: 15 feet 1 inch;
  • Cruising speed: 223 mph;
  • Maximum speed: 281 mph;
  • Range: 1,240 miles;
  • Service ceiling: 26,000 feet;
  • Gross weight: 14,444 pounds;
  • Armament: Four M-60C 7.62mm machine guns in fuselage, plus 3,600 lbs. of external stores;
  • Engines: Two Garrett-AiResearch T76 turboprops of 715 shaft hp each.

The OV-10 crew were protected by a bullet-resistant windscreen, armor plating, and self-sealing fuel tanks. The well designed cockpit afforded both crew members unobstructed visibility during air-to-ground operations. 

Two FAC Pilots

Without pilots these aircraft would, of course, be useless. But many talented, devoted, brave men fought in the Vietnam War, including two exceptional USAF pilots by the names of Capt. Hilliard A. Wilbanks and Capt. Steven L. Bennett.

These are their incredible stories:

Hillard Wilbanks graduated from high school in Cornelia, GA in 1950, whereupon he immediately enlisted inthe U.S. Air Force and served as a security guard during the Korean War.

He began his flying career as an aviation cadetin Laredo, Texas, winning his gold Second Lieutenant bars and the silver wings of an Air Force pilot. He first flew as an instructor pilot and then as a fighter pilot in the famous F-86 Sabre Jet. He also served as an aircraft maintenance officer in Alaska and Las Vegas, Nevada.

Following training at Hurlburt Field, near Fort Walton Beach, FL the fighter pilot became an Forward Air Controller in the Cessna O-1G aircraft.

February 24, 1967

Captain Hilliard A. Wilbanks often flew over the central highlands near Bao Lac and Di Linh. These small cities, located l 00 miles northeast of Saigon, were surrounded by a rolling, forested countryside and an occasional plantation. The tribal Montagnards or "mountain people" were the chief inhabitants of the region.

On 24 February 1967, the countryside around Di Linh was not tranquil. The 23rd South Vietnamese Ranger Battalion sought the enemy. They were not alone in the search. A small detachment of American advisers accompanied them, and Americans also patrolled the skies. US Army helicopter gunships hovered nearby while overhead a US Air Force F AC, Hilliard Wilbanks, scanned the terrain that lay before the advancing Rangers.

The Vietcong were ready. The night before they had prepared the perfect ambush site. Local tea plantation workers had been "persuaded" to help them dig foxholes and bunkers on the hills west of Di Linh. From these camouflaged positions they would wreak havoc on February 24.

Early in the day, the VC had decimated one platoon of South Vietnamese troops and hit two other companies hard from the hillside trap. American advisers had been killed, and vital communications gear had been destroyed. Radio contact, that could have warned the advancing 23rd Vietnamese Rangers of the deadly ambush, was no longer possible. As dusk approached, the trap was set again.

By 24 February, Hilliard Wilbanks had completed ten months of the one-year tour in South Vietnam. Two months remained before he could be reunited with his wife and children in the States. But once Hilliard eased the Bird Dog into the air and swung away from the dirt airstrip, there was no time for thoughts of home and family.

As evening approached, he was aloft on his 488th combat mission, contacting Army Captain R. J. Wooten, the senior American adviser with the 23rd  Vietnamese Rangers. Captain Wilbanks was also in radio contact with two helicopter gunships hovering west of Di Linh.

As the Rangers advanced slowly through the plantation, the low tea bushes offered them no protective cover. Above, Captain Wilbanks searched the familiar terrain with efficient, probing eyes trained in combat. Suddenly, he saw the trap. The enemy was hidden in camouflaged foxholes on the hillsides; the Rangers were moving toward the ambush. Captain Wooten's radio crackled with the FAC's warning  just as the hillsides erupted with enemy fire. The trap was. sprung

Later, Captain Wooten said, "My lead elements, working their way up the slope, were unaware of the VC positions just ahead until Captain Wilbanks told us. Realizing their ambush was discovered, the VC opened up on my forces and the two F AC planes above with mortars, machine guns, automatic rifles, and countless shoulder weapons. Two of my companies were pinned down and the forward elements suffered heavy casualties."

Overhead the Bird Dog banked and turned as Hilliard fired a white phosphorous rocket toward the center of the enemy fire. The marking smoke rose from the hillside, pinpointing the ambush site, and the two helicopter gunships wheeled toward the enemy, fired rapidly, and pulled away. A third chopper was hit by .SO-caliber fire, which damaged its hydraulic system. Wilbanks advised the remaining
pair of gunships to escort the crippled craft to friendly territory. A second F AC radioed that two flights of fighters were on the way. Their firepower was desperately needed.

Then Captain Wilbanks saw movement. The Vietcong had abandoned their foxholes. With bayonets and knives ready, they charged down the slope toward the badly outnumbered Rangers. There was scant hope for help from the air since the gunships had departed and the fighters would not arrive in time. The  Vietnamese and American soldiers would never forget the next few minutes.

The F AC was overhead once more. A smoke rocket exploded amidst the enemy force. The Vietcong turned their attention skyward and sent a hail of bullets toward the fleeing Bird Dog. Again Wilbanks banked his plane toward the enemy. He had their full attention now as another smoke rocket_slammed into the hillside. The Bird Dog had become the hunter! Yet another low pass followed, and again intense groundfire threatened the aircraft. Wilbanks fired another rocket, his
last. He knew it. The Rangers knew it. The enemy knew it. The FAC had done it all, risking his life to inflict casualties on the enemy and to protect the Rangers. It was time for him to pull off the target and wait for the fighters. But Hilliard  Wilbanks was not finished.

He had one threat left in the automatic rifle that he carried as a survival weapon. Now Captain Wilbanks became both a pilot and a rifleman. Pointing the 0-1 toward the enemy, he released the controls and fired his rifle from the side window. As the Bird Dog careened above the tree tops, he grabbed the controls to recover the plane and evade the enemy's fire. Now the Vietcong were off-balance and confused. The F AC reloaded another clip and attacked again. "Each pass
he was so close we could hear his plane being hit," said Captain Wooten. The second F AC tried to contact Captain Wilbanks, but there was no reply. On the third rifle-firing pass the aerial ballet ended.

A Ranger adviser, Captain Gary F. Vote, said, "He was no more than 100 feet off the ground and almost over his objective, firing his rifle. Then he began the erratic moves, first up, then down, then banking west right over my position. I thought he was wounded and looking for a friendly spot to land. I jumped up and waved my arms. But as he banked again, I could see that he was unconscious. His aircraft crashed about 100 meters away." The fallen Bird Dog came to rest in no man's land between the two forces.

Captain Wilbanks was alive when Captain Vote pulled him from the wreckage. Meanwhile, the two helicopter gunships that doubled as rescue birds returned. They fired their remaining ammunition into the enemy positions and swooped low toward the fallen Bird Dog to pick up the FAC. Four times they tried to set down in no man's land. Four times the Vietcong guns drove them off.

Under the direction of another F AC, two Phantom fighters raked the enemy with 20-millimeter cannon fire. At last a helicopter, braving the withering groundfire, picked up Hilliard Wilbanks. He died in the chopper en route to the treatment center at Bao Lac.

A photo of Captain Hilliard Almond Wilbanks, Congessional Medal of Honor recepient.




For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. 

As a forward air controller Capt. Wilbanks was pilot of an unarmed, light aircraft flying visual reconnaissance ahead of a South Vietnam Army Ranger Battalion.

His intensive search revealed a well-concealed and numerically superior hostile force poised to ambush the advancing Rangers. The Viet Cong, realizing that Capt. Wilbanks' discovery had compromised their position and ability to launch a surprise attack, immediately fired on the small aircraft with all available firepower.

The enemy then began advancing against the exposed forward elements of the ranger force which were pinned down by devastating fire. Capt. Wilbanks recognized that close support aircraft could not arrive in time to enable the rangers to withstand the advancing enemy onslaught.

With full knowledge of the limitations of his unarmed, light reconnaissance aircraft, and the great danger imposed by the enemy's vast firepower, he unhesitatingly assumed a covering, close support role.

Flying through a hail of withering fire at treetop level, Capt. Wilbanks passed directly over the advancing enemy and inflicted many casualties by firing his rifle out of the side window of his aircraft. Despite increasingly intense antiaircraft fire, Capt. Wilbanks continued to completely disregard his own safety and made repeated low passes over the enemy to divert their fire away from the rangers.

His daring tactics successfully interrupted the enemy’s advance, allowing the rangers to withdraw to safety from their perilous position. During his final courageous attack to protect the withdrawing forces, Capt. Wilbanks was mortally wounded, and his bullet-riddled aircraft crashed between the opposing forces.

Capt. Wilbanks' magnificent action saved numerous friendly personnel from certain injury or death.

His unparalleled concern for his fellow man and his extraordinary heroism were in the highest traditions of the military service, and have reflected great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.





 June 29, 1972

On 29 June, Captain Steve Bennett and his backseat observer, Captain Mike Brown, prepared for a combat mission. Mike was a Marine Corps company commander stationed in Hawaii. He had volunteered for temporary duty in Vietnam to assist Air Force F ACs in directing naval gunfire. At about 3 p.m., the Air Force-Marine team took off from Danang Air Base and headed northwest along the coast. Thirty minutes later they arrived at Quang Tri and began to circle
beneath a deck of low clouds.

For the next two hours, the OV-10 crew adjusted naval artillery from US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Mike's radioed instructions to the heavy cruiser Newport News and the destroyer R.B. Anderson, allowed the ships to pinpoint their fire against positions near Quang Tri.

It was time for Steve to turn the Bronco to the south and head for home when he learned that his relief had been delayed on the ground at Danang. A quick check of the fuel gauges confirmed what Steve already knew. He had enough gas to remain on station for another hour. Steve and Mike went back to work.

While darkness approached, Steve controlled two flights of Navy A-6 Intruder jet fighters in support of South Vietnamese ground troops. As he worked the second flight, the cloud deck caused a problem. With their maneuvering space severely limited by the low ceiling, the A-6 pilots had difficulty lining up with the target. Steve fired a second smoke rocket to make certain that the fighters would deliver
their ordnance where he wanted it. When the Intruders completed their last attack and headed seaward toward their carrier, Steve and Mike surveyed the results of the strike.

A mile to the south, a South Vietnamese platoon of about two dozen men was pinned down at a fork in a creek. Several hundred North Vietnamese Army regulars advanced along the creek bank toward their position. The enemy was supported by a heavy artillery barrage and protected by antiaircraft artillery and heat-seeking surface-to-air (SA 7) missiles. The platoon's situation was desperate when a US Marine ground artillery spotter radioed an emergency call for assistance.

Steve Bennett heard the call and responded immediately, swinging the OV-10 toward the fork in the creek. There were no fighters in the area to help. Naval gunfire would threaten the friendly troops as well as the North Vietnamese. Steve had only his skill, the Bronco's four machine guns, and 2,000 rounds of ammunition to pit against the enemy. He would have to attack at low altitude, where the hostile antiaircraft weapons were most effective. Steve radioed for permission to use his guns and got it. 

Each time the F AC dove toward the creek bank, he met heavy return fire. After his fourth strafing pass, the North Vietnamese began to pull back, leaving many of their dead and wounded behind. The Bronco had taken several small arms hits in the fuselage, but Steve decided to press the attack to prevent the enemy from regrouping. As he pulled off after the fifth pass, their luck ran out.

Neither Steve nor Mike had any warning as the SA 7 struck from behind. The OV-10 shuddered as the missile hit the left engine and exploded. Steve struggled to control the aircraft as the cockpit was bombarded with shrapnel and debris. Though the canopy was full of holes, he had not been hit. Mike had minor wounds on his hand, head, and back. Together they surveyed the crippled craft. Much of the left engine was gone, and the left landing gear, which had been retracted in a compartment behind the engine, was now hanging limply in the airstream. Worst of all, they were afire!

Steve knew he must jettison the remaining smoke rockets and the external fuel tank before the fire caused an explosion which could destroy the aircraft. He should jettison the stores immediately, but to do so would endanger the lives of the South Vietnamese Marines who were spread out between his present position and the coast. He began a race against time, heading for open water.

In the meantime, Mike had transmitted a distress message on the emergency radio channel. "May Day! May Day! This is Wolfman fourfive with Covey eight-seven. We are in the vicinity of Triple Nickel (Highway 555) and 602, heading out feet wet."

The Bronco was a handful for Steve. He consistently fought the controls to maintain straight and level flight as the remaining engine strained to bank and turn the aircraft. Unable to gain altitude, they passed just 600 feet above the beach and the American ships. Reaching open water at last, Steve jettisoned the fuel tank and rockets as he and Mike prepared to eject.

Looking over his shoulder, Mike discovered that his parachute was gone. "What I saw was a hole about a foot square from the rocket blast, and bits of my parachute shredded up and down the cargo bay," Mike says. "I told Steve I couldn't jump." Suddenly there was hope, as the flames subsided.

Quickly the F AC turned southeast down the coast. The landing strips at Phu Bai and Hue were closest, but the battered Bronco would need the foamed runway and crash equipment at Danang. As they passed the city of Hue, the fire flared again and a pilot in a chase plane confirmed that the OV-10 was dangerously close to exploding.

Realizing that they would never reach Danang and that Mike could not eject without a chute, Steve decided to ditch the Bronco by crashlanding in the water. He knew that an OV-10 pilot had never survived a ditching and that the aircraft was likely to break up in the cockpit area as it struck the water. A squadron pilot would later recall, "We talked about it a lot in pilot shop talk. Punch out or get it on dry land, or whatever you can do, but don't ditch it."

Steve eased the aircraft into a slow descent toward the water as the two captains completed their pre-ditching checklist. They touched down about one mile from a sandy beach and Mike remembers, "We dug in harder than hell." The landing gear caught in the sea before the Bronco cartwheeled and flipped over on its back.

In the submerged rear cockpit, Mike labored frantically to free himself. He unstrapped and tried to exit through the top of the canopy. Finding the way blocked, he pulled himself clear through an opening in the side and yanked the toggles to inflate his life preserver. On the surface, Mike found only the aircraft's tail section still afloat.

He swam around the tail but could not find Steve. Mike pulled himself down the tail section and back underwater, fighting to reach the front cockpit. He got only as far as the wing, and when he surfaced for the second time, the OV-10 had gone under. A few minutes later, at about 7 p.m., Mike Brown was picked up by a Navy rescue helicopter.

The next day, 30 June, Steve Bennett's body was recovered from the smashed cockpit of the submerged aircraft. He had had no chance to escape.

A photograph of Captain Steven Logan Bennett, Congressional Medal of Honor Winner.






Capt. Bennett was the pilot of a light aircraft flying an artillery adjustment mission along a heavily defended segment of route structure. A large concentration of enemy troops was massing for an attack on a friendly unit. Capt. Bennett requested tactical air support but was advised that none was available. He also requested artillery support, but this too was denied due to the close proximity of friendly troops to the target.

Capt. Bennett was determined to aid the endangered unit and elected to strafe the hostile positions. After four such passes, the enemy forces began to retreat. Capt. Bennett continued the attack, but, as he completed his fifth strafing pass, his aircraft was struck by a surface-to-air missile which severely damaged the left engine and the left main landing gear.

As fire spread in the left engine, Capt. Bennett realized that recovery at a friendly airfield was impossible. He instructed his observer to prepare for ejection, but was informed by the observer that his parachute had been shredded by the force of the impacting missile.

Although Capt. Bennett had a good parachute, he knew that if he ejected, the observer would have no chance of survival. With complete disregard for his own life, Capt. Bennett elected to ditch the aircraft into the Gulf of Tonkin, even though he realized that a pilot of this type aircraft had never survived a ditching.

The ensuing impact upon the water caused the aircraft to cartwheel and severely damage the front cockpit, making escape for Capt. Bennett impossible.

The observer successfully made his way out of the aircraft and was rescued.

Capt. Bennett's unparalleled concern for his companion, extraordinary heroism, and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty, at the cost of his life, were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.

I hope you enjoyed this trip through some of the history of aviation. If you enjoyed this trip, and are new to this newsletter, sign up to receive your own weekly newsletter here: Subscribe here!

Until next time, keep your eyes safe and focused on what's ahead of you, Hersch!


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