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The Cessna 0-1F "Bird Dog", the usual plane of the Ravens.

The Raven Forward Air Controllers, also known as The Ravens, were fighter pilots used in a covert operation in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States in Laos during America's Vietnam War. The Ravens provided direction for most of the air strikes against communist Pathet Lao targets and People's Army of Vietnam's infiltrators in support of the Laotian Hmong militias.[1]

Contents

Background

In 1962, the United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam signed the Geneva Accords guaranteeing the neutrality of the Kingdom of Laos. One of the provisions of the Accords called for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Laotian soil except for a small contingent of French advisors to the Royal Lao Army. North Vietnam had troops still remaining in Laos from the end of the French Indochina War. The United States had a small number of advisors, which it withdrew from the country.

The North Vietnamese deliberately ignored the Accords because they were intent on keeping their supply corridor, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to continue their war against South Vietnam. North Vietnam's representatives repeatedly stated they had "no military presence in Laos", even though the fact was that they had numerous troops stationed in two Laotian provinces, Sam Neua, a Pathet Lao stronghold at the time, and Phong Saly, as well along the Laotian Annamite Cordillera.

Prince Souvanna Phouma, the Prime Minister of Laos, asked for American help to counteract the North Vietnamese. To avoid the appearance of unilaterally violating the Accords, U. S. President John F. Kennedy directed the United States Air Force to perform covert operations in Laos to help the Lao fight the North Vietnamese communists.[2]

USAF Covert Operations

The U. S. Air Force originally forwarded four sergeants from Combat Control Teams in 1963. These sergeants turned in their uniforms and military identification and were supplied with false identification so they could work in civilian clothing. This process, known as "sheepdipping", was designed to preserve the fiction of American non-involvement.

A successor operation, code-named Palace Dog, replaced this original Butterfly effort in 1966. Palace Dog consisted of Project 404 and Raven FACs. The Ravens were airborne fighter pilots in unarmed light aircraft who flew observation missions, marked enemy targets with smoke rockets, directed air strikes onto them, and observed and reported bomb damage assessment post strike. Project 404 were the support personnel for the Ravens. All the Palace Dog men were sheepdipped.

Recruiting for the Ravens began when Air Force personnel checked into their original assignments in Vietnam. Forward air controllers, beginning a tour in SouthEast Asia, were told as part of their orientation briefing that halfway through their year's tour of duty in Vietnam, they were eligible to volunteer for special duty via the Steve Canyon Program. Those who did volunteer via this program did so with no knowledge of their destination. After screening, they received temporary duty orders, usually to Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand. From there, they were forwarded to the American Embassy, Vientiane, Laos. There they were supplied with identification stating they were employees of the United States Agency for International Development. The screening system tended to select experienced Forward Air Controllers who were the most aggressive available pilots, as well the least amenable to being restricted by regulation.

The Ravens belonged only tangentially to the U. S. Air Force. They performed their duties under direction of the Air Attaché; the Air Attaché in turn reported to the Ambassador. The Air Force kept the Ravens' records and paid them, but had no operational control over them. The situation was one that offended the Air Force; in many cases, the individual Raven received poor ratings and suffered retarded promotions because of his participation in the program.[3]

Raven Duties

The Ravens flew either O-1 Bird Dogs, Cessna U-17s, or T-28 Trojans. Only the T-28 could carry any armament other than smoke rockets. Only the T-28 had any armoring protecting the pilot.

The Ravens' job often entailed flying visual reconnaissance, often at treetop level. Often they only spotted the enemy by the muzzle flashes of guns firing at them. Other times, the Lao observer, riding with the Raven, would contact Lao ground units for information on the enemy. In many cases, the ground units were being attacked. During most of these "troops in contact" situations, the friendly infantry was in danger of being overrun. The information developed would be used as a basis for targeting and bombing the North Vietnamese, the Pathet Lao, or their encampments and equipment.

When air power was available, the FAC was responsible for complete control of the air strike. Because of his training and position, he had authority over all pilots involved, regardless of rank. A Raven was usually a first lieutenant, sometimes a captain, or even major; he might be directing pilots with a rank as high as brigadier general. Nevertheless, the Raven's word had to be law because of the complexity of the situation. Laotian, American, and Thai pilots might all be directed at the same time. Strike aircraft could be a mixture of low performance propeller driven planes intermixed with high performance jets. Troops on the ground might be desperate enough for air support that bombs would be dropped within a hundred feet of them. Enemy ground fire was not the only hazard. The weather could be turning bad. Visibility could be lousy. Maps could be inaccurate or incomplete. Midair collisions, fuel exhaustion, aircraft malfunctions, and accidental impact with terrain also threatened the safety of the pilots.

The Raven would have flights directed to him by the Airborne Command and Control Center, mark the targets for them by firing smoke rockets at the enemy, direct them via radio onto the target, and assess the results afterwards. The marking and direction phases were an exceptionally busy multi-task: the Raven had to talk on Frequency Modulation radio (which was strapped in the back seat) to any ground troops; on Ultra High Frequency radio to the flight(s) of strike aircraft; on Very High Frequency to the Airborne Command and Control Center. All the while, he continued to fly his plane. Interspersed among his other tasks, he used a grease pencil to print notes about the inbound flights, their armaments, and their bombing results on the side window of the plane for the nightly intelligence report.

In case of a shootdown, the Raven directed Search and Rescue operations, at least until Sandy A-1 Skyraiders appeared on the scene. Practically speaking, because Air Force Search and Rescue was so distant and so slow to respond, Air America helicopters were usually the rescuers, and Ravens both the rescued and the directors of the rescue.

Working as a Raven FAC was an exhausting, high-risk, high-stress job. The casualty rate among them ran about 50% wounded and killed, with 24 out of 162 Ravens being killed in action.

History

The Raven program was founded on 5 May 1966. It began with two pilots on 90 days temporary duty, working out of aircraft borrowed from Air America. Lieutenants Jim F. Lemon and Truman Young had been directing air strikes on either side of the DMZ dividing Vietnam. Upon their return to Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, they were told that minor disciplinary sins of unauthorized aerobatics and furniture destruction at a party would be excused if they volunteered for a secret program--which, of course, was the Ravens.[4] They directed air strikes in the Barrel Roll and Steel Tiger programs.

In December, 1966, they acquired the use of an O-1 Bird Dog assigned to the Royal Laotian Air Force at Savannakhet; unlike the borrowed Air America planes, the O-1 had additional radios and smoke rocket tubes for improved communications and target marking. A de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver and a Helio Courier were also acquired, but seemed not to be used for directing air strikes.

See also

References

  1. ^ General Vang Pao's Last War, New York Times Magazine, May 11, 2008
  2. ^ Castle, Timothy N. At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U.S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955-1975. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
  3. ^ Kenneth Conboy & James Morrison, Shadow War: The CIA's Secret War in Laos. Paladin Press, 1995.
  4. ^ http://www.airspacemag.com/military-aviation/ravens.html?c=y&page=2 Retrieved 27 December 2009.
  • Christopher Robbins, The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America's Secret War in Laos. Simon and Shuster, 1987.
  • The Ravens site Accessed 13 October 2008.
  • Jan Churchill, Hit My Smoke: Forward Air Controllers in Southeast Asia. (pages 113 - 133). Sunflower University Press, 1997.
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