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Once We Were Soldiers


 

Australian Infantryman's Combat Badge
Forward Air Control (FAC) Mission

 
© Roger Lambert
Platoon Commander
9 Platoon, C Company,
2nd Tour
Author: Roger Lambert


In 1969, our Commanding Officer (CO), LTCOL Colin “Genghis” Khan, decided that his Platoon Commanders needed to see Close Air Support from another perspective. That perspective was to Cessna O-2 Aircraftride shotgun with the FAC on an airstrike. My turn duly arrived and I made my way down to Luscombe Airfield where I was greeted by the sight of a USAF Cessna O-2 with the pilot undertaking his pre-flight checks of the push-pull, twin-engine aircraft. My memory is a little obscure here regarding the pilot’s name and rank but I’m pretty sure he was a United States Air Force (USAF) Captain. I do however distinctly remember that he was dressed in a grey flying suit and that he also wore a black leather gun belt and holster.

O-2 Rocket Pod being armedGetting into the Cessna (I was seated on the starboard (right) of the aircraft), I noted the rocket pod under the wing. The normal load for the O-2 was two LAU-59/A rocket pods with seven 2.75" FFAR (Folding Fin Aircraft Rockets) each. These rockets could be armed with a variety of explosive warheads but the FAC usually carried white phosphorus (WP or "Willie Pete") heads. The WP round exploded with a highly visible puff of white smoke which made it useful for marking targets for attacking fighters, particularly in jungle canopy.

As I strapped my seatbelt on, I also noted the 5.56mm CAR15 attached inside the door. A quick mission briefing and we were racing down the airstrip, getting airborne is what seemed a very short distance and climbing away towards our target.

20 minutes flying time out of Nui Dat, we were over our target. In this case, the target was a VC market garden that had been set up in the Jay (jungle) and the crops, apparently, were just about ready for harvesting. There was lots cackle over the radio and the FAC pointed to port where a flight of four Cessna A-37 Dragonflies appeared. He advised that the jets were all 'bombed up' with napalm.

Cessna A-37 Dragon flyWe roll into the target and a Willy Pete rocket zooms into an area adjacent the garden, not quite on target. As we pull up, the first Cessna Dragonfly streaks in across the jungle to drop his napalm canisters but is called off by the FAC. The FAC rolls in again on the target and puts the next WP smack bang in the middle of the gardens.

The A-37s roll in, one after another, and canister after canister of napalm literally obliterates the target. FAC thanks the A-37s who depart and we orbit to do a 'bomb' damage assessment (BDA). Satisfied the target has been destroyed, we head back to the Dat. Is the excitement over? Not quite.

As we line up for Luscombe Field, the pilot casually asks me to check that our starboard main undercarriage was down. What the??

He then calmly explained that he would normally do the visual check but because I was in the right hand seat and obscuring the Perspex window in the door, it was my job to do the undercarriage check. What ever happened to three greens lights??

While we never came under ground fire and the sortie was not what I would deem hazardous, it did give me a greater appreciation for the role of the FAC and what he had to do single-handedly to map read, fly the aircraft, coordinate the jets as well as his own passes to mark the target and make any corrections necessary to his marker WP rocket fire. While he made it all seem so easy, to my eye if was a little more complicated than patting one’s head and rubbing one’s stomach at the same time.

Little did I know at the time that I would use the ‘services’ of the FAC O-2 later in the tour. That of course was the catalyst for my article “Blonds, Bombs and Bunkers” and subsequent articles about “Magpie 31”.

I like to think that Captain Jim Farris, USAF, was my pilot on the familiarisation flight as he was the pilot of the Cessna O-2 “Jade 03” the day he directed Magpie 31 in support of 9 Platoon but I can’t be sure.

Roger Lambert
Platoon Commander 9 Platoon
C Company, 5 RAR, 1969/70
 

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