7:28 | Forward air controller Mike Leonard went up to Ban Me Thuot to help out for a few days. The first night, as he settled in with a cold beer, the radio crackled with pleas for help from a nearby special forces camp. They were under siege. Part 1 of 3.
Keywords : Mike Leonard pilot Forward Air Controller (FAC) Vietnam Gia Nghia George Lattin Ban Me Thuot Bao Dai Ed Bullard Duc Lap Ted Nagy
When he was a kid, Mike Leonard had a neighbor who was a Marine and drilled the neighborhood boys with wooden rifles. Between that and going to a military high school, the seeds of a military career were planted.
New Air Force lieutenant Mike Leonard was assigned as a weapons officer at a ground radar site. When he found out that the same job paid more flying in the back of a Lockheed Constellation, he signed up for that. At first, he was flying off the California coast but it wasn't long before he was flying missions in the Gulf of Tonkin.
The Lockheed Constellation would fly at about 50 feet above the water just out of Haiphong harbor. In the back, weapons controller Mike Leonard noticed that enemy radar was attempting to lock on. It turned out there was an anti-aircraft battery on a small island.
He wanted more money. Mike Leonard had been a crew member in the back of Lockheed Constellations and, when he found out how much flight pay for pilots was, he had to become one. He was accepted and headed off to flight school.
During flight school, Mike Leonard was on a check ride in the T-38 trainer. He was demonstrating recovering from different situations when he managed to have a flame out on both engines. This was a real situation.
After flight school, Mike Leonard returned to the crew of a Lockheed Constellation, this time as a pilot. Based in Cape Cod and for a while in Iceland, he flew active air defense missions, no matter the weather.
Mike Leonard was an Air Force pilot but he also had a growing family to support. When he met a forward air controller and heard all about flying the O-1 Bird dog in Vietnam, he signed up for that just to get the raise in pay. He got through FAC school just fine but he ran into a little trouble in survival school.
On his way to jungle survival school in the Philippines, Mike Leonard, along with a rowdy plane full of pilots, nearly was detained by the base commander at a refueling stop. The hijinks didn't stop until they were all out in the jungle trying to hide. At least, some of them were trying.
On his first tour of Vietnam, pilot Mike Leonard lived in relative luxury in Saigon, enjoying barbecues and water skiing. His second tour was shaping up to be very different. This time he was flying a Cessna Bird Dog as a forward air controller at a forward operating base.
Bird Dog Pilot Mike Leonard wound up in a small village near the Cambodian border. It was a tight knit group of pilots and the head of the unit would take new guys up for an orientation flight. On one of these, they got a little too close to the border and the North Vietnamese anti-aircraft batteries.
Long periods of boredom interspersed with moments of stark terror. That was the life of a forward air controller flying in a small Cessna over Vietnam. FAC Mike Leonard describes these missions and the array of communications gear he used for different purposes. He also describes what it was like to coordinate a defoliation mission.
You couldn't call in jet fighters to help the besieged camp because of the cloud cover. Forward air controller Mike Leonard was in the air trying to help the Americans below. Two helicopter gunships made it to the action and the pilots proceeded to ignore his instructions. When one was shot down, he used his smoke rockets as weapons and even leaned out the window of the Cessna and fired his carbine. Part 2 of 3.
It had been a long fight and the Bird Dog had been in the air past it's rated aloft time. Pilot Mike Leonard used every trick he knew to nurse the plane home. He had been at an action in which a downed helicopter crew had been rescued and, decades later, he got a surprising phone call that, once again, brought the incident to the forefront. Part 3 of 3.
Air Force pilot and FAC Mike Leonard offers his thoughts on the debate over the justification of the Vietnam war. His experiences in his combat tours, especially one incident in which he helped rescue some downed airmen, led him to write his book, An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot: From the Battlefield of Vietnam and Beyond.