A Typical Night O-2 Mission

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

After getting back a day early from snake school to have Thanksgiving dinner at Clark, we got a week or so at Bien Hoa for orientation and to receive our assignments. I was sent to the 20th TASS at DaNang.
I got seven checkout flights at DaNang over Christmas. It was not a peaceful Christmas, with bullets whistling through the dormitory halls as the grunts got carried away with their celebration, and with the Phantoms running up and launching at all hours of the day and night.
On December 31, I flew down to Pleiku, an FOL of the 20th TASS, and my new home. After another 40 hours, about half in the back seat of the OV-10, Hans Fritz showed me the HCM Trail at 50 feet for half an hour at a time with five-minute breathers out away from the guns, and then back again. Hans claimed you could do almost anything over the trail ONCE! That was harder work than close trail aerobatics in the T38!
A few more trips with the DaNang maintenance shuttle (AKA Covey Airlines), and I was ready for the “Night Cycle”. This consisted of five flights, beginning with a flight at sunset, and flying progressively later until the fifth flight returned at daybreak.
Pleiku must have been a bit smaller than the other bases. I remember the two Covey hooches, the OV-10 guys in one and the night fighters in the other, just down the hill from the O club. Each FAC and FAN had a small room in the long building, with the door facing out. There was a chest high brick wall around the whole building, with a bathroom and shower in the middle. There was no air conditioning. At a higher elevation, Pleiku would get uncomfortable but never really unbearable. The next dorm down the hill was for the doctor and nurses (incl. Brenda Body!) Just over the fence to the north was situated the army medevac unit, the Dustoffs, and their hospital and nurse contingent (incl. Sweet Alice & friends).
The night fighters’ dorm had an O-2 prop hanging on the front, with the tips pointing up and down. The old timers showed us the holes in the wall from the 122 rocket that had landed in the O club parking lot across the street. I only recall about three actual rocket attacks. I did not hear any warning, just two or three big bangs. It was over before the popcorn was ready!

Ed. Note: Around the end of Woody’s tour the rocket and mortar attack frequency began to change dramatically!

The night fighter’s problem was that the O club would close at midnight every night, when the first flight was just returning. Then someone noticed that a guy on TDY and another one on R&R had rooms back to back, so somehow the wall between those two rooms disappeared, and the Covey Bar was born. Our loyal supply sergeant scrounged a small refrigerator and the Dust Offs from across the fence contributed a pizza oven. For the rest of my tour, two tables of bridge ran continuously there.
When it came my turn in the schedule rotation, I would sleep late the first day, get a good meal at the club in the late afternoon, then find the FAN and we would catch a ride down to the TUOC for the intel brief. We usually used the six- pack flight line truck.
We would then don the survival vest (trusty 38, pen gun flare, two radios and four or five batteries, with some other stuff I don’t remember), and helmet, and head out for the flight line. First, a walk around per the checklist, checking a shot glass of fuel from each wing. Then check out the rack of four log markers on the right, the seventube rocket pod on the left, an extra log on the outboard station, and mount up. Cowl flaps wide open, start the rear engine first so you can hear it start, then the front, check the controls, return the crew chief’s salute, and head out for the runway. Check the mags, run it up, and roll.
After about 4,000 feet of runway, a tug on the yoke wakes up the beast, and we stagger into the air. Cowl flaps to the trail position, we then circle around a traffic pattern to the south about three times until we get above 3,500 feet to safely head north, above the peak beyond the large radar domes called the Tropes (only necessary after dark). Up the road past Kontum and Dak To, leveling at about 6,000 feet indicated (the peaks were about 4,000, I think) and as we pass Ben Het, I start turning down the panel lights, slow the props and lean out to peak temperature plus 50.
As we cross the small ridge past Dak To, we approach the rain cells that seemed to brood there every night, and Peacock (radar) does their best to get us through the gaps. It was so bad one night that the FAN refused to go back through it, even though I assured him the storms died down after sunset. We spent the night at the hotel UBOL (Ubon), and flew the second mission on the way home the next night.
As we approach Leghorn, we check in with Moon Beam ABCCC (night time version of Hillsboro). “Moonbeam, Covey 590 is over the fence with Covey Tango (Captain Quinlan, I think), mission number 2031.” Moonbeam replies, “Roger Covey, Covey 565 last reported at Delta 20. No other traffic in the sector.” Turn off the navigation lights, so that the canned (shielded) beacon is the only light left on. The wings are never level except when passing through to bank the other direction. The engines are kept just a bit out of synch. (I have heard a black O2 in the traffic pattern on a moonlit night in this configuration, and I couldn’t see him). Some nights, particularly during the rainy season, we would drone around the area for three hours without seeing a thing. Occasionally one of the SOG teams would call up for a chat. Sometimes we got downright busy.
The Pleiku sector was southern Laos, from Chavann south along route 96 to the Tri Border Area west of Ben Het, and west along the river past Attapeu to the Cambodian border post along the Mekong.
This night, after checking in with Covey 565 on Covey Alpha FM, we head up toward the Dogs Head to a TACAN fix that will allow the FAN to find the road with the scope. (That’s when I hear, Dammit, I’m the navigator, I have a right to know where we are!) We hear Covey 565 check out RTB and we begin to settle in. By now we have enough room in the tanks to switch to the aux tanks. (The fuel pumps always pump full flow, and the excess is always returned to the main tanks. If the aux tanks are selected before pulling down the mains, I understand the extra fuel in the main tanks make the wings tend to get very fat.) We aren’t seeing much tonight, so we work our way back toward Delta 20, the Bra, named for the shape of the river, also well defended by ten or twelve 37 mm guns.
Tonight, we can hear Moonbeam trying to palm off some air. He starts with the Nails in the north, then checks in with each sector. I think back to the intel briefing to find a target. I recall that someone had seen a ZPU at the tree park just west of the dog’s pecker, firing without tracers. I had noticed it a week ago, just flashes on the ground like CBU, but I couldn’t decide just what it was. Then I hear Moonbeam ask Covey 225, just to our north, and finding no takers, I agree to find them a tree park.
We get Champion 12, a pair of A-7s off the carrier, short on fuel, as always. When they come up on the tactical UHF, I bring them out to Delta 20 via the tacan fix. Working with the FAN we are able to lay a log marker down on the road in the area. A log marker is a wooden four by four board, hollowed out and filled with phosphorous. When properly ignited, it will burn for about half an hour with a bright white light, giving a reference point on the ground for working fighters. Some of the FANs were born bombardiers, talking us into a final leg for the drop, and calling for the drop with remarkable accuracy.
When the A-7s get overhead they see a lot of fires, because during the dry season every farmer burned off the straw from the rice paddies. When the visibility got down to about three miles in smoke, I would have to use a WP to show them which fire is the log marker. About this time, both the aux tanks go dry, and both engines cough a bit before I get them switched back over to the main tanks. That is unusual; they usually are staggered a bit, but the FAN just doesn’t want to hear it.
I explain to the Champions what we are looking for, clear lead for a pass along the river east/ west, and I hold north. When lead comes down the chute, I can see the sparkle from the ZPU and make a quick adjustment to aim another WP. I call quickly, clearing number two who is in trail with lead. Shortly, I get a response, ‘Two’s off Covey, your smoke was twenty meters west, and I got him!” They work over the rest of the local tree park to clear the wings and then head on home.
We motor down the trail, without seeing much of anything. We get a call from the local EC-121 advising us that he hears movers through sensors with certain numbers. A check of the numbers on the map shows them moving out of the Bra and toward the ford. We amble over that way and the FAN picks up a small convoy of trucks near the corduroy ford. We call up Moonbeam, and soon we have a couple flights of Night Owls on the way, from Ubon. While we wait, we’re treated to a nice fireworks display with an occasional clip from the local 37 mms, so we are able to confirm that we have a good target. As the Night Owls check in, we get a log marker down in the area, just off the road. It is away from the valley, so it’s easy to see. The Night Owls are carrying CBU-24 and Mark 82s. Lead rolls in on the mark, and his CBU-24 sets the lead truck burning. Two finds the tail-end-Charlie with his CBU, and we turn their Mark 82s loose on the five trucks caught between. By the time we are ready to head home, we can see five burning trucks, so we hand them over to our replacement who is just checking into the area. For what it is worth, the morning recce bird couldn’t find any of them.
We head over past Leghorn and call Moonbeam, “Covey 590 and Covey Tango over the fence RTB.” I let the FAN take the controls and light up a cigar. In about 20 minutes we pass over Kontum at 6,000 feet I point the nose down- hill and start building airspeed to arrive over the Tropes on a 90 degree downwind entry leg at about 180 knots. A good 60 degree bank to downwind, drop the speed to 120 knots to get the gear down. After an uneventful landing, we wait to get the rest of the rockets disarmed, taxi back to the ramp, and dismount. Once inside we tell the whole story to the intel type, report the fighter data, and then head back up the hill. The officers club is now closed so we clean up a bit and head for the Covey Bar. The next crew is just packing up, so there will be an open chair shortly at one of the two bridge tables. I mix up one of the pizza mixes my wife had sent, and add a bit of ice to a glass of scotch that makes the night right.
When it gets daylight, we will get some breakfast at the NCO club and bed down through the heat of the day, to do it again the next night and finish out the cycle. I will get a couple of day trips with the Covey airlines, or perhaps spend a day or so in my extra duty as assistant intel officer, updating the team and sensor locations, and then start it all over again.