A FANs Tale

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

The Navigators in the FAC program were usually called FANs – that was probably the preferred title. But there were many others (FABO, for Forward Air Binocular Operator, and FART, for Forward Air Reconnaissance Technician). I was actually shipped as a 1535Z, which I think was just a catchall at the time. That was in the spring of 68. In October of 68 I received a Personnel Action Change that made me a 1535Z, Squadron Strike Control and Reconnaissance Navigator, which I assume was what the official title was.
Whatever the official title, I wasn’t supposed to be there. That’s what I thought as I stepped off the C-130 at NKP in July of 1968. I had been stationed in Hawaii finishing up a four-year overseas tour – the normal three plus a one-year extension – in early 68. I was waiting for Air Force to either give me an assignment or turn me back to MAC, which was expected. I was told that it was late in the cycle, and Air Force was probably not going to do anything and I could expect a MAC assignment. I sure wasn’t expecting another overseas assignment after just completing four years overseas. So I decided to help the process and did a little preliminary wheeling and dealing.
When it got down to just a week or so before the magic turnover date from Air Force to MAC, I went to Scott AFB so I could work the magic assignment that I had arranged (Assignment to McChord AFB where I would be an Information Officer, my secondary AFSC, and not a line swine navigator). I thought I had it pretty well wired.
An old friend in personnel picked me up at the BOQ and basically told me I was going to SEA. I asked doing what? He didn’t know. So we went back to his office, where he decoded the cryptic message. It said going to O-2s. Oh, I said – big mistake – I’m a nav – no nav’s in O-2s. Right he said, and called Randolph. They said – we know what we are doing – tell him to shut up and go!
So I asked where and when I would go for training. “Doesn’t say – I’ll call Randolph.” He gets on the phone and asks the question and says...”yes sir.” “They said, Shut up and go, and stop bothering them.”
And so I arrived at NKP, not knowing what I would be doing, never having even seen an O-2 and with no idea of where I was going to fight the communist horde.
Our training was pretty much OJT. I’m not sure that at that point in the program there was any thought of a formal training program. The biggest thing I remember was an emphasis on learning the area we worked in...I spent a lot of time at TUOC looking at maps and trying to memorize them.
I guess there was a program of sorts. Looking at my logbook it looks like I had 10 daylight missions – didn’t get shot at that I knew ‘til number five with Bob Grete. It looks like after 10 daylight missions I flew three missions in the night training area, a quiet area where I could use the scope and we could shoot rockets and use flares and get used to the night time environment.
Fletcher – don’t know if it was Carl or Gailon, and Smith – don’t remember the first name, were the night training folks. I flew with one of those two for a total of six missions, and then I was cut loose.
I would guess it took a good couple of months before the nav’s – at least me, really understood what we were doing and became a good part of the team. I don’t know that more training before arriving would have helped – but it sure couldn’t have hurt.
The 85 at Ban Laboy
One of my most memorable missions was with Ron Hammer, CINC Night. I flew a lot with Ron. We shared being Oregonians, and our outlook on how far to push the envelope was pretty much the same.
One night we had a fairly early go, and received a special Intel Briefing. Some one had reported seeing an 85 or 100 mm gun at Ban La Boy. There was an Arclight scheduled that night at Ban Laboy and the powers that be thought it would be a juicy target for the big gun to shoot at. We were elected to be in position to observe and confirm if there was one there, and, if there was one, to locate it.
This got our attention, but we were skeptical because, in our opinion it was highly unlikely there would be an 85 at Ban La Boy. So we tooled out to the area, and put in time till the Arclight was scheduled.
One of us was watching the ground for the muzzle flash, and the other was watching the sky for the burst. We both said “shit” almost simultaneously. I was looking at the ground, and the muzzle flash looked like a 500 pound bomb going off. And when I looked up, the air bursts were pretty distinctive as well.
So much for our skepticism!!
Since this was a special mission, we had been given the strike frequency for the Buff’s and quickly called them up. At first they didn’t acknowledge us, as we weren’t from SAC. But finally Ron said, “Hey Buff – this is the FAC and you are getting hosed – but not to worry, it is exploding about 10-15,000 feet below you.” Well, they decided they would talk to us then...
After they were through with the drop, we contacted Hillsboro and told them we had accomplished our mission. They asked if we wanted to take two F-4s they had and go in and take out the site. We allowed as how with the F-4’s record for accuracy, and lack of proper ordinance we would just as soon wait for a Nimrod or Hobo – no luck, none available. So we decided we had accomplished our mission and headed for home.
It was still fairly early when we got back to NKP and the Nail Hootch was full. I got there first and told the story, and all were suitably impressed with my description of the 85. Ron came in later and heard some of the story, and commented it sounded pretty exciting – he wished he could have been there on that flight.
He never did know how to tell a good story.
Getting Even with the Nav
We FANs worked the starlight scope with our head and part of our shoulders out the open window of the O-2. And we always had the starlight scope tied to our seatbelt so if we dropped the scope we wouldn’t lose it. Putting our head out the window put us out close to the ordinance we were carrying – whatever it was.
The trick seemed to be that when we called for a Log or a flare to be dropped a Willie Pete would be fired instead. Needless to say, this unexpected explosion, more or less under our noses, caused certain things to happen. The scope was dropped, and banged against the side of the fuselage until we could recover enough to pull it in, we had to beat out sparks and flaming bits of debris from the front of our flight suits, and often we had to live with an unpleasant odor in the cockpit till we got back home.
At the very least we had to pull off the trail so the pilot could stop laughing and the poor FAN could gather his composure.
Almost every pilot I flew with did this to me at one time or another. They all swore it was accidental, but I always suspected it was to relieve the boredom on a quiet night. It seemed to be great fun for the pilots – even though it was always “accidental” but it was always a real shock to the right seaters.
I guess that was one of the reasons I didn’t feel so bad about giving Ron Hamner a heart attack one night when I stalled the airplane – but that is another story.
I was scared to death a lot of the time – and sure hadn’t volunteered for that kind of program. But it was one of the most exciting, memorable and proudest parts of my time in the Air Force. I felt I was really doing something that contributed to the effort, and the pride in our squadron and sense of personal accomplishment was something I never had before or since. When you fly in the dark with people and go “in harms way” you develop a certain bond – one that will last forever. I keep in touch with many of my friends from the 23rd TASS and even those I haven’t kept in touch with could call me tomorrow for help and I’d be there – as would they for me. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way – but I’m sure glad it did – it was the highlight of my life.