Don W. Bell, USAF Maj. (ret.), U of A BSBA, U of NC MA. Flew 188 combat missions (555 hours) during the Vietnam War as a Tiger FAC (‘71), earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses and thirteen Air Medals. He flew as an exchange pilot with the Marine Corps and was a first to attend Navy TOPGUN (‘76). A major contributor to the F-16 Multinational Test Program (‘78), he continued as a test pilot until April 1987. During Hurricane Katrina he helped open and manage the largest Red Cross shelter since the Great Flood of 1927, in NE Louisiana, after retiring from middle management in the Defense Industry. He and his spouse live in Monument, CO. Other books include Catherine’s Kid, an early memoir.
The Tiger FACs
A Dance with the Devil, The Forward Air Controllers that History Forgot
by Don Bell and the Tiger FACs
The Tiger FACs
A Dance with the Devil, The Forward Air Controllers that History Forgot
by Don Bell and the Tiger FACs
Published Mar 14, 2014
Genre: BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Military
They were the Tiger FACs, the forward air controllers who flew fast-moving F-4E Phantoms over the deadly skies of Laos and North Vietnam in an air war that history forgot to mention. These are their stories, in their own words, of missions in AAA-filled skies with supersonic angels as their wingmen. They challenged the enemy down in the weeds, eyeball-to-eyeball; cutting the supply lines that plunged through the mountains and karst formations of Laos on their way to South Vietnam. The mission required flying sorties up to six hours long with four to six air-to-air refuelings. It demanded extraordinary teamwork and bravery, and this small group of men paid the price, suffering up to eighty percent of the combat damage of a seventy-two aircraft wing. Their stories are often irreverent and far from today’s political correctness, yet they are filled with the reality of war. “The Tiger FACs” will take you back to experience the days and nights of these fighter crews at Korat Air Base in Thailand. It is a recantation of the life and times of the men who chose to fly and fight, and while you won’t experience battle damage, you will feel what they lived, and know, without doubt, that you are on their wing.
Third Tiger Loss I was flying on May 7, 1970, in the back of a Tiger FAC mission in an F-4E out of Korat with another pilot, Ted Sweeting. For the whole day we put Thuds, F-105s, in on guns and truck parks along Route 7 in north Laos’ Ban Ban Valley. Once their bombs were off we sent them to a Raven T-28 FAC trying to stanch an overrun at Lima Site 32, a friendly outpost just north of the PDJ. The F-105s would make one pass for us and then as many strafe passes for the Raven as they needed or could do. At the end of day and about four hours into our mission we ran out of Thuds and offered our 640 rounds of 20mm to the Raven. He was only about twenty miles away. The target he wanted us to get was a couple of 82mm mortars about half a klick – kilometer, away from the fence. The enemy mortars were knocking down buildings inside the Lima Site. Most of the Lima Site was either emitting dust or burning as far as I could see. It was May and the bad guys were on their yearly rout of the good guys in the dry season. There was only one way to get to the mortars as they were sheltered from a westerly run in. After two passes we could see what needed to be done. There was a lot of stuff going by us each pass so they knew where we were coming from. On the fourth pass, as the FAC was saying we finally hit the target, we took a shuttering series of hits. Ted yelled about all the lights in the cockpit being on but managed to get us headed south and upward. BLC – boundary layer control and Engine Fire lights were coming on as we passed six-grand climbing. We were headed to the PDJ as it was the best chance for a pick up. I managed to get a calm call out to the ABCCC that we were getting out soon and gave a TACAN cut, ”Zero three zero for thirty from Channel 108.” About then the flight controls froze up and as we rolled past 90-degrees Ted pulled the handles and out I went. It must have been a quick roll as he went out 1.4 seconds later and ended up above me. We had made it about four miles away from the target and were another four miles short of the edge of the PDJ. I watched the airplane spiral down and hit near Route 71 and then watched as Ted fell past me with about a third of his chute torn away. He was not moving so I figured he had had it. We were descending from between seven-to-eight thousand feet, about five AGL; I found what they don’t prepare you for in survival training - the hang time. It takes about a minute for each thousand feet. Many panic opportunities can happen when you have this much time. It was a spectacular view until I realized I was falling into a ‘free fire zone’ just named that week. It was at the staging area for the attacks on the PDJ and this Lima 32 site. Then, there was the little detail of the bullets zinging by every so often even if I could not see the flashes or hear the shots. I beat back panic about thirty times until it was time to prepare for landing. I had to dump the seat pack to be ready for a tree landing. I tried for a clearing but got caught in the last pine tree on the edge. A fifty-foot tall, two-foot thick, one. After hitting a bunch of branches and banging up my legs and back, I was hanging about thirty feet up looking into the second story of a barn or a barracks. The latter was what it appeared to be most likely. I did see someone look out and run away but could not tell who it was. The tree-lowering device was not quick enough for me and I crawled in close to the trunk and released. The climb down was going well until the branches started getting brittle, as lower ones do on pine trees, and I put my arms around and slid the last ten feet. Now what? I grabbed my trusty pistol and faced the building. Nothing moved and I figured out my helmet was not helping to hear oncoming problems. Off it came and then with nothing happening and no way to clear my ‘flag like’ parachute to hide it, I started moving away from the clearing. It was not easy to hide as this was a well-worn area with deep paths. I made it a couple of hundred yards and hid in a bush. When I tried the first radio, the buttons were jammed into the case from hitting the tree. The second one was ok but there was a beeper going. It was not mine so I figured it was from Ted’s and he was notlikely to turn it off. The backup channel got me talking to the T-28 FAC. Talking only after I drank an entire bottle of water to get moist enough to make a sound. He said the SAR forces were notified and it should be about an hour before anyone showed up. I did not think I was going to last that long in this area and said so. He was short of fuel and passed the effort off to an O-1, another Raven. The T-28 Raven, John Fuller, a classmate of mine I found out later, introduced the O-1 as taking over babysitting me. This was about twenty-five minutes after the bailout. The new FAC was trying to find me and flew right over me at about 1,500 feet. I told him to turn left and then talked him into putting me off his left wingtip. He still did not see me and at that point I said I was in a bush with the pistol out one side and the radio antenna out the other. I then pulled out my glasses cleaning cloth, a white hanky with my initials on it and waved it out the side of the bush the plane was on. The hanky I waived was from my dear old grandma and had my initials on it. She would have gotten a kick out of it, but she died before I went to war. He saw my hanky waving and then he said to go back to the clearing on the other side of my chute, then out into the clearing and get ready for a pick up. I liked some of that part, but not the clearing part, but he insisted it was the only chance. I ran back up and stopped at the edge of the trees about fifty yards from the building and asked again if I had to get out there. He yelled in the affirmative and about then a UH-34D, came around the corner of the building into my view and I ran as he came to a hover. A horse collar started down and then went back up and the bird set its front gear down as I ran up. The hill was enough the back wheels were off the ground but the rotors were clear. I hit the door at about my chest level and a strong arm pulled me on board. I was in a heap on the floor sorting things out as we escaped back down the clearing getting up steam to climb. This bird was blue and white with Continental Airlines written on the side. Both pilots, one Anglo and the other Oriental, were in airline-style short-sleeved uniforms. The guy that grabbed me was dressed more casual and had a big helmet on. I tried to say something to him and he hit me in the chest with an M-16 weapon and told me to get into the strap in the door and shoot at any muzzle flashes I saw. We started circling another clearing near my old one at about a thousand feet. I asked what was up and he said the other guy (Ted) was going to be picked up by us if he could get away from the people shooting at him. It was good to hear Ted was still around but it did not sound all that good for him. We swooped down and Ted would tell us we were drawing heavy fire so we would climb back up. On the second or third “decoy” run, I was to find out later, a UH-1 came low up the center of the clearing and set down in the middle as Ted came running out for the 50-yard dash to the bird. He was jinking hard to avoid being killed but I never saw any of the enemy to shoot at. The dirt was flying up around him when he got within twenty feet of the bird. He got in and off we all went to the north. The Huey was shot up and people are hurt on-board, I was told. Both birds set down on the top of a karst, after what seemed about thirty minutes of flying, this hilltop looked like hell with wounded walking among the dead lying beside barrels of fuel and supplies. The other bird was hit badly. The crew chief had hits in his knee and elbow and Ted was bloody - some on his neck. His blood came from a cut he got in the violent parachute opening but the cut on the neck was superficial, just looked bad. We, and the wounded crew chief now heavily drugged, were shuffled into a third copter, another UH-1, and we took off for a trip south. This was what seemed to be an hour long ride that ended at Long Tieng, TACAN Channel 98, the head Raven base south of the PDJ. We were met by the FAC we were working with, the second Raven who directed the SAR. They offered some medical help for the wounds and then gave us some beers while we waited for another ride home. It was a busy place so we were left alone. It was now about 1300 or thereabouts. We had briefed at 0300 and gotten started with a 0500 takeoff to start this day. About the time the SAR would have started if Air America hadn’t helped out, along came a Jolly Green H-53. They took us back to Udorn, another hour plus flight. The crew of the Jolly Green was disappointed we were not a combat save but thought they made up for it by shooting up some boats on the river along the way. The brass at Udorn and a big party were there to meet us as they did not hear it was not a ‘combat’ save. We were whisked off to the hospital to do the blood work but it ended up they only patched up Ted. No blood taking was better after I told them we were full of beer from the last stop. A steak and a couple of hours later and we were on a C-47 for a ride back to Korat. By then the juices were starting to settle and we were smiling but tired out. It was the fifth flight of the day. My legs were starting to hurt and looking at them for the first time showed how hard I had hit the tree. The whole base turned out for our arrival as nobody from the wing had been recovered in a long time. There had been several shoot-downs in the last year but no survivors. We had a few minutes with friends and were then taken in and seated in front of all the 0-6s in the Wing, the top three. The first question from the Wing King was, “Why in hell were you strafing when you know you are not supposed to do that?” The tone of voice and the looks on the other two colonels seemed to say we were in for a scalding. Ted stood up and announced, “Any man that did not do what we did today could not be called an American.” And then he said, “Come on Scud, we’re out of here.” Out the door we walked to the stunned looks of our colonels. The assistant DO, a good guy, followed and talked us back in. He said the “word” had been passed that we were shinning our asses and got hit. They knew nothing about anything that had gone on but were sure we were f**k-ups. Captains and lieutenants are only put on this earth to ruin careers of colonels The second seating took place with a flustered look on the commander’s face, but he asked this time, “What happened to you all today?” The rules are no strafing except for a SAR or TIC. We qualified there. “Why more than one pass?” was the second concern. Ted said “We would have made passes after running out of ammo if they needed it”. They accepted the story and we had to go back to the hospital for checkups as the sun went down. They did not buy the beer story this time and we got stuck. It had been hours since beer time or they did not care about that now. My wounds were just heavy bruising and scratching and Ted’s were just about the same. He may have had some stitches. We went home and fell asleep. I awoke as the sun came up and made a tape as the sun rose. I talked standing alone in my shorts feeling happy to be alive. After getting the whole story out, I found I had not turned on the tape machine. The second version had less cussing and might have been a better organized thing. More damage occurred to my body at a party the next night when I fell through a roof and had a hard landing on a “carrier landing deck” behind the 34th Squadron party hootch. We flew injured a few days later on a strike mission just to “get back on the horse that threw you.” Nice flight and we got to chase an enemy tank all over the trail in south Laos even though the NVN forces did not use Laos and we did not fight there. I then got to go on convalescent leave for a few weeks as a mid-tour break. Ted was killed several years later in Europe in another F-4E of the 32 TFS in Holland. The Lima site was not overrun and we had helped by getting the offending guns and mortars. They had time to clear out. They would get the place back when the rains drove the bad guys out again next year. Dave “Scud” Yates