Air University Review, May-June 1982
Lieutenant Colonel Richard Earl Hansen, USAF (Ret)
The heavy flak jacket under the many-pocketed survival vest, together with a web-belt holding a water canteen on one side and a .38 pistol and spare ammunition on the other, made flying the airplane a bit difficult. Parachute straps, buckles, seat belt, shoulder harness further insulted the body and limited mobility in the cockpit.
We lined up on the runway in the heavy black afterburner smoke that lingered form the flight of F-4s preceding us. With tower clearance, we accelerated, and I felt the surge of thrust against my back while charging down the narrow runway at Ubon Royal Thai Air Base (RTAB) that evening in June 1970. Into the darkening sky to the east, climbing to cruise altitude, we contemplated the mission ahead. Would this be a night of easy pickings and light flak, or would it be one of "those nights"?
Ordnance was a relatively insignificant part of the aircrafts gross weight. Fuel took up the major portion, for this would be an extended mission. The "frag" (our fragment of the daily theater Air Operations Order) directed us, as one of six similar aircraft, to put in more than six hours over the target zone, with nearly an hour each inbound and recovering.
Ground radar called, turning us toward the north. Soon our camouflaged bird with its dull-painted underside, all lights now extinguished, crossed the friendly line into "badguy" territory on its specialized mission. Over the target area, we would be joined and work with several other aircraft on the night strikes. Those planes underwing pylons would be hung like Christmas trees with assorted bombs, rockets, napalm, and other nasty stuff. The targets? They would be the trucks, armored vehicles, and transshipment storage points of military equipment for the North Vietnamese forces. This particular war materiel was not moving south to the Viet Cong, but rather, it was moving west to the North Vietnamese invaders engaged in another part of the war in Southeast Asia. This segment of the war was along heavily traveled Route 7 and its tributaries, the main supply route through northern Laos, known as the Barrel Roll operations area. To the south, in the panhandle of Laos, other aircraft like ours would be working this night in the operations area called Steel Tiger along the north-south routes that supplied the war hardware to the Viet Cong insurgents and North Vietnamese invaders in the Republic of South Vietnam.
What, you ask, is a four-engine turboprop C-130A doing in a strike mission over North Vietnamese-dominated Laotian territory? The answer is that this was only one of six that would fly this night, had flown for several years, and would fly every night for many months hence. Everybody called the mission by its call sign, Blind Bat, but formally it was known in the Seventh/Thirteenth Air Forces combined plan as a strike control and reconnaissance mission (SCAR). In crew jargon and informally, the mission was described as a night FAG (forward air controller), directing the night air strikes of fighters and attack aircraft of the Navy and Marine Corps as well as the Air Force. But operationally it was simply Blind Bat.
On 3 April 1965 an Air Force C-130equipped with flares and accompanied by two B-57sflew a night mission over routes 12, 23, and 121 in the southern panhandle of Laos. The crews of the three aircraft searched for Communist vehicles and other enemy targets moving down the Ho Chi Minh trail toward South Vietnam and Cambodia. The mission marked the beginning of Operation Steel Tiger . . . .1
Some pilots and crew liked the mission and its sense of accomplishment; others hated and dreaded it, and some managed to avoid the duty for more routine tasks. One thing for certain, it was not an ordinary "trash-hauling" mission within the borders of South Vietnam (usually considered the province of the A-model), although some of the normal tasks of C-130 air resupply, such as those into heavily besieged Khe Sanh and An Hoa, can hardly be called a piece of cake.
On this soft, tropical night late in the war, I had taken the place of a pilot on duty not including flying (DNIF). Since the mission called for flying unpressurized over the mountains for many hours, respiratory ailments and ear infections took a toll.
As an instructor pilot and the newly installed squadron commander of the 21st Tactical Airlift Squadron, I needed to become intimately familiar with all the missions my squadron crews would be asked to fly. I was to get my "dollar ride" tonight on an OJT flight with a pilot already knowledgeable in these highly specialized duties. Pilots acted as the forward air controllers on these missions, and the success of the strikes depended on proper briefing and control of the fighters. The Detachment Operations Officer solved the problem by scheduling an experienced copilot, one who had acted as FAC on many previous missions.
The Blind Bat detachment complement came from the 374th Tactical Airlift Wing (TAW). The wing was stationed on the island of Okinawa in the Ryukyu Islands chain southwest of Japan, six flying hours from Ubon RTAB, Thailand. Similarly, all ground and aircrews as well as aircraft were taken from the 374th TAW for rotational duty to Blind Bat.
Personnel who elected to volunteer for full duty at Ubon were welcomed for continuity but were not rewarded with the shortened overseas tour of one year as were those troops assigned directly to duty in Vietnam and certain other parts of Southeast Asia. The only benefits accruing to volunteers were the known schedules and enhanced opportunities for R&R. They continued to serve the eighteen months unaccompanied tour prescribed for Okinawa.
Ground crews, maintenance personnel, and certain cargo handlers were also supplied by the 374th TAW, but all other support functions came from the host base operated by the tactical fighter wing at Ubon. The mission was alien to the operation of the fighter wing, and its fighter planes were seldom, if ever, controlled by Blind Bat on strikes. Its fighters were mainly assigned day bombing or air superiority missions generally in North Vietnam. As a consequence, the fighter wing felt little in common with the Blind Bat people. They were generally tolerated as "those C-130 guys," a breed mainly looked down on with scorn by the fighter pilots. In spite of these social and professional differences, the combat support group at Ubon furnished most adequate assistance in housing, messing, medical, finance, ordnance, logistics, flight line, and other areas to the letter of their written support agreement. That the Blind Bats were able to furnish needed airlift to the fighter wing at crucial times did not hurt the relationship, however.
The rolling mountains and sharp upthrusts of the karst formations common to this part of Asia fell behind us as we cruised at 20,000 feet in pressurized comfort. With the assigned work zone coming up, the drill was to contact the airborne battlefield command and control center (ABCCC) "Alleycat" aircraft to check in and advise them that we were in their area for our night FAC operations. The ABCCC aircraft was another C-130 especially outfitted as an on-the-scene airborne command post to coordinate strike and, if necessary, rescue operations in their area of responsibility. They gave us, this night, no priority missions over our published frag.
With this formality over, we began the unpleasant part of the mission: depressurizing so we could begin operations. The rush of humid tropical air even as we descended through 12,000 gave every member of the crew a special whiff of the intense effort ahead. It was a sort of olfactory warning to the nervous system, and each of us felt his senses keyed up to the combat level.
The cargo deck with its pallets of flares and markers and the tailgate dispensing mechanism engaged the attention of the loadmasters, who would soon be loading and releasing these pyrotechnic devices. Jettison mechanisms for dumping the load were carefully checked lest one of the flares that burn at metal-melting temperatures should malfunction and ignite to hang up in the launching chute. Two types of pyrotechnics were carried on all Blind Bats: target-marker flares, which burn with a bright light for many minutes like a railroad fusee; and illuminating flares, which descend by parachute, providing high intensity light on the terrain below.
The navigator, who now would be the observer, readied his bicycle seat mount in the paratroop door usually on the starboard side. From this perch, he would use a night observation device (NOD) to scan the roads and trails for North Vietnamese traffic that would be the targets for the fighters.
The NOD amplified the available light, then magnified it much like a rifles telescopic sight only with a wider angle of view. I found it to be an astonishingly effective device. By naked eye from the same vantage point, nothing but the shadows of terrain features could be seen, except, maybe, under a full moon. But with the NOD, the same terrain was as visible as morning daylight, and the roads, trails, rivers, vehicles, truck parks, and storage areas were plainly visible. This, of course, was not the case for the strike aircraft pilots, who could see only the shadows. In contradiction to its moniker, Blind Bat provided them with their eyes.
Now unpressurized, the tailgate of our C-130A lowered for dispensing flares and markers, we descended farther to the operating altitude governed by the local high terrain and regulated to keep us just above the reach of small caliber weapons. The navigator for the first stint at the NOD got strapped in position and readied his night scope for surveillance.
This nights frag told us that intelligence gained from the previous days photo missions of Laos pointed to the existence of a munitions storage area on Route 7 between Muong Soui and Ban Ban. Its location had been scrubbed down to a forested area on the eastern edge of the Plain of Jars, just west of and enclosed by a fork of the road. This ammo dump, plus any opportune road traffic, would be the objects of our forward air control activities this night.
We set up an orbit to the right on the selected altitude and settled in for our nights work. The copilot made the contact with the first fighters that we would control: two Navy A-4s. They might have been from carriers out in the Gulf of Tonkin or from the overloaded base at Da Nang in the north of South Vietnam. Navy aircraft always seemed to have more than the average time over the target. Although they were fast movers, they were exceptionally diligent and skillful, while others seemed lackluster giving only perfunctory performances in striving to get their bombs on the targets. The Navy strike aircraft were always welcome arrivals in the nights work. Personally, having been a fighter pilot in World War II in the Pacific, I would hate to trade places with the pilots of the A-4s, roaring along at about 300 knots and practically blind at night, down among those steep pyramids, obelisks and spires of limestone karst so typical of the Laotian countryside. It has to be the ultimate fighter pilots nightmare, one that would make you wake up with sweaty palms and a queasy feeling in the stomach. The A-4s made two passes each with bombs, then worked the target over with their guns, and before long were gone.
Later, we were told by "Alleycat" that our next strike aircraft would be an A-1; we could tell from the call sign. It was an ancient, Navy-developed, piston-banger bird, and actually huge for a single-engine attack aircraft, now flown by the Air Force. The A-1 carried a tremendous load of explosive ordnance and hundreds of rounds of "twenty mike mike," 20 mm cannon shells. It also carried plenty of fuel to stay in the target area to get familiar with the nights aiming points and to exploit the unexpected: those opportune events that always occur in war. Tonight, this A-1 was not to disappoint us on any of these counts, even though the longer over the target the greater the probability of his taking battle damage. Blind Bat was able to aid in preventing this. By noting from its better vantage the locations of originating antiaircraft artillery (AAA) fire, the FAC can change the axes of attack to place intervening ridges in the way and minimize the effectiveness of that particular batterys fire.
The inbound A-1 was briefed by the FAC on the general terrain, the weather, escape routes, location of friendlies, known AAA, and the specifics of the target itself. At the same time, or shortly thereafter, the Blind Bat would make a run over the target using much the same aiming techniques as for resupply container drops to place marker flares in such a way as to make unambiguous the FACs later description of the run-in to be made by the fighter-bomber.
For example, this ammo dump, located in the hollow of a split in the east-west road, was marked by one long-burning flare laid on the ground due south and two more were left burning about the same distance to the north of the target. Describing it to the A-l pilot, the FAC explained to him that he should make his run west to east, perpendicular to the line between the single flare on the south and the group of two to the north, placing his ordnance midway between them.
After the delivery of the bombs, the NOD operator would conduct bomb damage assessment (BDA). Scanners would report any secondaries (explosions subsequent to the bomb bursts themselves indicating target damage) or any persistent fires started. If these existed, placement of ordnance, in part, was simplified. The attacker could then lay his bombs in the vicinity, with the near certainty that other lucrative targets were sharing the same concealment.
Occasionally, it was necessary to try eliminating a particularly nasty and harassing gun battery, so as to minimize risk on later bomb runs. Although the AAA fire this night was especially active, lighting up the sky like a fireworks extravaganza, it was not very accurate. Neither the A-1 nor our Blind Bat was greatly hazarded. As others who flew these missions can attest, those North Vietnamese on Route 7 in Laos were lousy gunners, even though they threw a lot of iron at us.
After the second bomb run, one of the load-master scanners spotted a fire in the target area and this information was relayed to the A-1 pilot. Using the fire as his aiming point (the NOD confirmed that it was a burning truck), the pilot executed several subsequent runs from differing axes of attack. On the last of these runs, we spotted what we always hoped to see: multiple secondaries! The A-1 had laid its bombs right in the heart of the suspected ammunition area of the invaders.
This strike raised a hornets nest of antiaircraft fire from the surrounding hills, where previously silent batteries opened up with the heavy stuff. You could tell it by the bluish-white blast down at the gun tubes followed by the eye-popping airbursts like looking into a camera flash many times multiplied. The 37 mm batteries hosed the lower altitudes, where the A-1 was dusting them off with the explosive shells of his "twenty mike mike." Up where we orbited, the heavy stuff would burst mostly above and behind us, but it did not make us feel any better knowing that those shells were going through our altitude unseen to get up there. We moved the location of our orbit.
Previous crews had reported the strange phenomenon of "hail" falling from clear skies that could only be the antiaircraft burst shrapnel pelting the tops of their aircraft. Minor incidents of flak damage requiring sheet metal repairs were not unusual, but one C-130A and crew vanished in a fireball in the heavily defended area on the trail near Mu Gia pass.
Soon, the A-1, having expended all its ordnance, asked for preliminary strike BDA and broke for home base. Things quieted down at the AA batteries, but we had already logged their locations as best we could for the intelligence debriefing. No more flights of attack aircraft arrived, which was good, because the weather had begun to worsen. At the end of our briefed time on station, we headed back to Ubon.
Inevitable questions crop up from the recounting of this not atypical Blind Bat mission from a war now more than a decade gone. Why was the C-130 strike and reconnaissance mission set up in the first place? Logistics movements of the North Vietnamese invaders were mostly at night to avoid daylight exposure to more certain and accurate attack. As a consequence, the pressure had to be kept on these resupply convoys round-the-clock. A ready answer was to continue fighter attacks throughout the hours of darkness. The problem was that our fighters and attack aircraft in those days were not equipped to locate their own targets and so needed nighttime assistance. An aircraft of long enduranceone with a stable platform for observation and multiple crew positions, one with carrying capacity for the needed flares and markers as well as their accurate dispensingwas the requirement. The C-130 A-model was early on the airlift scene in Southeast Asia (B and E modifications would follow), and it was a logical choice. The mission remained with the "A."
In another vein and looking ahead, will those skills and the same type of strike control and reconnaissance mission likely be needed in the future? Many of the new generation fighter-bomber and attack aircraft have their own target acquisition equipment, giving them a reconnaissance and strike capability. However, there is also the strong possibility that in a major proximate conflict many previous-generation aircraft will be thrown into battle. Most of these do not have the precision navigational gear, the target acquisition radars, or infrared imaging to make night strikes, and some form of SCAR aircraft will be needed as a night team member. New technology coming into service in the form of the AWACs (airborne warning and control system) aircraft, the TR-1 standoff-recce, and the like may permanently obviate the necessity for future C-130 Blind Bats. However, it remains a cheap and ready solution in a pinch.
If the C-130s could put flares and markers with relative precision in the vicinity of targets visible to observers with night scopes, one may ask why not put explosive ordnance on board to destroy those targets? Would not this save immense expenditures of fighter fuel, bombs, ammo, and crews? First, the unique combat environment in which Blind Bat operated must be emphasized. It was the same that obtained over most of Southeast Asia (excluding North Vietnam of course), and we tend to overlook it in too many discussionsthat is, we had complete air superiority. This permitted both the C-l30A Blind Bats and the strike aircraft they controlled to operate in target areas with impunity from air attack.
Further, radar gun-layjng is becoming the norm these days, and, missiles cover the airspace from the ground up, knowing neither night nor day. The environment has become more hazardous by an order of magnitude. In answer to the question, there was and is a C-130 that carried its own explosive armament and did a tremendously successful job in Southeast Asia. It was called "Specter," a C-130 fitted with side-firing cannon up to forty millimeter, enhanced by highly developed NODs plus infrared and other detection devices to locate and destroy ground targets. The problem is that it too must operate in tomorrows conflict that may not include local air superiority and will certainly include precision antiaircraft guns and missiles.
Looking back on the flights of the Blind Bat, it can be said that the A-model C-130, the oldest in the inventory, provided a vital link in the continuous harassment and destruction of the flow of North Vietnamese war materiel to the Viet Cong insurgents in South Vietnam and to their own invading forces in Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam.
The crews and aircraft of the 374th Tactical Airlift Wing, in addition to the assault airlift of troops and supplies, performed a tactical, war-fighting job. Incidentally, no crews were trained in the mission before their arrival in the theater. In fact, few in the continental United States (CONUS) or even in the Southeast Asia theater knew of its existence, and the Blind Bat contribution has been buried in obscure unit histories.
Colonel Noble F. Greenhill, Commander of the 374th TAW when it ended its Blind Bat operation in 1971, made a point of disputing the basis for award of decorations to airlift aircrews.2 He noted that, among other criteria, "combat" aircrews were awarded combat medals on the basis of many fewer missions than were required of airlifters. What Colonel Greenhill did not include was that for several years, night after night, his C-130A aircrews flew missions against the North Vietnamese such as the hazardous Blind Bat night forward air controllers over the Ho Chi Minh trails.
I am indebted to Lieutenant Colonel William Baugh, USAF (Ret), for many of the details in this account of the Blind Bat story.
1. Carl Berger, editor, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973 (Washington: Office of Air Force History, 1977), p. 100. See also pp. 104, 105, 115, and 226. Facing page 100 is a color photograph captioned, "A flare is readied for drop during a night mission." It shows a loadmaster placing a flare or marker in the chute near the port paratroop door of a C-130. The scene is typical of, but not identified as, a Blind Bat C-130A.
2. Colonel Noble F. Greenhill, USAF, End of Tour Report (December 1967-June 1971) (Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama: Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center of the United States Air Force, File K 717 131).
Lieutenant Colonel Richard Earl Hansen, USAF (Ret) (B.A., University of Minnesota; MA., Syracuse University), is a freelance writer on technical subjects and politico-military affairs. He flew in combat in three wars during a 35-year career, piloting fighters, bombers, and airlift aircraft. Colonel Hansens articles have appeared in numerous professional journals including the Review, where he served as Associate Editor before his retirement.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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