Phantom FACs (Sep 1968)

While the Commando Sabre programme had proved the value of fast FAC aircraft that could operate in high threat areas, the F-100F Misty FAC was not an ideal vehicle for the role, especially as replacement aircraft were scarce.  In early 1968 the Seventh Air Force flew a small number of test flights with Misty pilots in the back seats of F-4Ds.  The Phantom also had its disadvantages including a poor view downward from the rear seat and high fuel consumption rate.  It was not as manoeuvrable as the F-100 and it had a persistent engine smoke trail that made it easier to sight.  However, its power and load-carrying capacity, its advanced avionics and its better availability outweighed the disadvantages.  The 366th TFW at Da Nang was selected to pioneer the Phantom FAC programme and the aircraft used the call sign Stormy.  The 366th started training its first Stormy FAC crews on 12 August 1968 using Misty crews as instructors.  The Wing flew its first FAC mission in Route Package I on 2 September and lost its first aircraft in this new role just nine days later.  In November 1968 the 8th TFW at Ubon also started FAC training for selected crews and implemented their Wolf FAC programme in the Steel Tiger area in December.  Wolf FACs were also used to lead bombing raids in poor weather by using their LORAN equipment to identify targets and compute bomb release points.  Next to adopt the fast FAC was the 388th TFW at Korat.  On 19 March 1969 the Wing flew its first Tiger FAC mission and concentrated much of its effort on the Barrel Roll region of northern Laos and flew strike control missions in support of General Vang Pao’s indigenous forces.  All the fast FACs flew visual reconnaissance missions as well as pre-planned strike control missions and were often used to control strikes during SAR operations.  In April 1969 the 432nd TRW started a unique fast FAC programme that consisted of an RF-4C and an F-4D FAC working as a team.  The Falcon FAC F-4D carried out visual reconnaissance and called in the RF-4C (call sign Atlanta) to take photographs if necessary.  Similarly the RF-4C could call the Falcon FAC in to control a strike if it spotted a target.  The Falcon/Atlanta team was very successful in finding and striking targets in the Barrel Roll and Steel Tigers areas.  The 432nd TRW also developed the Laredo F-4E FAC hunter-killer mission, which consisted of a single F-4E leading and directing formations of up to 20 Phantoms.

The penultimate FAC development was the Night Owl missions flown by the Wolfpack’s night flying 497th TFS.  Although the other fast FAC units experimented with night operations it was the 497th that specialised in this role.  From October 1969 Night Owl F-4D FACs flew night missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail concentrating on the strategic Mu Gia and Ban Karai passes.  The aircraft were equipped with laser target designators and the accompanying Phantoms carried 1,000lb and 2,000lb laser-guided bombs.  Night Owl FAC missions ceased in January 1970 when it was assessed that the dangers involved did not warrant the risk of operating low level at night in bad weather.  In 1972 the 8th TFW developed the Pave Wolf fast FAC programme using more advanced Paveway laser illuminators, which immediately improved the FAC’s success rate.  Overall, the various fast FAC programmes developed in Southeast Asia were very successful in that they greatly improved the success rate of armed reconnaissance and air strikes.  The one feature that characterised all the programmes was the high loss rate, approximately four times that of ‘ordinary’ strike aircraft.

© Chris Hobson and David Lovelady. All rights reserved.