For veterans of combat operations both in Korea and Viet Nam, the term FAC needs no further explanation. In the “alphabet soup” of military terminology, those three capital letters call up for some of us memories of the sight and sound of unarmed, low-powered, and antiquated aircraft, and the brazenly-intrepid pilots who flew them at treetop altitudes as FORWARD AIR CONTROLLERS. Their unenviable job was to spot enemy positions and activities, calling in artillery fire or close-air aviation support for troops on the ground, often with mere feet separating the “good guys” from “the bad guys”, and with many lives on the line. The men who flew these dangerous missions, day-after-day, (sometimes a dozen sorties per day), were a breed apart, often over-worked and unheralded at a time when fellow airmen flying fast deadly jet fighters high overhead were the thing of daily headlines.
During World War II, certain kinds of aircraft were used in so-called “Pathfinder” missions, surveying targets and hazards to lay the ground work for both air and ground operations, and toward the end of that conflict, especially in the Burma theater, radio signals from aircraft became a key part of artillery planning. It was in Korea however, where the concept of airborne ground support became an organized and comprehensive system of warfare with all service branches and even different nations sharing the resources brought together by the U.S. 5th Air Force.
In the early weeks of combat in Korea, and with the rapid almost unpredictable movement of ground forces, a system in which two very brave men in a “radio jeep” were the sole means of close-air support proved costly and ineffective, leading to the use of light, almost flimsy utility aircraft capable of staging from rough, temporary landing strips. Ultimately though, the most nearly-perfect aircraft for the job sprang from a long and honored history: the rugged, reliable, and relatively-easy to fly North American AT-6 “Texan” – a vintage trainer from the WW II era – eclipsed other types as the ideal FAC platform.
Serving with a forward outpost of the 502nd Tactical Control Group of the 5th Air Force, I had the honor of following the exploits of, and getting to know on a personal level some of these largely uncelebrated warriors, often operating many miles into enemy territory where they regularly invited ground fire, lumbering along at 100 mph, talking to us and their ground controllers by radio, as our radar operators coordinated the delivery of ordnance by the “fast flyers” waiting overhead or miles away. Vulnerable not only to ground fire as they dropped smoke bombs to mark targets, these “Mosquito” pilots sometimes even had to cope with wire cables stretched across narrow ravines by the innovative Chinese and a host of hazards incidental to flying low and slow in an extremely dangerous combat environment. Many of these humble and quiet-spoken young flyers lost their lives, and we could hear their “May Day” calls in our earphones, knowing they lacked sufficient altitude for a parachute escape.
Somewhere, wherever heavenly angels keep a record of valiant service, there must be a special honor roll for those we called FACs.
An AT-6 of the 5th Air Force circles over an abandoned Korean village near the 38th Parallel marking targets for artillery support from ground forces. (As early as 1862, the peninsula campaign of the American Civil War saw balloons being used to observe Confederate forces at Gaines’ Mill; the world’s first “FACs”)
Flying too low to permit a parachute escape, disabled “Texans” were often crash-landed in nearby rice paddies when possible. In this crash investigated by the author, the pilot lived.
Al Cooper photos