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219th Aviation Company (Recon)

 


CESSNA AT WAR

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Text Box: A Special Thanks to Tom Block and Jim Corley for helping make our 2005 Daytona Beach Reunion all that more special.
The article below appeared in the August 2006 Issue of Cessna Flyer Magazine
Text Box: Cessna At War 
By Thomas Block 
8/1/2006
About a year ago my friend and airplane partner Jim Corley got a telephone call from a guy who had gotten Jim’s name from someone else. Bob Brewster was hosting a reunion of the largest L-19 (also known to the military as an O-1, to the FAA as a Cessna 305, and to just about everyone else as a Bird Dog) unit to serve in Vietnam. They would be meeting in our hometown and, since Bob had heard that we owned a particularly interesting L-19, could we be enticed into bringing it over for the guys and their wives to look at?
Sure thing. We hopped one airport over to where these veterans were holding their convention and put our ‘new dog’ in a hangar where this gaggle of old dog pilots could pour over her. We spent a rather enjoyable afternoon showing them the 2001 version (built by Air Repair, Cleveland, Mississippi, with FAA blessings and out of surplus military parts that had never been taken from their original crates) to compare with their memories of what they flew into combat 40 years earlier. Needless to say, our L-19 was a lot more pristine than any of the war wagons they drove around, and they all enjoyed the differences and the similarities.
But now it was our turn to enjoy, as Jim and I got a chance to talk these men and hear first-hand what they did in a hostile situation with basically the same airplane we were shepherding around strictly for fun. First, Bob filled us in on the details of the 219th, which was known as the "Headhunters."
Between 1965 and 1971, they flew all over the combat areas of Vietnam and into Cambodia. During that time, the unit lost 13 pilots and six observers in pursuit of their various reconnaissance and forward air controller missions. Bob cited his own personal history to show what was typical: "I flew 299 combat missions in the L-19 and logged just under 800 hours in my 12-month tour. I survived one crash where the aircraft was totaled. My usual day was observation mixed in with artillery spotting, gunship and tactical forward air controlling, and talking to ground commanders about the areas they were moving through. I also had a few opportunities to adjust naval gunfire from the battleships off the coast.
"The L-19 is a strong aircraft," Bob continued. "During one contact I did a split-S back toward the target and exceeded 210 knots in the dive, which was far above the redline. The aircraft made lots of strange noises but it held together. Another time, while recovering from an inadvertent stall while climbing up a ridgeline, the only reason I survived was that I managed to stagger through the tree tops while picking up airspeed. Once I had the airspeed back, I climbed to 7,000 feet and flew for an hour to let my heart calm down."
Charlie Liffick later sent me a photo of him and the Bird Dog he had named ‘Lit Bit’ on a combat tour in Vietnam. He explained that "I was covering a convoy when they decided to stop for lunch, so I set down on the road alongside them and had lunch, too. I had a crew chief along for the ride and he took this picture."
Frank Doherty commented that "I think I might be the only guy to capture an enemy soldier from a fixed wing aircraft. It was September, 1970 when I flew over an abandoned rice paddy that still had water in it. I noticed a hump in the middle of the paddy, so I circled it at about 100 feet. At that point, the hump stood up, looked at me and then began to head toward the dike. I drew my .38 and fired a round toward him. Had this soldier had any idea of what a terrible shot I was, he would have laughed and continued strolling toward the jungle. I fired again and he stopped. I radioed a nearby helicopter to come pick up my prisoner, which he promptly did—imagine that, I was a guy who couldn’t shoot straight in an airplane that couldn’t land on the soggy terrain below and I still managed to grab the guy!"
The reunion pilots and ground crews told lots of airplane stories. Vaughn "Sol" Binzer said that in 1965 they were experimenting in the field with the idea of mounting seven to nine small rockets under each wing of the L-19 to solve the problem of not enough fire power in the Vietnam highlands at the time. The trigger mechanism was made from a board with a nail for each rocket with a corresponding wire attached. The firing device was another nail hanging on a second wire that would complete the circuit—the idea was to be able to fire one rocket at a time.
"But to our surprise, when that first nail was touched by the firing nail, it somehow completed all the circuits and every one of the rockets fired at once! The recoil stopped the Bird Dog in midair, but the pilot still managed to recover and there was no damage."
One common point raised by all the members of the 219th was how tough this little Cessna warplane really was. During an orientation flight in Vietnam, an aircraft lost oil pressure and shortly thereafter, all engine power. The instructor spotted a tiny cleared field in the rugged terrain below and crash-landed the airplane. The accident was so severe that the airplane, even though it was recovered, would never fly again—but the pilots lived through the crash simply because of the Bird Dog’s well-built structure that protected them.
In another incident, an L-19 making a low pass over an enemy cache of supplies was hit by something that first struck the propeller and bent it, and was then flung into the leading edge of the left wing which resulted in lots of damage to the structure. With full power the airplane shook violently, so the pilot lowered 20 degrees of flaps and pulled the engine power way back. Very slowly, the aircraft began to gain altitude and the pilot made it back to home base with a badly bent propeller and a demolished left wing, which was barely connected to the airframe by the time he landed.
One final story came from Bob Brewster. On one surveillance mission the engine chip detector light on the instrument panel came on and he decided that he needed to land at a friendly base as soon as he could because he figured the engine would come apart very soon—and he was at least 45 minutes of flying to get back to US-held territory. But there was a South Vietnamese fire base not far away, and it had a clearing not far down the hill from it, so he decided to land there rather than risk a long flight over the unfriendly jungle.
"On my approach to the strip, I was so apprehensive because I figured the engine would quit at any time that I came around too high and too fast and had to make a go-around. I landed on my second approach and was so scared that I taxied off the cleared strip and onto a dirt road that led up the hill toward the South Vietnamese base. It was a bad move because in short order all three wheels sank in the sand. Even at full power, I was now stuck!
"The South Vietnamese gathered at their perimeter fence and looked down the hill at me, but no one came down. My adrenaline was flowing so strongly that I got out of the Bird Dog, went back to the tail and lifted it out of the sand by myself, then turned the airplane back down the hill. I jumped back in, started the engine and taxied back to the cleared strip.
"On top of all of that, I was just about totally out of gas. That’s when another Bird Dog in our unit came to my rescue by landing at the strip, taxiing up to me and the two of us then quickly transferred some fuel from his airplane to mine. I took off, even with the chip detector light still glowing, and headed for the nearest US base. I got there without the engine sputtering even once, so from that point on I trusted the Bird Dog on every mission, no matter what it was."
After shaking hands all around, my partner and I climbed back in our own Bird Dog for the short flight over strictly friendly territory to our home base again. Both of us agreed that we had spent a worthwhile afternoon helping some guys jog their memories. But better yet was how good their stories made the two of us feel about our own little Cessna warbird. The Bird Dog has quite an impressive legacy, which we learned about from this group of men who had been there and who had done it for real.
Editor-at-large Thomas Block has flown nearly 30,000 hours since his first hour of dual in 1959. In addition to his 36-year career as a US Airways pilot, he has been an aviation magazine writer since 1969, a best-selling novelist. He owns an L-19 Birddog, which he contends is a straight cross between a Piper Super Cub and a high-wing Cessna taildragger.