Raven Forward Air Controllers

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The Cessna O-1 Bird Dog, the usual plane of the Ravens. During Raven usage, the O-1s were flown without military markings.

The Raven Forward Air Controllers, also known as The Ravens, were fighter pilots used for forward air control in a covert operation in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States in Laos during America's Vietnam War. The Ravens provided direction for most of the air strikes against communist Pathet Lao targets and People's Army of Vietnam's infiltrators in support of the Laotian Hmong guerrilla army.[1]


On 23 July 1962, the United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam signed the Geneva Accords guaranteeing the neutrality of the Kingdom of Laos. One of the provisions of the Accords called for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Laotian soil. North Vietnam had troops still remaining in Laos from the end of the French Indochina War. The United States had a small number of advisors, which it withdrew from the country.[2]

The North Vietnamese deliberately ignored the Accords because they were intent on keeping their supply corridor, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to continue their war against South Vietnam. North Vietnam's representatives repeatedly stated they had "no military presence in Laos", even though they had at least 4,000 troops stationed there from the end of the First Indochina War onwards.[3]

Prince Souvanna Phouma, the Prime Minister of Laos, asked for American help to counteract the North Vietnamese. To avoid the appearance of unilaterally violating the Accords, U. S. President John F. Kennedy directed the United States Air Force to perform covert operations in Laos to help the Lao fight the North Vietnamese communists.[4]

USAF covert operations[edit]

See also Laotian Civil War

As tactical air strikes began to be used in Laos, it became apparent that for the safety of noncombatants, some means of control was necessary.[5] Beginning at least as early as July 1964, the absence of a close air support control system caused a variety of enterprising individuals to improvise procedures for marking bombing targets. At various times, ground markers (including bamboo arrows) and dropped smoke grenades were used. While some of these individuals had military training, such as the American Army Attaché, others had little or no specialized training in close air support. They varied in nationality, being Thai, Lao, or Hmong, as well as American.[6] Both Continental Air Services, Inc and Air America pilots would sometimes serve as ad hoc forward air controllers.[7]


To begin an operation of great secrecy, the U. S. Air Force originally forwarded four sergeants from Combat Control Teams in 1963. These sergeants turned in their uniforms and military identification and were supplied with false identification so they could work in civilian clothing. This process was designed to preserve the fiction of American non-involvement dubbed plausible deniability. Once "civilianized", the Butterflies flew in the right (co-pilot's) seat in Air America Helio Couriers and Pilatus Porters. They were often accompanied by a Lao or Thai interpreter in the back seat. The Air Commando sergeants directed the air strikes according to U. S. Air Force doctrine, using the radio call sign Butterfly.

Two of the Butterfly Air Force combat controllers were Master Sergeant Charlie Jones, soon joined by Technical Sergeant James J. Stanford.[8] Another of the Butterflies was Major John J. Garrity, Jr., who in future would spend several years as the éminence grise of the American Embassy to Laos.[9] They, and their successors, ran air strikes without notice or objection until General William Momyer discovered that enlisted men were in charge of air strikes; at that point, he ordered their replacement with rated fighter pilots. By that time, the number of Butterflies had escalated to three pairs.[10] Both the impromptu strike controlling and the Butterfly effort ended with General Momyer's tirade in April 1966.[11]

Development of rules of engagement by the Embassy also threw more reliance on increased control over the in-country close air support. So did the introduction of an integrated close air support system for Southeast Asia in April 1966.[12] Also, beginning in April 1966, part of its effort to better direct air strikes, the U. S. Air Force installed four tactical air navigation systems in Laos to guide U. S. air strikes. One of these was emplaced on a mountain top at Lima Site 85, aimed across the border at Hanoi.[13]


A successor operation, code-named Palace Dog, began replacing this original Butterfly effort in 1966. Palace Dog consisted of Project 404 and Raven FACs. The Ravens were airborne fighter pilots in unarmed light aircraft who flew observation missions, marked enemy targets with smoke rockets, directed air strikes onto them, and observed and reported bomb damage assessment post strike.[14] They were based in five Lao towns: Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse, Savannakhet, and at Long Tieng on the Plain of Jars.[15]


Recruiting for the Ravens began when Air Force personnel checked into their original assignments in Vietnam. Forward air controllers, beginning a tour in SouthEast Asia, were told as part of their orientation briefing that halfway through their year's tour of duty in Vietnam, they were eligible to volunteer for special duty via the Steve Canyon Program. To be accepted for Steve Canyon, a pilot had to have a minimum of four months combat duty, including at least 60 days service as a FAC, at least 100 hours flight time as a fighter pilot and/or FAC, at least 750 hours flying time overall, and six months or more time remaining on his tour in SEA. Those who did volunteer via this program did so with no knowledge of their destination. After screening by the 56th Special Operations Wing at Nakhon Phanom RTAFB, they received temporary duty orders, and were forwarded to the American Embassy, Vientiane, Laos. There they were stripped of all military identification and gear, supplied with U.S. Aid identification, and changed into civilian clothing to be worn for their entire tour of duty. The screening system tended to select experienced and aggressive Forward Air Controllers who were not very amenable to being restricted by regulations.[16][17]

The Ravens belonged only tangentially to the U. S. Air Force. By presidential directive, the ambassador controlled all U. S. military activity in Laos.[18] The Ravens performed their duties under direction of the Air Attaché; the Air Attaché in turn reported to the Ambassador. The Air Force kept the Ravens' records and paid them, but had no operational control over them, although 7/13th Air Force was formed in an attempt to regain control of their pilots. Generals William Westmoreland and William Momyer both wanted to gain control of the war in Laos. However, Ambassador William Sullivan, and his successor, G. McMurtrie Godley, continued to oversee air strikes in Laos. This situation was offensive to the Air Force; in many cases, the individual Raven received poor ratings and suffered retarded promotions because of his participation in the program.[19][20] However, the Ravens liked the ambiguous situation because it left them free to coordinate air strikes with the CIA operatives running the local ground troops.[21]

Operational history[edit]

In November 1964, Roy Dalton was the first rated officer to augment the Butterflies. He was stationed at LS 36, a dirt air strip near Na Khang, Laos; he directed air strikes by the Royal Lao Air Force while riding in Air America helicopters, or from observation posts on mountaintops.[22]

The Raven program was officially founded on 5 May 1966. It began with two pilots on 90 days temporary duty, working out of aircraft borrowed from Air America. Lieutenants Jim F. Lemon and Truman Young had been directing air strikes on either side of the DMZ dividing Vietnam. Upon their return to Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, they were told that minor disciplinary sins of unauthorized aerobatics and furniture destruction at a party would be excused if they volunteered for a secret program—which, of course, was the Ravens.[23] Joined by a third Raven, they began 90 day TDY tours flying support for the Royal Lao Army.[24]

In December, 1966, they acquired the use of an O-1 Bird Dog assigned to the Royal Lao Air Force at Savannakhet; unlike the borrowed Air America planes, the O-1 had additional radios and smoke rocket tubes for improved communications and target marking. A de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver and a Helio Courier were also acquired, but seemed not to be used for directing air strikes.

By August 1967, the three Raven FACs on duty in Laos were augmented by three more Ravens stationed with Detachment 1, 606th Air Commando Squadron at Nakhon Phanom; this trio commuted to the war. At about the same time, the Air Attaché in Vientiane requested O-1s unmarked by national insignia be supplied by 7/13th Air Force, on the grounds that the Ravens needed their own airplanes instead of riding with civilian pilots. The O-1s were supplied. By November, the Raven head count had increased to eight.[25] The number of Ravens would increase in a futile attempt to keep up with the swelling tide of air strikes Laos, but they would never number more than 22 assigned at one time.[26]

The chronic shortage of Ravens meant that ofttimes they spent an incredible amount of time flying combat. Raven John Mansur recalled flying as long as 11 hours 45 minutes in a day. Ron Rinehart even exceeded that, logging a 14 hour flight day. Incoming air strikes arrived en masse, with as many as six flights of fighter-bombers stacked up at various altitudes awaiting their turn to bomb. Rinehart would remain on station until his marking rockets were expended, all windows on his O1 slathered in grease pencil notes of air strikes, and his fuel desperately low. On three occasions, he landed dead stick back at base when he ran out of gas. In a single month, he directed over 1,000 sorties of tactical air, flying over 280 combat hours. If President Lyndon B. Johnson’s March 1968 partial bombing halt diverted a steady stream of air power from Vietnam into Laos, his 1 November 1968 moratorium flooded the kingdom with American air power and overwhelmed the four Ravens stationed in northeastern Laos.[27]

Tactical air power was allocated at a conference by 7/13th Air Force in Saigon. Air Attaché Colonel Robert Tyrell came away from this with 60% of all tactical air strikes in Southeast Asia scheduled for attacks within Laos. The position of Head Raven was created to serve as a de facto Air Liaison Officer, and the number of Ravens in-country doubled to handle the new work load.[28] General Vang Pao, the ground commander of the CIA’s clandestine army of Hmong hill tribesmen, used tactical air as airborne artillery. His combat operations became dependent upon it.[29]

Operational hazards[edit]

Both the O-1s and the later-supplied U-17s had severe maintenance problems in the beginning. Maintenance was spotty; it was performed by pilots, poorly trained Lao mechanics, or Air American technicians. The piston engines were tuned for optimum performance at Udorn's low altitude; they would run lean in the highlands of Laos. Adding to the woes were high power settings needed for maximum weight takeoffs, toting maximal loads, or short-field takeoffs; engine life in O-1s fell from 1,800 hours to 400 hours flight time.[30]

Engine failures became epidemic. Eighteen engine failures occurred during the last quarter of 1968. Karl Polifka (call sign Raven 45) reported 26 in a month, apparently February 1969. This led to all the O-1s being cycled through Udorn to have their fuel tanks cleaned out. Some of them had 18 years of crud and mud contaminating the tanks. The tanks were cleaned, and by May 1969, air force piston engine mechanics came on board at the ratio of a mechanic per two FAC aircraft. Engine problems dropped drastically after that.[31]

Anti-aircraft fire could be intense and accurate; the Raven's airplanes were known to take up to 50 hits battle damage in a single sortie.[32]

Working as a Raven FAC was an exhausting, high-risk, high-stress job. The casualty rate among them ran about 50% wounded and killed; one calculation by a participating Raven at his end of tour was that 90% of the Raven planes had been hit by ground fire during their tours of duty; 60% had been downed by enemy action at some point; 30% had been killed in action.[33] The roster of 161 Ravens does includes the prior Butterfly FACs, none of whom were KIA, as well as an Army Attaché, who was. Twenty-three of the Air Force Ravens were KIA during the Secret War; Army Attaché Joseph Bush was the 24th.[34]


  1. ^ General Vang Pao's Last War, New York Times Magazine, May 11, 2008
  2. ^ The End of Nowhere: American Policy Toward Laos Since 1954. p. 178–179. 
  3. ^ Shadow War: The CIA's Secret War in Laos, p. 13.
  4. ^ At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U.S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955–1975. 
  5. ^ Classifed Secret: Controlling Air Strikes in the Clandestine War in Laos. pp. xvi – xvii, 3. 
  6. ^ Classifed Secret: Controlling Air Strikes in the Clandestine War in Laos. pp. 28, 37, 55, 80. 
  7. ^ Classifed Secret: Controlling Air Strikes in the Clandestine War in Laos. pp. 103, 121. 
  8. ^ Hit My Smoke: Forward Air Controllers in Southeast Asia. p. 29. 
  9. ^ The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America's Secret War in Laos. p. 109. 
  10. ^ Hit My Smoke: Forward Air Controllers in Southeast Asia. p. 29; 113–114. 
  11. ^ Classifed Secret: Controlling Air Strikes in the Clandestine War in Laos. pp. 2, 3. 
  12. ^ Classifed Secret: Controlling Air Strikes in the Clandestine War in Laos. p. 5. 
  13. ^ One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam. pp. 26–27. 
  14. ^ The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America's Secret War in Laos. pp. 12–14. 
  15. ^ At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U. S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government 1955-1975. p. 86. 
  16. ^ The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America's Secret War in Laos. p. 7–9. 
  17. ^ Hit My Smoke: Forward Air Controllers in Southeast Asia. p. 113–114. 
  18. ^ One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam. p. 106. 
  19. ^ Shadow War: The CIA's Secret War in Laos. 
  20. ^ Hit My Smoke: Forward Air Controllers in Southeast Asia. p. 113–114. 
  21. ^ The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America's Secret War in Laos. pp. 39–40. 
  22. ^ Hit My Smoke: Forward Air Controllers in Southeast Asia. p. 12–13. 
  23. ^ http://www.airspacemag.com/military-aviation/ravens.html?c=y&page=2 Retrieved 27 December 2009.
  24. ^ Hit My Smoke: Forward Air Controllers in Southeast Asia. p. 115. 
  25. ^ Hit My Smoke: Forward Air Controllers in Southeast Asia. p. 115. 
  26. ^ The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America's Secret War in Laos. p. 64. 
  27. ^ The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America's Secret War in Laos. pp. 61, 88&ndash89, 94&ndash95. 
  28. ^ The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America's Secret War in Laos. pp. 188–190. 
  29. ^ The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America's Secret War in Laos. pp. 181–182. 
  30. ^ Hit My Smoke: Forward Air Controllers in Southeast Asia. p. 119–120. 
  31. ^ Hit My Smoke: Forward Air Controllers in Southeast Asia. p. 116 (for Polifka's call sign), 119–120. 
  32. ^ The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America's Secret War in Laos. p. 247. 
  33. ^ The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America's Secret War in Laos. p. 335–336.  Note: Craig Duehring, who made this calculation, later became an Assistant Secretary of the Air Force.
  34. ^ The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America's Secret War in Laos. p. 447–448.  lists all Ravens deceased prior to publication; a cross-check with http://www.squawk-flash.org/fac_memorial.htm reveals those Ravens who were killed in action in Laos.|Note: USAF Ravens are not listed in the 1988 directory of names for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, although they appear on it.


Further reading[edit]

  • Cain, Jim (2010). Butterfly 70/Raven 41. Peak Vista Press, OCLC 753468377
  • Diller, Richard E. (2013). Firefly: A Skyraider's Story About America's Secret War Over Laos. Dog Ear Press, ISBN 978-1-4575-1969-7
  • Lerner, Joe (2006). In the Black. iUniverse, ISBN 978-0-595-40714-9
  • Naekel, Gerald (2013). War Stories From an Army Pilot Flying in the CIA's Secret War in Laos. CreateSpace, ISBN 978-1-4928-9461-2
  • Polifka, Karl (2013). Meeting Steve Canyon...and Flying With the CIA in Laos. CreateSpace, ISBN 978-1-4909-7985-4

External links[edit]