With none of their own combat aircraft deployed to South Vietnam, the RNZAF sent two pilots to be attached to the 7th US Air Force as forward air controllers (FACs) in December 1968.
The FAC’s role was a crucial one. It involved carrying out visual reconnaissance, marking targets on the ground with white phosphorus rockets, calling in and controlling attacks by US strike aircraft, and assessing their success. Often, this depended on the skill and nerve of these pilots. They would also be held responsible if the mission went wrong, such as a ‘friendly fire’ incident. FAC missions were dangerous; often the pilots were shot at by enemy ground forces, although in doing so the enemy quickly learned that these aircraft would call in fighter-bombers on their location, and so held their fire to avoid being destroyed.
Initially, New Zealanders flew the Cessna O-2A Super Skymaster and, later, the faster and more manoeuvrable North American Rockwell OV-10A Bronco. Not only were these operations vulnerable to ground fire, they sometimes also required difficult strikes to be made very close to friendly troops.
On attachment to the US Air Force, the pilots undertook a 10-day course in American operating procedures, including a demonstration of the FAC’s role, and a familiarisation with the aircraft they would fly. On arrival at their units they were given two or three flights within their assigned area of operations, after which they became operational. Each tour lasted six months and they were then replaced by another pilot from New Zealand. The New Zealand FACs were all experienced fighter pilots, which greatly assisted them in their role. RNZAF pilots posted later to Vietnam as FACs received training in New Zealand for their intended roles so they had a better idea of what to expect.
For political reasons, the New Zealand Government placed limitations on some of the Kiwi pilots’ operations, such as not allowing them to fly over neighbouring Cambodia. Later in the war, an additional restriction was also introduced for the New Zealanders over Laos, which had been attacked by the North Vietnamese in 1971. New Zealanders continued to serve as FACs until February 1972, when the last pilots were withdrawn.
There were about 3,400 FACs operating in South Vietnam during the war. Almost all of them were from the United States. Thirty-six were provided by Australia and 14 by the RNZAF. Of those 14, two were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (one being a US award), and one received a Mention in Despatches award.