Monday, 1 March 2010
A hundred feet over Hell by Jim Hooper - Recommended Aviation books (1)
A military adaptation of a 1950s design that first saw service during the Korean War, the Cessna Bird Dog was already rather long in the tooth by the time of the Vietnam war. However in the Forward Air Control role the Bird Dog managed to get into far more scrapes than many other far more glamorous combat machines. Although it was a flimsy parasol-winged light aircraft barely capable of 100 mph, the Bird Dog over Vietnam spent most of its time in the early years of the conflict in the air stooging around over the jungle, spotting and sighting within range of every enemy weapon on the battlefield. Author Jim Hooper's brother flew one and this is his story and that of his unit, the 220th Reconnaissance Airplane Company, the 'Catkillers'. It is the tale of a handful of young pilots who put their lives on the line virtually every time they got airborne. They operated over the northern-most part of South Vietnam, along the so-called DMZ or demilitarized zone, either alone or with a second crewman, often, amazingly enough, venturing into North Vietnam searching out targets and directing artillery or air strikes against them. The only Army Bird Dog company to bear the Marine designation of Tactical Air Coordinator (Airborne), they supported both Army and Marine infantry, often spelling survival for embattled American or Vietnamese troops. They went to war the hard way, with nothing more than 217 hp, a radio and a map. With the exception of a handgun and a M16, they were unarmed. But as the Vietcong learned, once the Catkillers had located their target and marked it with their smoke rockets, they could bring a formidable arsenal to bear. From rolling artillery barrages to successive flights of Phantoms or Skyhawks, all the FAC had to say was "Hit my smoke," and a carpet of destruction would descend upon enemy troops, sometimes within tens of metres of friendly positions.
A handful of aviation memoirs from the Vietnam War truly stand out - 'Thud Ridge' and 'Chickenhawk' to name just two. Jim Hooper’s 'history' of the 220th Reconnaissance Airplane Company will become another classic, packed as it is with accounts of rare heroism and thrilling flying action. In these days of unmanned drones, it almost beggars belief that the Catkiller FACs flew low and slow in some of the most heavily defended airspace in the history of aerial warfare. 'A Hundred Feet Over Hell' is a must read for all with an interest in military aviation.