Most of the pilots who lost their lives
in the Vietnam war were flying jet
fighters or helicopters when they died.
There was a group known as forward
air controllers (FACs) who flew the
small observation planes that many
general aviation pilots use today.
One of those aircraft is the Cessna L-19,
a version of the original Cessna 305.
Designated the O-1 (observation)
Bird Dog when put into service in Vietnam
, many now serve as towplanes in glider
operations. Several L-19s
were refitted with larger engines and are
now known as the Super Mountaineer.
One hundred and twenty two O-1 pilots
were lost in combat between 1963 and
1972. Politicians of the day said they
were defending the world against
Communism. Somehow they involved
the U.S. in a war in a tiny corner of the
globe, and sent a generation of youth to
fight it for them. History shows
the way it was handled was arguably a
terrible mistake, and America s
most unpopular military involvement.
Richard Nixon is quoted as saying
he would not be the first U.S. president
in history to lose a war. Young
Americans were sent 8,000 miles from home
to fight for a cause so many failed to
Conditions were brutal in the Vietnam
conflict, both in the air and on the
ground. FAC pilots were
particularly vulnerable to enemy fire as
they flew low and slow above the jungle,
searching, observing, and directing
attacks on NVA troop and gun positions.
I have flown the L-19 many hours,
thankfully in peacetime, towing gliders
in the mountains of British Columbia. It
is a super-strong and powerful aircraft
with the bare-bones, green military
interior. Ive sat in the
stiff seat and imagined the numerous
radios and weapons controls that were
once attached to all the holes drilled in
the panel. The side windows are
set so that the cockpit is wider at the
top than the bottom, allowing excellent
downward visibility. Everything
about the plane is tough, from the
landing gear to the heavy control stick,
but at times no match for anti aircraft
artillery and large caliber machine-gun
There is a permanent memorial for the
soldiers and pilots killed or missing in
action in Vietnam. Its called the
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, and is
situated in Washington , D.C.Built in
1982, it makes no political statement
about the war, rather it provides a place
for reflection and for visitors to
contemplate their own feelings.
Over 58,000 names are inscribed in the
glossy, black granite. Those of us who
have been termed baby
boomers, are in the age group of
Vietnam vets. We lived through the
60s and remember the war,
mostly through radio and television news
reports. Back then, there were
times when there was as much violence on
the streets in American cities as there
was in the jungles in southeast Asia.
Protesters let their feelings
about the war be known on a daily basis.
For the most part, Canadians were
not as close to it all, but over the
years, I have developed an interest in
the history and accounts of the
experiences of the soldiers and pilots in
that conflict. Many veterans have
written excellent biographies and graphic
recollections of their experiences.
I read every book I can find.
Having flown over 200 hours in the
L-19, it seems to bring about a closer
understanding for me of what those FAC
pilots had to work with. Many
times while in the air it crossed my mind
just how thankful I was that nobody was
shooting at me.
I will probably never get to Washington ,
D.C. so will not see the Vietnam Wall.
However, there are replicas of it
that are trucked around the country and
temporarily set up in various locations
so that folks like us can view them.
I was lucky enough to be in a
southwest U.S. city in March of 2009 when
the memorial was brought there. As
it is something Ive often wanted to
visit, I went down to the park to see
just what its all about. It
is difficult to put into words the
feelings and emotions felt by visitors
when they see so many names and realize
each one was a young, healthy and
dedicated citizen. Each name
belongs to someone whose life was taken
far too early, before any hope of
reaching the potential they had.
They all died a brutal, terrifying death
for a cause that was so unpopular at the
Wars never seem to make much sense.
But as long as there are people
who have different ideologies and the
freedom to express them, there will be
conflicts and violence. The
Vietnam war is for many reasons, a more
personal one to me. And
standing beside the wall, reading all the
names on it brought out feelings of
sadness, made worse by seeing other
visitors who searched for the names of
loved ones killed in action.
If ever the opportunity comes along for
me to fly the L-19 again, Ill feel
the presence of the ghosts of one hundred
and twenty two pilots who lost their
lives in the plane.