Thursday, November 03, 2011

How O-2 Aircraft Got to Vietnam in the 1960s


How The O-2s Really Got There
by Richard Wood

It's 1967 or maybe early 1968, I forget, and the Air Force has bought a mess of Cessna Super Skymasters and called them O-2s. The Cessna factory at Wichita, Kansas is pumping them out at a pretty good clip and your problem is to figure out how to get them to Vietnam where they are needed. Your choices are:
1. Fly them to the West coast and turn them over to the Army for transport by cargo ship.
2. Take the wings off them and stuff them three at a time into the belly of C-124s and fly them over.
3. Fly them over under their own power with no C-124 attached.

Question: Which method was used? Right! Every single one of those puppies was hand-flown across the Big P to Vietnam. That sounds like it might have been a Mickey Mouse operation. Believe me, it wasn't that good.

Air Force Systems Command (AFSC) was running that show and their knowledge stopped somewhat short of knowing anything about ferrying air planes. The Air Force had a perfectly good organization called the 44th Aircraft Delivery Group which operated world wide and managed the ferrying of all aircraft; except the O-2s.

AFSC contracted with some outfit in San Francisco to deliver the planes to Saigon. The contractor hired a bunch of civilian pilots who couldn't find honest work elsewhere. Since the O-2s were technically "public" aircraft (as opposed to civil aircraft) no pilot's license was necessary to fly one and I'm not sure that all of the pilots had licenses. Some of them were pretty good, but the rest of them were the most god-awful collection of unquali fied scruffy-looking alcohol ics you ever saw. The dregs of the flying profession.

The deal worked like this. The pilots were given a plane ticket to Wichita where they got a quickie checkout in the O-2 if they needed one. Then they launched in bunches of four and headed for Hamilton AFB on the west coast of California. Enroute, they were instructed to carefully monitor and record their oil consumption, which, of course, they did not do. That type of pilot does not monitor and record oil consumption.

At Hamilton, the Air Force removed all the seats except the left front one. The seats were shipped to Vietnam by air, which is what should have happened to the rest of the plane, too. Extra fuel tanks were installed in the vacant floor space fol lowed by the pilot himself. He had to crawl over the co-pilot tank to get to the left seat. Next, they installed an oil tank on top of the co-pilot tank followed by a small emergency HF radio on top of that. Now, the pilot was truly locked in. To get out, he could either wait for someone to remove the radio and oil tank or crawl out the emergency escape window on the left side.

Takeoff must have been something to watch. With all that fuel, the planes were way over max gross weight. They had no single engine capability at all for about the first five hours of flight. If either engine hiccupped, the pilot went swimming.
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