Friday, September 18, 2015

Hey, Bird Dog, Get Away From My Quail...

During the 'Last Good War' (WWII) the U.S. Army employed a large number of light aircraft in the artillery-spotting, observation, and liaison roles... aircraft such as the Piper L-4 and Stinson L-5, among others. Universally known as 'Grasshoppers', partly because of their STOL (short take-off and landing) characteristics, and partly due to the fact that they were, more often than not, operated from rough, grassy fields, these little birds were comparatively fragile, just like their namesake. They were constructed largely of metal tube frames covered with fabric skin, and did not always stand up well to the rigorous use they saw in numerous combat zones around the globe. After the war, the U.S. Army wanted to replace all of these 'grasshoppers' with something just as capable, but a bit more sturdy.

Enter the Bird Dog...

Essentially a development of the civilian Cessna 170, the all-metal Cessna Model 305A, later dubbed the 'Bird Dog', was chosen by the Army as its new, 'more sturdy grasshopper' and production began in 1950, with deliveries starting in December of that year. Soon thereafter the first Bird Dogs were sent to Korea to take part in their first shooting war.

An Army L-19A, serial number 51-4829, shortly after coming off the assembly line at the Cessna factory in Wichita, Kansas.
This Bird Dog survives today and is regularly flown by a civilian owner.

Project 914 Archives

Roughly 3,200 Bird Dogs were built between 1950 and 1959, initially seeing widespread service with the U.S. Army as the L-19 and the Marine Corps as the OE-1. In 1962 designations for U.S. military aircraft were standardized, and all Bird Dogs received the designation O-1. Not too long afterward, the Bird Dog took part in its second shooting war... Vietnam.

It was during this conflict that the Bird Dog was utilized in what has become its most iconic role... that of FAC (Forward Air Control) for the U.S. Air Force. In this role the Bird Dogs would loiter in a combat area, using smoke rockets to show the Air Force, Navy, and Marine fast movers where Charlie was so that they could accurately drop their things that go boom without hitting friendlies. The FACs also directed SAR (Search and Rescue) operations to pick up downed pilots. In both of these roles the Bird Dog excelled, though quite the price was paid. The slow and low-flying FACs constantly took direct fire from Charlie, and the O-1s suffered heavy losses. Rarely was a FAC pilot's day described as boring.

An O-1 FAC fires a smoke rocket to mark a target for attack birds, January 1967.

Project 914 Archives

It wasn't long before the O-1 was replaced in the FAC role by more modern and more capable types, such as the O-2 Skymaster and OV-10 Bronco. But the 'ole Bird Dog soldiered on for a while longer in less demanding roles until it was retired from U.S. military service in the mid 1970s.

Fade to Black...

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