Forward air controllers in Vietnam were acknowledged as having perhaps the most dangerous aviation role of the war. Flying at speeds well below the top end of most family cars, they spent hours over hostile terrain in flimsy, propeller-driven Cessna O-1 Bird Dogs. Their work was crucial in finding and stopping the enemy before they could attack American troops, and supporting those troops with artillery and air strikes when battle was joined.
Of the many army Bird Dog units in Southeast Asia, none operated in as hostile an environment as the “Catkillers” of the 220th Reconnaissance Airplane Company. Their tactical area of operations was up against the Demilitarized Zone (an oxymoron if ever there was one) in I Corps, the northern-most combat zone in South Vietnam. At the time it was estimated that there were seventy-eight thousand NVA soldiers in the area.
The Catkillers were under the operational control of the 3rd Marine Division. Unlike the U.S. Army aerial forward observers farther south, who could only direct field artillery against enemy targets, Catkillers were authorized and trained to control air strikes, which they did regularly in support of both marine and army ground units. Elsewhere in Vietnam air strikes had to be controlled by U.S. Air Force FACs.
In the DMZ with the 220th RAC’s 1st Platoon, it was normal to come under fire on almost every mission. Bullet holes in their aircraft were so common that they were barely worthy of mention. When crossing the Ben Hai River into North Vietnam in search of enemy artillery, flying at 120 miles per hour in the sights of an array of anti-aircraft weapons, only good fortune kept more Catkillers from being lost. The stories of these valiant men in their small planes has been largely overlooked before, but the risks they took on a daily basis ensured more U.S. servicemen made it home. A Hundred Feet Over Hell ensures their stories are not forgotten, as the men relive their missions in their own words.