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VIETNAMIZATION IN THE AIR
"The target today is a suspected enemy location near the gully behind that clump of trees," says the American Forward Air Controller (FAC) from a tiny spotter plane just above the treetops some 30 miles northwest of Saigon. On the receiving end of the message is a South Vietnamese pilot, Captain Hoang Manh Dzung, 28, who is flying a propeller-driven A-l Skyraider with a 4,000-lb. bomb load. Suddenly, standing the plane on its nose, Captain Dzung swoops down, releases a 500-lb. bomb and pulls adroitly out of the dive. After several more runs, the FAC radios: "Very nice. Hundred percent of the bombs were on target." To a companion in the cockpit, Captain Dzung says: "Oh, we do that every day."
As the U.S. continues to turn over the burden of fighting the war to the South Vietnamese, the Viet Nam air force is rapidly coming into its own. Already it has doubled its combat missions to 40% of the total flown throughout the country, and it is also handling a considerable part of the bombing inside Cambodia. The South Vietnamese are receiving sizable numbers of planes. At the start of 1970, they had only 400 aircraft, including 125 helicopters. By the end of 1971, they will have about 800, half of them helicopters. South Viet Nam now has 26 squadrons and 1,300 pilots; roughly as many men are in flight training.
Though Vietnamese pilots often must sit on pillows to see over the instrument panel of American-made planes, they are by no means short on combat experience. Most American pilots, whose combat tour in Viet Nam usually lasts only one year, can expect to fly 200 to 300 sorties, or about 400 to 600 combat hours. Many Vietnamese pilots have been flying combat missions for years and boast up to 4,000 flying hours, 90% of them in combat. As a result, says General Lucius D. Clay Jr., commander of the Seventh Air Force and son of the famous World War II general, "they can put a bomb in the ashtray on your desk."
Time for Girls. When they want to, that is. Like their famed colleague, Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, who also flew an A1, South Vietnamese pilots are flashy, hard-living and at times insubordinate. The Vietnamese pilot may refuse to make a tactical support strike if he does not happen to like the ground commander calling for one. "American pilots go wherever and whenever they are ordered, with no questions asked," says one South Vietnamese ground commander. "With the Vietnamese, you can never be sure. If you call for an air strike in the late afternoon, they will say that they do not have enough fuel. Yet they always have enough fuel to fly home in time to take their favorite girl out for dinner."
For their part, the pilots complain that they are not being given the hottest U.S. aircraft. The U.S. has turned over 20 C-119 and 20 C-47 overaged transports as well as 100 Cessna A-37 light bombers to Saigon. The Vietnamese would have preferred the much newer C-7 Caribou transports and the faster and more sophisticated A-7 Corsair jet fighters developed by the U.S. Navy. South Vietnamese commanders also complain that while the U.S. needed 4,000 helicopters to conduct the war, it is giving the V.N.A.F. fewer than 500.
Perhaps the greatest worry to the Vietnamese are reports that North Viet Nam may have moved some of its 200-odd MIGs, including new long-range models, toward the 17th parallel, within closer striking range of Saigon. But the U.S. has no plans to hand over to the South Vietnamese any of its supersonic F-4 Phantoms or F-105 Thunderchiefs, which are a match for the MIGs. The official reason is that they are too complicated for the Vietnamese to operate; privately, U.S. officials concede that they fear to give the South Vietnamese planes like the Phantoms that could deliver a bomb from Saigon to Hanoi in 27 minutes.
American officers argue that Saigon really need not worry about a precipitous weakening of its air defenses since the U.S. is simply not leaving that quickly and will be keeping "air" in Thailand and elsewhere. At present, there are about 280 Phantoms at Thai bases or on the remaining U.S. Air Force bases in South Viet Nam. In almost ten years of war in Indochina, the U.S. has lost 7,316 aircraft.
Despite the promising progress of the South Vietnamese air force, some U.S. airmen are reluctant to give up an American combat role. "My men grumble that they are frustrated – that there are no good targets left any more," says one U.S. Air Force wing commander. "But I always remind them of the plight of pilots back in the States. 'Let's face it,' I tell them, 'Viet Nam is the only place in the world today where you can drop real bombs.' "
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