By Willie Bodenstein

The Cessna O-1(L-19) better known as the Bird Dog, a development of the Cessna 170, was the first all metal fixed wing aircraft to serve in the United States Army and when it was taken into service in 1950 few people would have imagined that it would have an illustrious operational career in two wars and serve with distinction in numerous air forces for almost twenty five years.

The Bird Dog differed significantly from its civilian predecessor, the four seater Cessna 170. The Bird Dog seated two, a the pilot and navigator/observer that were accommodated in a completely redesigned more comfortable cabin with angled side windows to provide excellent all-round visibility whilst transparent panels in the wings above the seats made upward observation of threats possible. The door was enlarged to make provision for a military stretcher and the O-1 received the Continental O-470-11 flat six piston engine of 213 hp (159 kw) giving it greatly improved performance compared with the 170 that was powered by the Continental O-300-A of 145 hp (108 kW).

At the end of World War II (WW ll), the US Army was looking for a suitable replacement for its 'rag and tube' Stinson and Piper models which saw service during the war in the reconnaissance, liaison, observation and artillery spotting roles. It found that the Cessna product met all its requirements and specifications. The origin of the name Bird Dog was the result of a competition in which Cessna's employees took part and refers to the manner in which hunting dogs find their prey and direct the hunter to it. Similarly the O-1 would observe exploding shells and direct artillery fire onto the target.

The world at large was still recovering from the after effects of WWII when war broke out in Korea in 1950 and the Bird Dog had its baptism of fire. Although there were no Bird Dog units in Korea, individual pilots flew the O-1 in the enemy skies over South Korea, observing the movements of North Korean troops and directing artillery and airstrikes. By then Bird Dog construction was in full swing and between 1950 and 1959 deliveries amounted to 3,200 units.

Early in 1960, the Bird Dog was again deployed operationally, this time to Vietnam where the democratic south was invaded by the communist north. Initially equipping the South Vietnamese Air Force as well as some clandestine US operations, the Marine Corps and US Army units soon joined the fray. The Marines later switched to the OV-10 Bronco, but the Army soldiered on with the Bird Dog. At the height of the conflict eleven Reconnaissance Airplane Companies (RAC) were deployed all over Vietnam and the DMZ (the De- Militarised Zone).

The humble little Bird Dog was much feared by the enemy forces that soon realised that although its presence in itself did not present much of a threat, destruction and mayhem would soon follow its arrival. Many people consider the Bird Dog the most dangerous aircraft that the US deployed during the war. It was quiet and could linger mostly undetected for hours observing and directing artillery shells or an avalanche of bombs from a B-52 on a mostly unsuspecting target.

Not surprisingly Bird Dog losses were heavy. The United States Air Force (USAF) lost 178, three of which were downed by enemy surface-to-air missiles. The Marine Corps lost seven and the United States Army, South Vietnamese Forces and Clandestine Operators, the biggest operators of the type together lost 284. Two Bird Dogs were loaned to the Australian Army's 161 Reconnaissance Flight operating out of Nui Dat in PhuocTuy province. One was lost to ground fire in May 1968. The Australian Army's 161 Unit's technicians, using parts salvaged from dumps, were able to build an airworthy copy that was later smuggled back to Australia in a crate marked as aircraft spares. This example is on display at the Museum of Army Flying in Queensland.

Bird Dog exploits during the war are the 'stuff' of which legends are made. In one instance, a day before the fall of Saigon a South Vietnamese Air Force Major loaded his wife and five children into the two seater Bird Dog and flew from Con Son Island whilst dodging enemy ground fire. The airplane headed out to sea and with only an hour's worth of fuel remaining, eventually spotted the USS Midway aircraft carrier, its deck packed with Vietnamese UH-1 Helicopters. Circling the ship, the Major managed to drop a note asking for the deck to be cleared for a landing. Below deck the Midway was packed to the gunwales with aircraft and the only option was to push overboard some ten million dollars' worth of South Vietnamese UH-1s. With the deck cleared, the little Bird Dog with its precious human cargo performed a safe carrier landing. The airplane is on display at the National Museum of Naval Aviation at the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida.

By 1974, most O-1s were withdrawn from service and sold to private buyers. In June 2009 more than 330 were registered with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) in the USA, whilst countless others are operated by individuals outside the USA. The humble Bird Dog richly deserves the title of Warbird.

General characteristics

Crew: 2
Length: 25 feet 9 inches (7.85 m), wingspan: 36 feet (10.97 m), height: 7 feet 3inches (2.22 m)
Wing area: 174 feet≤ (16.16 m≤), empty weight: 1,614 lbs (732 kg), max take-off weight: 2,400 lbs (1089 kg)Powerplant: 1 ◊ Continental O-470-11 flat six piston, 213 hp (159 kw)


Maximum speed: 130 mph (209 km/h)
Range: 530 miles (853 km)
Service ceiling: 20,300 feet (6,200 m)
Rate of climb: 1,040 feet/min (317 m/min)

Classic Aircraft

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