Vietnam Above the Treetops: A Forward Air Controller Reports

Vietnam Above the Treetops: A Forward Air Controller Reports

by John Flanagan

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It is 1966, the war is escalating, and a young Air Force Academy graduate's assignment is to patrol unfriendly territory with six-man hunter-killer teams. As a Forward Air Controller, flying single engine spotter planes, Flanagan is the link between fighter-bomber pilots and ground forces. This autobiographical account recreates the period when Flanagan, assigned


It is 1966, the war is escalating, and a young Air Force Academy graduate's assignment is to patrol unfriendly territory with six-man hunter-killer teams. As a Forward Air Controller, flying single engine spotter planes, Flanagan is the link between fighter-bomber pilots and ground forces. This autobiographical account recreates the period when Flanagan, assigned to Project Delta, was plunged into major operations in key combat areas. Spectacular airstrikes, team rescues, lost men, thwarted attempts to save comrades—all are recounted here with raw honesty. A factual combat history from one man's perspective, this is also a thoughtful look at the warrior values of bravery, honesty, and integrity. Flanagan examines the influences that help build these values—educational institutions, the military training system (including the service academies), and religion—and reflects on the high cost of abandoning them.

In Vietnam Above the Treetops, Flanagan traces his life from adolescence through the training period, combat missions of all kinds, and re-entry into the everyday world. His war tales take us to key regions: from the Demilitarized Zone, south through the Central highlands, and into War Zone C near Cambodia. Flanagan tells the absolute truth of his experience in Vietnam— call signs, bomb loads, and target coordinates are all historically accurate. He offers observations on the Vietnamese and Korean forces he worked with, comparing Eastern and Western cultures, and he vents his frustrations with the U.S. command structure. Determined to reconstruct the past, Flanagan re-read old letters from Vietnam, examined maps, deciphered pocket diaries, interviewed former comrades, and let his own long-buried memories surface. Flanagan did not find this book easy to write, but he wanted to pay tribute to his fellow warriors, especially those still missing in action; he wanted to exorcise his war nightmares and further understand his experience. Even more important, he needed to communicate the values he and his comrades lived by, in distant jungles where they faced some of the toughest circumstances known to human beings.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An Air Force officer's vigorous account of the Vietnam War…Flanagan's memoir is not like Robert Mason's in Chickenhawk (1983), where the naive young officer is transformed into an embittered veteran questioning all wars. Flanagan became a general. His job in Vietnam was to fly close in with small aircraft, to report and coordinate what he saw; sometimes, too, he had to don infantry gear and head into the jungle. Many of his blow-by-blow accounts of battles are drawn from notes…This is the perspective of a veteran who feels we failed because of a lack of resolve, that the news media distorted events or couldn't understand them, that the antiwar movement meant well but was wrong…Splendid tales of combat. Flanagan, a U.S. Air Force pilot in the Vietnam War, describes his experiences as a forward air controller (FAC) working with our allies and with U.S. Army DELTA teams. (A forward air controller flies in a small prop plane and acts as a link between ground troops and larger attack aircraft by providing navigational aid and marking targets.) Flanagan's introduction, describing his deep psychological need to share his war experiences, leads the reader to expect a harrowing study of what war does to people (in the vein of James C. Donahue's No Greater Love: A Day with the Mobile Guerrilla Forces in Vietnam, Daring Bks., 1988; or Matthew Brennan's Brennan's War, Pocket Bks., 1989). Instead, one finds the same set-piece descriptions of ground combat that are standard in Vietnam War books. The author's large ego might make readers think Ehat Flanagan was the best FAC ever to serve in the war. Little depth here, just the diary of a pilot on an unglamorous but important mission. Recommended only for libraries with large Vietnam War collections." - Library Journal

"John Flanagan is a skilled narrator. Throughout the book, the reader feels a sense of place, of being there. Vivid descriptions of people, places and situations abound. The author's idea of the warrior spirit, the meaning and futility of war is presented from his unique perspective. I purely enjoyed reading this book. Its insights into the times and personal side of war are valuable and thought provoking. The mission narratives are riveting. I found his discussion of the impact of his Air Force Academy education to be very illuminating and perhaps fresh ground. As Flanagan points out, It had produced its first echelon of combat veterans. This vivid story is testimony to that." - ASSEMBLY Military Review

"If you served in Vietnam, you'll recognize that John is giving it to you straight. If you didn't serve there, but are looking to learn more about why we lost the war, Vietnam Above the Treetops is full of stories about what worked and what didn't." - Checkpoints

"The author of this outstanding military memoir describes his experiences in Vietnam as a forward air-controller in 1966, piloting slow-moving, low-flying spotter planes, orchestrating spectacular air strikes (saturation ordinance) and shepherding the long-range reconnaissance teams of Project Delta, an autonomous Special Forces outfit staffed by Americans and Vietnamese. A strong writer with an eye for telling detail, Flanagan vividly conveys what it was like flying hazardous missions in monsoon weather, bending rules and regulations for the sake of the task at hand, enjoying the camaraderie of fellow warriors and waging war despite critical shortages and malfunctions…The most dramatic section of the book tells a two-part story of the loss of a Project Delta team in an ambush and the night 16 years later when a voice on the phone said My name is Eleanor Bott Gregory. Do you know what happened to my brother?" - Publishers Weekly

"Something made Flanagan mad in Vietnam, and it just won't go away. What got to him was an enemy—not the Viet Cong of North Vietnamese Army but an immorality, an institutional rot that every American serviceman and woman had to deal with." - Air & Space/Smithsonian

"Adds much to one's understanding of the air war in Vietnam, but it also describes the close working relationship between members of separate services when the job called for them to work together in spite of interservice rivalry. This is a book that belongs on the bookshelf of anyone with an interest in Vietnam." - Vietnam

"Readers should persevere, and those who do will be rewarded. They will find a well told story which ably conveys precisely what the complex, difficult, important, and dangerous job of the forward air controller was during the Vietnam War." - Air Power History

"A thoughtful even intellectual account about FAC flying above the tree tops (at tree top level often)." - Indochina Chronology

"Flanagan recounts his time in the US Air Force flying single-engine spotter planes linking fighter-bomber pilots and ground combat forces during the Vietnam War in 1966. He draws on letters, maps, pocket diaries, interviews with comrades, and of course his own memory to describe how junior officers and non-commissioned officers, like him,
carried the brunt of war trapped between the bravery of the warriors beneath them and the convoluted politico-military command structure above them." - Reference & Research Book News

An encyclopedia of the world's games and sports designed for use by teachers to give students a unique means of learning about other cultures. Organized by global region then by country, entries include information on the type of game, number of players, game objectives, equipment required, playing area, time of play, rules of play, and symbolism of the game. Appendixes discuss the role of games in education and the role of cooperative games in movement education. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Product Details

ABC-CLIO, Incorporated
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

What People are saying about this

Dr. Tyrus W. Cobb
"A riveting personal account of the war in Vietnam from a unique perspective—that of a pilot engaged in all facets of the operations. Highly readable, moving, and gripping. Flanagan brings home forcefully the ethical dimension of war—the difficult choices facing a combat pilot; American policy makers not fully committing to the prosecution of the war; and the failure of the media to accurately portray the American involvement in that conflict."
Charles R. Hamm
"This book vividly depicts the warrior spirit of the graduates of the (then new) Air Force Academy who served in the Vietnam War."
Linda Reinberg
"Vietnam traumatized the warriors, the families, and the nation. Flanagan lays bare the scars as the healing process continues. Everyone exposed to the Vietnam experience can learn from this book."
Eleanor Bott Gregory
"For 16 years we never knew what really happened to my brother when he disappeared in Laos. John told us the truth in 1982. He tells it here. We are grateful for his efforts. My brother may still be alive."
Robert H. Baxter
"This is real combat with real people . . . it is also a striking story of conscience and conviction in the face of deadly bureaucratic ineptitude."

Meet the Author

JOHN F. FLANAGAN was among the first graduates of the United States Air Force Academy and earned an MBA from Boston College. After Vietnam, he worked as an international business executive, a presidential exchange executive, and a college professor and business consultant in New York. He attained the rank of Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserve.

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