An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot by Mike Leonard

During his 1969-70 Vietnam War tour of duty Mike Leonard earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses (one with a V device) for performing bold feats in the O-1 Bird Dog throughout central South Vietnam. But don’t expect an overflowing collection of stories about a forward air controller’s combat action in his new memoir, An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot: From the Battlefield of Vietnam and Beyond (SOPREP, 330 pp. $14.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) because Leonard devotes only 64 pages of the book to those achievements.

What we get are other hyper-interesting stories of combat that recreate support missions mostly flying under four hundred feet of altitude in attacks on North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong troops. Leonard’s proudest moments in the air led to the rescue of a shot-down helicopter crew that crashed practically in the laps of the enemy.

Mike Leonard’s life has been filled with joy and drama in war and peace, yet he reflects a humble approach to all of it. His level of introspection remains constant whether a situation is good, bad, or otherwise.

Beyond the Vietnam War, his stories about flying the C-5A Galaxy and his post-Air Force life as an executive in the satellite market steal the show. Straight from the war Leonard went to piloting the C-5A in the midst of its growing pains. Whatever could go wrong with those airplanes went wrong. Fear of flight problems caused the Air Force brass to limit the aircraft’s tactical deployment. Still, one preposterous situation followed another.

Leonard repeatedly experienced the unexpected, and his descriptions of those events made me laugh out loud—and then I read those passages to my wife, who laughed along with me. Screw-ups that produced positive results in which Leonard took part advanced the C-5A’s tactical growth faster and more accurately than command guidance did.

After exactly twenty years of military service, he retired as a lieutenant colonel and went to work in the satellite industry. He describes his second career as intermittently intense, mundane, borderline illegal and unethical, and highly stressful. He reveals the intrigue behind years of knock-down, drag-out deal making and tells better stories than most present-day television and movies do.

Leonard in country with his Bird Dog, 1969

Mike Leonard’s business ventures made him a wealthy man. I believe he should have expanded the 100 pages about commerce in this memoir into a book of its own.

As an introduction to all of the above, Leonard presents a bizarre history of his family. He rates growing up in St. Louis as a surprisingly good experience. The pace of the book slows a bit when Leonard writes about enlisting in the Air Force and then going through Officer Training School; and his experiences as an EC-121 Warning Star weapons controller (including a rotation to Tan Son Nhut in south Vietnam), and during pilot training. Much of this ground has been covered many times in other memoirs, but Leonard re-evaluates the events in his terms.

An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot compensates for its misleading title by providing stories that should entertain anyone with the slightest interest in aircraft and the people associated with them, as well as exposing how a few sly devils manipulate big businesses.

—Henry Zeybel