The 73rd Aviation Company (Airplane Surveillance) (Light) was activated at Fort Rucker, Alabama on 27 March 1963. As soon as assigned personnel arrived, the unit underwent intensive training in the tactical and technical aspects of its mission. After an impressive departure ceremony, hosted by the Fort Rucker Commanding General, the unit personnel deployed to Vietnam on 28 May 1963. Its aircraft arrived in Vietnam aboard the USNS Core and were delivered to the unit commencing on 10 June 1963. The 73rd with 32 O-1 Birddog aircraft , was the first Army aviation unit to be equipped entirely with the small single engine airplane previously used primarily to ferry commanders and their staff around the battlefield for liaison. As one of the eight vanguard Army Aviation units deployed in the earliest days of U. S involvement in Vietnam, the 73rd took a simple airplane and performed historic feats with it.
The 73rd Aviation Company was directed to provide one aerial surveillance section to each Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) Division under the operational control of the Division U. S. Senior Advisor. The deployed aerial surveillance sections lived with the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) team they supported. An additional section was directed to support Special Forces headquarters. The mission of the unit was to support combat operations by performing visual and aerial photographic reconnaissance and surveillance, artillery adjustment, combat command and control, and other combat support operations as required. To support the widely dispersed people and aircraft, the company headquarters was located at Nha Trang and maintenance facilities were established at Nha Trang and Vung Tau.
The 73rd Aviation Company proved the value of regular aerial surveillance of operational areas and targets. The aviators in support of each ARVN Division rapidly became familiar with the area, personalities, and requirements of the supported commanders. Flying continuously over the same area, they became knowledgeable on the terrain, weather, and tactical peculiarities of the supported zones. Along with the U.S. MAAG advisors to the ARVN forces, they were able to discern even subtle differences from day to day in the areas they observed and report changes that implied enemy activity. Due to the lack of trained U.S. military observers, aerial surveillance training was provided for US and ARVN observers. Over seventy percent of the missions flown were devoted to aerial surveillance.
The 73rd Aviation Company’s aircraft were instrumental in expediting command and control by transporting key personnel to widely dispersed locations and by providing timely information to ground forces. Special Forces patrolling operations were supported with supply drops. Aerial photographs were taken of flight routes and landing zones prior to airmobile operations. In fact, almost any type of mission that could be conceived for Army aircraft were performed, from dropping live pigs from the bomb shackles, to evacuating seriously injured patients and to dropping flares on a village during an attack.
During the 73rd Aviation Company’s short life, its aviators and maintenance personnel established many record “firsts”. It accomplished over 45,000 missions, flying over 43,000 hours. The 32 assigned aircraft flew an average of 100 hours each per month. An average availability rate of 90% was maintained in spite of rigorous combat operations and a greatly stretched supply chain. The unit lost three aviators that were KIA, one aviator was MIA and one aviator was WIA. Awards approved for unit personnel included one Silver Star, fifteen Distinguished Flying Crosses, Nineteen Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts, hundreds of Air Medals, and twenty five Army Commendation Medals. Recommended for the Distinguished Unit Citation, the 73rd was the first Army Aviation unit in Vietnam to be awarded the Meritorious Unit Citation, the highest unit award authorized in the theater at the time.
The 73rd Aviation Company was so successful in proving the value of aerial surveillance of the battlefield, that ten additional birddog units were formed and deployed to the Vietnam. That success also led to commanders of today demanding unmanned aerial vehicles for battlefield surveillance. On 30 September 1964, the 73rd was split up and its resources used to form the nucleus of several of the new birddog units. The 73rd Aviation Company (Airplane Surveillance) (Light) was unceremoniously deactivated on 1 November 1964. Its lineage was later passed to the 73 rd Surveillance Aviation Company, a unit with a similar mission at a higher command level, flying the OV-1 Mohawk aircraft.