Still Kicking After 50 Years
North American Aviation/Rockwell’s OV-10 Bronco won a U.S. military competition for a Light Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft (LARA) which was announced in 1963. The LARA requirements included improvements over the current observation aircraft of the period, namely Cessna O-1 Bird Dog and O-2 Skymaster aircraft. The U.S. Air Force, Army and Navy were all involved in the bid’s requirements. Almost a dozen concepts were entered in this competition, and in August, 1964, the North American Rockwell NA-300 entry was chosen as the winner, although the Army later settled on Grumman’s OV-1 Mohawk for their needs. The NA-300 design had been initiated, before the bid process began, by former Marine aviators William Beckett and K. P. Rice, as a close air support aircraft capable of operating in a jungle environment at the front lines of a conflict.
The first of seven NA-300 prototypes, now named the YOV-10A Bronco, flew on July 16, 1965, over 50 years ago. The “V” was a new designator for vertical or STOL capable aircraft. Its’ maximum speed was slightly under 250 knots, and service ceiling near 28,000 feet – but would never routinely operate near this altitude. Production versions, produced in Columbus, Ohio, were equipped with “zero-zero” ejection seats. The aircraft even had provisions for floats, so it could be operated from water surfaces (anyone see the 1995 movie “Waterworld”?).
The first version was ordered by the U.S. Air Force and Navy. In reality, most of the 114 OV-10A series aircraft ordered by the Navy would ultimately go to the Marines, while 157 were destined to be Air Force mounts. The aircraft were powered by twin Garrett AiResearch T76-G-10 or -12 turboprop engines that were mounted in twin booms, which ended in a tall horizontal tail. The center fuselage body was suspended under the wings and booms, housing a pilot and co-pilot in tandem. Behind the cockpit, a small cabin could hold 3 to 5 parachutists, light cargo, or with some modifications, litters for two wounded soldiers plus a medical corpsman. Armament included four .30 caliber machine guns in small sponsons mounted under the center fuselage, which could also hold small bombs or rockets. Additional weapon mounts, used to carry unguided rockets and later, Sidewinder air to air missiles, were under the wings outside of the propeller arcs.
Broncos went to work in the Vietnam War for the Air Force, Marines and Navy, replacing older aircraft in Marine Observation Squadrons (VMOs) and Air Force Tactical Air Support Squadrons (TASSs). The Navy’s Light Attack Squadron (VAL) was formed to work with SEALs and river patrol boats. The Marines equipped five Bronco squadrons and brought their first Broncos to Vietnam in 1968 where they operated from Da Nang in early July of that year. The Air Force OV-10As were used as forward air control platforms, which included target marking, bomb and artillery damage assessment duties, general reconnaissance, and armed escort for slower aircraft and helicopters. The Air Force-crewed Broncos followed the Marine crews into battle within a few months. The Navy utilized one squadron (VAL-4 Black Ponies) of OV-10As mainly as airborne support of Marines and Naval forces, including the riverine patrol boats operating well inland from the coast.
The Navy, and then the Marines experimented with several YOV-10D NOGS (Night Observation/Gunship System) Broncos around 1970, which were –A versions equipped with infrared (IR) night vision equipment and a 20mm cannon in a nose turret, slaved to the IR lens. Although the cannon modification wasn’t taken up, 17 (or 18 by another source) OV-10Ds were reproduced from –A airframes between 1978 and 1979. The –D had more powerful engines and a modified nose that housed a laser designator and ranging turret to be used in a Night Observation Surveillance (NOS) role. The Air Force also modified slightly more than a dozen of their Broncos under the Pave Nail program, adding a laser rangefinder and target illuminator; these were modified back their original –A versions after the end of the war. 81 Broncos were lost to all causes during the Vietnam War, the Air Force losing 64, the Navy 7, and the Marines 10.
Other military air arms that operated OV-10s included 18 unarmed OV-10Bs that flew as target tugs for the West German Air Force (including some OV-10B(Z)s with an auxiliary GE J85 jet engine attached), 38 armed OV-10Cs were delivered to Thailand, 16 OV-10Es went to Venezuela, and Indonesia bought a dozen OV-10Fs.
The Marines liked the capabilities of the NOS Bronco so well, they had 37 OV-10A and OV-10Ds remanufactured up to OV-10D+ standards in 1985, with advanced communications capabilities, better protection from heat seeking missiles, and AIM-9 Sidewinder capability. VMO squadrons normally operated a mix of OV-10A and –D+ aircraft. Continuous upgrades meant that by the time of the first Gulf War in 1990, Broncos were still relevant to the battlefield, and took part in the conflict, losing two of their number to Iraqi surface to air missiles. Unfortunately, funding forced the Marines to retire their OV-10s and their VMOs by 1994. The forward air control mission was assigned to two-seat F/A-18D Hornets, now called “Fast FACs”.
The Air Force, on the other hand, kept their remaining Broncos on the sidelines during the first Gulf War, weary of their survivability in the combat arena. After supplementing their TASS Bronco use with Cessna OA-37B Dragonfly jets, the OA-10A Thunderbolt II would replace both types by 1993.
Some former Air Force OV-10s were sent to foreign Air Forces to supplement their original purchases, or for spare parts. Others were kept in storage, and were resurrected for use by civilian government agencies. The Bureau of Land Management used six Broncos, and the Department of State Air Wing used close to two dozen former OV-10D+ aircraft – reworked with bigger engines and four-bladed propellers as the OV-10G+ – to eradicate drug operations in Central America by spraying herbicides. NASA has operated Broncos in test programs too.
CAL FIRE, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, began using Broncos in 1993 as observation aircraft in the Air Attack role, where eyes in the sky help communicate a fire’s progress to on-scene commanders on the ground. They also act as a tanker lead-in aircraft. Cal Fire has additional fuel tanks fitted in their aircraft so one can loiter over a fire for close to five hours per flight. Many of the CDF Broncos still have an engine-driven smoke generating system that was seldom used in Vietnam, but can be useful for air tanker lead-in duties. Possibly three former Department of State OV-10D+ airframes have been activated by the CDF to supplement their –A variants
Of the foreign operators, the West German target tugs were phased out during the 1990s. Thailand’s OV-10Cs were replaced in 2003, with some being passed on to the Philippines. Venezuela’s OV-10Es are being replaced with Mil-35 attack helicopters, and may have already flown their last missions. Indonesia’s OV-10Fs are being replaced by Embraer Super Tucanos. Other operators who flew and retired Broncos were Columbia and Morocco. The Philippine Air Force still uses six to eight Broncos in the counter insurgency role, but is actively looking to replace them due to spare parts shortage.
In 2009, Boeing announced that they would begin production of an OV-10X Super Bronco COIN aircraft, as the U.S. Air Force showed interest in a turboprop COIN turboprop to be used in small-scale actions. However, little or no activity seems to have occurred after the announcement.
Some of those Broncos modified by the Department of State and used for counter-drug operations in Columbia have resurfaced. In the early 2010 or 2011 timeframe, a program named Combat Dragon II probably used a few upgraded (former) State Department OV-10G+s to investigate whether a light turboprop attack plane was useful in the Afghanistan war. Later, in early summer of 2015 during Operation Inherent Resolve, a pair of Navy-crewed OV-10G+s flew some 120 combat missions against ISIS foes, according to an article in The Daily Beast by David Axe. They likely flew in support of Special Forces and acted as gunships and sensor platforms.
Slightly more than half a century after the first Bronco prototype flew, OV-10s are still active as Counter-Insurgency platforms in the Philippines, and with the U. S. Navy in a recently completed, limited scope program using updated Broncos in a COIN role as well. The CDF operates unarmed versions for airborne control duties battling forest fires too. Still doing what it was designed to do more than five decades later, the Bronco is proving that it can still deliver a kick on the battlefield.