The story of the OV-10 Bronco actually begins in 1960 with a couple of guys (Marine Corps Majors W.H. Beckett and K.P. Rice) getting together out in the desert and brainstorming a concept study for a small, lightweight, rugged close air support (CAS) aircraft that could be forward deployed with and operated near troops on the ground, capable of extended loiter times, powered by turbine engines, and carry center-mounted internal guns with ordnance carrying flexibility. Their well-received concept, dubbed VMA, was published and then-Colonel Beckett retired from the Marine Corps and went to work with North American Aircraft (NAA).
Fast forward to 1963. In that year the Light Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft (LARA) specification seemed like an impossible set of requirements. The Tri-Service (Air Force/Navy/Marines) LARA was to be a twin-engine, two place aircraft capable of carrying 2,400 pounds of cargo or six paratroopers or stretchers. In an armed recon aircraft? It had to be capable of operating from aircraft carriers without any provisions for catapult launch or arrested landing. The LARA was also required to be capable of at least 300 knots (350 miles per hour) airspeed and short takeoff and landing (STOL) performance yielding a takeoff run of 800 feet.
Also required were flexible armament configurations, beginning with four internal 7.62 millimeter (.30 caliber) machine guns with 500 rounds per gun. External ordnance requirements included the ability to tote drop tanks, 7.62 and 20 millimeter Gatling gun pods, unguided rocket pods, and even the AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missiles- all this while operating from austere forward bases or roads with minimal heavy maintenance availability. Oh, I almost forgot- The aircraft had to be convertible to an amphibian! The LARA was one tough nut to crack.
Plenty of companies trotted out LARA contenders though. Grumman proposed a tandem seat derivative of their in-service OV-1 Mohawk. Other proposals included the all-plastic Goodyear GA 39 seaplane fighter with over-wing pod-mounted engines on struts. The Beechcraft PD-183, Douglas D-855, Helio 1320, and Lockheed CL-760 were all more or less conventional twin engine single tail designs. The Martin proposal was a twin-boom, single-fuselage design with an inverted V tail and exhaust ducted through the booms. The Hiller K16, General Dynamics/Convair Model 48 Charger, and the North American/Rockwell NA-300 were all similar in appearance. In fact the Charger and the NA-300 were very similar aircraft.
But the North American NA-300, probably as least in part thanks to the participation of “plank owner” Beckett, won the competition in October of 1964. GD/Convair built a prototype of the Charger under protest of the decision. The North American NA-300 first flew as the YOV-1A on July 16th 1965. Performance of both aircraft was similar, with the edge actually going to the Charger in some areas. Comparisons between the Charger and what would become the Bronco became moot when the Charger crashed during October of 1965.
The Bronco actually resembled the VMA concept except in scale. With a 40 foot wingspan and weighing in at just under 6,900 pounds empty, the Bronco was still a manifestly small aircraft for the time. Missions assigned to the aircraft were armed reconnaissance, forward air control (FAC), tactical airborne observation, ground attack, and helicopter escort (CSAR). Broncos also flew sorties tasked with artillery and naval gunfire spotting, aerial photography, and aerial radiological reconnaissance. The ability to carry and drop personnel by parachute was utilized many times by various dark agencies referred to by three letter acronyms. LW-3B zero-zero ejection seats and dual flight controls made these trusty Bronco steeds more survivable.
Broncos are unmistakable in their appearance. A central nacelle contains the pilots, fixed machine guns located in fuselage mounted sponsons, and the cargo and personnel area aft of the pilots. The two Garrett T76-G-416/417 turboprop engines are mounted forward on the twin booms, which a high-mounted horizontal stabilizer/elevator connecting the vertical stabilizers on the aft ends of each boom. Broncos carried their ordnance slung under the fuselage or the underwing racks installed later in their careers, including the ubiquitous unguided rocket pods, bombs, various gun pods, flares, and Air Delivered Seismic Intrusion Detector Sensor (ADSIDS) unattended seismic sensors for the Igloo White program.
If the Bronco had a deficiency it would be those Garrett turboprop engines. The aircraft was underpowered especially when loaded down with ordnance. Operational ceilings were lower than planned simply because the aircraft couldn’t lug its own weight above about 18,000 feet. Later Bronco variants were powered by uprated engines and pulled along by larger and four-bladed propellers. In addition to the United States Air Force, Marines, and Navy, the forces of Columbia, Germany, Indonesia, Morocco, the Philippines, Thailand, and Venezuela flew military variants of the OV-10 Bronco. The US Department of State Air Wing, the US Bureau of Land Management, The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal-Fire) have flown Broncos as well.
The US Marine Corps was the first to receive the OV-10 and the first to fly the aircraft in combat. Marine Observation Squadron ONE (VMO-1), VMO-2, and VMO-6 all operated OV-10s. VMO-1 began operating the first Marine Corps Broncos during July of 1968. VMO-2 flew their first Bronco combat sortie on July 6th 1968 and their last combat sortie on March 22nd 1971. Their Broncos flew over 38,000 combat flight hours between September 8th 1968 and March 23rd 1971. VMO-6 began flying sorties in their OV-10s within 18 hours of their September 1968 arrival at Quảng Trị. The Marines lost a total of ten of their 114 Broncos during the war in Vietnam. But Vietnam was not the swan song for Marine Corps Broncos.
VMO-2 took six OV-10s to Saudi, a 10,000 mile jaunt, during Operation Desert Shield in August of 1990. When Shield turned to Storm, VMO-2 flew 286 sorties totaling more than 900 around-the-clock flight hours while losing two of their OV-10As, one of which was the first aircraft lost in-theater. These Broncos spotted for Coalition artillery and for the 16 inch rifles onboard the Iowa-class battleship USS Wisconsin (BB-64). Credited with 54 tanks, 53 armored personnel carriers, 49 artillery pieces, 112 other vehicles, and four command and control buildings destroyed, VMO-2 made the most of the last combat missions flown by American OV-10s. The Marine Corps retired their Broncos in 1995.
Navy Broncos in Vietnam were assigned to Light Attack Squadron FOUR (VAL-4) Black Ponies. VAL-4 stood up during October of 1968 using borrowed Marine Corps aircraft and by April 1969 they were flying combat sorties in support of Navy SEALS, Riverine forces, and anybody else who needed ordnance danger close all over South Vietnam and especially in the Mekong river delta. The Black Ponies were probably the best-known of the Bronco users in Vietnam, often flying dangerous CAS missions for troops in contact. From April of 1969 to April of 1972, VAL-4 lost seven Broncos. Other than the few OV-10s assigned to Air Antisubmarine Squadron FOUR ONE (VS-41) at NAS North Island for type transition training and a test aircraft or two, VAL-4 was the only Navy squadron to operate the Bronco. Their aircraft were returned to the Marines when VAL-4 was disestablished in 1972.
Air Force Broncos arrived in Vietnam during July of 1968. Operation Combat Bronco was an operational test and evaluation of the OV-10 and came to a close at the end of October. After that the USAF began flying OV-10s out of Bien Hoa Air Base (19th Tactical Air Support Squadron [TASS]), Da Nang Air Base (20th TASS) and Nakhon Phanom in Thailand (23rd TASS). Misty Bronco was an evaluation of the Bronco as a light strike platform. From 1971 the 23rd TASS Broncos were later upgraded with Pave Spot laser target designator pods, LORAN, and night vision equipment. These Trail-busting Broncos illuminated targets for Air Force fast movers. But the USAF Broncos paid a heavy price. The Air Force lost 64 of their 157 OV-10s. Replaced largely by Cessna OA-37 Dragonflies and later by Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, the USAF 19th TASS and 21st TASS retired their last Broncos during September of 1993.
Development of the Bronco continued with the OV-10D Night Observation Gunship (NOGS) program. Added to the standard OV-10A airframe on these Broncos was a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) night vision system mounted in a turret located under the extended nose of the Bronco along with boom-mounted chaff/flare dispensers and uprated engines spinning four bladed propellers and wearing exhaust stacks fitted with IR suppression. A three barrel 20 millimeter cannon mounted under the fuselage was slaved to the FLIR turret. The OV-10 Night Observation Surveillance (NOS) variant (without the gun system) went to Saudi with the Marines for Desert Shield and Storm. OV-10D+ Broncos were reworked with new electrical harnesses, instrumentation upgrades, and strengthened wings.
Two NASA-owned OV-10s were reanimated, updated with current communications gear and some new black boxes, and sent to Iraq in May of 2015. Equipped with the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS), a 70 millimeter rocket with a laser seeker and control section bolted on, these former OV-10G+ Combat Dragon II aircraft were used as very effectively as man-killers against ISIS. By all accounts the Broncos kicked serious tail over there in the sandbox, flying some 120 sorties over 82 days with 99% mission availability. Wouldn’t you know it…politics did what ISIS couldn’t. When you think of whatever aircraft ends up being the new Air Force OA-X Light Attack Aircraft, remember it could have been the Bronco.
Today Broncos still fly with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal-Fire) as aerial firefighting control aircraft. At least one foreign nation is still using Broncos in combat. The Philippines have been fighting ISIS with OV-10s for many years and as you might expect, with great effectiveness. The enemies may be different now, but Broncos are still fighting. A handful of privately owned OV-10s are flying in civilian hands, pleasing crowds with performances at airshows and causing Bronco fans to sigh just a little bit.