At the time, the United States was becoming deeply involved in the Vietnam conflict, and the Marine Corps put forth a requirement for a light armed reconnaissance aircraft (LARA), which morphed into the COIN concept. The selection of North American led to an order for seven YOV-10A prototypes, with the first taking to the air on 16 July 1965.
North American was a giant in the aviation field. The firm had produced, among many other aircraft, the T-6/SNJ Texan trainer, P-51 Mustang fighter, B-25/PBJ Mitchell bomber, F-86 Sabre/FJ Fury fighter, X-15 aerospace rocket plane, and B-70 Valkyrie and B-1 Lancer bombers, as well as the Apollo command module, the second stage of the Saturn V rocket, and the Space Shuttle orbiter.1
In sharp contrast to the firm’s many advanced technology products, the OV-10 was a relatively basic aircraft. It had a slender, two-seat fuselage set beneath a high-mounted wing carrying twin engine nacelle-tail booms. The main wheels of the tricycle landing gear retracted into the engine nacelles. On production aircraft, three fuselage and two sponson weapon attachment points could carry 3,300 pounds of bombs, missiles, rockets, and machine guns.
The first production OV-10A flew on 6 August 1967. Following assignments to training units, the aircraft was delivered to its first operational unit, Marine Observation Squadron (VMO) 2 based at Da Nang in South Vietnam. The squadron’s first armed recce missions were flown in July 1968. The Marines also used their Broncos to escort helicopters, which often were taken under ground fire. (One Marine OV-10A was shot down over South Vietnam and its two-man crew captured.)
Navy Light Attack Squadron (VAL) 4, the Black Ponies, was established on 3 January 1969, and it deployed to South Vietnam, primarily to provide fire support for Navy riverine craft and, later, South Vietnamese soldiers. Game Warden—the codename for the riverine operations—required faster convoy escort and more air support than could be provided by the UH-1 Huey helicopters of Helicopter Attack Squadron (Light) 3 that supported those operations.2 The Navy unit flew 14 “borrowed” Marine OV-10s.
Employed exclusively in the attack and escort roles, VAL-4’s aircraft carried combinations of the SUU-11 7.62-mm minigun pods, Mark 4 20-mm cannon, 2.75-inch air-to-ground rocket pods, and CBU-55 fuel-air explosive bombs.
These planes ranged into the skies over Cambodia as well as South Vietnam. VAL-4 was withdrawn from Vietnam and disbanded in 1972, ending Navy use of the OV-10. The squadron lost seven Broncos to various causes in Vietnam. The only other Navy squadron to fly the plane was Antisubmarine Squadron (VS) 41 at North Island (San Diego), California, which served as the training unit for the aircraft.
The Marines kept flying Broncos for another two decades, the last being discarded in 1993. The Air Force flew them into the 21st century, with an upgraded, OV-10G aircraft being deployed as part of Operation Inherent Resolve against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria. Those aircraft were in the combat theater for six months.
The Air Force used the OV-10A in the forward air control role in Vietnam beginning in 1968. A history of Air Force operations in Vietnam stated, “Visual reconnaissance by low performance aircraft is still an absolute necessity. Maneuverable, fixed-wing aircraft still have a place in this role, and the OV-10A performed better than expected.”3 It was noted, however, that there was a requirement for quieter aircraft that could fly over targets without being detected. That need led to the Navy-sponsored QT-2PC/YO-3 “quiet” aircraft.4 Eventually, 126 OV-10s went to Air Force squadrons in South Vietnam.
A total of 157 production aircraft went to the Air Force and 114 to the Marine Corps and Navy. In addition, 16 new-production aircraft went to Indonesia, 40 to Thailand, and 16 to Venezuela, with 24 aircraft produced for West Germany as target tugs. Former U.S. aircraft also went to Colombia, Morocco, the Philippines, and Venezuela. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration took former service aircraft for research work, while the Department of State contractor DynCorp International used them to support antidrug efforts in South America, and the Bureau of Land Management used the aircraft for fire-fighting. The last were employed to mark targets for aerial tankers and coordinate their efforts.
The aircraft in U.S. military service underwent several upgrades and modifications. The Air Force and Marine Corps both modified OV-10s for the night observation/gunship system (NOGS) role, providing a lengthened nose, laser rangefinder, forward-looking infrared, night sight, and other modifications as well as larger engines (redesignated OV-10D; the Air Force effort was codenamed Pave Nail). Some aircraft also had an XM197 20-mm gun turret fitted beneath the fuselage. The first of these OV-10D conversions flew on 9 June 1970 and was evaluated in Vietnam as well as in the United States. The subsequent Marine Corps Project OV-10D+ provided new wiring and stronger wings to extend service life. (Eighteen of the German target-tug aircraft also were fitted with a J85-GE-4 turbojet engine mounted in a nacelle above the fuselage.)
Among several proposals for follow-on aircraft that were not undertaken were the OV-10T cargo variant to carry 8 to 12 troops or 4,500 pounds of cargo in an enlarged fuselage, and the OV-10X, a light attack variant with a computerized “glass cockpit,” additional sensors, and smart (guided) bomb capability.
The standard OV-10 also flew trials on board aircraft carriers. In 1983, Marine aircraft conduct flight operations on the Nassau (LHA-4) and in 1985 from the large carrier Saratoga (CV-60). The Broncos could land within 300 to 350 feet of flight deck without the use of arresting gear.
The OV-10 Bronco was a most successful aircraft—flying in combat with three U.S. services and flying in several other air forces.
2. The comprehensive account of VAL-4 in Vietnam is Kit Lavell, Flying Black Ponies: The Navy’s Close Air Support Squadron in Vietnam (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000). The author flew 243 combat missions with VAL-4.
3. COL Gene Gurney, USAF (Ret.), Vietnam: The War in the Air (New York: Crown, 1985), 84.
4. See N. Polmar, “Silent (By) Night,” Naval History 31, no. 5 (October 2017), 58.
A Two-War Two-Service Combat Veteran
OV-10A BuNo 155494, the 202nd Bronco off the production line, was delivered to the VAL-4 Black Ponies on 23 January 1969 and deployed with the squadron to Vietnam. Arriving in country on Easter Sunday, 6 April, it was barged ashore from the transport Seatrain and flew from Vung Tau Army Airfield.
Squadron technical reports for 1969 noted:
[O]ne aircraft carried a large part of the load on Sunday, 16 November, when Det Alpha at Binh Thuy put in 12 air strikes in one day. BuNo 155494 flew one patrol flight and six scramble missions. . . . delivered 84 Zuni rockets, 133 2.75 rockets, and 21,000 rounds of 7.62 ammo in one day—total ordnance weight in excess of 12,000 pounds.
This aircraft left Vietnam on 5 April 1972, when the squadron was disestablished. It was converted from its original “A” configuration to “D+” in 1979 and assigned to VMO-4. From there it went to weapons testing at NAS Patuxent River then to the VX-5 Vampires at China Lake, California.
In July 1988, it was transferred to the Marine Corps at Cherry Point, North Carolina. Sent to Saudi Arabia in September 1990 and assigned to VMO-2, it served in combat from the inception of Operation Desert Storm in January 1991 until the war’s end in June, having been based at the King Abd Al-Aziz Naval Base.
After its return to the United States VMO-2 was deactivated in May 1993, and the Bronco was transferred to the Flying Leatherneck Museum at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, California, where it remains today. —J.M.C.