McNamara Kills the Pilatus Porter

By Vice-Admiral Gerald E. Miller, U.S. Navy (Retired)

With the arrival of Robert S. McNamara as Secretary of Defense in January 1961, the nature and degree of civilian control changed dramatically. He expanded his staff with a cadre of bright young intellectuals. Micromanagement became the norm, with more control being usurped by the new incumbents. Initially, they were fascinated with the details of nuclear warfare plans and the Cold War. Then came the Vietnam War, and they were faced with the problem of stopping the advance of communism with the use of military force, many miles from the homeland. Often, results were questionable.

For example, an elaborate "electronic fence," based on the use of Navy sonobuoys for the detection of movement on the Vietcong logistic trails, received a tremendous amount of support but failed. 1 Further, naval leaders deliberately ignored at least one order from the civil authority for the use of naval air. They were certain it would fail and would result in unnecessary loss of life had the idea been implemented. 2

But some weapon systems were winners in the Vietnam War. The scope of the campaign provided opportunities and funding for development of several. The helicopter, for example, was introduced to combat during the Korean War but matured in Vietnam, particularly for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. The B-52 strategic bomber, which just a few years before had been declared "off-limits" for conventional warfare, became a master in "iron bomb" missions and has continued to gain effectiveness in the conventional warfare mission, having become a significant element in the delivery of today's precision weapons.

One new tactic for naval warfare evolved in Vietnam from the need to protect the beleaguered South Vietnamese in the watery areas of the southern Mekong Delta. That requirement caused the creation of the "brown water" Navy, something quite foreign to the traditional "blue-water" forces. It centered around small 29-knot patrol boats (PBRs), "31-foot fiber-glass boats powered and steered by turnable water-jet nozzles. Their basic armament consisted of two .50-caliber guns, one M-60 machine gun, and a 40-mm grenade launcher." 3

They were high-speed, maneuverable, low-draft vessels, manned by a couple of commissioned officers and an enlisted crew. They were part of an organization designated as Task Force 116 (TF-116) and received air support from a small contingent of borrowed Army helicopters manned by Navy crews. By early 1966, this force consisted of 120 PBRs, supported by 20 large personnel craft, one amphibious transport (dock), and one landing ship tank (LST). 4 In a message to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commander-in-chief of the Pacific Command (CinCPac) expressed his desire to increase the number of PBRs to at least 200, because the PBR/helo operations had "been effective in disrupting enemy control and use of major waterways in the Delta Region." 5 In the same message, however, CinCPac pointed out that the effectiveness could not be "optimized without a concomitant increase in number of helos." More close air support was needed.

The PBRs plied the inland waters of South Vietnam, protecting the local inhabitants who were under constant pressure from the Vietcong. They made some major contributions to the war. The tempo of their operations and effectiveness increased markedly in the late 1960s, when Admiral Elmo Zumwalt was promoted to three stars and sent to Vietnam to take command of all in-country naval forces. His aggressive inspirational leadership was reflected in the actions of this young brown-water Navy. It was an unusual role for blue-water sailors—and it was hazardous.

This new Navy needed close air support. The PBR crews soon knew their business, but as with any surface combat operation, air support was required for reconnaissance and firepower in a firefight. The Navy in Washington had not anticipated this air support requirement and the normal acquisition process for a suitable air-support vehicle would take a lot of time. Makeshift actions came into play. Some Huey helicopters were borrowed from the Army, which really had none to spare. Machine guns were anchored to the floor of the helos, and they became "gunships" manned by Navy crews. On 1 April 1967, the existing helo detachments in country were organized into Helicopter Attack (light) Squadron Three or HAL-3. 6 This squadron provided helicopter close air support to the boats. It was divided into nine detachments scattered throughout the delta. These detachments operated from five airfields and three specially configured LSTs. "A typical detachment consisted of two helicopters, a lieutenant commander as officer-in-command, with seven additional pilots, eight aircrewmen (door gunners), and an assortment of maintenance technicians." 7

No one had to view this operation very long to be aware of some of the deficiencies. The helos were old, with many maintenance problems. The high-temperature and -humidity operating conditions in the area made it difficult for the helos to realize their full payloads and lift potential. Further, rapid response depended on distance from the firefight area. Time on station was limited by the helos' fuel and payload status. Also, the noise of the helo was a dead giveaway to the enemy.

As the PBRs moved through the waters of the delta, they were often ambushed, needing air support immediately. That meant a call for helos from the nearest operating base. Sometimes the delays in response were frustrating. Even after arriving on station, the helos still lacked the firepower and time to provide the desired protection. Of greatest significance, however, was the lack of numbers. Helos were in great demand by both Army and Marine Corps forces. The shortage was real, and this new Navy mission did not generate enough priority to provide all the assets needed to support this rapidly expanding brown-water force. So the responsible authorities in the Pentagon searched for a quick solution—something as good as or better than the rotary wing helo, something that would meet the need, at least on an interim basis, until a more permanent solution could be implemented. Enter the Pilatus Porter fixed-wing aircraft.

The Pilatus Porter, which was designated initially as the OV-12A, originated in Switzerland, meeting a requirement for high-altitude mountain flying with a short take-off and landing (STOL) capability. It looked something like a junky Spirit of St. Louis; but looks can be deceptive. It was a high-wing monoplane with a wingspan of about 50 feet, length of 37 feet, and weight of 6,100 pounds (maximum gross). Armament could vary, but in later versions it consisted of one 20-mm side-firing Gatling cannon plus up to 1,925 pounds of external stores on five pylons—two on each wing and one on the center fuselage. It could carry a variety of ordnance, including forward firing gun pods, 500-pound and 250-pound bombs, napalm units, cluster bomb units, flares, rockets, smoke grenades, and propaganda leaflet dispensers. Various combinations of machine guns and ordnance were tested and proved feasible. A Garrett turboprop engine delivering 650 horsepower propelled the aircraft and it had a reversible propeller. Maximum speed was 148 knots at take-off power, range was more than 400 nautical miles, and endurance was almost five hours. With portable oxygen for the crew, it could go to high altitude. With its engine shut down, it could glide silently for long distances and was an excellent reconnaissance platform. It could carry at least six passengers or an equivalent number of troops with field gear. Medical evacuation capabilities were one litter patient, three ambulatory patients, and one medical attendant. 8

The reversible prop and relatively high power gave it the short landing capability. Immediately on touching the ground, or even a bit before, the prop could be reversed and the aircraft would come to a halt on the width of a normal runway. With the exceptional amount of power available, it could take off in short distances, again the width of a runway. Most appropriate for the brown-water Navy, the plane was a jewel on floats. The reversible prop provided what all floatplanes need: the ability to "back up." One could park the aircraft alongside a pier or small boat more easily than parallel parking a car in a crowded metropolis. Further, the procurement cost was relatively minor—less than $150,000 for a combat-ready airplane.

The Central Intelligence Agency already had procured some of the aircraft and was operating them in Vietnam as "Air America," with major support capabilities in Taiwan. This in-country operation could provide a major support capability if needed.

In the mid-1960s the U.S. Air Force became interested in the Porter. Two of the birds were configured with bomb stations and automatic weapons. Tests indicated that for certain missions, the plane could be a winner. Several Navy officials reasoned that, as an interim emergency measure, it could add much to the brown-water Navy. Its speed, endurance, payload, and ability to take damage compared to the helo made it a natural for air support of the PBR task force. On floats, it could remain with the boats at all times. They did not have to be based at some shore facility several miles away, but could remain physically with the boats serving as an integral part of the fire fighting team. When missions were conducted, the birds could take off with the PBRs and remain with them from start to finish of a mission, providing reconnaissance and fire support as needed. It could be close air support at its ultimate best—control in the hands of the customer, with instant and constant availability.
As one experienced helo pilot and Navy Cross awardee in HAL-3 commented: "I would have given my eye-teeth to have had a fixed wing float/land capable machine to cover brown-water operations. To have had the Pilatus Porter would have reduced maintenance man-hours over rotary-wing aircraft, permitted more time on patrol/station and with the payload capability, we could have blown the socks off any enemy. And we haven't even touched on beans/bullets/mail/ and passenger movements that would have boosted morale greatly throughout the TF-116 operations theater." 9

So the Navy moved out smartly. Several leaders tested the aircraft, on both wheels and floats. Then-Lieutenant Colonel Robert Purcell, a combat-experienced Marine officer, was assigned as program coordinator. Purcell had been an enlisted Marine with infantry combat experience in the Korean War before he ever entered flight training with the rank of captain. His qualifications for his assignment are reflected in his combat awards, which include 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Silver Star, a Bronze Star, 2 Purple Hearts, 28 Air Medals, and unit commendations. He was not particularly happy with being assigned to the Pentagon, duty often viewed as drudgery—a necessary experience for career advancement but not much fun. It was the fall of 1967 and he took action to clear all the procurement wickets in the Department of Defense, with a deployment date set for the spring of 1968. Initial support for the idea was almost unbelievably positive.

Next came the congressional wicket, with the need to gain authority for funding and procurement on a sole source basis, which meant no competition and no delays. The aircraft was in production, and several were available "off the shelf" on the parking ramp at Fairchild Aircraft north of Baltimore, Maryland. All that was needed was the modification to incorporate the armament features, and the bird would be on its way to a combat role. Deployment could be started in about 100 days from the word "go." The initial program, approved by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and with Congressional support, was for procurement of 19 aircraft at a cost of $3 million. Support funds would come from the regular operating budget allocation.

Recognizing the urgent need and the wisdom of the proposal, congressional staffs were supportive of the sole source authority, a major milestone for prompt action. Everyone seemed to recognize the need and the value of the Porter in answering the call for close air support of the brown-water Navy, at least as an interim measure.
The Navy identified the commanding officer of the first unit, modifying his career pattern to take on this new challenge, something about which he became very excited. Then-Commander Jack French was an outstanding officer, commanding a propeller attack squadron. He knew about props, bombs, close air support, and staying on station. He was beginning to finger some pilots to join in the fun. "We got the word of the Pilatus Porter, and there were 13 airframes in Hagerstown, Maryland. We . . . were to proceed with six of my pilots and transition accordingly—out of the parking lot. Very exciting." 10 It looked like a winner.

This was not a major expensive procurement of a high-tech, exotic fighter or bomber. It was a program that had so many obvious benefits, all involved felt good, especially since the cost was relatively minor. It was a great way to get "more bang for the buck." And then, the bubble burst. Suddenly, the program was dead.

The Navy/Marine Corps officers involved in implementing the acquisition program found that all support in the Office of the Secretary of Defense had evaporated. The non-competitive program came to a screeching halt under orders from Secretary McNamara, the highest civil authority in the Pentagon. Subsequent research of the files revealed that he had received to pressure from a former associate, Lynn Bollinger, who headed the Helio Aircraft Corporation, which produced a light liaison aircraft for the Air Force. Bollinger wrote a simple "Dear Bob" letter to McNamara protesting the non-competitive aspects, contending that he had a plane under development that could do the job, and wanted support. 11 As for his development aircraft, Lieutenant Colonel Purcell went to the trouble of flying the Helio aircraft and found it completely unacceptable, a "dog" in the vernacular of combat pilots. When contacted, the former Secretary said that he did not recall the incident although he did vaguely remember meeting someone named Bollinger at Harvard in the early 1940s. He expressed doubt that such a small program would have risen to his level for a decision unless it involved some widening of the war. This one did not.

Bollinger's actions also involved traditional lobbying with Congress, and he was effective, convincing at least one congressman to question the non-competitive procurement action officially. Bollinger kept Secretary McNamara informed of his actions by phone. 12 Obviously, he reasoned that if the Navy procured the Pilatus Porter, even as an interim emergency measure, his own aircraft program would be in jeopardy for future orders. This probably was correct. He took advantage of his personal association with the Secretary of Defense to try to kill the competition, and he was successful. The official demise came in a memo to the Secretary of the Navy from the Secretary of Defense on 20 December 1967, when the sole source procurement action was terminated. 13

The Joint Chiefs of Staff continued to support the program and tried to keep it alive with a recommendation to the Secretary of Defense in early February 1968 that he "approve sole-source procurement to permit the fastest possible deployment of the OV-12A to SVN [South Vietnam] for support of Game Warden" (the brown-water Navy). 14 But sole source was denied again, and the program was dead.

Understandably, Lieutenant Colonel Purcell was perturbed. The cancellation action contributed to his early voluntary retirement from active duty, in spite of the fact that he was about to be selected for promotion to the rank of colonel. Captain Jack French, the prospective commanding officer of the planned squadron, missed out on an assignment that would have kept his career moving forward, as he eagerly anticipated command of this special unit that many believed would have made major contributions to this new kind of naval warfare. Ironically, following retirement, he spent quite a bit of time flying floatplanes in the Alaskan theater. But those were minor considerations. The real issue was the loss of a significant war-fighting capability for the PBR task force when it was desperately needed. The entire brown-water Navy lost more than 2,500 men during the Vietnam campaign. How many lives might have been saved with the implementation of this program action? To quote one leader of the brown-water Navy who commanded a Task Group in the latter phases of the war, "To think of how many of these young warriors could have been spared if we would have had fixed wing assets two years earlier just blows my mind!" 15

The late Admiral Thomas Moorer was the Chief of Naval Operations at the time. A hallmark of his career was his intense concern about "his crew." He preached that with authority comes responsibility and the first responsibility of one with authority is to "take care of your crew." He knew about the Pilatus Porter program and when it was cancelled, he sent for Lieutenant Colonel Purcell, asking for a detailed debrief of the case. Then he asked for a written report, to be delivered directly to him, not through any chain of command. The report was delivered as ordered. On 21 March 1968, Admiral Moorer sent a memorandum to Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze, appealing the case and recommending procurement of the OV-12A. 16 Admiral Moorer was the highest military authority in the Navy, destined to become the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and yet he could not reverse the combined action of the civil authority in the executive and legislative branches of the government for an interim emergency procurement requiring an outlay of $3 million. It is a sad chapter in the civil/military authority history of our armed services, particularly when compared to the authority vested in Admiral Ernest King during World War II.

Facing the denial for sole-source procurement, the Navy struggled on with its existing helo assets. Eventually, a larger fixed-wing close-support aircraft, the OV-10 Bronco, arrived on the scene, but long after the Pilatus Porter opportunity had been negated.
In spring 1972, almost five years after the emergency had come and gone, the Air Force completed a competitive evaluation of the Porter, then termed the Fairchild AU-23A "Peacemaker" and the Helio Aircraft's AU-24A "Stallion." Both aircraft were rejected because they did not meet the needs of the Air Force, which were certainly different from those of the brown-water Navy. Eventually, the few military Peacemakers acquired for test and evaluation went to Thailand under the Military Assistant Program, for use in border surveillance and counter infiltration roles. The Stallions went to Cambodia for a similar mission. 17 The Porter remains in production, with many in service around the world performing a multitude of missions. 18

There are still naval persons alive who will never forgive the civil authority for the cancellation of this program. It did not improve the relations between some naval aviation leaders and the civil authority in the Pentagon. But even so, those leaders would undoubtedly fight to preserve the traditional civil authority concept. After all, not all members of the civil authority in the Pentagon and the Congress have turned their backs on military judgment, especially in time of war.

Vice Admiral Miller, a frequent contributor to U.S. Naval Institute publications, was involved with naval aviation requirements for six years during the Vietnam War.

   1. Robert S. Greeley, "Stringing the McNamara Line," Naval History , August 1997, p. 60. back to article
   2. Project Trim: the coupling of an experimental target detection system with the aging Lockheed P2V Neptune aircraft. back to article
   3. Cdr. David G. Tyler, USNR, "Seawolves Roll in across the Mekong Delta," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , January 2002, p. 46. back to article
   4. Tyler, "Seawolves . . . ," p. 47. back to article
   5. CinCPac Message 022329Z to the JCS dated 2 December 1967. back to article
   6. Tyler, "Seawolves . . . ," p. 47. back to article
   7. Tyler, "Seawolves . . . ," p. 47. back to article
   8. U.S. Air Force Museum Internet Web site: . back to article
   9. E-mail to author from Capt. Allen Weseleskey, USN (Ret.), dated 3/16/03. back to article
  10. E-mail to author from Capt. Jack French, USN (Ret.), dated 1/14/03. back to article
  11. "Personal" letter from Lynn Bollinger, Chairman of the Helio Aircraft Corporation, to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, dated 6 December 1967. back to article
  12. Memo of 15 December 1967 by Mr. Lynn Bollinger to "Bob," (McNamara) referring to "our telephone discussion this evening." back to article
  13. Secretary of Defense McNamara Memorandum for the Secretary of the Navy, dated 20 December 1967. back to article
  14. Memorandum JCSM-79-68 of 2/3/68 from the JCS to the Secretary of Defense. back to article
  15. E-mail to author from Capt. Jerry Wages, USN (Ret.), dated 3/21/03. back to article
  16. CNO Memorandum to the Secretary of the Navy, dated 3/21/68. back to article
  17. U.S. Air Force Museum Internet Web site: . back to article
  18. Internet search "Google," then "Pilatus Porter" for a review of current status. back to article


Vice Admiral Miller, a frequent contributor to U.S. Naval Institute publications, was involved with naval aviation requirements for six years during the Vietnam War.

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