It’s a commonly accepted belief that things designed by committees don’t generally work out very well, as they’re often compromised by complexity and conflicting requirements. When it comes to fixed-wing combat aircraft, the prime example of that theory is the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark. Obsessed with the concept of “commonality” in order to keep down overall program costs, Robert S. McNamara, U.S. secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, proposed the TFX (Tactical Fighter Experimental) program as a way to provide a basically common design to suit both U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy requirements. The end result was a sophisticated strike fighter that eventually worked out very well for the Air Force but was a total flop for the Navy. Designed initially for the Air Force, the F-111 proved to be too big and unsuitable for use with the Navy’s aircraft carriers. Today, the U.S. Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, which resulted in the F-35 Lightning II, is another glaring example of that thought process. While the F-35 is finally entering service with the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, as well as a number of foreign air forces, it has taken many years and a far greater cost than originally anticipated to get it to the point where the airplane, designed to meet such diverse requirements, can begin to operate effectively.

Of course, some combat aircraft have served effectively in the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II is probably the most notable example. However, the Phantom II was not originally designed with commonality in mind. It was designed to suit U.S. Navy requirements for a carrier-based fighter and was then adapted, with relatively minor modifications, for land-based use as well.

Structural reinforcements, improved engines, new avionics, new wiring and plumbing, improved communications equipment, and a cockpit management system breathed new life into the airplane. Altogether, 14 OV-10D and 23 OV-10As were brought up to the new standard under the designation OV-10D+.

Yet at least one fixed-wing combat airplane that was designed by a committee to suit the needs of all branches of the U.S. military did work out exceptionally well. The North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco was the result of a tri-service specification for a light armed reconnaissance aircraft (LARA) to serve with the U.S. Navy (actually the U.S. Marine Corps, which is under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Navy), Air Force, and Army with minimal modifications to the basic design. The concept for a rugged and simple close air support aircraft dedicated to working in conjunction with ground operations apparently originated with W.H. Beckett and Marine Corps Col. K.P. Rice at the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, California, in the early 1960s, though the Marine Corps had actually given some thought to a similar concept a few years earlier. In any event, Robert McNamara formed a Tri-Service Committee in early 1963 to formulate the requirements for such an aircraft, and the LARA concept was approved by the U.S. Navy, Air Force, and Army in 1963. Basically, the LARA concept called for a two-man, twin-engine aircraft able to carry 2,000 pounds of external ordnance, or 2,000 pounds of cargo, six paratroopers, or several medical stretchers in a fuselage cargo compartment. Minimal field-level maintenance and the ability to operate from forward airfields were also required.

 

Photo Credit: Warbirds Magazine

 

Yet at least one fixed-wing combat airplane that was designed by a committee to suit the needs of all branches of the U.S. military did work out exceptionally well. The North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco was the result of a tri-service specification for a light armed reconnaissance aircraft (LARA) to serve with the U.S. Navy (actually the U.S. Marine Corps, which is under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Navy), Air Force, and Army with minimal modifications to the basic design. The concept for a rugged and simple close air support aircraft dedicated to working in conjunction with ground operations apparently originated with W.H. Beckett and Marine Corps Col. K.P. Rice at the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, California, in the early 1960s, though the Marine Corps had actually given some thought to a similar concept a few years earlier. In any event, Robert McNamara formed a Tri-Service Committee in early 1963 to formulate the requirements for such an aircraft, and the LARA concept was approved by the U.S. Navy, Air Force, and Army in 1963. Basically, the LARA concept called for a two-man, twin-engine aircraft able to carry 2,000 pounds of external ordnance, or 2,000 pounds of cargo, six paratroopers, or several medical stretchers in a fuselage cargo compartment. Minimal field-level maintenance and the ability to operate from forward airfields were also required.

A sideways-hinged tail cone provided access to the fuselage cargo bay; the tail cone would be removed when paratroopers were carried in the bay. The production model OV-10A featured a wing that was 10 feet longer than that of the prototypes. The engine booms were moved 6 inches farther away from the fuselage pod (thus reducing noise and vibrations in the cockpit), and more-powerful 715-hp T76-G10/12 engines were fitted. To eliminate torque, the Bronco’s three-bladed propellers rotated in opposite directions, and their pitch could be reversed to reduce the landing run. Standing 16 feet, 2 inches tall, the OV-10A Bronco had a 40-foot wingspan and was 41 feet, 7 inches long. Its empty weight was 6,893 pounds and its maximum weight was 14,444 pounds. The Bronco could reach a top speed of 281 mph, and it had a service ceiling of 24,000 feet and a range of 576 miles. Thanks to its very rugged landing gear, the OV-10 could operate from very basic airfields. The aircraft’s takeoff run was typically between 740 and 1,100 feet, and the landing run was between 800 and 1,220 feet.

The delivery of operational OV-10A Broncos to the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps began on February 23, 1968. The Air Force eventually received 157 OV-10As and the Marine Corps got 114. The U.S. Army opted out of the program, relying on the Grumman OV-1 Mohawk and helicopters to suit its requirements. The OV-10A was introduced into combat for observation, reconnaissance, ground attack, search-andrescue, and forward air control missions on July 6, 1968, by the Marine Corps’ VMO-2 operating from the Marble Mountain airstrip near Danang, Vietnam. Air Force A-10As went into combat for the first time with the 19th Tactical Air Support Squadron at Bien Hoa, Vietnam, in August 1968, and were primarily used for forward air control missions. Subsequently, the U.S. Navy borrowed 19 OV-10A Broncos from the Marine Corps and began operating them with VAL-4 “Black Ponies” from Vung Tau and Binh Thuy, Vietnam, in March 1969 for river patrol missions in the Mekong Delta. A total of 81 OV-10A Broncos were lost to all causes during the Vietnam War — 64 by the Air Force, seven by the Navy, and 10 by the Marine Corps.

Photo Credit: Warbirds Magazine

For night observation and gunship missions, two OV-10A Broncos were equipped with Hughes FLIR (forward-looking infrared) and laser target-marking equipment in a lengthened nose (increasing the overall length to 44 feet) as well as a 20 mm General Electric M97 gun turret under the fuselage. Powered with a pair of 1,040-hp Garrett T76-G-420/421 engines, the first of the modified Broncos took to the sky on June 9, 1970, as the YOV-10D. The increased power boosted the YOV-10D’s top speed to 288 mph and increased its service ceiling to 30,000 feet. The aircraft’s range also increased to 1,382 miles. Both YOV-10D Broncos were sent to Vietnam for combat evaluation, flying more than 200 combat missions with VAL-4 between June 5 and August 13, 1971. Beginning in 1978, 17 OV-10D Broncos were eventually delivered to VMO-1 at MCAS New River, North Carolina, and VMO-2 at MCAS Camp Pendleton, California. In order to extend the service life of its OV-10 Broncos beyond the year 2000, the Marine Corps began a Service Life Extension Program at the Naval Air Rework Facility, MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina, in 1985. Structural reinforcements, improved engines, new avionics, new wiring and plumbing, improved communications equipment, and a cockpit management system breathed new life into the airplane. Altogether, 14 OV-10D and 23 OV-10As were brought up to the new standard under the designation OV-10D+. The OV-10 Bronco also saw combat service during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Although the Air Force did not deploy any of its Broncos to the Persian Gulf for Desert Storm because it considered the aircraft too vulnerable for use against the Iraqi air defenses, the Marine Corps did deploy 20 OV-10A and OV-10D+ Broncos from VMO-1 and VMO-2 to the Gulf for combat operations. VMO-2 flew three OV-10A and three OV-10D+ Broncos from Camp Pendleton, California, to Saudi Arabia and sent another pair to the Gulf in a container ship. On the other hand, VMO-1 sent seven OV-10D+.

and five OV-10A Broncos to the Persian Gulf aboard the aircraft carriers USS Roosevelt (CVN-71) and USS America (CV-66), with the aircraft deck-launching from the carriers near Spain and then flying on to Saudi Arabia. Flying their full range of missions, the Broncos were typically armed with M60C machine guns, rocket pods containing white phosphorus marking rockets or rockets with high-explosive warheads, and LUU-2 paraflares. AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles were sometimes carried for self-defense against Iraqi fighters as well. Two OV-10A Broncos were lost to surface-to-air missiles during Operation Desert Storm, with three aircrew members being captured and one killed. Although the OV-10 was not equipped with catapult and arresting gear, as was the case with the Doolittle Raiders in World War II, it could fly from the decks of aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships. That was primarily a way of transporting the aircraft to various operating areas. The Broncos had to be craned aboard the ships, and then they could be launched away for eventual recovery at a nearby land base. The U.S. Air Force eventually retired its OV-10A Broncos in 1993. Although the Marine Corps had planned to keep some OV-10A and OV-10D+ Broncos in service until at least the year 2000, budget cuts during the Clinton administration forced their retirement from frontline service in 1994. However, both newly built and ex-U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force Broncos (primarily modified OV-10As) also saw service with a number of other nations. West Germany obtained 18 OV-10Bs for target towing missions, Thailand obtained 32 under the OV-10C designation, 16 went to Venezuela as OV-10Es, Morocco operated six ex-U.S. Marine Corps OV-10As, and Indonesia obtained 16 OV-10Fs. Venezuelan Broncos saw combat service during a 1993 coup attempt, and Royal Moroccan Air Force Broncos flew combat missions against Polisario insurgents. Altogether, a grand total of 360 OV-10 Broncos were manufactured between 1963 and 1977. 

Seen to be useful for civilian operations such as air data sampling, firefighting spotting missions, aerial surveys, and nighttime surveillance missions, a number of surplus OV-10s wound up with civilian operators such as NASA, the California Division of Forestry, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Department of State Air Wing. Several dozen have also gone on display around the world as museum exhibits, and some even still fly in air shows. Perhaps the most interesting OV-10 operation today is Mike Manclark’s California-based OV-10 Squadron. A co-founder of Leading Edge Aviation Services, an active commissioner in the Orange County, California, Sheriff’s Department, the CEO of the Mangic Foundation, and a certificated pilot, Mike began his career in aviation as a teenage airport lineboy. Now known as International Aerospace Coatings, Leading Edge Aviation Services is an FAA-certified maintenance, repair, and overhaul company based in Costa Mesa, California. The company is the world’s leading aircraft painting operation, with major airlines and even Air Force One on its client list. The registered owner of The OV-10 Squadron, the Mangic Foundation supports various historic and philanthropic missions and projects.

On January 4, 2018, The OV-10 Squadron obtained six OV-10 airframes from the National Vietnam War Memorial of Mineral Wells, Texas, and had them trucked to Matt Nightingale’s California Aerofab restoration shop at Chino, California, to join a seventh Bronco that was already in the shop. Matt’s crew is restoring the aircraft to flying condition for general aviation personal use, commercial and air show operations, and to make the general public aware of the aircraft’s history. The seven aircraft consist of OV-10D+ Broncos BuNos 155418, 155446 (which has already been sold to an undisclosed customer), 155474, 155479, 155483, 155498, and 155493. On June 22, 2019, Eric Huppert took OV-10D+ Bronco No. 155493 up for its first post-restoration test flight at the Chino Airport. Eric had previously flown Broncos with the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Carson City, Nevada-based Cactus Air Force. The airplane was initially registered as NX97854 pending the completion of FAA paperwork needed to license the Bronco in the Standard Category without the “X,” and Eric flew it for its successful five-hour FAA certification before checking Matt out in the Bronco. An accomplished warbird pilot and restoration expert, Matt noted that the Bronco’s restoration was a very straightforward process. Matt subsequently flew the OV-10D+ to Stead Field, Nevada, for display during the 2019 Reno National Championship Air Races, and later flew the Bronco alongside the Comanche Warbirds’ Douglas AD-4NA Skyraider during the Planes of Fame Air Museum’s Living History Flying Day event at the Chino Airport on October 5, 2019. The Bronco also garnered a great deal of attention during the Lyon Air Museum’s History on the Flight Line event at the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, on February 22, 2020.

OV-10A Bronco BuNo 155493 came off the North American Rockwell production line at Columbus, Ohio, on January 14, 1968, and arrived at NAS North Island, California, for service with VAL-4 on January 27, 1969. After combat service with VAL-4 at Binh Thuy, Vietnam, the Bronco flew with the U.S. Marine Corps’ VMO-6 at MCAS Futenma, Okinawa, from April 3, 1972, through May 10, 1972. In 1991, the airplane was upgraded to OV-10D+ configuration and was finally retired to the Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Facility at Tucson, Arizona, on June 24, 1993. Given the civilian registration N97854, the Bronco became a parts aircraft with the National Vietnam War Memorial before finally becoming a part of the OV-10 Squadron. The airplane had logged a grand total of 8,215 flying hours in military service. BuNo 155493 has been restored in the colors and markings of VMO-2 when the squadron was based at MCAS Camp Pendleton, California. Matt recently discovered exact full-scale airsoft replicas of the M60 machine gun and obtained four for use in the OV-10D+ Bronco. “Once you take off the infantry parts (shoulder stock, sights, etc.), the guns just bolt right into the sponsons,” Matt reported. Combined with external drop tanks, which are sometimes fitted for long flights, the end result is a rather impressive-looking warbird.

The OV-10 Squadron has since grown to eight airplanes. On February 26, 2020, OV-10D+ Bronco BuNo 155409 joined the other Broncos at Chino. The airplane originally served with VMO-2 before being employed by the U.S. Department of State Air Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida. The Bronco was subsequently displayed at the Valiant Air Command Museum in Titusville, Florida, before finally being flown to Chino, California. Considering that only 360 OV-10 Broncos were manufactured, it is a pleasant surprise to see so many survivors on display or still performing useful missions, as well as getting a new lease on life.

 

Photo Credit: Warbirds Magazine

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