Author’s note: Some parts of this post are creative representations of historical events and facts.
January 3, 1969 – Emotions are high and humming among the plankowners in the Naval Air Station in North Island, California. While the ceremony is ongoing, some faces display hints of eagerness, others excitement, but all never exceed the stern discipline characteristic of the expressions of soldiers and military personnel. Months of practice and hard work have led to this moment. Lines of OV-10 Broncos, a peculiar yet awe-inspiring sight, sit quietly in the background. Soon, they would be piloting these planes above war-torn and battle-filled jungles, rivers and rolling mountains. They have been trained to do so. They are warriors.
It is the day that the United States Navy establishes its first fixed-wing light attack squadron: the VAL-4. The squadron’s original emblem depicted a North American yellow jacket wasp with silver wings, a lightning bolt from its stinger. Behind it, four black aircraft with yellow contrails—all embossed on a red background. Below the insignia, a banner proudly bears the name “Light Atkron Four.” This emblem would later on change in 1971, modifying the wasp to a rearing black pony, hence their nickname the “Black Ponies.”
The VAL-4 “Black Ponies” were commissioned to serve a specific purpose during the Vietnam War, one that both jets and helicopters of their era found it hard to fulfill. That was mainly to provide forward air control to the front-line, sometimes far beyond it, and riverine support for SEALS and detachments of the US Army, Navy and the armed forces of South Vietnam. Simply, the VAL-4 were meant to get up close and personal in the face of the Victor Charlie, or Viet Cong.
Lieutenant Pete Russell is one among the ranks of the Black Ponies. Pete, like his older brother, preferred flying propeller-type aircraft over jets. He had made a name for himself as a pilot of an A-1H Skyraider in Attack Squadron 176 during the earlier years of the Vietnam War, often going toe-to-toe and engaging in air-to-air combat with multiple North Vietnamese MIG-17 jets.
A legendary feat of Lt. Russell, aviator, was that in multiple encounters he had been able to take down MIG-17 jets with a propeller-driven aircraft. It is worth noting that MIG-17 jets were high-subsonic fighter aircraft, meaning that they could reach speeds at over 711 mph, while the A-1H Skyraider could only fly to speeds of 320mph. Such a feat would have made Pete a legend had he survived the war, some of the surviving Black Pony pilots say.
He earned his place in this squadron, piloting a newly developed plane that flew like a jet but maneuvered like a helicopter.
For the months to come, Lt. Russell along with the rest of the VAL-4 were assigned operations in Binh Thuy Air Base and the Vung Tau Army Airfield, which were both in close proximity to the Mekong Delta, a hotspot for Viet Cong activity, and a battlefield with a terrain that proved to be difficult for American troops. Missions were made. Support was provided. The Black Ponies did what was needed of them during the war, and so much more than that.
May 25, 1969 – Lieutenant Pete Russell along with his co-pilot Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Jeff Johnson, were flying on an OV-10 Bronco: the Black Pony 107, to answer a distress call coming from two Navy river patrol boats (PBR, or Swift boats) that found themselves ambushed by Viet Cong positions along the Sông Cái Lớn, or the Cai Lon River in Vietnam. Upon reaching the location, they made repeated attack runs against enemy positions, allowing the river patrol boats to move, even if just barely. After a few moments and a lull in the firing, the PBRs came under attack again. Unfortunately, Russell and his wingman found their guns dry, their previous strafing runs having eaten up what ammunition they had in their plane’s chambers.
Thinking quickly, Russell made several “dry runs,” hoping that they could intimidate the Viet Cong to duck down and provide enough time and cover for the Swift boats to maneuver out of the range of enemy fire. It was during one of these dry runs that Pete was mortally wounded by a single 30-caliber bullet round that crashed through the plane canopy and struck Pete on the side of his head. The plane was on a nosedive.
The co-pilot, Lt. Jeff Johnson, recovered control of the plane right in the nick of time, moments before it was about to crash into the water and quickly flew it back to the base at Binh Thuy at full throttle. Being seated behind Lt. Russell, Jeff only learned that his friend had died when they had landed; one bullet hole on the side of the pilot’s canopy as proof of what had killed his brother-in-arms.
“For the Black Ponies, it was a wake-up call.” Johnson recalls. “I think everybody now realized this was serious business.” The sacrifice of Lt. Russell, and the loss felt by the others in the VAL-4 Black Ponies, steeled their determination and strengthened their efforts in fighting back against the Victor Charlie. Piloting their renowned OV-10s, in formations that took to the skies come hell or high water which struck fear in the hearts of communist guerrillas, the VAL-4 was a storm of firepower to be reckoned with during the Vietnam War. A storm which, was rallied and encouraged, by the honorable sacrifice of a fellow pilot. Today, Lt. Pete Russell’s memory lives on, his name etched on panel 24W, line 090 on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and his OV-10 plane proudly displayed in the National Naval Aviation Museum as a memorial to he who strengthened the storm.