Desire and purpose have fueled the aircraft industry since the first planes took flight. Nowhere is that more evident than in Southern California, which is home to many aviation pioneers like the Lougheed brothers, Donald Douglas and Glenn Martin.
Like those aviation pioneers, two marines, W.H. Beckett and Lt. Col. K.P. Rice, built a prototype in their Santa Ana garage of what would become one of the most versatile planes ever. The original idea was to create a rugged, all-terrain airplane that could fly faster than the military helicopters of the 1960s, but slow enough to provide support for ground troops. Beckett and Rice designed the plane to have a 20-foot wingspan featuring a turboprop with a high boom tail to avoid backblast from weapons, that was also light enough to be able to float. It was such a success that North American Aviation bought the design, which was then sold to the military. The final product off the assembly line was the OV-10 Bronco; however, it had a 40-foot wingspan, was larger and heavier to accommodate munitions and ejection seats, and it would not be able to float.
First used in Vietnam as a forward air command aircraft to protect ground troops, these Broncos were known to fly ‘low and slow,’ just what was needed over the rivers, muddy fields and coastal regions of Vietnam. The OV-10’s design sets it apart from all other aircraft because the double-booms connected by a tail-pane increased stability, while the wings set further back on the plane increased lift. It had superior endurance and was able to fly long missions lasting nearly six hours. The plane was far lighter than most, saving on fuel and enabling a safe takeoff and landing without a long runway. The 360-degree visibility from the cockpit was superior to any other plane being flown at the time. Ample room behind the cockpit also allowed for the transportation of men, equipment and enabled medical evacuations.
Agility, maneuverability, endurance and increased visibility when flying all worked together to provide the perfect reconnaissance plane. The OV-10 Broncos were supposed to have a three-year lifespan, but they surpassed all expectations, continuing to serve for 30-plus years. OV-10 Broncos serve in multiple capacities for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marines and SEALS and were used in action from Vietnam to the first Desert Storm. Today, they continue to serve in Southern California outside of the military as firefighting aircraft for Cal Fire.
Nightingale’s team is in the process of restoring a Bronco from the Navy squadron known as the “Black Ponies.” “I am fortunate to have a few great pilots that flew this plane come into the shop, share stories with me and volunteer to assist in the restoration,” he says. “At air shows, I hear from veterans who remember these planes and the pilots as the one reason they are alive today. These planes are an important piece of history for us all.”
Nightingale recounts the history of the first Broncos, saying the Black Ponies were the go-to fighting squadron in Vietnam for close combat missions. Flying the OV-10A Bronco, the Light Attack Squadron 4, or VAL 4, was deployed in 1969 in Vietnam to the Mekong Delta. Flying their Broncos “down and dirty, low and slow” they saved more U.S. and allied troops with close-air support during this three-year period than all other naval squadrons combined.