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The OV-10 Story: Innovation vs. The "System"


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The YOV-10, Product of the "System" continued

The first Air Force OV-10as were disassembled, crated and flown to Bien Hoa in C-133 transports. Uncrating and reassembly was accomplished in five days. These aircraft were assigned to the 19th Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS) to be evaluated under the "Combat Bronco" program. They were soon doing very effective airborne forward air control (FAC) work.

Toward the end of '68 Admiral Zumwalt obtained some of the Marine's Broncos to support his Riverine and SEAL forces in the Delta. Assigned to Light Attack Squadron 4 (VAL-4), these Navy "Black Ponies" operated from Vung Tau and Binh Thuy. They operated on a waiver from the JCS under which the USAF would not dispute the trespass on their assignment. The waiver limited the OV-10As to 2.75 white phosphorus and once in a while high explosive 2.75 inch rockets along with their 7.62mm machine guns, 7.62mm mini gun pods and occasionally 20mm gun pods on the centerline. After a costly accident on the carrier "Constellation," the entire Navy inventory of 5 inch Zuni rockets were transferred to the VAL-4 OV-10 squadron and these were used to good effect. The waiver, however, denied all free fall ordnance such that bombs and adapted weapons of all types were forbidden. However, also by default, the Black Ponies were assigned CBU-55 fuel-air cluster bombs. Since the CBU-55 was worthless for close air support when dropped from any usual jet aircraft speed and altitude, only the OV-10As could deliver them low and slow enough to have any value.

These operations quickly confirmed that the Bronco was an excellent weapons platform. The Marines also demonstrated the aircraft's unique effectiveness in reconnaissance, artillery and naval gunfire spotting, FAC airborne, light attack and helicopter escort. In addition they demonstrated the capability to lay a tactical smoke screen so successfully that it took much longer than planned to get the demo aircraft back to the States. The users didn't want to let it go. This is a capability that has had great value historically, yet in Vietnam we had no other capability that this OV-10. Jets couldn't get low enough an helicopters were unstable. Today, we have no such capability at all.

The Air Force avoided weapon delivery as much as possible and confined its Broncos to mainly FAC work, initially not even allowing the use of its machine guns. This restriction was later lifted, but the Air Force Broncos were never allowed to explore any missions except FAC. It turned out that the 1000lb electronic suite that the Air Force had added in development to add weight and discredit the plane backfired. In combat, the FAC pilots expanded their role and became essentially very successful airborne command posts. Their pilots made the Air Force Bronco a success in spite of the machinations of HQ. They published a report, "Combat Dragon," that praised the aircraft lavishly, and asked for more and broader mission assignments. It was suppressed, however a book, written by an Air Force FAC, "A Lonely Kind of War," tells the real story very well. He used every capability the aircraft had, even the fuselage cavity to rescue a patrol surrounded by VC in Laos.

The Navy "Black Ponies," operating side by side with their own armed helicopters, demonstrated that the OV-1) could get to the target much faster than helicopters, and they often accomplished emergency missions hours before the centrally controlled jets arrived - much to the consternation of the Air Force. The Black Ponies weren't as restricted as the other services and probably got the most out of the aircraft. Even they were very limited in the ordnance they had available, mostly five inch rockets and machine guns, sometimes a 20mm pod (which KP had built at China Lake on his second tour there). Bombs, napalm, ground ordnance in a bomb bay or the recoilless rifle, could have added much to their already exemplary effectiveness.

In spite of these successful operations in three services, the light attack component was overshadowed more and more by the Air Force's opposition to anything that would give the "Grunts" on the ground anything airborne except what was left over after Air Force priorities were met. This eventually forced the Army into the development of the armed helicopter as the only way it could get the timely and dependable support needed.

Ii is interesting to note here that Army doctrine in the late '60s viewed the helicopter as a means of transport. As such, it was not a fighting vehicle and, for a time, the Army forbade any armament on helicopters. This policy was overtaken by events in Vietnam when tactical necessity forced field expedient armed helicopters. The Marines soon followed suit (for a while Marine helicopters only flew, if Army "gun ships" were available for escort.) Since the Army, although barred by the Air Force from fixed-wing support, did have helicopters, the armed helicopter was the inevitable solution. Thus the development of the armed helicopter, not only for the Army and Marines who followed their lead, but for practically every Army of consequence in the world. In spite of the fact that practically everything an attack helicopter could do, could be done cheaper and better with a fixed wing aircraft of proper design, Air Force politics overruled it.

Back at North American I continued to push the unique close support capabilities of the airplane, now to foreign air forces in addition to our own. I soon realized that the biggest obstacle to sales was politics and that, ridiculous as it sounds, the OV-10 was perceived as a threat to the jets. Before I could even discuss OV-10 capabilities in CAS, etc, I had to make a better case for jets. This was true for every air force I approached, and I approached a lot of them.

The problem can best be illustrated by the experience of Marine Aviation, the initial backer of the OV-10. As soon as the OV-10 achieved a degree of success in Vietnam, the Marines were asked to trade some of their F-4s for OV-10s. The F-4s would go to the Navy which needed more fighters, and the Marines would get more OV-10s for close support, which the Marines advertised they wanted. The Marine Commandant, Gen. Shoup actually went along with this proposal, but it was later turned down by the Navy CNO, Adm. Burke. Vadm. Pirie, DCNO Air actually wrote the letter (as I discovered in a private conversation with him much later). He recognized that if the Navy could provide the fighters needed by the Marines, there was no need for organic Marine Air at all. If the Marines than had no air of their own, what was the difference between them and the Army? Why not do away with the Marines altogether? This was no joke and there is no doubt that the Air Force and Army would have used this argument in DOD. In the end, Marines owe their very existence to Adm. Pirie, but few realize it.

The interesting thing is that this line of reasoning was essentially universal. Everywhere I went, to get the OV-10 even considered, I first had to protect the "F-4." Eventually, we sold the OV-10 to some countries where "COIN" operations were especially applicable such as Venezuela, Indonesia and Thailand. In addition, Germany bought some for target towing and even came up with a modification in which they added a jet engine for added speed on selected missions.


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