The prototype for one of the world’s coolest airplanes was built in a garage. This won’t surprise homebuilders, but it might military history enthusiasts. In the early ’60s, one active duty and one retired Marine had the idea to build a small, rugged, all-terrain airplane that could fly faster than the current crop of armed military helicopters, but slow enough to support troops on the ground. It would be a turboprop with a high boom tail to avoid backblast from the weapons mounted on it. It would have a tiny 20-foot wingspan and could be disassembled to be placed in a 6×6 truck bed for field assembly and transportation. It also would have a float kit for amphib operations. Too amazing to be true? Almost, but not quite.
When W.H. Beckett and Lt. Col. K.P. Rice built their fiberglass prototype, they went to North American Aviation (NA) with their concept, and their timing was good. NA bought the design, and then the military bought it. But like anything that gets churned through the “system,” the OV-10 Bronco became quite a different airplane than originally envisioned. Beckett and Rice’s concept came off the assembly line with a 40-foot wingspan, and it was bigger and weighed more to accommodate munitions and ejection seats, and wasn’t float kit equipped.
(Interestingly, when the contract was awarded to North American, Convair protested and designed their version, the Model 48 Charger. Similar to the OV-10 with tandem seating, turboprop and twin boom, the Model 48 was also designed to accommodate amphibious floats. It looks a lot like the Bronco, but unfortunately, the only existing prototype crashed.)
But whatever the system turned it into, the OV-10 Bronco is one awesome airplane, and this little warbird has seen it all. The Bronco has been in service for just about every mission an airplane could have. In service by the USAF, the Marines and Navy, and a number of foreign countries, it has been used for light air attack, target detection, night reconnaissance, dropping paratroopers, forward air control and more. The Marines first used the OV-10 in Vietnam and kept them in service until Desert Storm. The Air Force primarily used the Bronco as a Forward Air Control or “FAC” ship and used a phosphorous smoke system for target detection. Later, the USAF armed them with machine guns and rockets for light air attack. The Navy operated the OV-10 from 1969 to 1972 for light attack and interdiction of enemy logistics, fire support for the Marines and SEALS, and even did aircraft-carrier testing with them. Foreign countries have used them for COIN—counter insurgency and light attack roles, and they’re still in use as the Phillipine version of their A-10 and purportedly still operational in Venezuela.
I’ve always been fascinated with the Bronco, and it has long been on my “must fly” list. They’re very rare, so when I applied for a job with Cal Fire in 2010, one of the attractions was to fly the OV-10. Cal Fire operates the largest fleet of Broncos in the world and use them for Air Attack—forward air control, providing tactical coordination with the incident commander on the ground, giving information about the movement and spread of a fire, and directing tanker and helicopter pilots where to make water and retardant drops.
Cal Fire pilots get initial training at their headquarters in Sacramento at MCC, McClellan Airfield, and this is where I saw my first fleet of red-and-white OV-10s lined up neatly on the ramp. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one, and the first time I climbed up on one, I realized it takes some athleticism to fuel, much less operate, this airplane. You need shoes with grip so you don’t fall as you move around the top of the Hershey-bar wing to refuel the five fuel tanks, and just getting up there hand over hand put my rock-climbing skills to use.
Climbing into the cockpit, I noticed how high the pilot sits, as one would expect from an observation airplane—great visibility—which also means “greenhouse hot” during the summer, so thank goodness for good ECS, which makes it quite pleasant. Everything in the cockpit is robust and sturdy, and anyone who has flown a North American will recognize the left-to-right flow of the panel and circuit breakers. The cockpit is sandwiched between two noisy engines and two giant props. The military versions of the OV-10 had ejection seats, but without those, the pilot can forget about bailing out. And, as the Cal Fire mission doesn’t include getting shot at, I wasn’t too worried. I instantly felt right at home in the Bronco, partly because of the North American layout, but I also realized just how different it was mainly due to the powerplants—two 715 hp Garrett T-76-G engines. The Garrett is different from the PT-6-powered turboprops I had flown in that there are two power levers on the throttle quadrant instead of one—power levers and condition levers—and the pilot needs to understand the relationship between the two, or they’ll find out just how quickly the Garrett is prone to a hot start, or in an emergency, to feathering the wrong engine. The main function of the condition levers is to permit selection of any engine power at high-prop RPM settings for rapid thrust, but they also shut off fuel flow to the engines and can manually feather the propellers.
On my first takeoff, I got why they call it the OV-10 A “Bronco,” because it really jumps off the ground. With hands on the stick, the pilot reaches over to grab a hefty gear handle while climbing at a steep Vy of 120 knots. The Cal Fire OV-10/As are light by military standards and weigh about 4,000 pounds less than operational Broncos, so the performance and single- engine performance are pretty stellar. The Bronco is a surprisingly stable airplane (which is nice because Cal Fire Airplanes have no autopilots). The controls are relatively heavy at high speeds and require a lot of fine-tuning with trim, but it’s a two-finger operation when loitering. The wings have no dihedral, and in most airplanes, a pilot tends to pull back on the stick slightly in turns. In the OV-10, I discovered it just needs a tiny bit of top rudder to hold the airplane level in a turn.
During our comprehensive flight training, we did a lot of single-engine work, and I found the airplane will climb all day on one engine, even with full fuel. The Bronco’s giant landing gear was made for rice paddies and aircraft carriers, so dropping the gear is like adding 2,000 pounds of weight. In the event of engine failure, the pilot had better retract the gear posthaste. The flaps are also powerful. If takeoff isn’t done with 10 degrees of flaps, the ground run gets pretty long. For landing, I prefer less-than-full flaps because the finesse of overcoming drag with power becomes a delicate balancing act—one that I wasn’t always in the mood for after loitering over a fire for five hours. The most fun and challenging landings are made with them at 40 degrees, because the high sink rate, heavy use of uptrim and adding just the right amount of power to make the descent rate constant and smooth is a fun exercise in skill and finesse. For an emergency descent: push the condition levers forward, power to idle, drop the gear and flaps, and you’re in a near-vertical dive.
Because of the giant props and the use of Beta, the OV-10 pilot almost never uses brakes. All of the braking for taxi and landing is done by pulling the power levers back past the “gate” into Beta mode and keeping your feet flat on the floor until you reach the chocks when some brake pressure is allowed. This isn’t an easy habit to break for a longtime Extra/aerobatic pilot!
Each Cal Fire base is assigned a particular airplane. After training and before I took “my” airplane Air Attack 210 to my assigned tanker base at Grass Valley (KGOO), I wrote to the legendary Ed Gillespie, chief test pilot for North American Aviation from 1966 to 1988, and asked him about his experience with the Bronco. He shared some thoughts with me: “It is easy to feather the wrong engine due to the proximity of the condition levers. Make doubly sure you have the proper one before using it, and when you do, don’t be gentle with it. Pull it back firmly to the feather and fuel shutoff position. Don’t dawdle after you have made up your mind to do something.”
Ed also said: “We were the first airplane to use the T-76 in a production airplane and soon discovered that it is a very poor idea to develop a new airplane and a new engine in the same package at the same time. The OV-10 was considerably before the MU-2 [Rice Rocket], which was the first civilian airplane to use the engine in production. I believe the civilian version was the TP-331—same basic engine and engine management system. During my OV-10 flying experiences, I had a total of 22 engine failures, which required a single-engine landing. Fifteen of these failures were in the first year, so we really did end up doing a lot of Garrett’s test flying.”
I spent three fire seasons and several hundred hours in the OV-10, flying over California’s mountains, oceans, deserts and cities, from sea level to high altitude, day and night, on fires like Bullards, Rim, Canyon and Ponderosa, and the airplane never once let me down. The OV-10 is unconventional, but it’s honest. Once the pilot gets a few hours in the Bronco, it rewards them with performance and reliability, and a “cool” factor that’s hard to beat. When I land in an OV-10, and taxi into the ramp and pull the power back into Beta, people cringe from the noise, holding their hands over their ears, but they still can’t help but stare at the awesome little red-and-white airplane.
The OV-10 is a unique and rare warbird with a mighty interesting history. It seems perfect that it was chosen for the Cal Fire mission of wildland fire fighting, but I don’t think this is the end of the line for this rugged little airplane. Boeing announced it was going to bring back a modernized version of the Bronco a couple of years ago, but it has been temporarily put on the back burner. I think, “Never say never,” where the OV-10 is concerned.
The OV-10 isn’t fast, but it’s agile; it’s nowhere near beautiful, but it sure is good-looking. It’s sexy in a Bronco kind of way, and there’s nothing it can’t do. What an airplane! I’m glad I’ve had the chance to get to know it, and I’d like to spend more time in it, but I’ve still got a few more airplanes on my list. Let’s see…what’s next?