Although the maximum altitude in the airplane’s published specifications is 26,000 feet, Broncos could work from the treetops up to only 18,000 feet “in optimum conditions,” according to Burin, “but we rarely flew above 10,000 feet.” Likewise, the aircraft could be considered a short-takeoff-and-landing craft, but it could take off in the advertised 800 feet only “with a light load on a cool day,” Burin says.
The Marine Bronco drivers and their backseaters ordinarily flew at 1,000 or 1,500 feet, so were most threatened by ground fire. The Air Force flew higher, at around 4,000 to 5,000 feet. “They had a lot more stuff shooting at them,” says Burin, referring to flights over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
“At the start of the year I was concerned about [being hit by ground fire], but I guess I got over it,” says Jack Thompson, who was an FAC in Vietnam in 1971 and 1972. “It was almost a daily thing. I was there a year and I flew 234 missions, and so you get used to it. And the airplane, it’s like it was a part of me. It was slow and responsive.”
It wasn’t as slow as helicopters. Dennis Darnell, who also flew helicopters in Vietnam, much preferred the OV-10. “A lot of times if you were checking out, you’d go high and dive, and go by at a tremendous speed—a luxury you didn’t have in helicopters,” he says. “You were just always slow in those things. The reason I was so pleased with the OV-10 is I never had to put one in because of battle damage; whereas in four months, on my first tour I lost three helicopters.”
When a Bronco did need repairs, the work could be done with ordinary hand tools. In addition, no ground equipment was needed to start OV-10 engines; and in an emergency, high-octane automobile fuel could be used in place of aviation fuel with only a slight loss of power.
The airplane did have a vulnerability, however: No Bronco pilot ever ditched the aircraft and survived. Aware that a pilot had been killed in an attempted ditching, Air Force Captain Steven L. Bennett chose to try anyway: in late June 1972 after a surface-to-air missile damaged his left engine and left landing gear. Bennett made the decision because the missile blast had destroyed the parachute of his observer, Marine Captain Mike Brown. Darrel Whitcomb was attacking enemy targets near the Demilitarized Zone when he got a call from Bennett. Whitcomb rendezvoused with the stricken aircraft and watched as it came down just off the South Vietnam coast. “By the time the helicopter got there,” says Whitcomb, “they were able to rescue the backseater, but Bennett was killed.” Bennett was the only OV-10 airman to receive the Medal of Honor.
What kept Bronco crews awake at night, says Michael Cerre, was the fear of directing an air strike or artillery strike on friendly forces or on civilians. “Was it the wrong bend in the river?” he remembers thinking right after the bombs had been released. “Was it the wrong hooch?”
“For the recon troops, we were calling for air strikes within 100 meters of them and that was terrifying,” says Cerre. “The jets would be coming in—they had to make these steep, tight turns—and the pilot would be saying ‘Am I cleared?’ but their wings would still be rocking and I’d answer ‘Negative, negative, negative’ because I had to make sure that the pilot had steadied his wings and had his sights on that target.
“And then there was this moment that haunts me to this day. [After the bomb was released] the radios would go silent. And you hope you hear the ground troops say, ‘We’re okay,’ or ‘That was on target.’ But sometimes it wouldn’t be okay. Either there was terror in their voices because the bomb had hit so close or the enemy was still coming.”
Old Bronco, New Tricks