Legends of Vietnam: Bronco’s Tale

One of the most versatile aircraft of the Vietnam War appears on the verge of a comeback

A Bronco returns to Udorn Air Base, Thailand. Both canopy doors are open to cool the cockpit. (NARA)
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The reluctance of the enemy to fire was sometimes frustrating to the pilots, who were prohibited by the rules of engagement from attacking certain targets in Vietnam unless the bad guys fired first. So the idea was to get them to shoot. Gordon Evans, a Marine first lieutenant in 1971, remembers flying a patrol 20 miles west of Da Nang when he spotted a group of about 10 North Vietnamese soldiers lined up on a dike. He made a close pass to get them to fire. Nothing. He went around again. “They just didn’t pay me any mind,” Evans says. “They knew what was going on. So I went around to make still another pass, real slow. My backseater got agitated and said, ‘I don’t think this is a good idea. We’re gonna get hosed.’ ” But there was still no fire from the men on the dike. “I was all of 24, bulletproof, and knew everything,” he says. “I dropped my gear and my flaps, put all the lights on in the airplane—this is daytime—and went by in a landing configuration” to make the best possible target. He finally elicited a response. “Several guys on the dike pulled down their trousers and mooned us,” Evans says.

In the Era of Boom and Zoom

The Bronco was developed through a process unique in military procurement history. Two Marine Corps majors, K. P. Rice and the late William H. Beckett, were neighbors in Santa Ana, California, in 1961. (“K.P.” stands for Knowlton Prentice, which is “great for a Congressman,” Rice says, but “lousy for a Marine.”) The two had been in a Corsair squadron together in 1949, and, sitting on Beckett’s patio, they would discuss the Navy and Air Force preoccupation with sleek, swept-wing fighters and exotic weapons during what Beckett called “the era of boom and zoom.” They believed that the services were ignoring conventional weapons necessary for the close air support of ground forces.

What was needed, Beckett and Rice determined, was a scrappy observation airplane that could not only find enemy combatants but also attack them on the spot. They envisioned a twin-engine turboprop that would be faster than helicopters, yet slower and more versatile than jets. And it had to be simple and easy to maintain. Furthermore—and this was revolutionary—the aircraft had to be capable of taking off and landing in so short a space that it could be stationed with battalions in combat areas, not at some far-off air base. Each battalion would in effect have its own small air force. The two would-be designers limited the wingspan to 20 feet and the distance between landing gear to six and a half feet so that the aircraft could land on and take off from roads in undeveloped areas.

“Why don’t we build one?” Rice finally asked his friend. The two men built as much of a full-scale fiberglass model as would fit in Rice’s garage (because of the space limitation, attaching the wings was out of the question), and then began trying to sell the concept to “The System,” as Rice scornfully called the 1960s decision makers in the Pentagon and the aircraft industry. Their design was met with deep skepticism, partly because, unlike other attack aircraft, it didn’t carry tons of bombs. “We don’t want to do that,” Rice and Beckett patiently explained. “We want to base it with the troops and carry infantry ordnance.” They had in mind the 106-mm recoilless rifle.

The Navy fought the project at first, Rice says, but eventually came around, and so did the Air Force. In 1963, the services began writing requirements for a Light Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft. The Navy required landing gear that would enable the aircraft to operate from rough areas, and to test that capability, built a runway that looked like a sine wave. In a 2009 video documentary (made as a thesis for a master of fine arts degree by a student at the University of North Texas), the OV-10 gamely bounces down the runway’s hills and valleys as Beckett describes the test results: “The best pickup truck could do something like 7 mph on it before it went completely out of control. The OV-10 was supposed to land and take off on that. And they could. The plane could do it, but the pilot couldn’t.” The aircraft shook so violently that the pilot’s vision blurred.

What was finally built—by North American Aviation, which, after a series of mergers, was later absorbed by Boeing—was a much larger aircraft (the wingspan doubled) with more systems than the two friends had originally planned. “But it was still recognizable,” says Rice. “It could still be a pretty useful airplane.”

As Rice and Beckett had stipulated, the wings were set behind the narrow, tandem cockpit but even higher than in the original design, so they would not block the view of the ground or of anything lurking above and behind the aircraft. And the canopy was wider than the cockpit and bulged, which made the view spectacular.

Ready, 24-7

Appropriately, the first six Broncos that went to Vietnam were sent by the Marines and flew their first missions on July 6, 1968. An Air Force contingent arrived on August 1 and began operational missions a couple of weeks later. The Navy sent Light Attack Squadron Four (VAL-4), the “Black Pony,” in April 1969 to provide close air support for its “brown water” river and coastal operations, attack Viet Cong supply routes, and provide fire support for the SEALs.


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