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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“We had an aircraft in the air from six o’clock in the morning until right after sunset,” says Chuck Burin, a Marine aviator with VMO-2 in Da Nang who on a previous tour had flown A-4 Skyhawks. Today, Burin is the chairman of the board and historian of the OV-10 Bronco Association, a group of 400 veterans and Bronco fans headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas. The group has restored two Broncos for a museum displaying forward air control aircraft and memorabilia at Fort Worth Veterans Memorial Air Park at Meacham Field. One of them is an OV-10A that both Burin and Dennis Darnell flew in Vietnam.

With aircraft aloft all day—and crews on standby for night missions—a Marine OV-10 was always ready to support troops coming in contact with enemy forces. “We’d always have a crew on the ‘hot pad,’ as they called it, ready to go,” says Michael Cerre, a Marine tank officer who flew as an aerial observer. Marines who flew in the Bronco back seats were not aviators; instead they were infantry, artillery, or tank officers “who knew how to talk to guys on the ground,” Darnell says.

"On very-heavy-activity nights, we were sleeping under the wing of the plane,” says Cerre. “I can remember we used to wear [on lanyards] around our necks little plastic cheat sheets with the last coordinates we had for reconnaissance teams, so if they’d wake us to say, ‘You’re scrambling to support team Jolly Roger,’ I’d look down and the coordinate was right on my chest. We didn’t want to waste a second. While the pilot was doing everything he had to do to get us off the ground, he’d say, ‘Where we going?’ ”

The observer would be busy pinpointing the coordinates on a map and working the radios to find the fastest and safest route to the destination—around, over, or under artillery fire. “It was a really intense period of listening to a lot of voices from a lot of sources,” Cerre says, adding that the experience helped him in his later career. As a broadcaster, “I’d have that link in my ear listening to the director yelling in all kinds of things and it was easy,” he says. “It was only two people speaking.” As a Marine observer in Vietnam, he had four radios, and was accustomed to hearing a lot more than two.

“The backseater could do what several radio operators on a C-130 could do,” adds Jim Hodgson, who also flew the aircraft and is the executive director of the OV-10 Bronco Association.

The job was “locating the ground force,” says Darnell, “isolating them on the maps, finding out what kind of a jam they had gotten themselves into, and then orchestrating whatever support was available at the time.” When there was no action, a crew was assigned to a specific area for daily recon missions so they could become intimately familiar with it, and report any changes to the intelligence officers. “It was amazing that after a while you could tell if a stream crossing had been used or if vegetation had changed,” says Darnell.

Says Burin: “You’d notice everything: The farmers aren’t out in the field today. Why is that?”

With external fuel tanks, an OV-10 could fly for five and a half hours. In addition to the four machine guns, which were mounted in sponsons bolted to the fuselage, there was a centerline station for a 20-mm cannon. The aircraft could carry up to 2,400 more pounds of rockets, bombs, or missiles on the sponson attach points.

“For those of us right out of pilot training, it was a slug compared to the T-38,” says former Air Force pilot Brad Wright, “but boy, was it nimble. You could turn on a dime and make change. It wasn’t sleek like a fighter jet, but it was plenty functional. It was a fun airplane to fly. It was responsive, fully aerobatic, had great visibility and good fuel economy.” Like other OV-10 pilots, though, Wright says that the aircraft was seriously underpowered.

“You always want more power,” says Burin. “I think the guys flying the F-22 want more power. But a number of OV-10s were lost in sloping terrain because they just couldn’t fly out of it. And if you lost an engine,” he continues, “if you didn’t dump everything that was hanging on that airplane, you were going to crash.”


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