The Last of the Mohawks

Grumman’s triple-tail, bug-eyed, heat-seeking camera platform

The Grumman OV-1 Mohawk. (US Army)
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The Mohawk's technological complexity gradually increased, but not the low-level, in-the-dirt nature of its missions. For pilots like Bob White, vegetation provided great protection as long as you kept the trees away from your wings. White was shot down while on a visual reconnaissance mission over the Mekong Delta in 1969. "We were real low, which was okay as long as you stayed close to the trees so you weren't in view very long. But we came out over an open area, and I'm sure that's when I got hit." White, who estimates he was at 50 feet and 150 knots when small arms fire set his right engine ablaze, suffered a compression fracture in his back when he ejected. He was captured and became a POW.

When they weren't dodging trees or hostile fire, Mohawk pilots were coping with acute discomfort. "You'd just be ringing wet in the summertime, which was most of the time in Vietnam," Durnell says. Before they were equipped with air conditioning, Mohawks had only vents that let in blasts of outside air, and the huge expanse of plexiglass turned the cockpit into a greenhouse.

In addition to their Vietnam and European service, SLAR-equipped Mohawks began operational missions in 1963 patrolling the 151-mile-long DMZ separating North and South Korea. "Until they were retired recently, they had been flying the same mission [in Korea] day and night for the past 32 years," says Reed, who was responsible for writing the operations plans to place the first Mohawk unit in Korea. The Army is currently flying a militarized version of the de Havilland DH-7 turboprop commuter airliner equipped with a SLAR system until JSTARS (Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System) aircraft, converted Boeing 707s with powerful side-looking radar, begin patrolling the DMZ. The difference between the capability of the Mohawk and JSTARS "is like comparing the abacus to the computer," DiMaggio says.

While many associated with the Mohawk understand the necessity to replace aging airframes and technology, some still question how quickly the information the Mohawk used to provide to front-line small-unit commanders will be distributed with new systems. "The Mohawk means more control on a smaller level," says Gulf War veteran Benny Hardman, a former Mohawk pilot and maintenance officer. "It seems to me that in the military intelligence field, it's going to be much more difficult for good, quick, accurate information to filter down to the battalion commander's level with JSTARS."

Mohawks were to get one last chance to fly the type of battlefield support mission they were designed for. Mike Summerville, who spent more than six months in Saudi Arabia as an OV-1 crew chief and flightline supervisor during the Gulf War, says the Mohawk was tested by long missions and harsh conditions. As the conflict intensified, Mohawks from stateside and European military intelligence units were deployed to the Gulf to begin flying reconnaissance sorties. Summerville's unit deployed 16 aircraft across the North Atlantic to the Gulf region, flew 10- to 12-hour missions around the clock, and returned to Fort Hood, Texas, without losing an aircraft. "Grumman Iron Works--that's the whole way to describe it, plain and simple," Summerville says, citing the time-honored slogan of reverence for Grumman-built aircraft.

Yet missions took their toll on men and machine alike. "When I didn't fly a mission, I was usually on the phone or the fax machine at night looking for parts," Hardman says. Hardman and his fellow pilots benefitted from field modifications to the Mohawk's SLAR boom, which was used to pinpoint Iraqi vehicle movements. "The Motorola guys helped us tweak the SLAR system out to its maximum range," Hardman says. The Mohawks flew pre-determined courses over friendly and unfriendly territory constantly scanning the desert for vehicle movements. In addition, special RV-1D Mohawks equipped to collect electronic-signal intelligence pinpointed and reported the location of Iraqi radar systems.

Crews of SLAR-equipped Mohawks provided instant intelligence results to airborne command and control aircraft and were data-linked to ground-based imagery analysts. "We could report 'Fifty movers along a ridge line,' for instance, and they could send an inbound sortie to attack the target," Hardman says. "We also talked to AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft], who would let us know when there was a fast-moving aircraft coming in. Then we'd decide if we wanted to break track and get out of there."

Despite the Mohawks' dependable service in the desert, what the world saw on television were guided missiles piercing hangars and flying down airshafts while the OV-1s and their crews remained where they always were--in the background. "There were Mohawks in the air 24 hours a day, but they got absolutely no recognition," Reed says.

Exclusion from the headlines in its last campaign served only to strengthen the close-knit Mohawk fraternity. Its members became closer still when the OV-1's retirement came and went without fanfare. For most Americans, it was like the passing of a distant relative: It's hard to miss someone you never really knew. As the OV-1 was withdrawn from service in steps--first in Europe in 1992, then from Korea in September 1996, and finally, after retirement ceremonies during that same month, in Savannah, Georgia--there remained only one place for Mohawk lovers to turn. Elvis fans have their Graceland. Film buffs head west to Hollywood. For "Mohawkers," there's Anoka County Airport, north of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Former Mohawk pilot Mike Langer, founder of the American Wings Air Museum, oversees a growing collection of aircraft used for reconnaissance, training, forward air control, and liaison, including 12 Mohawks in various stages of completion or restoration. The museum had three flyable Mohawks until a 90-mph wind gust severely bent one airplane's right main landing gear.

About John Sotham
John Sotham

A former associate editor of Air & Space, John Sotham is a hopelessly nearsighted frequent flyer, with thousands of hours logged in exit rows worldwide. He is a retired U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel and a former crew chief on the F-4D Phantom II and A-10A “Warthog.” He started collecting aviation books when he was eight years old. Any opinions expressed are solely the author’s.

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