Cold War Broncos

by L. D. Alford

The Cold War was long, dangerous, deadly, unappreciated, and boring.  Everyone in the European theater realized the Red Horde would attack on the darkest night, in a snowstorm, when there was zero visibility on Christmas morning.  The good guys had too few tanks, too few combat aircraft, too few troops, and too little fire power to send the Soviets to the hell they didn’t believe in or back to their gulags.  We all knew that about day two, some rosy cheeked minuteman crews would turn their keys and transform the Fulda Gap into slag.  More than anything, the United States declared this fact when they moved the OV-10 Broncos out of Europe and replaced them with nuclear tipped Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCM) and the C-23 Sherpas.  The Sherpas were an ugly Irish aircraft build by the Shorts Brothers.  They were officially brought over to carry the F-100 and other jet engines from base to base, but since they couldn’t carry an F-100 engine, the message to the Soviets was clear:  cross the boarder and we will slag you on day one that is instead of waiting until day two.  I eventually flew the Sherpas, but that story will have to wait.  The real airpower hero in Cold War Europe was the OV-10 Bronco.

The OV-10 Bronco was the only reason anyone could put a close air support (CAS) bomb on target in Europe.  The Bronco was an ungainly looking aircraft.  It was a tandem two seater with a greenhouse canopy, high set, long straight wings, four-bladed turboprop engines mounted in twin booms with the rudders and horizontal stabilizer at the back end.  It looked a little like a high wing P-38.  The center area below the wings could carry cargo, beer, Italian rocking chairs, butcher blocks, and up to 5 paratroopers.  The wings could hold a full load of bombs, 2.75 inch rocket pods, or logs (night illumination flares).  The fuselage sponsons were designed to mount four, 7.62 M60C machine guns, but to keep below the NATO fighter limit, no Air Forces Europe Bronco carried them.  The Air Force version had 715 shaft horse power 300 hour turboprop engines that were designed as throw-aways, but that were still flying on some aircraft with up to 7000+ hours.  These were the low power engines—the Marines had 1040 shaft horsepower turboprop engines.  The Air Force used these aircraft for Forward Air Control (FAC) so they always carried the big 230 gallon fuel tank below the fuselage.  With the low power engines, continued flight with a full load of fuel above about 20 degrees C was almost impossible.  You had to punch off the 230 gallon tank as soon as possible.  Luckily the aircraft had nearly zero-zero seats so you could dump the aircraft and make a nylon descent.  My introduction to the squadron was the loss of an aircraft when an engine failed and the crew couldn’t dump the tank in time.  No one was killed, but the Germans were really upset about the mess in a farmer’s field.  We were happy none of the good guys was permanently injured although one did lose some range of motion from a shattered arm and shoulder.

Although in war time, we hauled two pods of 2.75 Willy Pete (white phosphorous) rockets, the real weapons on the Bronco were the radios.  We carried 2 UHFs, 2 VHFs, 2 FM, and a 400 Watt HF set that on AM could drown out Radio Free Europe.  The purpose of the OV-10s was to control airpower and that it did in spades.  In Germany, especially in the lower two thirds, the mountainous and hilly terrain made almost all communication between the fighters and the any ground control almost impossible.  Due to the altitude and the radios on board, the OV-10 was the only reason ordinance could be brought to bear on a target.  Reportedly, the Air Force never told the Army that they were removing the OV-10s.  The effectivity of conventional airpower went from a high of almost 90 percent on target to something very much lower.  I’m not sure how accurate the report is that the Army didn’t know, but I can testify that the Army commanders were not happy at all.  Maybe no one told them how we were really going to fight the war in that theater.

The mission of the OV-10s, when we weren’t controlling fighters, was boring.  The ops desk would issue you a fully fueled jet and an empty frag.  This means you had four hours of just flying over Germany—alone, unarmed, and unafraid.  In the low fly areas, you could fly at 250 feet so low level practice, acro, and practice approaches and landings made up the normal mission.  I know the idea of a jet all your own for 4 hours really sounds great, but once you have flown a few four hour missions with almost nothing to do but bore holes in the sky, you begin to understand the bore in boring.  You can only do so much acro before you make yourself sick.  And the OV-10 could make you sick.  With the loudest cockpit and the highest vibration level in the inventory, you could make the chief of staneval (Standardization and Evaluation, check pilots) sick in the back just by flying around for four hours.  I took off out of Sembach Air Patch one day and lost an isolation washer on the control panel.  The vibration was so severe I literally could not read the instruments on the panel.  In flight, you could not rest your arms on the inside ledge of the canopy—your arms would be vibrated off the lip.  

OV-10Alone in the skies of Germany, without anyone to control or talk to, you really couldn’t practice the FAC mission very well.  You could troll the plains for fighters to jump or practice SAM breaks from the Hawk batteries that were locking their missiles on you, but there were too few Hawk batteries or fighters around to take up 4 hours.  Plus the ROE (Rules of Engagement) limited you to two 90 degree turns and no fighter could turn with an OV-10 anyway.  The OV-10 had a 7 G limit and flew around at about 250 knots—at 250 knots, you could rarely even get to 7 Gs, but you could always turn like a son of a gun.  Once in a two ship OV-10 formation, we out turned an F-15 with back to back tactical turns.  The F-4s had no hope.  This doesn’t mean an OV-10 would make any kind of fighter, it’s way too slow—it just means it could turn really fast.

The real mission of the OV-10 is the one we got to accomplish too seldom—Forward Air Control.  The FAC mission in the high threat European theater was significantly different than the original FAC mission in Vietnam.  In the low threat environment, you held at 10,000 feet well outside the Man Portable Air Defense System (MANPAD) and the light weapons fire and directed the fighters onto the target.  In Europe, if you showed your head much above 1,000 feet within 10 miles of the Forward Edge of the Battle Area (FEBA), you were toast.  Consequently, the OV-10 FAC held at the frag rendezvous point about 10 to 50 miles behind the FEBA, and the ground FAC sat with his M-113 track, track commander, track driver, jeep, trailer, ROMAD (Radio Operator, Maintainer, and Driver) (an enlisted specialist), and 1 million dollars in radio gear with the army field commander very close to the FEBA.  The job of the airFAC in the OV-10 was to get into contact with all the ground FACs in his frag area.  When the fighters arrived at the rendezvous point, the airFAC determined their ordinance, target locations, and frag info, then parceled the air power to the proper ground FACs.  The means of this parceling was through the IP brief which was a highly abbreviated method of transmitting the key target, run-in, initial point, and weapons information.  This system sounds ungainly, but it was highly effective and did not waste air power.  The OV-10, with 4 plus hours of fuel and bunches of radios could loiter at the rendezvous point almost forever and manage multiple flights and a division of ground FACs.  The correct ordinance and fighters would get to the correct targets.  The Combat Air Patrol (CAP) fighters who provided air cover could be controlled safely by the airFAC.  When the fighters returned from their bombing runs, the airFAC could pick up their Bomb Damage Assessments (BDA) and pass this back to the Air Support Operations Center (ASOC) and to the ground FAC.  Since the airFAC was usually the only aircraft on the front that was in contact with the ASOC, he could pass the Army immediate air support requests.  When things got really hot on the ground, the airFAC could send air power directly to the trouble spot.  The airFAC was the main reason the Army could depend on the Air Force to put bombs on CAS targets—then they moved the OV-10s out of Europe.

Don’t get me wrong, we won the Cold War, and one of the reasons was the GLCMs and the changing US policy, but the change from the traditional FACs to the new variety of FACs caused great pains to the Army and to CAS.  One of the biggest changes was who got the air power.  When the airFAC was there to partial out the fighters, the right bomb got to the right target and the correct unit was supported.  When the ground FACs, mostly Lieutenants didn’t have supervision, the fighters went to the guy with the best radios and the most persistence.  The airFAC Lieutenants already perfected stealing air power from each other.  My buddy was one of the best.  He could steal fighters from the most experienced—that’s one of the ways you could make a 4 hour OV-10 mission palatable.  On the ground, the more fighters you could drag in, the better your Army commander liked you.  If he saw you as an asset rather than a hanger-on, you could make great points for the Air Force and yourself.  The problem was, by listening in on the FAC communications, the Soviets figured out how to steal air power too.  I can’t say how we found out, but the brass wasn’t very happy.  That’s when we received more secure radios and became fully HAVEQUICK on the UHF radios (a method of preventing radio jamming).  They even started sending us up with communication troops as observers to work the radios and keep an eye on radio security.  Since we carried the equivalent of a radio station with us every flight that was a pretty good idea.  I don’t think they were keeping an eye on us too, but who knows.

In 1984, The 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS), my squadron, and the 704th TASS left Germany with all our aircraft and made the long trek over the pond to George AFB.  There we formed the 27th TASS.  We deployed, without the OV-10s, every year back of Europe to support our Army units, and we bemoaned the end of the OV-10 in Europe and eventually the end of the OV-10 in the Air Force.  I was privileged to give a briefing at the Air Force Museum when the aircraft was removed from the inventory.  The briefing was taped and is an official US Air Force record on the OV-10.   20th TASS, first on target—hang on Snoopy.

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The author is a retired Air Force test pilot. His other aviation, technical, and fiction writing can be referenced at