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Remembering Desert Storm:
10 Years Later
Cliff Acree and Guy Hunter's OV-10 before their ill-fated mission.
Col. Cliff Acree and Guy Hunter's OV-10 before their ill-fated mission. Photo by Andrew Morrow.

On January 16, 1991, one day after the deadline for retreat given Iraq by President Bush (senior), Operation Desert Shield turned into Operation Desert Storm as coalition air forces began to make good on their promise to take Kuwait back. Coalition aircraft pounded the Iraqi air and ground forces ceaselessly for over a month before ground forces were sent behind enemy lines. To put it simply, the air attack absolutely decimated the Iraqi forces, then the fourth-largest army in the world. There are many vivid images of the air war, from the complete annihilation of entire divisions on the Basra "Highway of Death" by A-10s to the remotely-viewed images of Iraqis surrendering to unarmed and unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicles. Desert Storm finally put the ghosts of Vietnam to bed in the eyes of many Americans.

Desert Storm was a war which placed some of the very latest military technology alongside some of the oldest. Fighters as new as the F-117 Stealth Fighter fought alongside aircraft as old as the 1954-vintage B-52 Stratofortress. For some aircraft, Desert Storm marked the final combat hoorah, at least in American service. The venerable A-7 Corsair II, the F-4G "Wild Weasel" Phantom, and lo and behold, our beloved OV-10 Bronco had their last US combat engagements in Desert Storm. (Each of these aircraft are still in active combat service with other countries, however.)

Dan "Pigpen" Ahearn next to his OV-10D in March 1991.
VMO-2's Dan "Pigpen" Ahearn next to his OV-10D in March 1991.

Serious questions were raised about the effectiveness of the OV-10 in the desert warfare environment. The OV-10 was originally designed for low, slow, and up-close combat in a jungle environment such as exists in Southeast Asia. In Southwest Asia, however, there is little but desert. Lots and lots and lots of sand.... radically different from anything the OV-10 had been used for before, and nobody was quite sure what would happen.

Dan Ahearn and Chip Gibson somewhere over Greenland on the way to Saudi Arabia with VMO-2.
Dan "Pigpen" Ahearn and Chip "Tard" Gibson somewhere over Greenland on the way to Saudi Arabia with VMO-2.

The USAF thought the OV-10 to be too vulnerable to send any Broncos to the Gulf, but the Marines sent VMO-1 and VMO-2 to bases in Saudi Arabia. A 6-plane detachment from VMO-2 arrived in September 1990 after a month-long odyssey from Camp Pendleton California to Saudi Arabia. The rest of the squadron then followed suit. VMO-1 was in place by January 18. Other groups of Broncos were shipped across the Atlantic by aircraft carrier, flying off to Spain and continuing on to Saudi Arabia. VMO-2 was stationed at King Abd Al-Aziz Naval Base with both AV-8Bs and OV-10s. These were the most forward land-based, fixed-wing aircraft of any service in the war. Desert fighting proved to be quite a bit different than the jungles of Vietnam, but improved equipment and new techniques helped the OV-10 keep pace. As it turned out, the biggest danger came from a threat that was barely in existence during Vietnam - numerous shoulder-launched heat-seeking missiles that could be present anywhere that ground troops were.

Due to that very problem, the first aircraft lost in Desert Storm was a USMC OV-10A from VMO-2, crewed by unit Commanding Officer Col. Cliff Acree and the AO, CWO Guy "Great White" Hunter. After being hit by an Infrared missile, they both managed to eject successfully but were quickly captured by Iraqi ground troops. They spent the rest of the war as POWs, suffering severe abuse at the hands of the Iraqis. (The story of this experience is the subject of one of the best books our the decade, written by Col. Acree's wife Cindy - "The Gulf Between Us".) Unfortunately for Col. Acree and CWO Hunter, The A-model Bronco had one critical handicap when compared to the D-model... A-models didn't have the IR-suppressing exhaust stacks the D's did, so the A's heat signature as seen from the ground was much greater than the D models'. In fact, there was an emergency shipment made of D-style exhaust covers for field retrofit to A-model aircraft. Some of the OV-10D and D+ airplanes had the ALQ-144 "disco light" IR jammer installed, which was mounted on the top of the aircraft above the cargo door. Standard defense against a missile attack was to maneuver so that the missile stayed visible in the top center of the canopy while pulling the throttles back to idle. Of course any available defensive measures available such as chaff or flares could also be released. This maneuver shields the exhaust of the engines from the view of the missile, causing it to lose its ability to track the aircraft. Unfortunately, there wasn't always time to try this... as happened to both OV-10s that got shot down during the war. The second OV-10 lost was an A-model from VMO-1, which was also hit by a ground-launched IR missile when it got caught over enemy trenches. Unfortunately, though, this incident killed the observer, and the pilot was captured after ejection. These two incidents were the last problems the OV-10s had with Iraqi fire, as the As were reassigned to lower-threat areas and emphasis was placed on using D-models when possible due to its increased capabilities.

Andrew Morrow took this photo on the way to Saudi Arabia in Sept. 1990 during Operation Desert Shield.

VMO-2's Excellent Adventure. Photo courtesy Cindy Acree.
A photo taken during the "excellent adventure" - VMO-2's month-long journey to take their OV-10s from Camp Pendleton CA to Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy Cindy Acree.

OV-10 crews performed many of the same missions that it refined during Vietnam... controlling airstrikes by AV-8Bs and A-6s, controlling Naval artillery, and relaying reports from Navy SEALS and other recon units. Typical combat loads for OV-10s during Desert Storm consisted of one AIM-9 Sidewinder missile for defense against enemy fighters, white phosphorus marking rockets, high-explosive (HE) rockets, LUU-2 parachute flares for night missions, and of course the standard M60C machine guns. Defensive equipment included the standard chaff and flare dispensers and the ALQ-144 "disco light" IR jammer on some aircraft.

Was Desert Storm the last hurrah for the Bronco?? Not at all. Even though both the Air Force and Marines retired the Bronco by 1994, it remains in active service with the California Dept. of Forestry and Fire, The U.S. State Dept., and NASA. It also remains combat-ready in Venezuela, Colombia, The Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia - all countries where conditions are far more similar to the jungle warfare that the Bronco was designed for than the Persian Gulf. Still, Desert Storm was the Bronco's final combat tour with the American military, and as such, holds a special place in the long history of this amazing airplane.

Heading home aboard the USS Juneau. Photo courtesy Ed Gosselin.

To read further about Desert Storm:

  •  Reader's Digest (January 2001)
    On the 10th anniversary of Desert Storm, Reader's Digest has chosen The Gulf Between Us by our friend Cindy Acree as the subject of their book section. You can purchase this excellent book from the OBA. We have to wonder if there has ever been as much public exposure for an OV-10-related story!

  •  Air Force Magazine (January 2001)
    AFM was scheduled to have a 10th anniversary special on Desert Storm entitled "Gulf War Scrapbook". We would appreciate it if anyone could confirm that this was actually published, as well as let us know if any OV-10 material made it into the story.

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