Reported by Mike "Merlin" Whaley
Through someone that I met through the OV-10 Association, in early October 1998 I was granted a tour of the State Dept. hangar at Patrick AFB, FL, which is the maintenance base for the State Department's anti-narcotics spraying program in central and South America.
Essentially, the U.S. State Department operates a fleet of OV-10Ds equipped with crop-spraying gear, similar to that found on most agricultural aircraft. Using the assistance of GPS navigation equipment, they fly missions to spray herbicide (a much stronger version of Roundup weed killer) on coca fields, the plant from which cocaine is made. These missions can be flown during the day or night. They often work on conjunction with local military and police units, who help provide security at the bases from which the aircraft operate. The DOS Broncos are civilian aircraft and thus must fly unarmed, although the host country frequently will provide its own armed escort using gunship helicopters to protect the Broncos while they spray. As you might imagine, this is very dangerous work, as aircraft are routinely shot at by the coca farmers, and several have been lost to ground fire in recent years. In addition, there are natural hazards from everything from the mountainous terrain to dead bare trees left on the edge of fields just to stop spray planes. However, it has proved much more effective to stop cocaine production before the plants are harvested than later on in the production and delivery cycle, so the work continues.
Due to the nature of the mission these folks are tasked with carrying out, or more specifically the nature of the kind of people against whom these missions are carried out, there are some serious issues involved with protecting the general safety and well-being of those involved in the program. So understandably, there are some common-sense restrictions upon the type of information that is released to the public. The major restrictions that I had to follow in preparing this article were not to take pictures showing any people, and I couldn't publish anybody's name or information that could reveal their identity. Obviously, certain operational details aren't publicized either, such as specific mission profiles and schedules. Other than that, however, there is publicly-available information about the general nature of what these aircraft are used for. Information about the aircraft themselves is generally not restricted either.
My camera finally died completely, so before I went I stopped at Wal-Mart and got a disposable camera so that at least I would have something to record my tour other than my photographic memory and a notepad. These cameras actually take pretty good pictures most of the time, believe it or not. Sure beats having NO camera in any case. Anyway, after stopping in at the base gate and getting a temporary car pass, I made my way to the hangars. I picked up the phone and called my friend in maintenance... I got someone who said that they'd find him and was put on hold for 10 minutes. This seems to happen a lot there, I'm not sure if it's from the secrecy or just the good old maintenance hangar syndrome of everybody thinking that someone else got it. Well after waiting for about 10 minutes, somebody came to the door to go in, and took me to see my guy.
Walking into the hangar, I couldn't help but be impressed to see three Broncos inside being worked on. What's more, as I entered a radio was playing ELP's Karn Evil 9, First Impression, Part 2... the very song that provided the "Welcome back my friends..." quote on the front page of the website!! I thought that somebody had arranged to greet me! It turned out that it was just the song that happened to be on the radio, but was rather symbolic nonetheless. Talk about things that make you go "hmmm..."
I was taken back into the office area to meet my friend, who was working with another technician on a bundle of wires I surmised to be a faulty fire-warning light. Once they figured out how to proceed with that, we proceeded back into the hangar where I started to ask all the questions I could think of. The staff didn't seem to mind having a visitor around, I suspect that by the time you get there it's a pretty safe assumption that you've been told what you may or may not take pictures of.
There are ten Broncos currently in the State Department program, all are ex-USMC D-models. All have civil registrations, even though all the security lends a military air to the operation, these are civilian aircraft. In fact, they are not permitted to carry weapons, even if they are operating in environments where they are being fired upon. There are DOS numbers assigned that are somewhat arbitrary, which essentially just serve as a means of identification without having to display U.S. civil registration numbers (which might draw even more attention to the aircraft while operating in hostile areas.) The BuNos of the State Department aircraft are:
486, 488, 198, and 501 were present during my visit. 501 was not flying but was being made flyable for service in the near future. In addition, BuNos 155466, 155467, and 155473 are used for parts. These are the three SLEP prototypes from Rockwell in Columbus. Since they were prototypes, there were differences in their wiring and it was not known how (or if) this would have an effect on their use. This caused them to be selected as the parts aircraft for the "normal" Broncos, which were known to be wired in a certain standard configuration.
The DOS planes have an interesting add-on armor package. Pilots had complained about the lack of protection from ground fire. In fact, most of the planes I saw had repairs to cover bullet holes, mostly from weapons in the AK-47 class. The DOS planes have two types of armor added on. There is a large plate of ceramic armor plate bolted onto the outside of the fuselage underneath the canopy, beside the seats. This is roughly an inch thick and I am told that you cannot even drill through it. There is also a very thick plate of bulletproof glass mounted on the inside of the canopy frame, on each side of the pilot's head. This will stop two 7.62 mm rounds (an SKS rifle) from a range of 50 feet. There is some concern that in a crash, all the extra mass of the armored glass may cause the canopy frame to buckle and break, however that risk is still considered preferable to taking a potshot in the head from an irate coca farmer.
DOS planes have also had the ejection seats re-enabled, since an OV-10 is virtually impossible to bail out of manually. For this reason, I couldn't actually sit in the cockpit to take photos, as I didn't have ejection seat training. However I was allowed to climb up on the cockpit side rail and take pictures that way. There is really not much that is very unusual in the instrumentation, other than the equipment related to the spraying (which is pretty much standard for modern agricultural aircraft.)
The DOS Broncos have been flying with a large metal herbicide tank in the cargo area. For ferry flights, this tank is used as a storage area for the external spray equipment, so that a 150 gallon centerline tank can be mounted underneath. Currently, Ayres Corp. is installing a new and improved spray system, which adds another herbicide tank underneath the aircraft in a streamlined housing. This system also has the capability to use the internal tank (now made of fiberglass) for either herbicide or fuel, with just the reconnection of a few pipes and connections. This arrangement is lighter and the external portions are much more streamlined - enough that it adds 20 knots to the aircraft's cruise speed as compared to the older system.
I was told that in the early days of flight operations, the fiberglass props were often destroyed by rocks thrown up from rough field operations. They have about 40 spare engines on hand as well. My friend says that the Garrett turbines are no more maintenance-hungry than other turbines in roughly the same class, but like all jets they will eat you alive in maintenance if you don't know what you are doing.
I was also shown around the other hangar, which housed other aircraft (an O-1 Bird Dog and a Huey helicopter) and served as the parts warehouse. There is a venerable turboprop-conversion C-47 Dakota in the fleet as well, but it wasn't present during my visit. Upstairs, there were racks and shelves holding a myriad of Bronco pieces and parts. There was actually a complete Bronco airframe as well, disassembled and stripped down. There are quite a few OV-10A parts on hand that are essentially useless to the DOS program (which only flies D models.) These part would be highly prized by other groups that do operate A-model Broncos (the CDF, BLM, and NASA for example, as well as several private restoration organizations like the OV-10 Bronco Association.) However, due to the vagaries of the governmental hardware tracking system, all these goodies that everyone else desperately wants and the DOS can't use just sit there, decreed to be untouchable by the bureaucracy. Similarly, other organizations have D-model parts that the DOS needs which can't be transferred, for similar reasons. As someone who has been involved with civilian organizations dedicated to the restoration and preservation of warbirds, I can say that this type of governmental idiocy is quite typical - even for planes dating from World War Two that have absolutely no governmental uses at all (the US Navy recently invoked ownership rights in order to prevent a collector from salvaging a Grumman Wildcat fighter from the lake where it crashed in 1942. The Navy has made no efforts to salvage this airframe in the 50+ years since the crash, nor do they have any plans to salvage or restore it themselves in the future, nor was there ever a question of liability.)
My friend also tells me that the biggest problem they have from a maintenance standpoint is finding experienced OV-10 mechanics. While any experienced A&P could probably work on one, the Bronco (like any aircraft) does have plenty of things unique to it, and experienced OV-10 talent is a hot commodity. If anybody out there is looking for a job working on OV-10s and would not mind living in central Florida, let me know and I can put you in touch with the right people.
After about an hour, I thanked my host for a very informative and interesting experience and drove home with a lot of newfound knowledge, excitement, and even more questions to follow up on. Hopefully I can go back for more updates sometimes reasonably soon. I wish I could publicly thank my friend by name for taking the time to give me this tour, because this certainly was a very interesting and exciting experience. Unfortunately he and his co-workers must remain anonymous for their own safety, so they can continue to reduce the bad guys' ability to produce the deadly drugs that take thousands of lives each year both here and abroad. But if by some random chance you meet one of these brave people on the street someday, please take a minute and thank them for what they do. Perhaps their work is not the entire solution to this very complex problem, but it certainly is having an effect... and if this results in lives being saved, it's certainly worth it!!
My friend did ask to include one thing here, I'm happy to oblige:
Please mention as a kudo from me a thank you for the support of... we'll use their initials... JB, EJ, and CC in getting the program on its feet in our early days.
OV-10 tailboom, with details of inner structure and linkages visible. This was taken from the inside of the boom. The OV-10, even though it is not a tiny aircraft, is relatively simple which greatly facilitates maintainability in the field.
The chemical/auxilliary fuel tanks in the cargo bay. The older system is made of metal, while the newer one is fiberglass. Switching between using the tanks for chemicals for spray missions or fuel for ferry flights requires only a couple of pipes be switched. The configuration of the Bronco is well suited for this type of work, as the tanks are near the aircraft's center of gravity and thus the trim and control sensitivity changes little as the fuel or chemical is used.
This is a dry-chemical (ie, herbicidal dust) spreader, undergoing installation trials. This is essentially a standard spreading unit produced by Translan of Harbor City, CA.
Dry chemical spreader, front view.
T76 engine from an OV-10D, on the stand for maintenance.
Inside of mothballed OV-10D fuselage. This photo looks towards the front of the fuselage, from the rear right side where the wing root would be. This is one of the OV-10D demonstrator aircraft, now used for parts. When organizations like the OBA get projects for restoration, this is often how they start out... not most people's idea of how airplanes are supposed to look!! If the State Dept. ever gets out of the Bronco business, this will (hopefully) become a hot commodity for restorers to get ahold of!!
OV-10D left side, in the hangar.
Here are the chemical/fuel tanks of OV-10D N475AW.
This is the cockpit of OV-10D N475AW, taken from the right side.
This is OV-10D N475AW's front cockpit, as viewed from standing on the step for the rear cockpit.
OV-10D N475AW rear cockpit, as seen from the rear cockpit step.
OV-10D N475AW's spray pump. This is the new Ayres spray system, which is much more aerodynamically streamlined and lighter in weight than the previous one (to the tune of 20 knots higher cruise speed.)
OV-10D N475AW's right engine and cowl area. The "law enforcement blue" paint looks just a little bit darker in real life than it appears here because the image's brightness and contrast were adjusted to show more details. Unless you are very close to the aircraft, the color scheme actually looks black, and in fact other planes are painted flat black (with the same diagonal red stripe scheme.)
OV-10D N475AW - right rear boom. This shows the general layout of the color scheme, which was originally applied when the aircraft belonged to the BATF. Some aircraft have flat black instead of blue, and do not have white outlining the red stripe and N-numbers.
OV-10D N475AW's Ayres spray gear, left side. This is a pretty standard installation, similar to many other agricultural aircraft.
This is the left-side trailing edge and fuel tank of an OV-10D. Note the vortex generators to increase control effectiveness and delay stall effects on the ailerons at low airspeeds.
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