Jim Hunter’s eyewitness account of a VS-41 training incident that took place in California during 1970, and how it has affected him.

By Jim Hunter

Jim Hunter sent this account of a crash of a Bronco belonging to VS-41, the Navy’s Bronco training squadron. This occurred at NAS North Island, in Coronado CA (near San Diego) on August 7, 1970.
©1999 Jim Hunter, All Rights Reserved.Your foot note of a crash of an OV-10 Bronco at NAS North Island on 08/07/70 brought back some vivid unpleasant memories of that tragic event.

Along with a number of other naval personnel, that beautiful sunny August weekend day involved placing my observations on paper as an eye witness to the loss of two pilots and an aircraft belonging to VS-41 [the Navy’s Bronco training squadron – Ed.], and the United States Marine Corps.

The official report blamed the student pilot. Autopsy reports of the flight crew identified some form of cold/sinus medication in the bloodstream of the student Bronco pilot. According to the board of inquiry, this type of medication impaired the ability of the pilot to maintain control of the aircraft, resulting in the death of the student pilot and his instructor. Future use of this type of Rx prior to flight became prohibited.

That was that. I can still remember specific parts of that day, like they happened yesterday. Others, not as clear, as time has dulled minute details. However, I can still remember how beautiful and quiet the day was. The only aircraft in the pattern for quite a long time had been this single OV-10 Bronco, shooting touch and goes. Turning left into the pattern for landing on runway 29, gear down & locked, and on the power again just a second or so after the wheels impact the runway. A perfect day to continue the check ride and touch and go…

Since my assignment to RVAW-110, the RAG squadron at NAS North Island for the E-2 Hawkeye and the E-1B Tracer, I always found the OV-10 Bronco, with her green paint, tandem seats, short wings, and noisy as hell engines, to be somewhat of an enigma, compared to carrier ops. Still, she had the appearance of something rather fun to fly, especially since I had observed her maneuverability on several occasions during my assignment to E-2’s. I can still clearly remember the buzz saw sound the OV-10 makes when taxiing, and going back to flight idle. Rather startling for such a small aircraft. It was this fascination that kept my eyes on every Bronco that worked the pattern, taxied by, or landed, when I was in a position to observe.

During the final moments leading up to the crash, I watched the aircraft bank left into the pattern after swinging out over the water. A normal touch & go, and back into the pattern procedure. I glanced away for a second, as I heard the aircraft come to life with a burst of power, and a slight nose high attitude. The power was pulled back almost immediately, and the port (left) wing dropped. Power again was applied with a hell of a lot of noise, bringing the attention of the aircraft to those standing on the ground who previously did not share my interest. The aircraft continued with a nose high attitude, until the nose was pushed down, and again power was added with a roar, and off again. The aircraft slowly leveled off, the slowest I had observed any aircraft in the final approach to that date. The left wing dropped, and I observed what appeared to be a large piece of the aircraft to blow upward and away, along with other smaller pieces. I did not realize what I had observed was the instructor pilot ejecting. When the port wing dropped, the ejection took place with the belly of the aircraft and the bottom of the wings exposed for a few seconds, blocking from view what the pieces were. Since I did not see a parachute and/or seat pan separation occur, I immediately thought I was witnessing a massive structural failure of the aircraft.

Seconds continued on forever, as the Bronco’s left wing came back up, the nose again pitched up, and the wing again dropped as power was again added. This time though, when power was increased, the wing drop accelerated until the aircraft drifted way left of the centerline of the runway (29), and the aircraft continued into a roll and nose down attitude, striking the ground inverted, almost level now, with such a force, the student pilot’s ejection seat was triggered.

I did not know for at least an hour or so, that the pieces falling away from the aircraft was in fact the instructor pilot. He died on the beach on impact. To this day, I am not sure why his ejection was not successful. Of course, I do not know if the Bronco had Martin-Baker ejection seats with “0” altitude potential or not. If they did, I am at a loss to comment why this specific ejection sequence was not successful. [All OV-10As had LW-3B zero-speed, zero-altitude ejection seats. The ejection may have failed due to the attitude the aircraft was in, perhaps? – Ed.]

The OV-10 came down with such force the aircraft fragmented, but did not explode, as it blew sand and debris onto a couple of chief petty officers who at the time of impact were in a permanent cabana structure located adjacent the Chief’s Club. Needless to say, once their composure was regained, I can only assume their dispositions, along with their skivvies, were changed as their next priority.

I immediately jumped on a tow tractor parked idling in front of the airframe shop, and paused only long enough for several squadron personnel to join me on a cross field drive which seemed to take forever and resulted in the tractor being stuck in the sand. Many parts of North Island reminded me of Cam Rahn Bay. Lots of white/tan sand, and a little desolate. Needless to say, the rest of the journey to the crash site took place on foot. A wasted, exhausting effort, in attempt to save lives of two pilots who had already died. At least our hearts were in the right place.

I can still remember seeing their flight gear, now blossomed parachutes, and bent and shattered aircraft pieces, the largest consisting of the wings & vertical stabilizers and booms. Both pilot’s helmets, with international orange tape applied in stripes going from front to back… stands out in my mind still today. All scattered in pieces in an empty hangar between RVAW-110 and VC-3, the P-2V Neptune squadron with enlisted pilots in her ranks who fired drones for fleet target practice.

A beautiful sunny weekend day ending in a sad, not making any sense type of an event, that brings sorrow even today over the lives of the two Marine pilots, who left us all much, much to soon, with so much left to accomplish.

I’ve tried to apply reason to these events. Perhaps the elimination & use of such cold/sinus medication(s) from active flight crews saved other lives and eliminated future catastrophic incidents. I’ll never know. But I’ll never forget those two Marine Bronco pilots. Training for their specialty, flying one of the most successful and unique aircraft of the Vietnam War, and all the while not knowing how special they really were and are. In quoting Marshall Harrison, it was “A Lonely Kind Of War.”

If anyone knew them personally, or about them, I’d like to know more about their lives. All I know, even to this day almost 29 years later, is how they died.

Jim Hunter
Everett, WA