The OV-1 Mohawk is a American aircraft developed in the 1950s as a tough, manoeuvrable and highly advanced observation aircraft for the US Army. It wasn’t exactly a pretty plane, with a bulging bug-eye cockpit and high mounted engines, but it could spot running engines, gun fire, and see through thick jungle canopies.
The OV-1 has the distinction of being the only aircraft designed and built specifically at the request of the US Army since the 1940s.
A New Plane for the Army
The OV-1 Mohawk’s story begins in the 1950s, when the Army was looking for a new observation aircraft to replace their then-current aircraft in that role, the Cessna L-19 Bird Dog.
The Bird Dog was a solid, reliable little plane, but it was vulnerable to ground fire and too small to carry much in the way of surveillance equipment. The Army wanted a new replacement that had better survivability and much better technological capabilities, so they began drawing up a requirements list as early as 1954.
Designing an entirely new aircraft specifically for the Army was a bold move at the time, as they had only recently separated from the Air Force.
Because of this the project ran into bureaucratic problems pretty much instantly, as the US government didn’t want to fund the development of an aircraft for the Army if a similar type already existed in the Air Force.
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The situation was further complicated when the US Navy also became involved in the project. The Army wanted a rugged aircraft that could carry a suite of electronics and take-off from short, poorly prepared runways.
The Navy, meanwhile, did not care for a complex electronics suite, and were aiming for a simple, reliable observation aircraft that, critically, could operate from carriers. They also wanted it to have under-wing pylons to conduct close air support missions if necessary.
A number of designs were proposed, but it was as Grumman that would receive a contract to produce their design, known internally as the G-134.
However during all this squabbling, the Navy would end up redirecting the funds for this new observation plane to another project. With great relief to the Army, the Navy pulled out of the project in September 1957.
The Army and Grumman continued on with the development, with the aircraft now designated the YA-01. A prototype first took flight in April 1959 and proved to be a fantastic flying machine, with great handling, agility and a short take off and landing run.
It had Grumman’s typical ruggedness, with an extremely sturdy airframe that was capable of being thrown around and taking some abuse.
While the test flight was a success, the YA-01 had already been ordered into production in March with the designation AO-1 Mohawk. This was changed in 1962 to OV-1 Mohawk.
The OV-1 Mohawk is a medium-sized, twin engine aircraft with three rear vertical stabilisers.
As an observation aircraft, its design is focused on giving the crew and their equipment the most stable and reliable platform to operate from.
The crew of two, a pilot and an observer, are located right at the front of the aircraft in a bug-eyed cockpit. The bulging cockpit canopy is wide and open, and sits behind a stubby nose to give a great view of the battlefield.
It was accessed via panels on both sides of the cockpit that bulged outwards to provide views of the ground directly below. The crew sat on two Martin-Baker ejection seats that cleared the crew of the props and tail when abandoning the aircraft.
Behind the cockpit was a long, slender fuselage, tapering toward the tail. The tail has an unusual arrangement of three vertical stabilisers, which helped overcome the rotational forces generated by its twin engines, and improved stability during engine-out scenarios.
The OV-1 Mohawk’s wings were long and straight, and were fitted with large flaps that reduced the take-off and landing run. Hard pull-up take-offs were expected, so a tailskid was fitted at the rear in case it came into contact with the ground.
Power was provided by two Lycoming T53 turboprops that produced around 1,400 hp each. They were mounted on top of the wings to give some extra protection against ground fire and also obscure their exhausts from heat-seeking missiles.
The aircraft in general was given quite an impressive degree of protection as they were expected to fly in close proximity to the ground, within range of small arms fire and man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS).
This was achieved with armored ejection seats, 6.5 mm of armor plating in the cockpit floor, flak curtains, and 25 mm (1 inch) thick and canopy glass.
Of course, as an observation aircraft the OV-1 Mohawk could carry an impressive array of surveillance tools.
A side-looking radar system could map the terrain around the aircraft and even spot moving targets, cameras could snap photos of the ground in high resolution, and a radiation sensor could measure pockets of radiation on a nuclear battlefield, and even warn the crew when they were at risk.
All in the OV-1 measured 41 ft (12.5 meters) in length, 48 ft (14.5 meters) in width, and weighed 18,000 lbs (8,200 kg) when fully loaded. The two T53 engines could get the Mohawk up to a top speed of 300 mph and gave it an endurance of 2-6 hours, depending on the fuel load.
OV-1 Mohawk’s Service
The OV-1 Mohawk entered service in 1961, and was first deployed to Germany. A few different models of the aircraft entered service and were produced alongside each other. Each was specialised to a different method of observation, such as in the day or at night.
By 1963 they were deployed to Vietnam and began putting their advanced systems to good use. They were capable of scanning large swaths of ground with their side looking radars, with an autopilot system flying the Mohawks along a precise and consistent flight path to maximize coverage.
Photos could be taken at night too, thanks to a photoflash pod.
Those fitted with infrared sensors could observe gunfire, hot vehicles and fires, even through thick jungle canopies. Later upgrades to this system allowed this data to be relayed back to ground stations as it was being captured.
Some were modified to carry weapons, like .50 caliber and rotary machine gun pods, rocket pods and tanks of napalm. This caused some serious backlash from the Air Force though, as they were adamant that they were to carry out the close air support role.
Eventually the Army were forced to disarm their Mohawks. Still, they performed valiantly in Vietnam, and despite their turbulent early development, proved to be a beloved asset for the Army.
Its rugged airframe was perfectly suited to operating out of bases in the area, and its ability to loiter and report on the battlefield in real time was tremendously useful. It also proved to be tough, reliable and quiet, perfect for the observation role.
With that, it is quiet clear that the OV-1 Mohawk successfully succeeded the Bird Dog. In total, 27 were lost to enemy fire, and 36 were accidentally destroyed.
After Vietnam Mohawks remained in use around the world, particularly in Korea and Europe, but they were also used by the Army National Guard.
They were still in use in the 1990s, and provided more valiant service during the First Gulf War. By this time newer systems, like satellites, were much more capable and essentially pushed the Mohawk out of service. They were retired by the US Army in 1996.
Today, this small but capable plane stands as the only aircraft made specifically for the US Army since the 1940s.