Douglas A-1 Skyraider

Douglas A-1 Skyraider

Between the late 1940s and early 1980s the Douglas A-1 Skyraider had a remarkably long and successful career and was in was in constant service and operated by the United States Navy, the United States Marine Corps and the United States Air Force. The A-1 also known as a “Spad” was used by the British Royal Navy, the French Air Force, the Air Force of the Republic of Vietnam, and others.

The Spad was Built by Douglas Aircraft and was an American single Wright R-3350-26WA radial engine, 2,700 hp single-seat, piston-powered, propeller-driven, 322 mph fast attack aircraft which seemed to outlive its projected lifetime well into the jet age.

The nickname “Spad”, was derived after the French World War I fighter. The Skyraider, even inspiring its straight-winged, slow-flying, jet-powered successor, the A-10 Thunderbolt II as well.

The A-1 Skyraider was designed by Ed Heinemann of the Douglas Aircraft Company during World War II to meet US Navy requirements for a carrier-based, single-seat, long-range, high performance dive-bomber, to follow-up the earlier successful aircraft such as the Helldiver and the Avenger.

Designed, prototypes were ordered on 6 July 1944 as the XBT2D-1. The XBT2D-1 made its first flight on 18 March 1945 and in April 1945, the USN began evaluation of the aircraft at the Naval Air Test Center (NATC). In December 1946, after a designation change to AD-1, delivery of the first production aircraft to a fleet squadron was made to VA-19A.

The AD-1 was built at Douglas’ El Segundo plant in Southern California. In his memoir The Lonely Sky, test pilot Bill Bridgeman quotes a production rate of two aircraft per day, describing the routine yet sometimes hazardous work of certifying AD-1s fresh off the assembly line for delivery to the U.S. Navy in 1949 and 1950.

The low-wing monoplane design started with a Wright R-3350 radial engine, later upgraded several times. Its distinctive feature was large straight wings with seven hard points apiece. These gave the aircraft excellent low-speed maneuverability, and enabled it to carry a large amount of ordnance, more than its own weight in weapons, over a considerable combat radius and loiter time for its size, comparable to much heavier subsonic or supersonic jets. The aircraft was optimized for the ground attack mission and was armored against ground fire in key locations unlike faster fighters adapted to carry bombs, such as the Vought F4U Corsair or North American P-51 Mustang, which would be retired by U.S. forces before the 1960s.

Navy AD series were initially painted in ANA 623 Glossy Sea Blue, but during the 1950s following the Korean War, the color scheme was changed to light gull grey and white. Initially using the gray and white Navy pattern, by 1967 the USAF began to paint its Skyraiders in a camouflaged pattern using two shades of green, and one of tan.

The A-1s were extensively used in Vietnam for air-cover for downed pilots and L.R.R., (Long Range Reconnaissance), and SOG, (Special Observations Group), operations and recoveries. These A-1s were nicknamed “Sandies” because they could orbit the area for an extended time and carry a large amount of ordnance, to keep the bad guys away until the Rescue aircraft arrived.

Skyraiders were also used by the USN over Korea and Vietnam, the A-1 was a primary close air support aircraft for the USAF and VNAF during the Vietnam War. The A-1 was famous for being able to take hits and keep flying. There was added armor plating around the cockpit area for added pilot protection.

It was replaced beginning in the mid-1960s by the Grumman A-6 Intruder as the Navy’s primary medium attack plane in supercarrier-based air wings.

However the A-1 Skyraiders continued to operate from the smaller Essex class carriers, such as the Yorktown CVS 10 and The Intrepid CVS 11 for example which became the base for many aviation books that stories of the Vietnam Air-War took place.

The Skyraider went through seven versions, starting with the AD-1, then AD-2 and AD-3 with various minor improvements, then the AD-4 with a more powerful R-3350-26WA engine. The AD-5 was significantly widened, allowing two crew to sit side-by-side (this was not the first multiple-crew variant, the AD-1Q being a two-seater and the AD-3N a three-seater); it also came in a four-seat night-attack version, the AD-5N. The AD-6 was an improved AD-4B with improved low-level bombing equipment, and the final production version AD-7 was upgraded to a R-3350-26WB engine.

For service in Vietnam, USAF Skyraiders were fitted with the Stanley Yankee extraction system, which acted similarly to an ejection seat though with a twin rocket pulling the escaping pilot from the cockpit.

In addition to serving during Korea and Vietnam as an attack aircraft, the Skyraider was modified into a carrier-based airborne early warning aircraft, replacing the Grumman TBM-3W Avenger. It served in this function in the USN and Royal Navy, being replaced by the Grumman E-1 Tracer and Fairey Gannet respectively in those services.

Skyraider production ended in 1957 with a total of 3,180 built. In 1962, the existing Skyraiders were redesignated A-1D through A-1J and later used by both the USAF and the Navy in the Vietnam War.

Though the Skyraider was produced too late to take part in World War II, it became the backbone of United States Navy aircraft carrier and United States Marine Corps strike aircraft sorties in the Korean War from 1950 thru 1953, with the first ADs going into action from the Valley Forge with VA-55 on 3 July 1950. Its weapons load and 10-hour flying time far surpassed the jets that were available at the time. On 2 May 1951, Skyraiders made the only aerial torpedo attack of the war, hitting the Hwacheon Dam, then controlled by North Korea.

On 16 June 1953, a USMC AD-4 from VMC-1 piloted by Major George H. Linnemeier and CWO Vernon S. Kramer shot down a Soviet-built Polikarpov Po-2 biplane, the only documented Skyraider air victory of the war. AD-3N and 4N aircraft carrying bombs and flares flew night-attack sorties, and radar-equipped ADs carried out radar-jamming missions from carriers and land bases.

During the Korean War, A-1 Skyraiders were flown only by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, and were normally painted in dark navy blue. It was called the “Blue Plane” by enemy troops. A total of 128 Navy and Marine AD Skyraiders were lost in the Korean War 101 in combat and 27 to operational causes. Most operational losses were due to the tremendous power of the AD. ADs that were “waved-off” during carrier recovery operations were prone to perform a fatal torque roll into the sea or the deck of the aircraft carrier if the pilot mistakenly gave the AD too much throttle. The torque of the engine is so great it would cause the aircraft to rotate about the propeller and slam into the ground or the carrier.

On 26 July 1954, two Douglas Skyraiders from the aircraft carriers USS Philippine Sea and Hornet shot down two Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force La-9s off the coast of Hainan Island while searching for survivors after the shooting down of a Cathay Pacific Skymaster airliner three days previously, also by La-9s.

As American involvement in the Vietnam War began, the A-1 Skyraider was still the medium attack aircraft in many carrier air wings, although it was planned to be replaced by the A-6A Intruder as part of the general switch to jet aircraft. Skyraiders from Constellation and Ticonderoga participated in the first U.S. Navy strikes against North Vietnam on 5 August 1964 as part of Operation Pierce Arrow in response to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, striking against fuel depots at Vinh, with one Skyraider from Ticonderoga damaged by anti-aircraft fire, and a second from Constellation shot down, killing its pilot.

During the war, U.S. Navy Skyraiders shot down two North Vietnamese Air Force Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 jet fighters: one on 20 June 1965, a victory shared by Lieutenant Clinton B. Johnson and Lieutenant, junior grade Charles W. Hartman III of VA-25; and one on 9 October 1966 by LTJG William T. Patton of VA-176. While on his very first mission, Navy pilot Lieutenant JG Dieter Dengler took damage to his A-1H over Vietnam on 1 February 1966, and crash-landed in Laos.

As they were released from Naval service, Skyraiders were introduced into the South Vietnamese Air Force. They were also used by the USAF to perform one of the Skyraider’s most famous roles: Again the “Sandy” was in use as the helicopter escort on combat rescues.

USAF Major Bernard F. Fisher piloted an A-1E on the 10 March 1966 mission for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing Major “Jump” Myers at A Shau Special Forces Camp. USAF Colonel William A. Jones, III piloted an A-1H on the 1 September 1968 mission for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. In that mission, despite damage to his aircraft and suffering serious burns, he returned to his base and reported the position of a downed U.S. airman.

A-1E Skyraiders fly in formation over South Vietnam on way to target on 25 June 1965. The aircraft are assigned to the 34th Tactical Group, based at Bien Hoa, South Vietnam.

After November 1972, all A-1s in U.S. service in Southeast Asia were transferred to the South Vietnamese Air Force and their roles taken over by the subsonic LTV A-7 Corsair II. The Skyraider in Vietnam pioneered the concept of tough, survivable aircraft with long loiter times and large ordnance loads. The USAF lost 201 Skyraiders to all causes in Southeast Asia, while the Navy lost 65 to all causes. Of the 266 lost A-1s, five were shot down by surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and three were shot down in air-to-air combat; two by North Vietnamese MiG-17s.

The first A-1 was shot down on 29 April 1966, and the second A-1 was lost on 19 April 1967; both were from the 602 Air Commando Squadron (ACS). The third A-1 Skyraider was from Squadron VA-35 and was lost to a Chinese MiG-19 (J-6) on 14 February 1968. Lieutenant JG Joseph P. Dunn, USN, had flown too close to the Chinese held island of Hainan, and had been intercepted. Lieutenant Dunn’s A-1 Skyraider was the last U.S. Navy A-1 lost in the war. He did not survive. Shortly thereafter, A-1 Skyraider naval squadrons transitioned to the A-6 Intruder, A-7 Corsair II or Douglas A-4 Skyhawk.

In contrast to the Korean War, fought a decade earlier, the U.S. Air Force used the naval A-1 Skyraider for the first time in Vietnam. As the Vietnam War progressed, USAF A-1s were painted in camouflage, while USN A-1 Skyraiders were gray/white in color; again, in contrast to the Korean War, when A-1s were painted dark blue.

In October 1965, to highlight the dropping of the six millionth pound of ordnance, Commander Clarence J. Stoddard of Attack Squadron 25 (VA-25), flying an A-1H, dropped a special, one-time only, object in addition to his other munitions, which was a toilet.

The A-1 Skyraider was the close air support workhorse of the South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) for much of the Vietnam War. The U.S. Navy began to transfer some of its Skyraiders to the VNAF in September 1960, replacing the VNAF’s older Grumman F8F Bearcats. By 1962, the VNAF had 22 of the aircraft in its inventory, and by 1968, an additional 131 aircraft had been received. Initially Navy aviators and crews were responsible for training their South Vietnamese counterparts on the aircraft, but over time, responsibility was gradually transferred to the USAF.

The initial trainees were selected from among VNAF Bearcat pilots who had accumulated 800 to 1200 hours flying time. They were trained at Corpus Christi, Texas, and then sent to LeMoore, California for further training. Navy pilots and crews in Vietnam checked out the Skyraiders that were being transferred to the VNAF, and conducted courses for VNAF ground crews.

Over the course of the war, the VNAF acquired a total of 308 Skyraiders, and was operating six A-1 squadrons by the end of 1965. These were reduced during the period of Vietnamization from 1968 to 1972, as the U.S. began to supply the South Vietnamese with more modern close air support aircraft, such as the Cessna A-37 and Northrop F-5, and at the beginning of 1968, only three of its squadrons were flying A-1s.

As the U.S. ended its direct involvement in the war, it transferred the remainder of its Skyraiders to the South Vietnamese, and by 1973, all remaining Skyraiders in U.S. inventories had been turned over to the VNAF. Unlike their American counterparts, whose combat tours were generally limited to 12 months, individual South Vietnamese Skyraider pilots ran up many thousands of combat hours in the A-1, and many senior VNAF pilots were extremely skilled in the operation of the aircraft.

Four Royal Navy Douglas Skyraider AEW.1s from 778 Naval Air Squadron based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in flight in the 1950s

The Royal Navy acquired 50 AD-4W early warning aircraft in 1951 through the Military Assistance Program. All Skyraider AEW.1s were operated by 849 Naval Air Squadron, which provided four-plane detachments for the British carriers. One flight aboard HMS Bulwark took part in the Suez Crisis in 1956. 778 Naval Air Squadron was responsible for the training of the Skyraider crews at RNAS Culdrose.

In 1960, the Fairey Gannet AEW.3 replaced the Skyraiders, using the APS-20 radar of the Douglas aircraft. The last British Skyraiders were retired in 1962. In the late 1960s, the APS-20 radars from the Skyraiders were installed in Avro Shackleton AEW.2s of the Royal Air Force which were finally retired in 1991.

Fourteen British AEW.1 Skyraiders were sold to Sweden to be used by Svensk Flygtjänst AB between 1962 and 1974. All military equipment was removed and the aircraft were used as target tugs with the Swedish armed forces.

The French Air Force bought 20 ex-USN AD-4s as well as 88 ex-USN AD-4Ns and five ex-USN AD-4NAs with the former three-seaters modified as single-seat aircraft with removal of the radar equipment and the two operator stations from the rear fuselage. The AD-4N/NAs were initially acquired in 1956 to replace aging Republic P-47 Thunderbolts in Algeria.

The Skyraiders were first ordered in 1956 and the first was handed over to the French Air Force on 6 February 1958 after being overhauled and fitted with some French equipment by Sud-Aviation. The aircraft were used until the end of the Algerian war. The aircraft were used by the 20e Escadre de Chasse (EC 1/20 “Aures Nementcha”, EC 2/20 “Ouarsenis” and EC 3/20 “Oranie”) and EC 21 in the close air support role armed with rockets, bombs and napalm.

The Skyraiders had only a short career in Algeria. But they nonetheless proved to be the most successful of all the ad hoc COIN aircraft deployed by the French. The Skyraider remained in limited French service until the 1970s. They were heavily involved in the civil war in Chad, at first with the Armée de l’Air, and later with a nominally independent local air force staffed by French mercenaries. The aircraft also operated under the French flag in Djibouti and on the island of Madagascar. When France at last relinquished the Skyraiders it passed the survivors on to client states, including Gabon, Chad, Cambodia and the Central African Republic. (several aircraft from Gabon and Chad have been recovered recently by French warbird enthusiasts and entered on the French civil register).

The French frequently used the aft station to carry maintenance personnel, spare parts and supplies to forward bases. In Chad they even used the aft station for a “bombardier” and his “special stores” empty beer bottles as these were considered as non-lethal weapons, thus not breaking the government-imposed rules of engagement, during operations against Libyan-supported rebels in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Douglas A-1 A-1E Skyraider

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