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Skyraiders Were Rough, Tough Birds…Just Like The Heroic Pilots That Flew Them


Seven versions, 28 variations, 2 Medal of Honor Recipients.  The SPAD was one hell of a plane.

On March 18th 1945 the Douglas XBT2D-1 Dauntless II took to the skies from Mines Field in Los Angeles for the first time. This was the prototype AD-1, then later the A-1, Skyraider. The result of a shift in Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) thinking that occurred early in 1943, the XBT2D-1 designator reflected a combined bomber/torpedo (BT) aircraft that would replace the existing and planned dive bombing (SBD / SB2C) and torpedo bombing (TBF / TBM) aircraft. This would allow carrier air wing compositions to shift toward more fighter aircraft per carrier.

Douglas had earlier landed a contract to build the BTD-1, but their renowned designer Ed Heinemann didn’t believe the BTD-1 would be anything more than a temporary solution to the Navy’s requirements. After some deliberation, Heinemann and Douglas requested that BuAer cancel the BTD-1 entirely and allocate the funds to a new design that would be ready in a month. BuAer gave him until the next morning.

The design presented to BuAer at 0900 the next day was completely different from the BTD-1. Powered by the Wright R-3350 Duplex Cyclone engine, the drawings (actually begun a few weeks earlier) were of a low-wing taildragger with straight tapered wings under which ordnance could be carried on a total of 15 stations. Featuring a bubble canopy, large board-type dive brakes, and wing-mounted 20 millimeter cannons, the BTD-2 won BuAer over.

Given only nine months to complete the design and build 25 pre-production BT2D-1 Dauntless IIs, Douglas came through and when the prototype XBT2D-1 flew flawlessly nine months later. Other designs in competition with the Dauntless II did not compare favorably with the big slab-sided but sweet-handling machine from El Segundo- so much so that Douglas was awarded with a contract to build 548 of them.

When World War II ended the BT2D-1 contract was cut back to 277 airframes. Ironically it was thought that the Dauntless II would quickly be rendered obsolete by the jet-powered aircraft now in the pipeline. Next for the Dauntless II was evaluation at the Naval Air Test Center (NATC). When BuAer changed designations from BT to A (for attack), the BT2D-1 Dauntless II became the AD-1 Skyraider.

Carrier suitability trials were conducted during late 1946 by VA-19A out of Naval Air Station (NAS) Alameda on San Francisco Bay. By the end of 1946 BuAer declared the Skyraider operational. Quickly thereafter BuAer wanted AD-1s configured for specialized duties. When the final 35 airframes of the first AD-1 order were completed as AD-1Q electronic countermeasures aircraft, so began the development of one of the most versatile aircraft ever designed. Between production start in 1945 and completion of the last AD-7 on February 18th 1957, 3180 Skyraiders were built in seven basic versions and 28 variations of them.

The true test of any aircraft is how the people who fly and maintain it feel about it. They took to calling the Skyraider “Able Dog.” More than just the phonetic alphabet for A and D, it was a tribute to the type’s ease of operation, low maintenance requirements, and toughness, Skyraider people loved their steeds. The sight of one of the several examples still flying in civilian hands today warms the heart of anyone associated with it.

Development over the course of the Skyraider’s 12 years in production reflected improvements in engine technology and horsepower, electronics, and armaments. Douglas adapted the basic AD airframe to get many jobs done. Examples of these adaptations include airborne early warning (AEW), electronic countermeasures (ECM), night attack, radar countermeasures, nuclear attack, anti-submarine warfare, and target tug. As fleet requirements grew and varied, so did the list of Skyraider adaptations.

In 1949 it was assumed by BuAer that the current version of the Skyraider (the AD-4) would be the last version of the versatile aircraft to be built. Then Korea happened. Skyraiders from VA-55 Warhorses aboard the carrier Valley Forge (CV-45) were the first to fly combat sorties over Korea. Navy and Marine “Able Dogs” were able to carry anywhere from twice to four times the ordnance carried by either the Air Force F-51D Mustang or their own F-4U Corsairs, so the Skyraiders carried twice the load early and often. “Able Dogs” were capable of carrying more than their own weight in ordnance. In Korea the Skyraider even carried out the first and only torpedo attack by the type against the Hwacheon Dam, then controlled by North Korea, on May 2nd 1951.

To increase survivability in the face of North Korean ground fire, ¼ to ½ inch armor was bolted on to Skyraiders to protect vital areas. Even with the armor, the war took a toll on the Able Dogs. 101 Skyraiders were lost in combat operations and another 27 to accidents. Many of the accidents were caused by a phenomenon called “torque roll”, which was a byproduct of the powerful R3350 engine and huge propeller. At low speed a sudden increase in power by the pilot could, and did, result in the aircraft unintentionally spinning around the propeller and loss of pilot control.

 

In July of 1953 when the Korean War ended, Skyraiders were still in production and new variants were in production. The AD-5 was the ultimate illustration of the versatility of Heinemann’s original design. Lengthened by two feet and widened to allow side-by-side seating the latest Skyraider could also accommodate additional crew under a lengthened canopy. To maintain directional stability the vertical tail was enlarged. Able to be used as a transport, cargo carrier, target tug, or as a traditional attack aircraft, the AD-5 was the ultimate adaptable Skyraider.

 

By the time BuAer changed naval aircraft designations again in 1962, Skyraiders equipped 29 Navy and 13 Marine Attack squadrons. The AD Skyraiders became A-1 Skyraiders. The alphabet soup essentially meant that (stay with me here) the basic AD-5 attack version became the A-1E, the AD-5W AEW version became the EA-1E, the AD-5Q ECM version became the EA-1F, the AD-5N night attack version became the A-1G, and the single-seat attack AD-6 and AD-7 became the A-1H and A-1J respectively.

As Grumman A-6A Intruders and Douglas A-4 Skyhawks entered the fleet, the Skyraiders they replaced went into storage. That might have been the end for the venerable Douglas product, but another war was brewing and Skyraiders would find themselves in the thick of it right from the beginning and through to the end. A-1Hs attached to VA-52 Knightriders aboard USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) and VA-145 Swordsmen aboard USS Constellation (CVA-64) took part in the first naval airstrikes against North Vietnam after the Tonkin Gulf Incident.

From then on the Navy Skyraiders attacked Viet Cong and North Vietnamese targets, performed close air support of troops in contact, flew rescue combat air patrol (RESCAP) missions, and in general did everything asked of them. Skyraiders even shot down two North Vietnamese MiG-17s when the jets got low and slow in front of the Skyraiders’ 20 millimeter cannons. A-1s fired rockets and missiles, dropped bombs and napalm, flares, and just about any weapon in the arsenal…even one Mark 1 Mod 0 toilet, on targets during their service in Vietnam.

The Skyraider was eventually replaced in Navy service primarily by the Vought A-7 Corsair II. On February 20th 1968, VA-25 Fist of the Fleet A-1Js flew the last Navy Skyraider combat sorties off the deck of the USS Coral Sea (CVA-43). The Firebirds of VAQ-33 flew the last Skyraider electronic countermeasures sortie of the war in December of 1968 using the EA-1F. By 1972, the Skyraider had been completely retired in Navy service. However, there was another service still using Skyraiders in Vietnam.

The United States Air Force flew Skyraiders in Vietnam from 1964 until 1972, when the remaining examples were transferred to the Vietnamese Air Force, whose pilots had been trained to fly them by the United States beginning in 1961.

Skyraider: A Plane Medal of Honor Recipients Flew

Two Air Force Congressional Medal of Honor recipients flew Skyraiders when they earned their accolades. Major Bernard Fisher was flying a close air support mission when he landed his Skyraider on a torn up airstrip in the A Shau Valley in 1966 under heavy fire to rescue “Jump” Myers, a fellow “Spad” pilot who had been shot down and crash landed in the valley. A detailed account of that incredible mission can be found here.

The other Skyraider pilot was performing the mission for which the Skyraider was perhaps best known in Vietnam- combat search and rescue (CSAR) support. Lieutenant Colonel William Atkinson Jones III was commander of the 602nd Special Operations Squadron (SOS) when on September 1st 1968 an Air Force F-4 Phantom II was shot down. Jones would fly the lead in and coordinate the rescue mission- call sign Sandy One.

The downed pilot’s back-seater had already been captured. Jones did not want to go 0 for 2 that day so he bored in low and finally located the pilot. In so doing he took numerous hits from enemy ground fire. One of those hits disabled his ejection seat and jettisoned only his canopy. The cockpit of Jones’ Skyraider was set ablaze and Jones’ radios were shot out so he was unable to communicate the position of the downed pilot to the rest of the rescue team.

Not wanting to lose the information about the downed pilot’s position, Jones chose to fly his barely airworthy Skyraider 90 miles back to base. After Jones landed he passed on the exact position of the downed pilot before he would accept medical care for his serious injuries. Later that afternoon the downed F-4 pilot was rescued, thanks in large part to Jones’ heroic and selfless act.

The Air Force lost a total of 191 Skyraiders (all causes) in Vietnam. The Navy lost another 65 of them (all causes). Production of the aircraft had ended in 1957, so the “Spad” supply was finite. When the Air Force started running out of A-1Es they turned to refurbished A-1Hs to accomplish their missions. The final Air Force Skyraider sortie was flown, fittingly enough, by the 1st SOS on November 7th 1972.

The Skyraider was honored (at least in most cases) with the longest list of nicknames in aviation history. These terms of endearment and respect (for the most part) included the well-known and obscure; the universal and narrowly specific; the humorous and descriptive.

AD / A-1 monikers include “Spad” and “Super-Spad” (derived from the original AD designator), “Able Dog” (1950s phonetic for AD), “Queer Spad” (electronic warfare-specific variants), “Q-Bird” (same), “Guppy” (AEW-specific version), “Flying Dumptruck”, “Old Faithful”, “Old Miscellaneous”, “Destroyer”, “The Big Gun”, “Fat Face” (AD-5 / A-1E). The South Vietnamese called the Skyraider “Crazy Water Buffalo.”

Several squadron call sign-specific nicknames like “Hobo” (1st SOS), “Firefly” (602nd SOS), “Zorro” (22nd SOS), and “Sandy” (602nd SOS) were used as well. “Sandy” was the call sign of the combat search and rescue (CSAR) helicopter escorts who often coordinated rescue combat air patrol (RESCAP), communicated with the crew on the ground waiting for rescue, and did their best to suppress enemy fire during the actual pickup.

In addition to the United Sates Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force, Cambodia, the Central African Republic, Chad, France, Gabon, South Vietnam, Thailand, Sweden, United Kingdom, and Vietnam operated the AD / A-1 Skyraider. Gabon finally retired the last operational Skyraiders on the planet in 1985.

 

 

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Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.