A fighter plane designed for the US Navy during World War II was still shooting down jet fighters over Vietnam 20 years later

Navy A-1H Skyraider

A US Navy A-1H Skyraider over the western Pacific in 1966.US Navy

  • The Douglas A-1 Skyraider was developed for the US Navy in the final years of World War II.

  • The A-1, a piston-engine propeller aircraft, held its own as the US introduced jet-powered aircraft.

  • By the time the A-1 left US service in the 1970s, about 30 variants had been deployed on various missions.

On August 5, 1964, US Navy aircraft launched US air operations in the Vietnam War, taking off from the carriers USS Ticonderoga and USS Constellation to attack North Vietnamese targets.

The naval attack formations consisted of two aircraft: the jet-powered Douglas A-4 Skyhawk which had entered service eight years earlier, and the Douglas A-1 Skyraider, a piston engine propeller aircraft. Originally intended for use in World War II, the A-1 initially flew as an Allied aircraft closed to Nazi Germany but was not put into service until 1946.

Even as the world’s greatest militaries embraced jets, the Skyraider held its own. It fought well into the 1970s and has gone down as one of the best attack aircraft of all time.


Douglas XBT2D-1 Skyraider

The Douglas XBT2D-1 Skyraider prototype in 1946 or 1947.NASA

Work on what would later become the A-1 Skyraider began in 1942 when the Douglas Aircraft Company competed to build a replacement for the Navy’s venerable Grumman TBF Avenger and Curtiss SB2C Helldiver torpedoes and dive bombers.

The Navy wanted a single-seat carrier aircraft that could travel farther and carry more ordnance for use against the Japanese. Douglas’ first entry, the BTD Destroyersuffered from changing design requirements during its development and was a clear loser compared to its competitors, like the Martin AM-1 Mauler.

At a meeting with naval officials in 1944, Douglas chief engineer Ed Heinemann was allowed to cancel the original design and submit a new one. That night, he and two other Douglas engineers created the construction plans for the new plane in a hotel room. Their design was approved the next day on condition that the first test flight be no later than nine months later.

Marine Corps Douglas AD-5 Skyraider

A US Marine Corps Douglas AD-5 Skyraider in the 1950s.US Navy

On March 18, 1945 – just one day after the deadline – the aircraft, then known as the XBT2D, completed its maiden flight. It was an instant hit despite the rapid development time, outperforming all of its competitors.

Powered by a single Wright R-3350 Duplex Cyclone engine, the same model as on the B-29 Super Fortress, the XBT2D could fly 300 mph and had a ceiling of over 24,000 feet. It was armed with four 20mm cannons and had 15 hardpoints capable of carrying 8,000 pounds of bombs – more than a B-17 bomber.

On May 5, the Navy announced its plan to purchase 548 aircraft, but by that time the war was over. Germany surrendered on May 7thand only three aircraft were delivered before Japan surrendered on August 15.

The Skyraider

A-1 Skyraider bombs Vietcong Vietnam

An A-1 Skyraider drops 500-pound bombs on a Viet Cong position, December 1964.AP photo/Horst Faas

When the Navy began investing in jet-powered aircraft, the massive wartime order for the XBT2D was cancelled. The aircraft continued to impress Navy pilots, however, and in 1947 the Navy ordered 239 aircraft – now designated the AD Skyraider – in three variants.

The decision was wise, as the Skyraider proved to be an excellent ground-attack aircraft just a few years later in the Korean War. Navy and Marine Skyraiders were tasked with attacking train stations, bridges, dams, and power plants as part of the Navy’s efforts to blockade North Korea.

Flying from carriers off the Korean coast, Skyraiders could stay on station for hours, dropping 8,000-pound bombs with precision and taking a tremendous amount of fire thanks to their armor. They also provided invaluable support for ground operations.

Navy Douglas A-1H Skyraider aircraft carrier USS Ranger

A US Navy A-1H Skyraider aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger in 1966.US Navy

Skyraiders performed so well that the Navy bought more, including new variants for a wider range of missions. In 1962 the Skyraider was renamed the “A-1”. The US Air Force and its South Vietnamese counterpart also began operating the aircraft that year.

In addition to conventional bombing, the Skyraider played a role in counterinsurgency operations, where it was notable for its long wait time, massive payload, and ability to operate in almost all weather conditions and withstand heavy anti-aircraft fire.

Navy Skyraider pilots even twice managed to shoot down MiG-17 fighter jets. The First, on June 20, 1965, came during a rescue combat air patrol in North Vietnam and was the first air-to-air gun victory of the war. The second arrived on October 9, 1966 during a similar mission.

US Air Force pilots quickly took a liking to the Skyraider. Their variant, the two-seater A-1Eprovided essential air cover for search and rescue missions for downed pilots. At the end of the war Air Force Skyraiders carried out more than 90,000 combat missions, including more than 1,000 per month during the height of fighting.


A-1H Skyraider HC-130P HH-53C

A-1H Skyraiders escort a US Air Force HC-130P while refueling an HH-53C helicopter over Southeast Asia, September 1970.U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Andy Sarakon

By the time production ceased in 1957, 3,180 Skyraiders had been built and delivered. During the Korean War, 128 Skyraiders were lost to enemy action and other causes. In Vietnam, 266 Skyraiders, 65 Navy and 201 Air Force were lost.

The Navy flew the Skyraider until 1968 when they began to phase out the aircraft and replace them with the A-6 invader. The last Air Force Skyraider mission occurred on November 7, 1972, and all of the service’s remaining Skyraiders were transferred to the South Vietnamese Air Force in 1973.

Other air forces used the Skyraider into the 1980s.

Navy Douglas A-1H Skyraider toilet

A US Navy A-1H Skyraider being prepared for deployment on the aircraft carrier USS Midway in October 1965.US Navy

By the time the aircraft left US service, about 30 Skyraider variants had been deployed for various missions, including anti-submarine warfare, night combat, rescue escort, electronic warfare, and medical transport.

Skyraiders were even designated for a time as carrier systems for the Navy’s stockpile of air-dropped nuclear bombs. Other ordnance was less deadly but still notable: In 1965, a Skyraider launched from the USS Midway with broken toilet that it fell over South Vietnam and reportedly marked the 6 millionth pound of dropped ordnance.

A flying anachronism, Skyraiders earned one of the best reputations a fighter jet could have. Jet pilots weren’t above teasing their propeller-bound counterparts, but if a “Sandy” pilot, as Air Force Skyraider aviators were known, went to a bar, “he’d have a hard time stopping for a drink to pay.” after to the pilot of an F-105 Thunderchief.

Continue reading the original article Business Insider


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