Douglas AD (BT2D, A-1) Skyraider 1945–1972/5 Part II

USAF Skyraiders

If you thought that USAF Skyraiders were the same as US Navy Skyraiders except for their exterior colour schemes, you would be wrong. Two A-1Es on loan from the US Navy (BuNos 132417 and 132439) were evaluated by Tactical Air Command’s Special Air Warfare Center (SAWC) at Eglin AFB, Florida, from August 1962 to January 1963. The stated purpose of the test was to `evaluate the A-1E Skyraider for possible use in counterinsurgency warfare, and gauge its maintenance supportability and requirements’.

The conclusions reached were that the A-1E was an aircraft in the operational inventory that could perform many roles peculiar to counterinsurgency warfare, and after completion of minor modifications it would be capable of carrying all conventional ordnance of the 2000-lb or smaller class either then in the inventory or programmed for production.

The following items required modification or new installation:

1. Newest version R-3350 engine (R-3350-26WD)

2. Landing and taxi lights

3. Parking brake

4. Speed-brake well doors (never implemented)

5. N-9 gun camera to replace installed N-6 camera

6. Dual controls to include rudder/wheel brakes and control column with trim controls. Engine controls were listed as not required (a requirement for a throttle was added at a later time)

7. The right-hand side of the glare shield required modification to prevent the blocking of important warning lights from view

8. A pneumatic tailwheel to replace the existing hard solid rubber wheel to allow operations on a variety of runway and parking ramp surfaces.

9. Exterior paint and markings consistent with applicable USAF regulations

10. Aircraft technical order revisions to reflect modifications made

Although these modifications were based solely on the testing of the A-1E aircraft in 1962-63, many of them applied to the other models of Skyraider that would be procured in the future.

The first aircraft delivered to the USAF were A-1Es in mid-1964. After numerous programme changes regarding the distribution of these first machines, 25 went to Tactical Air Command (TAC) to be used for Skyraider upgrade training at Hurlburt Field, Florida. A further 48 USAF A-1Es were at Bien Hoa AB by the end of 1964, by which point eight Skyraiders had been lost with the death of six American pilots and two Vietnamese observers.

In mid-1967 the USAF was able to acquire single-seat A-1H/Js from the US Navy, and these aircraft underwent a similar modification programme to that undertaken with the A-1E, except of course for the changes relating to the second set of flight controls – H- and J-models were single-seat Skyraiders. Once completed, the aircraft were transported by ship to Southeast Asia, arriving at their respective units about a month after the modifications had been completed. These deliveries began in late 1967, and were largely complete by the end of 1968.

The A-1E was a multipurpose version of the Skyraider developed to permit greater versatility either as an attack aircraft or in the utility role. It departed from previous variants in that it had side-by-side seating for two crewmembers. The A-1E was powered by the R-3350-26WA engine and fully equipped to carry bombs, rockets, torpedoes, mines and other stores on external racks. Four M3 20 mm cannons were installed in the wings. The aircraft could also be equipped with auxiliary tanks both internally and externally for long-range operations. For utility purposes, the aircraft could quickly be equipped with seating for passengers, as well as facilities for the carriage of litter patients or provisions.

USAF A-1Es were produced from four different US Navy variants, namely the AD-5, AD-5N, AD-5Q and AD-5W. These A-1Es subsequently proved to be the mainstay of the first group of Skyraiders used by the USAF and, later, by the VNAF. Gone were the bulbous radomes and electronics pods carried on the inner stations of the AD-5Q/W, as well as the opaque rear canopies with a single viewing port on each side. The latter were eventually replaced with the blue plastic enclosures that gave rise to the nickname `blue room’ for the space behind the two front side-by-side seats of the USAF’s A-1Es.

A close variant of the A-1E was the A-1E-5, which differed from the USAF’s standard E-model through its lack of right-seat controls. In order to expedite the delivery of additional A-1Es to Southeast Asia in the 1965-66 timeframe, the installation of right seat controls for these aircraft was not accomplished. By mid-1966 the training of VNAF pilots by USAF units in Southeast Asia had ended, thus removing the need for dual-control A-1Es. However, no E-5s were sent to the `Skyraider school’ at Hurlburt AFB, in Florida, for obvious reasons. Other than by looking at the tail number, there was no easy way an observer could tell the difference between an A-1E and an A-1E-5 from the outside. It would be a gross understatement to say that no self-respecting Skyraider pilot wanted to be in the right seat of an A-1E-5 in combat!

There were three A-1E-5s assigned to the 1st Special Operations Squadron (SOS) when I arrived at Nakhon Phanom (NKP) Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB) in October 1971. There was a check-out programme in the 1st SOS at this time that required all new pilots to first ride in the right seat of the E or E-5, then get in the left seat for a few more flights with an IP (instructor pilot), before going solo in either the E-, H- or J-model Skyraider. The IPs hated to be in the right seat of the E-5, but there they were.

The USAF’s A-1G closely resembled the E-model, being formerly designated the AD-5N in US Navy service. This aircraft was designed as the three-seat night-attack variant of the AD-5, and for all intents and purposes the A-1G was different from the E-model only in ways we pilots could not detect. Without looking up the serial number or searching through the aircraft’s maintenance paperwork, there really was no way of telling a USAF A-1E from an A-1G.

Because of what became termed the `USAF A-1E standard’, many US Navy-designated A-1Gs became Air Force A-1Es. A `standard A-1E’ was produced when all the USAF-stipulated modifications had been made prior to an aircraft seeing frontline service. Some A-1Gs were only partially modified due their urgent requirement as attrition replacements in Southeast Asia, which in turn meant that they kept their US Navy designations.

In August 1965, Headquarters Pacific Air Forces made the decision to camouflage all USAF aircraft in Southeast Asia. This of course affected all Skyraiders then in-theatre, plus those undergoing modification for shipment to Southeast Asia. A goal was set to complete the camouflage of all Skyraiders in South Vietnam by the end of 1966. The result was a profound change in the appearance of all aircraft in-theatre. This camouflage scheme would become standard for all tactical combat aircraft in the USAF well into the 1980s.

As with most piston-engined aircraft designed and built prior to 1960, the Skyraider had no means for the pilot to escape should the need arise when operating at low altitudes – essentially below 2000 ft. With the A-1 typically operating well below the recommended safe bailout altitude of 2000 ft while performing its mission, the only choice available for most pilots was to crash-land the aircraft if they could. Many could not, however, and the loss rate for aircraft and pilots proved to be unacceptably high as a result.

In an effort to improve a pilot’s chances of survival, the USAF contracted Stanley Aviation Corporation in 1965 to develop an automated escape system for the Skyraider. The company’s answer was the extraction seat. The seat would remain in the aircraft, and the pilot would be pulled out in a standing position, attached to a rocket-propelled tether. By 20 April 1967, the task of installing the Yankee Extraction System in all USAF A-1Es in Southeast Asia had been completed.

It did not take long for the newly installed system to prove its worth, for on 21 May 1967 Maj James Holler’s Skyraider (133855) of the 1st Air Commando Squadron (ACS) was hit by ground fire shortly after departing Pleiku AB. Holler was about 1000 ft above the ground when he activated the extraction system, and although he subsequently landed on rocky ground and broke both ankles, this was the first successful use of the Yankee Extraction System. Shortly thereafter, on 11 June, Majs James Rauch and Robert Russell became the second and third satisfied customers of the Stanley Aviation product when their Skyraider (132408) experienced a loss of power during their air strike in northern Laos (possibly due to battle damage). Forced to extract about 1500 ft above the ground, both men landed safely and were rescued by a USAF Jolly Green HH-3 helicopter.

However, it should be noted that there were subsequently some problems with the Yankee system, which had many safety features that required `man-in-the-loop’ inspection and preparation. Some easy-to-miss items in the checklist were predictably overlooked, with disastrous results. Following each failure, there were modifications made to either procedures or equipment, or perhaps both. There is no way of knowing how many lives could have been saved if the Yankee Extraction System had been fitted in the A-1 from the very beginning, but certainly it would have been a significant number.

VNAF Skyraiders

The VNAF was provided with 25 AD-6 Skyraiders in 1960 to replace its ageing F8F Bearcats through the Military Assistance Program. The first of these aircraft arrived in Saigon on 24 September 1960, and after processing and flight testing they were flown from Tan Son Nhut AB to Bien Hoa AB to enter service with the VNAF. Over the next six years, further deliveries added a sufficient number of A-1s to allow the equipment of four additional squadrons. By January 1966 the VNAF had 146 Skyraiders assigned to it.

As far as is known, the only modifications made to Skyraiders transferred to the VNAF from the US Navy were the removal of all equipment associated with the delivery of nuclear weapons and the tailhook. The earliest A-1H Skyraiders even kept the US Navy paint scheme, but with US markings replaced by those of the VNAF. In one of the many ironies of the Vietnam War, the first USAF A-1Es based at Bien Hoa bore VNAF markings from June 1964 until February 1965 in an effort to mask the presence of American combat aircraft in South Vietnam. Many photographs exist of these early USAF Skyraiders incorrectly identified as belonging to the VNAF in various books, magazines and journals.

A significant change to the appearance of VNAF Skyraiders (and all their aircraft for that matter) occurred with the introduction of camouflage paint in 1966. From the very start, VNAF Skyraider markings had been flamboyant and eye-catching, and the addition of camouflage did not change this. During this period A-1s exhibited a mixture of flamboyance and stealth – a seeming contradictory combination for a combat aircraft. However, during the later stages of the war, VNAF Skyraiders were much more subdued in their overall appearance.

In 1967, Stanley Aviation Corporation’s Yankee Extraction System was installed in all VNAF Skyraiders. This system functioned by means of an extraction rocket similar in principle to the drogue gun system on a normal ejection seat. Once the catapult charge fired, the spin-stabilised rocket was fired when the pendant lines reached full stretch. Actuation of the system was effected after the canopy had been jettisoned. The rocket was then erected by means of a pyrotechnic piston and lever under the erector/launcher. The rocket launched from the rear wall of the cockpit, and by means of a pair of Perlon pendants (rope-like straps), the pilot was pulled up and out of the cockpit. His parachute was rigged with an automatic opening system which activated after the rocket pendants separated from the parachute risers. The system included a set of rails to allow the seat back to rise up, while the seat pan was articulated to assist in the positioning of the pilot to the vertical as the rocket extracted him from the cockpit.

By the late 1960s losses and ongoing conversion of some VNAF A-1 units to the A-37 Dragonfly meant that there were just 69 operational Skyraiders available to oppose the surprise communist Tet Offensive of January 1968. USAF Skyraiders began to be transferred to the VNAF through MAP at around this time too, these aircraft being configured slightly differently to the Skyraiders procured directly from the US Navy – the USAF A-1s were still fitted with tailhooks, for example.

In total, the VNAF operated 329 Skyraiders, of which 240 came from the US Navy and the remaining 89 from the USAF as MAP transfers (most of the latter were supplied between 1970 and 1972). According to one account, the VNAF lost a total of 242 Skyraiders either in combat or to non-combat related accidents. However, it could be said that in the end all the Skyraiders supplied to the VNAF were lost since the air force ceased to exist following the fall of Saigon at the end of April 1975.

One of nine pre-production A2D-1s over southern California in 1953, the only turboprop-powered attack type ever seriously considered by the Navy. Only five of the pre-production aircraft were actually flown.

Douglas A2D Skyshark 1950–1954

Power plant: One 5,035-shp Allison XT40-A-2 double turboprop engine driving a six-bladed Aeroproducts contra-rotating, constant-speed propeller. Armament: Four fixed forward-firing 20-millimeter cannons and up to 5,500-lbs. of mixed ordnance carried externally. Performance: Max. speed 501-mph at 25,000 ft.; cruise 276-mph; ceiling 48,100 ft.; range 637 mi. loaded. Weights: 12,944-lbs. empty, 18,720-lbs. loaded. Dimensions: Span 50 ft., length 41 ft. 3 in., wing area 400 sq. ft.

The A2D was the only type of turboprop-powered attack aircraft to receive serious consideration for production by the Navy. The project was originally begun by BUAER in 1947 as an effort to adapt Douglas’s proven AD design to turboprop power, and two prototypes were ordered under the designation XA2D-1. But as development progressed, the design bore little similarity to the AD other than a superficial resemblance. A completely new fuselage was created around the complex XT40 powerplant and drive system, which comprised two T38 engines connected via drive shafts to a common transmission. In the case of a shutdown, each engine could operate independently and drive one or both propellers. The wing was also new, having a thinner-section airfoil and large wing root extensions. On paper, the XA2D-1’s projected performance was so promising that BUAER ordered 10 pre-production models, and soon followed with an order for 339 production A2D-1s on three separate contracts.

The first flight of the XA2D-1 was made on May 26, 1950 from Edwards Air Base. Early testing immediately revealed severe problems with the double engine and drive system. And to make matters worse, the prototype crashed in mid-December 1950 due to engine failure, killing the Navy test pilot. When testing resumed after the second XA2D-1 flew in April 1952, problems with the T40 engines and drive system continued, and shortly thereafter, BUAER cancelled the contract on all but 10 pre-production examples. The first pre-production A2D-1 flew in June 1953 and nine more were completed, but the last four were never flown. A Douglas test pilot safely ejected from the second pre-production A2D-1 in August 1954 following a gearbox failure. No further development was undertaken after 1954.

Technical Specification

Aircraft: Douglas A-1H


Type: attack

Manufacturer: Douglas Aircraft Co.

Engine: Wright R-3350-26WA, radial, 18 cyl., air cooled

Power: 2738hp

Wingspan: 50ft (15.24m)

Length: 39ft 2in (11.83m)

Height: 15ft 8in (4.77m)

Wing area: 400.33sq ft (37.19m²)

Max take-off weight: 25,000 lb (11,340 kg)

Empty weight: 11,968 lb (5,429 kg)

Max speed: 322mph at 18,000ft (518km/h at 5,846m)

Service ceiling: 28,510ft (8,690m)

Range: 1,142mi (1,840km)

Crew: 1

Load-armament: 4x20mm cannon; 7,960 lb (3,630 kg)