Icons of Aviation History: The A-1 Skyraider

Intended as a World War Two carrier bomber, the Skyraider was introduced too late to see action in the Pacific.

A-1 Skyraider on display at the Pensacola Naval Air Museum

In 1943, the US Navy had just introduced two new carrier-based attack planes, the Helldiver dive bomber and the Avenger torpedo bomber. But with the new Midway class aircraft carrier on the drawing boards and the powerful 2700-horsepower Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone  engine already under development for use in the B-29 bomber, the Navy decided that it could combine the “attack” role into one aircraft, which would be capable of landing and taking off from the new larger carriers and of delivering a bigger bomb load than any carrier plane currently flying. The new design was submitted by Ed Heinemann from Douglas Aircraft. Known as XBT2D-1, it called for a large carrier-based plane,  weighing 6 tons, that was capable of both precision dive-bombing and low-level torpedo bombing. It would carry 8,000 pounds of bombs or torpedoes.

The Navy liked the design but wanted more range, so Douglas trimmed out anything that could save weight, dropping almost a ton and extending the range to 1300 miles without sacrificing any of the payload. As part of this process, the internal bomb bay was removed and the ordnance and fuel drop-tanks were hung from pylons under the wings. The Navy designated it the A-1 Skyraider and ordered construction of a prototype, which first flew in March 1945.

The war ended before any Skyraiders went into service. But when A-1s began operating from US carriers in 1946, the Navy found that they gave excellent low-speed low-altitude performance and pinpoint bombing accuracy, and their ten-hour flight time allowed them to loiter for long periods near enemy territory. All of this made them ideal for ground-attack and close-combat support missions. The Skyraider was also adopted by the Marines and the Air Force. Over the years newer models were rolled out with larger engines and more armor to protect the cockpit, and some versions were adapted to deliver tactical nuclear weapons. It was a rugged airplane that could absorb an astonishing amount of punishment and still come home, though the A-1 had powerful engine torque that sometimes made carrier landings hazardous.

Even before the Pacific War with Japan had ended, the United States found itself engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. When Russian-backed North Korean troops invaded South Korea in June 1950, the United Nations gathered a multi-national military force and placed it under US command to push the Communists back across the border. By this time both the US Navy and the Air Force had operational jet carrier fighters, but the weapon of choice for ground attack was still the propeller-driven Skyraider, which now earned the nickname “Spad” for its old-fashioned appearance. A-1s flew numerous low-level missions throughout the Korean War, striking bridges, armored columns, dams, industrial centers, and other targets. One Skyraider even managed to shoot down a Russian-made Polikarpov Po-2 reconnaissance biplane.

By the time the Korean War ended, the A-1 was showing its age, and plans were made to replace it with the newer A-4. By 1960, however, the conflict in Vietnam was heating up. The US began supplying A-1s to the South Vietnamese air force, and when North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked a US destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, Skyraiders from US carriers began striking ground targets in support of South Vietnamese forces. Once again, the aircraft proved their worth in the Vietnam War by hitting pinpoint targets and providing close air support for American troops.

The North Vietnamese, however, were equipped with Soviet-built MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighters and an array of sophisticated surface-to-air missiles, and the now-outdated Skyraider was unable to deal with those threats. By 1968 the A-1s were demoted to electronic warfare duty, photo-reconnaissance, escorting helicopters, and long-range search-and-rescue missions. By 1972 the Navy had replaced all its Skyraiders with A-7 Corsair IIs, and a year later all of the remaining American A-1s had been transferred to the South Vietnamese Air Force.

In total, about 3200 Skyraiders saw service with the US and with various allies including Britain and France. About 50 aircraft are on display at various museums, including the US Naval Air Museum in Pensacola, the aircraft carrier museum ships Intrepid, Midway and Yorktown, the US Air Force Museum, the Pima Air and Space Museum, and museums in Vietnam, France and the UK.

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