The Douglas A-1 Skyraider-a Ed Heinemann Classic

By Willie Bodenstein

The piston-engine Skyraider was the result of a United States Navy (USN) requirement during the closing years of World War II for a carrier-based, single-seat, long-range, high performance dive/torpedo bomber, to follow-on from earlier types such as the Helldiver and Avenger that had wreaked havoc in the Pacific in the war with Japanese Forces.

The USN ordered two prototypes during July 1944 and the design was entrusted to Ed Heinemann of the Douglas Aircraft Company. The original design started with a Wright R-3350 radial engine that was upgraded several times as more powerful power plants became available. Optimized for ground-attack missions the Skyraider, unlike faster fighters such as the Vought F4U Corsair or North American P-51 Mustang, was adapted to carry bombs. It was to outlive these legends for more than two decades.

The success of the design can largely be attributed to a study that was conducted that showed that for every 100 lb (45 kg) of weight reduction the take-off run was decreased by 8 feet (2.4 m), the combat radius increased by 22 miles (35 km) and the rate-of-climb increased by 18 feet/min (0.091 m/s). Heinemann and his team took note and implemented a strict weight saving program reducing the final prototypes weight by 1,800 lb (82 kg)

The first prototype made its first test flight on 18 March 1945 and the first delivery of the AD-1 to a fleet squadron was made during December of 1946. Nicknamed "Spad" after the legendary French World War I fighter 3,180 were built in a production run that ran from 1945-1957.

Initially designed for the USN it was later to serve with the United States Marine Corps (USMC), the United States Air Force (USAF) and also saw service with the British Royal Navy, the French Air Force, the Air Force of the Republic of Vietnam (VNAF) and numerous others including the Gabonese Air Force were it was only retired in 1985.

Designed for service during WWII by the time it went into production the war was over. It was in the Korean and Vietnam Wars that the Skyraider proofed its worth. The A-1 was the primary close air support aircraft during these conflicts and the sturdy "Spad" with its armour plated cockpit became famous for its ability to take hits and keep on flying.

When the first Skyraiders arrived in Korea on 3 July 1950 the Jet was already firmly established. However the weapons load and 10-hour flying time of the radial powered Skyraider far surpassed that of the jets that were available. AD AD-3N and -4N aircraft, three seat versions, carrying bombs and flares flew night-attack sorties whilst radar-equipped ADs carried out radar-jamming missions from carriers and land bases. On 2 May 1951, Skyraiders made the only aerial torpedo attack of the war, hitting the Hwacheon Dam, then controlled by North Korea. The only "kill" by a Skyraider in Korea happened on 16 June 1953 when Major Linnemeier of the United States Marine Corps (USMC) flying an AD-4 version with the more powerful R-3350-26WA engine shot down a Soviet built Polikarpov Po-2 biplane.

In 1954 in almost forgotten incident La-9's of the Chinese People's Liberation Air Force (CPLAAF) shot down a Cathay Pacific Skymaster Airliner. Three days later on 26 July two Skyraiders took off from the USS Philippine Sea and Hornet searching for survivors when they encountered a number of CPLAAF La-11's which they engaged and shot down two of the aggressors.

The Korean War was the baptism of fire for the Skyraider; the Vietnam War made it a household name. Still the primary medium attack aircraft in many carrier air wings when America became involved in the Vietnam War the fate of Skyraider was almost sealed. Plans were already underfoot to replace the twenty year old design with the jet powered A-6A Intruder. It was however the Korean War Veteran that fired the opening shots in the conflict that was to last almost a decade. On 5 August 1964 Skyraiders from the carriers Constellation and Ticonderoga participated in the first U.S. Navy strikes against North Vietnam. One Skyraider was damaged by anti- aircraft fire and one shot down.

Skyraiders will forever be remembered for their role in helicopter rescue missions. Codenamed "Sandy" the role of the Skyraider was to supply covering fire whilst the helicopters usually under heavy fire went in to rescue downed pilots. During the war, U.S. Navy Skyraiders shot down two North Vietnamese Air Force (NVAF) MiG-17 jet fighters: one on 20 June 1965 and a second on 9 October 1966.

Skyraider losses where heavy, total losses amounted to 266 during the conflict. Three were shot down during air to air combat, two of which were victims of NVAF MiG 17s. Surprisingly considering its close air support role only five felt prey to surface-to-air missiles.

Time and technology however had finally caught up with the Skyraider and it was gradually withdrawn from US Forces service and replaced by the jet propelled Grumman A-6 Intruder. It was however not the end of its service life. As they were released from service they found a new home in the VNAF where they replaced the WWII vintage Grumman F8F Bearcat.

The Skyraiders African connection started in France when during 1956 the French Air Force bought twenty ex-USN AD-4s. These saw extensive service in the then French Colonies of Algeria and Chad. Sud-Aviation equipped Skyraiders were deployed to Algeria war where they served in the close air support role for the duration of the war. Armed with bombs, napalm and rockets the Skyraider was the workhorse during the civil war in Chad. Initially flying under the flag of the Armee de l'Air they were later flown by French mercenaries.

When these wars ended the remaining Skyraiders were gifted to ex-French colonies one of which was Gabon where the Skyraider soldiered on until 1985.

Specifications (A-1H Skyraider)
General characteristics

Crew: One
Length: 38 ft 10 in (11.84 m)
Wingspan: 50 ft 0¼ in (15.25 m)
Height: 15 ft 8¼ in (4.78 m)
Wing area: 400.3 ft² (37.19 m²)
Empty weight: 11,968 lb (5,429 kg)
Loaded weight: 18,106 lb (8,213 kg)
Max. take-off weight: 25,000 lb (11,340 kg)
Power plant: 1 × Wright R-3350-26WA radial engine, 2,700 hp (2,000 kW)

Maximum speed: 322 mph (280 kn, 518 km/h) at 18,000 ft (5,500 m)
Cruise speed: 198 mph (172 kn, 319 km/h)
Range: 1,316 mi (1,144 nmi, 2,115 km)
Service ceiling: 28,500 ft (8,685 m)
Rate of climb: 2,850 ft/min (14.5 m/s)
Wing loading: 45 lb/ft² (220 kg/m²)
Power/mass: 0.15 hp/lb (250 W/kg)

Guns: 4 × 20 mm (0.79 in) M2 cannon
Other: Up to 8,000 lb (3,600 kg) of ordnance on 15 external hardpoints including bombs, torpedoes, mine dispensers, unguided rockets, and gun pods.

Classic Aircraft

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