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DOUGLAS AD SKYRAIDER—TOO GOOD TO RETIRE

THERE ARE SOME aircraft so good that they defy retirement. Boeing’s B-52 Stratofortress and 747 wide-body airliner come to mind, these continuing in service since 1955 and 1969, respectively. Another is the Douglas AD Skyraider, designed during World War II and still performing its duties over Vietnam in the mid-1960s.

During the Korean War, Skyraiders played a Dambuster role at a crucial time in May 1951. More than 14 years later, in Vietnam in late 1965, a Skyraider bombed the enemy with an unorthodox bit of ordinance—a toilet! And, in October 1966, Skyraiders were the last propeller-driven piston-powered fighter planes to shoot down enemy jets.

Quite a reputation for an aircraft deemed nearly obsolete when it entered U.S. service in 1946.

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The AD Skyraider was the A-10 “Warthog” of its era, tough, ungainly, and beloved by ground troops for its close-support missions. The Skyraider earned the nickname “Super Spad,” after the famed WWI fighter.

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At left, the Douglas AD Skyraider; at right, the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthog.”

The Skyraider was a low-wing monoplane, its stout fuselage defined by a 2700-hp Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone radial engine. This 18-cylinder twin-row air-cooled supercharged powerplant was the same powering four-engine Boeing B-29s and Lockheed Constellations.

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A Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone. Image by Kogo.

The AD, its later nomenclature A-1, had a wingspan of 50 ft., large for a single-seat aircraft. By comparison, a Grumman Hellcat’s span was 42 ft. 10 in.; a Supermarine Spitfire’s, 38 ft. 10 in.; today’s Cessna 182’s, 36 ft. The Skyraider had a maximum takeoff weight of 25,000 lb. Just one Skyraider carried a greater ordinance load than a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber.

This capability was crucial to the U.S. Navy’s Korean War mission to destroy functionality of the Hwachon Dam. On May 2, 1951, torpedo-equipped Skyraiders from the U.S.S. aircraft carrier Princeton took out two gates of the dam and damaged a third, thus raising river levels and blocking an advance of Communist troops. These specially armed Dambusters flew in “at tree-top level, throttled back almost to idle….”

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Attack on the Hwachon Dam, Korean War, 1951. Painting by R.G. Smith from the National Naval Aviation Museum.

This quote and a full account of the mission are at the National Naval Aviation Museum website, along with details of flying the museum’s A-1H Skyraider and a virtual tour of its cockpit.

The Skyraider’s Vietnam toilet bomb has a pair of backstories: Aircraft carriers during the conflict were notoriously short of ordinance. To keep up the number of missions (and preclude enemy propaganda), aircraft were often launched with less than full loads of ordinance.

Personnel of the U.S.S. Midway had a damaged toilet which was going to be thrown overboard. Instead, to commemorate six million pounds of delivered ordinance, a Skyraider pilot rescued the fixture and his ordinance crew fitted it with a rack, tail fins and nose fuse.

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Skyraider NE-572, specially named “Paper Tiger II” for its mission, carried unconventional ordinance in October 1965. This and the following image from midwaysailor.com. See also Gene Slovers US Navy Page.

The crew went out of its way to keep this special ordinance from the view of the carrier’s Captain and Air Boss. However, just as this Skyraider was being catapulted from the deck, there came a message from the bridge: “What the hell was on 572’s right wing??”

There’s yet another backstory to this one that dates to the Korean War Dambusters: Giving details of the mission, the squadron’s executive officer told the press, “We dropped everything on them but a kitchen sink.” And, soon, others of the squadron produced a bomb with a kitchen sink attached.

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Aboard the U.S.S. Princeton, during the Korean War.

The admiral in command was not amused with the sink bomb. Within a week, though, press coverage led to its being dropped on Pyongyang in August 1952.

On October 9, 1966, more than 20 years after the aircraft’s entry into service, Skyraider A-1Hs became the last of propeller-driven piston-engine-powered aircraft to destroy jet fighters in air-to-air combat.

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Skyraiders have a special place in the history of air combat. Image from The Aviationist.

Four Skyraiders were launched from the U.S.S. Intrepid on a Rescue Combat Air Patrol to protect a downed U.S. pilot. These “Super Spads” were attacked by four MiG-17s, Russian-built jets flown by the North Vietnamese. The encounter ended with one MiG shot down, a second probably down and a third heavily damaged.

The last “Super Spad” was retired from the Gabonese Air Force in 1985. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

5 comments on “DOUGLAS AD SKYRAIDER—TOO GOOD TO RETIRE

  1. Mike B
    March 17, 2016

    Any relation to the “Texan” now used for training? Considering how effective turboprop conversions of some old airframes have been (DC3, and S-3 in fire service, come to mind), I can’t believe that nobody tried it with a Skyraider.

    • simanaitissays
      March 18, 2016

      The Texan/Navy SNJ is about the size of a Hellcat, 42-ft. span. Also the flying experience cited makes this point of the Skyraider’s size and power.

    • simanaitissays
      March 18, 2016

      Also, the Douglas A2D Skyshark was a turboprop variant evolved from the Skyraider.

  2. kkollwitz
    March 21, 2016

    Speaking of long-lived, the C-130 first flew in 1954.

  3. kkollwitz
    March 21, 2016

    I always thought the Skyraider had a blunt elegance of sorts.

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