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What Explains the Douglas A-1 Skyraider’s Surprisingly Long Career?

The Douglas Skyraider was a single-engine, single-seat, low-wing fighter bomber used during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. It was designed by Ed Heinemann of Douglas Aircraft Company during World War II.

The Skyraider was a versatile aircraft used by different US military branches and other air forces worldwide. It played various roles, including dive-bombing, electronic warfare, target-towing, and nuclear delivery. Its long loiter times and robust design made it ideal for dangerous missions and bombings.

Born during WWII but used during the Korean War

In 1943, the US Navy shifted its procurement strategy for dive-bombers and torpedo-bombers, opting for single-piloted aircraft that could fulfill both roles. Douglas Aircraft Company developed the BTD-1 in response but never saw active service.

In early July 1944, Douglas proposed a design, resulting in the XBT2D-1, later designated AD-1 Skyraider. Impressively, the first flight occurred almost four months ahead of schedule, showcasing its superiority as a dive-bomber.

Ordered into production on May 5, 1945, the Skyraider, although it missed World War II, became a crucial asset during the Korean War, spanning from 1950 to 1953, and saw extensive action in Korea, earning a reputation for its ruggedness and ability to withstand damage.

Aircraft details Description
Crew 1
Propulsion System 1 Radial Engine
Speed 278 kts (515 km/h)
Range 782 NM (1448 km)
Max. Takeoff Weight 25000 lbs (11340 kg)
Wing Span 50 ft 9 in (15.47 m)
Length 38 ft 10 in (11.84 m)
Height 15 ft 8 in (4.78 m)

During the Korean War, Skyraiders from Navy and Marine squadrons played a crucial role in providing close air support for Marines and disrupting North Korean supply lines. They were praised as the “best and most effective close-support aircraft” and lauded as “the most versatile, single-engine aircraft ever to go into service.”

A Douglas A-1 Skyraider flying in the sky.

The introduction of the AD-5 further enhanced their capabilities with its spacious design, accommodating additional crew members for various missions such as electronic countermeasures and early warning. The Korean War saw significant Skyraider deployment, though operational issues led to numerous losses.

The Vietnam War

In 1957, just two years after the beginning of the Vietnam War, production of the Skyraider ceased. However, as the Vietnam War unfolded, the A-1, affectionately nicknamed ‘Spad’ after the French World War I fighter, remained a prominent fixture in many carrier air wings, despite plans for its replacement by the A-6A Intruder.

During ‘Operation Pierce Arrow,’ the first A-1E Skyraider was shot down on August 5, 1964, and another A-1 was shot down on April 29, 1966. By 1965, the RVNAF, the South Vietnam Air Force, had 13,000 personnel and 359 aircraft. The RVNAF had six fighter squadrons and a combined fleet of 146 A-1 Skyraiders.

However, following the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam in 1973, South Vietnam surrendered on April 30, 1975, and most A-1s were destroyed, marking the end of the Skyraider’s combat service.

Non-US Operators of the Skyraider

In the 1950s, the Royal Navy acquired 50 AD-4W early warning aircraft known as Skyraider AEW.1s through the Military Assistance Program. These planes were operated by 849 Naval Air Squadron and participated in events like the Suez Crisis in 1956.

The last British Skyraiders were retired in 1962, and their radar systems were later installed in Avro Shackleton AEW.2s of the Royal Air Force.

Skyraider_AEW1_778_RNAS_Culdrose
Photo: U.S. Navy

Sweden purchased fourteen ex-British AEW.1 Skyraiders between 1962 and 1976, repurposing them as target tugs for the Swedish Armed Forces.

France also acquired various models of Skyraiders in the late 1950s to replace older aircraft. They were extensively used during the Algerian War and remained in service until the 1970s. The French also employed them in conflicts in Chad, Djibouti, Madagascar, and elsewhere.

Skyraider’s legacy today

According to Fandom.com, today there are nineteen airworthy Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, four in France (124143, 125716, 126998, 127002), one in the UK (126922), and fourteen in the USA (09257, 123827, 124156, 126882, 126959, 126965, 126997, 127888, 132683, 135152, 135178, 135188, 139606, 139665). Skyraiders are also on display in Thailand, Sweden, and Vietnam.

Air show acts to Salute Vietnam Veterans are performed with Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, showing the long-lasting legacy of this aircraft that, despite the emergence of jet-powered aircraft in the 1960s, had a long and successful career.

The Skyraider remained in service from the late 1940s to the early 1980s, but numerous Skyraiders were lost to enemy fire. Nearly 200 Skyraiders were lost by the USAF in Southeast Asia, with 150 of them falling in combat. By the end of its production, seven versions were made, totaling 3,180 units.

The A-1 Skyraider’s renowned resilience against enemy attacks and capability to return intact were its defining features. As one of the rare propeller aircraft operational during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, A-1 Skyraiders played a pivotal role in the USAF’s Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) mission, providing close air support for CSAR helicopters.

Have you ever seen a Skyraider at an air show? Let us know in the comments.

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