The A-1 Skyraider (Mar 1964)
Although just too late to serve in the Second World War, the Douglas Skyraider had served with distinction during the Korean War 10 years before it was called to action again in Vietnam. The Skyraider was designed as a single-seat dive-bomber that could operate from carriers and airfields. It was a very sturdy aircraft as it had to withstand the stress of pulling out of high-speed dives and carried up to 8,000 lbs of ordnance on 15 wing and fuselage hardpoints. A total of 3,180 Skyraiders were built between 1945 and 1957 in seven different variants and 13 sub-variants (single-seat, twin-seat and four-seat).
The Skyraider (originally designated the AD) served with US Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force units but first saw action in Southeast Asia with the South Vietnamese Air Force which received its first aircraft in September 1960 to replace the Grumman F8F Bearcat as a close air support aircraft. Six USAF pilots were lost while flying Skyraiders with the SVNAF. By 1962 there were 12 Navy attack squadrons still flying Skyraiders (10 of which were deployed during the war) and the first squadron to serve in Southeast Asia was VA-196 on board the USS Bon Homme Richard in February 1964. A total of 65 Navy A-1 Skyraiders were lost during the war, the last one on 14 February 1968. The Navy A-1s were replaced by A-4 and A-7 squadrons during 1967/68. In addition to the single-seat A-1s the Navy also lost five of the EA-1 electronic countermeasures aircraft from VAW-11 and 13.
The USAF soon recognised the qualities of the Skyraider and requested that surplus Navy aircraft be assigned to the Air Force in order to develop its counter-insurgency capability. In order to comply with the policy of the early years in Vietnam that USAF aircraft should carry a Vietnamese observer on combat missions, the two-seat A-1E model of the Skyraider was selected, especially as there were plenty of these aircraft available. The first USAF A-1Es arrived in May 1964 to equip the 1st Air Commando Squadron at Bien Hoa. The 1st was joined by the 602nd Air Commando Squadron in October 1964 and these two squadrons reinforced the South Vietnamese Air Force’s own Skyraider squadrons before moving to Nakhon Phanom and Udorn. Two more USAF Skyraider squadrons were formed in 1968 by which time the USAF was also flying single-seat A-1H and J models. Probably the Skyraider’s best known role in USAF service during the war is as part of the search and rescue task force which saved many downed aircrew from death or capture. The aircraft’s capability to carry a heavy load of a variety of ordnance as well as its endurance and ruggedness made it an ideal aircraft for the RESCAP task. Having said that, a fair proportion of the 200 USAF ‘Spads’ lost during the war were shot down during SAR missions.