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The Skyraider originated in the last months of World War Two and served with distinction until the 1980s, finally with the Gabonese Air Force. It could carry more ordnance than the mighty Boing B-17 Fortress bomber of World War Two, totalling more than its own weight.

The Skyraider was operated by the US Navy, the US Marine Corps and also the US Air Force until replaced by the A-10 Thunderbolt II.

Douglas A-1 Skyraider

Late in WW2, the US Navy issued a requirement for a carrier-based, single seat, long range, high-performance dive/torpedo bomber. The Skyraider was designed by Douglas Aircraft Company, with prototypes being ordered by the Navy in July 1944. These were designated XBT2D-1.

The Douglas XBT2D-1 Skyraider prototype BuNo. 09086 was used the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), Ames Research Center, Moffet Field, California (USA), by from 11 March 1946 to 4 September 1947 to gain data on flying qualities, stability and control, and performance. Date 1946/47
The Douglas XBT2D-1 Skyraider prototype BuNo. 09086 was used the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), Ames Research Center, Moffet Field, California (USA), by from 11 March 1946 to 4 September 1947 to gain data on flying qualities, stability and control, and performance. Date 1946/47

The first prototype made its first flight on 18 March 1945 and a month later commenced testing and evaluation. At the end of 1946, it entered service as the AD-1 Skyraider. Each day two of these aircraft came off the production line throughout 1949 and 1950. The designation later changed from AD-1 to simply, A-1.

AD-4 Skyraider schematics - via Wikimedia Commons
AD-4 Skyraider schematics – via Wikimedia Commons

The large straight wings provided very good maneuverability at low level, with each wing having 7 hard-points for the carriage of almost all available weapons in the inventory. In fact, the Skyraider could carry more than it’s own weight in ordnance.

The Skyraider was affectionately known as the ‘Spad’ by it’s devoted pilots, named after the French World War One fighter. It was much admired because it was tough and effective, allowing pinpoint delivery of ordnance – plus it could carry all ordnance in the Navy inventory. On the downside, it had no ejector seat – pilots had to bail out manually.

Not the Skyraider, but the original 'Spad'
Not the Skyraider, but the original ‘Spad’

The Spad was optimised for the ground attack role, having considerable amounts of armour around critical areas of the airframe – including the cockpit! The designers focused on reducing weight in order to improve range, ceiling, climb rate and to reduce the takeoff roll. In the end, they had saved over 1,800 lb of weight savings in the production version, compared with the XBT2-D prototype.

The aircraft was designed for carrier use and accordingly had sturdy landing gear and a tail-hook for arrester landings. It’s large wing and docile handling made carrier landings relatively straightforward.

Used throughout the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Skyraider was the primary close air support aircraft of choice, with its ability to take damage and keep going. It was also used by the Republic of Vietnam Air Force in that conflict, increasingly in the final years.

Operational History

The Skyraider had a long and successful career in service that lasted for over thirty years, initially with the three American services, then with various other operators, including the RVNAF, the Royal Navy, the Swedish Air Force and French Air Force. The US airframes were painted in camouflage colours while Navy versions were blue and, later, grey/white.

Survivors from the French Air Force, in turn, found their way to military operators in Gabon, Chad (where it was still fighting in 1979), Cambodia and the Central African Republic.

A little late for use in the second World War, the Spad was nevertheless used intensively in Korea and Vietnam. The first examples were employed by a US Navy attack squadron in July 1950, operating from the USS Valley Forge, a smaller class of aircraft carrier.

With a huge load of ordnance and up to 10 hours of endurance, the Skyraider packed a punch and utility that contemporary jet aircraft lacked. In Korea, the Skyraider was flown by the Navy and Marines only. Since most examples were painted blue, the enemy called them, unsurprisingly, the “Blue Plane”.

A U.S. Navy Douglas AD-4 Skyraider of attack squadron VA-195 Dambusters taking off the aircraft carrier USS Princeton (CV-37) during the Korean War. VA-195 was assigned to Carrier Air Group 19 (CVG-19) and made two deployments to Korea aboard the Princeton, from 9 November 1950 to 29 May 1951, and from 21 March to 3 November 1952. Date circa 1950-1952
A U.S. Navy Douglas AD-4 Skyraider of attack squadron VA-195 Dambusters taking off the aircraft carrier USS Princeton (CV-37) during the Korean War. VA-195 was assigned to Carrier Air Group 19 (CVG-19) and made two deployments to Korea aboard the Princeton, from 9 November 1950 to 29 May 1951, and from 21 March to 3 November 1952. Date circa 1950-1952

A total of 128 Skyraiders were lost in Vietnam, 101 in combat. Losses were heavy early on and so a package of additional armour was fitted, with little effect on performance.

Of the 27 operational losses, many were caused by enormous torque roll effect, experienced most dramatically when an aircraft was waved off from a carrier landing. Some pilots would add too much power, too quickly, which the application of maximum opposite rudder at low airspeeds could not overcome.

In the Vietnam War Skyraiders once again took on the ground attack role, although they were later replaced by more capable, faster aircraft such as the Grumman A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair II. Airframes released from US service they found their way to the RVNAF.

Douglas A-1E, with Pave Pat bombs, at Nakhom Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base on Sept. 29, 1968. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Douglas A-1E, with Pave Pat bombs, at Nakhom Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base on Sept. 29, 1968. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The US Air Force used Skyraiders in Vietnam for search and rescue, accompanying helicopters on ‘Sandy’ missions to rescue downed pilots, performing that role with distinction. Many a heroic mission was flown in support of fellow downed airmen.

Skyraiders had the distinction of shooting down two MiG-17 jet fighters during the conflict, perhaps due to their ability to turn low and slow and gain position behind the MiGs.

Skyraider of the VNAF 516th Fighter Squadron being loaded with napalm at Danang AB, in May 1967. Via Wikimedia Commons
Skyraider of the VNAF 516th Fighter Squadron being loaded with napalm at Danang AB, in May 1967. Via Wikimedia Commons

From November 1972 all surviving A-1s were transferred to the RVNAF.

Four Royal Navy Douglas Skyraider AEW.1s from D Flight, 849 Naval Air Squadron based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in flight in the 1950s. Via Wikimedia Commons
Four Royal Navy Douglas Skyraider AEW.1s from D Flight, 849 Naval Air Squadron based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in flight in the 1950s. Via Wikimedia Commons

Skyraiders last saw service with the Gabonese Air Force and were finally retired in 1985.

Variants

There were seven main variants of the Spad and numerous minor versions. To keep things simple, I will stick with the most significant or most produced types.

XBT2D-1

Several prototype aircraft, intended as a torpedo/dive bomber. Ordered on 6 July 1944 and first flown on 18 March 1945.

AD-1

This was the first production model. 242 examples were built.

AD-1Q

A two-seat electronic counter-measures version of the AD-1. 35 built.

A U.S. Navy Douglas AD-1Q Skyraider electronic countermeasures aircraft (BuNo 09386) of composite squadron VC-35 Night Hecklers, circa 1950. Via Wikimedia Commons
A U.S. Navy Douglas AD-1Q Skyraider electronic countermeasures aircraft (BuNo 09386) of composite squadron VC-35 Night Hecklers, circa 1950. Via Wikimedia Commons
AD-2

The second main production version, powered by a 2,700 hp R-3350-26W. 156 built.

AD-2Q

Two seat electronic counter-measures version of the AD-2. 21 built.

AD-3

The third major production version, with a strengthened airframe, better landing gear an an improved canopy design. 125 AD-3s were built.

AD-3N

A night attack version of the AD-3. 15 were built.

AD-3Q

A two-seat electronic counter-measures version of the AD-3. 23 built.

AD-3W

Airborne early warning version of the AD-3. 31 were built.

AD-4

The fourth main version. The landing gear was further strengthened, was fitted with four 20mm cannons, rocket launchers. 372 built.

A Douglas AD-4W Skyraider AEW-aircraft of composite squadron VC-12, Carrier Air Group Three (CVG-3) landing on the aircraft carrier USS Leyte (CV-32) in 1952. Date 1952. Via Wikimedia Commons
A Douglas AD-4W Skyraider AEW-aircraft of composite squadron VC-12, Carrier Air Group Three (CVG-3) landing on the aircraft carrier USS Leyte (CV-32) in 1952. Date 1952. Via Wikimedia Commons
AD-4B

Designed to carry nuclear weapons, 165 built plus 28 conversions.

AD-4L

Winterised version for Korea. 63 conversions.

AD-4N (also known as A-1D)

A three-seat night attack version of the AD-4. 307 were built.

AD-4NL

Winterised version of the AD-4N for Korea. 36 conversions.

AD-5 (A-1E)

The fifth major production version, featuring two seat, side by side configuration. 212 built.

Four Douglas A-1E Skyraider aircraft fly in formation over South Vietnam on way to target on 25 June 1965. The aircraft were assigned to the 34th Tactical Group based at Bien Hoa, South Vietnam. The A-1E 133899 was lost on 9 June 1966, 132633 on 10 November 1966, and 132638 on 4 May 1967. (U.S. Air Force photo) Date 25 June 1965
Four Douglas A-1E Skyraider aircraft fly in formation over South Vietnam on way to target on 25 June 1965. The aircraft were assigned to the 34th Tactical Group based at Bien Hoa, South Vietnam. The A-1E 133899 was lost on 9 June 1966, 132633 on 10 November 1966, and 132638 on 4 May 1967. (U.S. Air Force photo) Date 25 June 1965
AD-5N (A-1G)

Four (!) seat night attack version with radar countermeasures. 239 built.

AD-5Q (EA-1F)

Four seat electronic counter-measures version. 54 conversions.

AD-5W (EA-1E)

Three seat early warning version. 218 built.

A U.S. Navy Douglas AD-5W Skyraider (BuNo 132751) of Airborne Early Warning squadron VAW-11 Det.J Early Eleven on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge (CVA-33) in the western Pacific. VAW-11 Det.J was assigned to Air Task Group 3 (ATG-3) aboard the Kearsarge for a deployment to the western Pacific from 9 August 1957 to 2 April 1958. Datebetween 1957 and 1958
A U.S. Navy Douglas AD-5W Skyraider (BuNo 132751) of Airborne Early Warning Squadron VAW-11 Det.J Early Eleven on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge (CVA-33) in the western Pacific. VAW-11 Det.J was assigned to Air Task Group 3 (ATG-3) aboard the Kearsarge for a deployment to the western Pacific from 9 August 1957 to 2 April 1958. Date between 1957 and 1958
AD-6 (A-1H)

The sixth major production version. Three dive brakes. Centreline station could take 3,500 lb of ordnance, more flexible bomb load-outs. 713 built.

A Douglas A-1H Skyraider (s/n 52-139778) of the 602nd Special Operations Squadron over Vietnam in June 1970. Date June 1970
A Douglas A-1H Skyraider (s/n 52-139778) of the 602nd Special Operations Squadron over Vietnam in June 1970. Date June 1970
AD-7 (A-1J)

The seventh and final major version. Structural enhancements to prolong airframe life. Powered by the more powerful R-3350-26WB engine. 72 built.

A U.S. Navy Douglas A-1J Skyraider (BuNo 142028) of Attack Squadron 176 (VA-176) "Thunderbolts" in flight. VA-176 was assigned to Attack Carrier Air Wing 10 (CVW-10) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid (CVS-11) for a deployment to Vietnam from 4 April to 21 November 1966.
A U.S. Navy Douglas A-1J Skyraider (BuNo 142028) of Attack Squadron 176 (VA-176) “Thunderbolts” in flight. VA-176 was assigned to Attack Carrier Air Wing 10 (CVW-10) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid (CVS-11) for a deployment to Vietnam from 4 April to 21 November 1966.

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Specifications

Make Douglas Aircraft Company
Model A-1H Skyraider
Aircraft Type Single engine piston, low wing monoplane
Role Ground Attack, Close Air Support
Crew complement Single seat
First flight 18 March 1945
Retired 1985 (Gabonese Air Force)
Number produced 3,180
Unit cost Unknown
Empty Weight 11,968 lb
Maximum weight 25,000 lb
Powerplant(s) One 3,020 hp Wright R-3350-26W radial piston engine
Wingspan 50′
Length 38′ 10″
Height 15′ 8″
Armament Four 20mm cannon, bombs, rockets, flares, napalm etc.
Payload 8,000 lb or ordnance
Range 1,316 miles
Combat radius Unknown
Service ceiling 32,000′
Cruise speed 198 mph
Maximum speed 343mph at 20,000′
Claim to fame Carried greater payload than a WW2 B-17 bomber

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You can learn more about the A-1 Skyraider here, or you can see more articles like this on our Aircraft page.

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