The Air Force’s ongoing interest in adding a fleet of light-attack aircraft to its arsenal is a reminder that, sometimes, slower and cheaper can be better.
Half a century ago, the Air Force’s legendary A-1E Skyraiders — affectionately known as Spads, after a wood-and-wire World War I fighter — proved their mettle in the skies over Vietnam, providing close-air support for American and Vietnamese troops on the ground.
“We were flying anachronisms, piloting Spads through a supersonic world, tasting the thunderstorms at 8,000 feet when an SR-71 [supersonic spy plane] was hitting three times the speed of sound above 70,000 feet,” former B-52 and A-1E pilot Capt. Richard Drury told Vietnam Magazine, a sister publication of Air Force Times.
“It was a ludicrous situation, but one I applauded. … Some of the greatest and most dangerous and heroic flying ever done was right there … in old A-1 Skyraiders.”
Air Force leaders now see a similar need for a low-cost, slower-moving aircraft for counter-insurgency, close-air support, and aerial reconnaissance missions in low-threat environments. The idea would be to use them against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in the Middle East and Africa.
The purchase of low-end attack aircraft, which could take off and land on shorter runways, would also reduce the wear and tear on state-of-the-art fighters deployed to the Middle East, extending the lives of those airframes.
In August, Air Force pilots at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, flew four different light attack aircraft in series of flight demonstrations to test how well the aircraft could perform in a desert environment. The planes tested include the A-29 Super Tucano by Sierra Nevada Corp. and Embraer; the AT-802L Longsword from L3 Technologies and Air Tractor; and the the AT-6 Wolverine turboprop and Scorpion, both made by Textron. The Scorpion is the only jet in the mix.
Air Force leaders have said that a second phase of the experiment, if there is one, would be a combat demonstration in the Middle East. But they are still reviewing the data from the first phase of the experiment, and evaluating the aircraft cost, capability and the manufacturer’s production capacity.
“That data is intended to inform strategic decisions. It will also tell us whether we take this to the next step, to what we call a combat experiment, and whether any of these aircraft are ready for that,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in August. “That combat experiment could take place early next year.”
Meanwhile, Air Combat Command is proceeding with planning for a combat demo. Air Force leaders have said A-29s and AT-6s would likely conduct the experiment, but the other aircraft haven’t been ruled out of a final decision on light attack aircraft.
If there is a second coming of the Skyraider, it would only be used in permissive airspace. There will likely be no repeat of the heroics that made the aircraft, and its pilots, legendary in Vietnam.
The Skyraider was conceived in June 1944 when, at the Navy’s request, Douglas Aircraft Co. chief engineer Ed Heinemann designed a single-seater with the huge twin-bank, 18-cylinder, 2,500-horsepower Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone radial engine used in the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, according to Vietnam Magazine.
“Their A-1 Skyraider — the last tail-wheeled airplane in the Navy inventory — was the world’s biggest, most powerful prop-driven, single-seat combat aircraft, able to lift truly freakish weapons loads, greater than that of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress,” wrote historian Don Hollway for the magazine.
As the fighting in Vietnam intensified, the Air Force accepted 150 Spads, changing the designation to A-1E, to deliver the slow, accurate close-air support its jets could not provide. Navy and Air Force Skyraiders hunted truck convoys up and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia.
Drury called his A-1 “a time machine,” Vietnam Magazine reported. “It carried nearly 40 gallons of oil, most of which wound up on the aircraft surfaces and on the pilots. It also burned about 100 gallons of fuel an hour. For all that it barely went three miles a minute with an ordnance load. But speed was a relative thing and had lost all its importance in the sort of war we would be in.”
The Skyraider experience in Vietnam helped inform the Air Force decision to move forward with the A-10.
“Even many of those who favored the supersonic jets conceded that the propeller-driven A-1 was the CAS star” in Vietnam, wrote author Douglas Campbell in his book “The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate.”
Those same characteristics, maneuverability, low speed, ability to loiter over the battle space and low cost, are at the heart of the debate on moving forward with a new light attack aircraft now.
If it does, the spirit of the Skyraider will live on.