I am often asked whether the Skyraider was the best ground attack and CAS ever built. My answer is a "qualified" yes. It is a qualified answer because my data points are taken from my experiences flying the Skyraider during the war in Vietnam... and the threats to air operations from that area and time period.
So is today's threat level far above that which we experienced in Vietnam? The answer to that question is yes and no and it depends on what part of the world you talk about. During my time working and planning in the air operations center (AOC) in USAFE, there certainly were many areas of that area of responsibility (AOR) where a slow moving aircraft such as the Skyraider could never survive, let alone reach the target area. But on the other hand, there were many areas in the AOR where Skyraiders could survive, and that area was principally Africa. [ Note: Africa is now included in the new African Command (AFRICOM), so these countries are no longer the responsibility of USAFE ] Many of the nations in Africa that have either terrorist cells operating and/or indigenous rebel factions seeking to overthrow the national government are making do with the same types and kinds of weapons systems that we faced in Vietnam. This includes principally small arms such as AK-47 type assault rifles and similar caliber weapons. Additionally most have various forms of automatic anti-aircraft (AAA) weapons such as 12.7mm, 14.5mm, 50 caliber, and larger calibers ranging from 23mm up to 57mm and higher. These are threats in which the Skyraider survived in Vietnam, and could survive in today.
But the wild card then and now is shoulder-fired small IR SAMS such as the SA-7 and the much more effective modern variants that have proliferated following the Vietnam War. Depending on the countermeasures that would be available to a modern Skyraider (we had NONE in Vietnam besides good lookout and somewhat aggressive maneuvering!), operations still may be possible in that type of threat environment.
Now let's discuss some of the factors that made the Skyraider such a good CAS platform. Its strongest assets were, relatively long endurance, its large and varied weapons load, and its ability to take hits and return to base. And lest I forget, the most important asset was its SLOW speed. More on this later, but first I will discuss the other assets listed above.
Long Endurance - The CAS mission generally requires extensive coordination with friendly forces on the ground and the forward air controller (FAC) resulting in extended mission lengths. The Skyraider actually carried more external fuel (3000 lbs, or about 450 gallons) than it did in its internal fuel tank (2280 lbs or 380 gallons). This amount of fuel allowed for combat missions in the 5 to 6 hour range, depending on the distance to the target area and the amount of time in the target area. My longest mission was the Bowleg 02 SAR mission, where I logged 5.4 hours. I landed with less than 100 lbs of fuel (about 15 gallons). For an 18 cylinder engine with 2,700 HP, this was not much!
Large and Varied Weapons Load - The Skyraider has 12 weapons station certified for 500 lb class stores and three more certified for as much as 3,000 lbs each. With a maximum gross weight of 25,000 lbs, it could carry more ordnance than the four-engined WW II B-17 bomber. Depending on the expected mission and target type, we carried a mixture of "hard" and "soft" ordnance. Hard ordnance was general purpose bombs such as the MK-80 500 lb bomb and the older (now obsolete) M-117 750 lb bomb. These were not well suited for CAS as they could not be safely dropped close to friendly troops (generally no closer than 1,000 meters).
Soft ordnance, on the other hand, was able to be employed much closer to friendly personnel on the ground which was often required in a troops in contact (TIC) situation. The Sandy load (shown above) had a mixture of cluster bomb units (CBU), rockets, white phosphorus bombs, 20mm, and 7.62 mm rounds that could all be used as close as 100 meters to the target, and some of it much closer than that.
Ability to Take Hits - The Skyraider is legendary with regard to its ability to take battle damage and return to a base where the damage could be repaired, and the aircraft returned to service. The A-1
shown here took a large caliber AAA round through the right flap near the wing root and suffered extensive damage to the aft fuselage, but was landed safely at NKP, repaired and returned to service.
This brings me to the most important reason why the Skyraider (IMHO) was the absolute best CAS aircraft to ever be employed in combat. The low speed (relative to jet aircraft) of the Skyraider, though frustrating to the pilot, was the reason it was such an effective weapons delivery platform in a CAS and SAR environment. Now some might argue (perhaps correctly!) that this was also the reason that 201 USAF Skyraiders and another 65 USN Skyraiders were lost in Vietnam in the nearly nine-years of combat operations*. But back then, that was deemed an acceptable loss rate in order to accomplish the mission. The bottom line was, when you needed close, CAS, you needed Skyraiders.
* Vietnam Air Losses, Hobson, Midland Publishing, 2001