Sunday, December 5, 2010

Was the Skyraider the Best Close Air Support (CAS) Platform Ever?

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


  1. Well this blogging thing is not as easy as it looks. I have had no comments yet, but two "looking." I am interested in the weapons loading aspects of the Skyraider. I see a comment relating to the development of the SUU-11 Minigun pod system. Joe, do you know whether any other fixed-wing aircraft used this system then or later?

  2. Blogging is a pain...I've tried. I am wondering about your comments on the A-1 being the best. Several years ago...between Gulf War One and Gulf War Two I was flying with a guy that was in the Reserves and had worked on the A-10 program. Keeping in mind that it has been about 15 years I got the impression from his comments that the A-10 was not a "loved" aircraft by the Air Force brass and he felt that plans were pretty advanced to dump the A-10 when the the first gulf war happened. The war happened and the A-10 did good work and was kept.

    So does the Air Force find CAS a pain in the a-- and don't really want to spend money on specialized equipment to do it?

    Then how do you feel about the A-10? A bit more modern, burns jet fuel, tricycle gear (easier for modern pilots) and two engines. Would a modern (turbine powered?) A-1 do the job as well in a low air to air threat environment?

    I don't stop by often but I've enjoyed your site for years. Keep up the good work.


  3. Regarding the SUU 11 on other fixed wing aircraft: it was a certified secondary weapons system on the F4 when I was assigned to the 401st TFW in the early 70s. 6 could be loaded on two TERs on the inboard MAU12s. I believe they did fly them that way in SEA, but we never did. Never saw one again later at Nellis, which probably is an indicator of what happened to the idea.

    Weapons loading is weapons loading on fighters with the very plausible exception of internal guns.

    Dale Meyers

  4. skyraider in my opnion a great plane

  5. jst a question im informed that sandy stands for search and destroy am i correct ?

    1. Pete, I think we corresponded recently via email. Try abledogs,com for the USN Skyraider guys. BTW, the Navy Spad history has been over covered, why not USAF???


  6. "and its ability to take hits and return to base".

    As proved at Duxford, UK, last weekend. Some amazing stills of that tough old bird landing with a chunk of right wing missing after the collision with a P51.

    Excellent Blog and a great history. Thank you!

  7. Byron hi

    I'm an aviation artist, mainly depicting USN operations over Vietnam.

    I'm in the early stages of prepping my next project and I'm trying to find a Navy A-1H driver I can correspond with to ensure I get things right. Do you have any contacts that might be interested in helping me out

    Any and all help appreciated



    1. Pete, you should really do art on AIr Force Skyraiders. But if you have your heart set on Navy bird, have a look at able where the Navy Spad guys hang out.


  8. I recently have been learning about the sky raider from a former pilot William Damon. "The Ant Eater" stated the A1E was his favorite plane to fly. Shot down 3 times flying one during Vietnam. Just searching for info and not much mention of spads being flown by army pilots.

  9. My father Lt Col William H. May was an A-1'er out of Hurlbert. Many stories to be told, He was shot down while trying to find another plane the had just gone down, but he was saved the next day, it was said that the observer was a spy and was put to death, but I'm not sure of the details. They never found the other plane either, but heard that the pilot was used as an example, decapitated etc and dragged through the street of a village. My father was also, along with my mother, my sister and I in NKP towards the end of the pull out. Stories to be told and any info would be nice, Byron, you have been in contact with my one of my sisters, thanks for the pictures. I know that as a Capt. or a Major my father was in Vietnam, was shot down. He was also stationed in Korea, and NKP as a LT Col, and state side early on, was an instructor, he said he was like a top gun (?) I guess he was a good pilot. In NKP, in the compound that we lived in, one of our CIA neighbors was attacked and killed next door to us. Also, another pilot and two members of his family were attacked and ran off of the road and killed. That is when my father moved us out of that compound. Many memories, many stories, would like to share. Would love some feed back. Would like to talk one on one to see if you could use any of the info I remember. My family and I are planning on getting together and putting all the different stories, get the timeline straight and putting it together. Make a memory book of some sort, maybe a little from the family side. My father always wanted to thank the afro-american helicopter crew member who spotted him in the rice patty after they had given up on finding him, saved his life. I believe that my father also may have played a big part in identifying that the strobe light looked like enemy ground fire, thus, making some kind of change. My family and I can't get enough of this, but all of you guys are dying away and the stories go with you!! Please everyone, write down your stories. They are important.

  10. Hi,

    I came across some photographic slides in a thrift store that appear to be from a Vietnam War Spad unit. I've only taken a cursory look at the slides so far, but there are a number of close-ups of the personnel and aircraft. They called themselves "The Spad guys." Is there someone I should contact in regards to preserving them?

  11. I am curious as to your thoughts on the Turbo twin prop A2(?), a A1 variant or A1 replacement, would have faired during Viet Nam and whether or not it is a product that could be utilized in today's war environment?

    Darryl Ridgley

  12. Hy Byron, I would like to ask you about the correction of the color scheme of this Skyraider scale model:

    Do you think is accurate?

  13. Hi Folks,

    The A1H Skyraider USN is an awesome plane! Here is a great site I found for, very high quality wooden replica’s
    and they offer over 600 different Airplane, Helicopter and Military vehicles.
    Check this website out

  14. Byron,
    Looking to contact Cecil Calhoun
    Is his address in the Skyraider database?
    Gordon in Norman

  15. Byron
    Come up on