The A-1 Skyraider – Including the Toilet Bomb

May 6, 2017. A-1 Skyraider Vietnam War era fighter airplane flying at the 2017 Planes of Fame Air Show in Chino, California.

The A-1 Skyraider was the last propeller-driven tail-dragger aircraft bought by the US Navy. One of the largest single engine aircraft ever built, the A-1 was built to a Navy requirement for a patrol/bomber/torpedo aircraft.

It was designed in 1944 by the Douglas Aircraft Company in California. Everything about the A-1 was oversized. It was almost comically large for a single engine aircraft, and had a crew of anywhere between 1 and 4 people depending on the variant.

The specified engine was the same massive Wright duplex cyclone used in the B-29, which gave the A-1 its massive payload capability.

AE-1 Skyraider – Chino Airshow Photo by Airwolfhound -CC BY-SA 4.0

The A-1 could also perform carrier onboard delivery duties. In addition to the US Navy, it would go on to see service with not only the US Air Force but also with various other allied air forces.

It was flown by the French Air Force before they left Indochina and also saw heavy use by South Vietnamese forces. When Saigon fell, the planes that could be flown out went to bases in Thailand where they were used for several years after.

A-1E Skyraiders fly in formation over South Vietnam on way to target on 25 June 1965. The aircraft are assigned to the 34th Tactical Group, based at Bien Hoa Air Base, South Vietnam.

The A-1 served a special role in the Vietnam War, and would earn its greatest fame as the guardian angel of Vietnamese pilots. Although it was originally developed as a carrier heavy attack aircraft and bomber, the A-1 saw the majority of its action as a ground attack aircraft used to assist in the rescue of downed American pilots.

Special operations were conducted when a pilot was shot down. As soon as his distress call was received the rescue plan was set into action. Army helicopter gunships would escort the main rescue helicopter. Orbiting around these helicopters at low to medium altitudes was a special flight of A-1s.

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

Known by their call sign “Sandy,” these flights of aircraft were tasked with suppressing any enemy resistance, especially AA guns. The lumbering, heavily-armored A-1s could handle far more punishment than the delicate by comparison helicopters.  A-1s were capable of shrugging off hits from enemy machine guns, cannons, and even missiles in some cases.

A-1 Sandy pilots would intentionally fly low and slow to entice the enemy into firing so they could be attacked. Once an enemy position revealed itself, it would face the full brunt of an A-1’s power.

A-1H Skyraider of VA-25 with toilet bomb on USS Midway (CVA-41) in October 1965

The A-1 was exceptionally heavily-armed for its size.  Each aircraft carried four 20mm cannons, rockets, napalm canisters, and cluster bombs as well as standard bombs.

A-1s could carry more payload than a World War II B-17 bomber when fully loaded. For rescue missions they would often carry a load of rockets as well as numerous napalm canisters and cluster bombs.

A Douglas XBT2D-1 Skyraider prototype.

However, there is a famous photograph of a Sandy being launched from a carrier with a far stranger payload. Due to a bomb shortage, some planes were being launched only half-loaded with ordnance.

Enterprising naval ordnancemen created their own special bomb for Hanoi. Equipped with tail fins and a fuse, the bomb was made of a decommissioned toilet, complete with bomb shackles so it could be dropped from the sky. Unfortunately there is no record of how much damage was caused by the that special mission.

An A-1H Skyraider of the VNAF 516th Fighter Squadron being loaded with napalm at Da Nang Air Base in 1967. Photo by Sciacchitano CC BY SA 3.0

A-1s amassed an impressive record during their comparatively short careers. Their pilots became experts at close range air support, frequently dropping their payloads within yards or in some cases even feet of downed airmen or trapped infantry.

Another Sandy specialty was basically creating a firebox around a downed pilot by dropping criss-crossing strings of napalm and cluster bombs. No enemy forces would be allowed to penetrate these perimeters by the orbiting A-1s.

An A-1J of VA-176 loaded with ordnance for a mission in Vietnam in 1966.

A-1s also hold several records for important firsts and lasts among combat aircraft, aside from the previously mentioned status as the last prop-driven tail-dragger.

For example, the A-1 can claim the first MiG kill of Vietnam. An A-1 pilot successfully used his cannons to shoot down a MiG. This happened several times throughout the war, and qualifies as the last jet kills by a propeller driven aircraft.

A-1E Skyraider at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

It is an ironic fact and perhaps a tragedy of military history that the A-1 Skyraider was retired so quickly following the Vietnam War. The United States, especially within the last twenty years of low intensity insurgency warfare, had a definite usage for a low-speed heavily armored aircraft capable of carrying a large amount of bombs and loitering over the battlefield like the A-1 could.

The closest modern alternative is the mighty A-10 Warthog. A worthy successor to the A-1, the A-10 is basically a flying tank. The A-10 does an excellent job at close air support, but is very expensive to operate in comparison to a prop-driven aircraft.

An A-10 from the 74th Fighter Squadron after taking on fuel over Afghanistan

Read another story from us: Vietnam Free Fire Zones – Anything That Moved Within Was Attacked & Destroyed

The US Air Force has been conducting numerous trials since the early 2000s to find a low cost long endurance aircraft with the previously described qualities of the A-1.

Perhaps a good idea for the Air Force would be to look back at its history and consider an updated A-1 as a candidate. Perhaps the roar of the Wright Cyclone could once again be heard, screaming down to protect American servicemen.

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