The Douglas A-1 Skyraider: The Best Attack Plane Ever Made

Photo Credit: United States Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: United States Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Douglas A-1 Skyraider was not only an integral aircraft used following WWII, but it was also a deadly weapon capable of eviscerating the enemy into nothing more than a grease spot – making it one of the best attack planes of all time.

The A-1 (formerly known as the AD Skyraider) is a single-seat attack aircraft that saw service from 1946 until the 1980s. The piston-engined, American-designed plane’s ability to carry large amounts of weapons over a long period of time made it especially powerful during the Southeast Asia War. It provided close air support to ground forces, escorted helicopters during rescue missions, and attacked enemy supply lines.

An A-1 Skyraider drops two bombs over the smoky Vietnam hillside
A Douglas A-1 Skyraider drops two napalm bombs over Vietnam, 1967 – cropped from the original. (Photo Credit: United States Air Force / United States Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

With a maximum speed of 322 miles per hour, a range of 1,316 miles, and an armament complete with an array of bombs, rockets, cannons, and guns the A-1 was extremely successful at navigating guerrilla war tactics in the Korean War. However, it was ultimately phased out in favor of more advanced jet aircraft.

Development of the Skyraider

The Douglas Skyraider was first developed during WWII to meet the needs of the US Navy – which had realized that carrier air wings needed to change due to new weapons advancements. Designed by Ed Heinemann from the Douglas Aircraft Company, the first A-1 prototype, XBT2D-1, was ordered in July 1944.

One of the original prototypes of the Skyraider developed by Douglas
The Douglas XBT2D-1 Skyraider prototype, circa 1946. (Photo Credit: NASA / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

By December 1946, the XBT2D-1 was re-designated the AD-1 and put into production. The Skyraider, also affectionately called “the Spad” after the WWI French biplane, combined the stamina of larger planes with the maneuverability of smaller aircraft.

Equipped with fifteen hardpoints, it could carry a large amount of ordnance over a longer period of time, while still easily maneuverable at low speeds. Unlike faster fighter planes like Vought F4U Corsair, the A-1 was well suited to ground attacks.

A Douglas A-1 Skyraider equipped with rocket launchers
A U. S. Air Force Douglas A-1E Skyraider armed with six LAU-3 rocket launchers in Vietnam. (Photo Credit: Pictures From History / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Before production ended in 1957, Douglas manufactured a total of 3,180 Skyraiders in 28 variations for a variety of situations like carrier-based aircraft, attack bombing, reconnaissance, airborne early warnings, and search missions.

The Korean War saw 128 planes lost

The first Skyraiders arrived at the Korean Peninsula in 1950, and by 1955 29 Skyraider squadrons were serving the U.S. Navy in Korea. In 1962, the aircraft was re-designated A-1D/A-1J. The A-1 became a valuable asset to the United States at the start of the Korean War thanks to its impressive weapons load and flying time which surpassed most other jets at the time – a whopping 10 hours of flight at a time.

A blue Douglas AD-4 Skyraider taking off from a aircraft carrier during the Korean War
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, circa 1952. (Photo Credit: U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

On June 16, 1953, Marine Corps pilots Major George H. Linnemeier and CWO Vernon S. Kramer shot down a Soviet-built Polikarpov Po-2 biplane, making it the only documented Skyraider victory of the Korean War. During the entirety of the war, AD Skyraiders were only flown by U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps pilots.

Unfortunately, there were more losses than victories when it came to the Skyraider’s role in Korea. By the end of the war, 128 AD Skyraider planes were lost – 101 in combat and 27 due to operational issues. The operational issues largely stemmed from the overwhelming power of the aircraft, which were prone to accidents when performing landings on aircraft carriers.

By accidentally using too much throttle, an AD pilot could easily over-rotate the propeller and enter a fatal “torque roll” that plummeted them into the sea.

The Skyraider thrived during the Vietnam War

U.S. Air Force Skyraiders were later assigned to the 1st Air Commando Squadron in Vietnam in 1964. These aircraft were modified from the older versions used in Korea to help support search and rescue missions. Supporting special operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Skyraiders aided ground forces by spraying defoliant or aiding in the extraction of troops from enemy territories.

A Skyraider and Sikorsky CH-3C helicopter mid-flight during a rescue mission
View of a Douglas A-1E Skyraider attack plane as it escorts a Sikorsky CH-3C rescue helicopter, Vietnam, 1966. (Photo Credit: PhotoQuest / Getty Images)

The most famous squadron of Skyraiders, under the call sign “Sandy,” supported search and rescue missions by air. The A-1’s ability to fly low and slow was perfect for locating missing persons over a longer period of time without needing to refuel, unlike other jet planes at the time. The Sandies held back enemy fire while helicopters went in to save downed personnel.

The immense firepower of the Skyraider was also a key asset during the Vietnam War. According to Boeing, the A-1 was the only aircraft of its time capable of delivering 8,000 pounds of bombs with impressive precision over difficult targets like dams and bridges.

By 1960, the United States began to transfer over some of its A-1 Skyraiders to the Republic of Vietnam Air Force (RVNAF). By 1968, the RVNAF had received over 150 Skyraiders. Potential Vietnamese pilots were sent to NAS Corpus Christi in Texas to receive flight training on the Skyraider, which was a primary aircraft used by the Vietnamese throughout the war.

A Douglas Skyraider being flown in the modern day for a demonstration
Douglas A-1 Skyraider (AD-4NA) in flight, owned by the Heritage Flight Museum. (Photo Credit: Clemens Vasters / Flickr / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0)

When the United States ended its direct involvement with Vietnam, all remaining Skyraiders were handed over to the RVNAF by 1973. By this point, many RVNAF pilots were better trained to fly the A-1 Skyraider, clocking in thousands of flight hours over the course of the war.

Is the Skyraider still the best?

The United Kingdom, France, and Sweden have also acquired Douglas A-1 Skyraiders. The United Kingdom retired the aircraft in 1962, while it remained in limited French and Swedish service until the 1970s.

Even though the lifespan of the Douglas A-1 Skyraider was relatively short-lived, it is still remembered as one of the best aircraft ever made. Former U.S. Marine Corps Captain William C. Smith told HistoryNet he wasn’t impressed when he first laid eyes on the AD Skyraider. “After flying Corsairs, I thought it looked like a great big airplane with a little bitty engine,” he said.

A Skyraider painted in the RVNAF colors, used during the Vietnam War
An AE-1 Skyraider in the RVNAF colors. (Photo Credit: Airwolfhound / Flickr / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)

It wasn’t until Smith was given a four-hour introduction to the Skyraider before entering combat in the Korean War that he realized its potential: “My original opinion of the plane did a complete 180,” Smith said.

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“When you fly combat, you need to have confidence in your airplane, and after that first week there was no question in my mind that our ADs were the best planes in the world for the job expected of us,” he added. “Even after all these years of progress, I believe the AD is still the best airplane ever made for close-in attack option…better, in fact, than anything flying today.”

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

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