For one mission in Vietnam, the best aircraft for the job was a bomber from World War II.
- By David Lande
- Air & Space magazine, July 2010
(Page 2 of 5)
Early in the Vietnam War, most Invaders were essentially still in their World War II configurations, but without a gunner’s position and the two gun turrets.
From late 1961 through 1964, the old airplane flew mostly in bombing and close-air-support roles against guerilla concentrations—an operation code-named Farm Gate. Initially, the unit was benignly called the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron (a Vietnamese airman was required to fly in the third seat, behind the navigator, to uphold the pretense of training), and eventually was renamed the 1st Air Commando Wing.
When Air Force crews arrived in Southeast Asia, some of the 25 Invaders that saw action during Farm Gate were already there, likely ones that the CIA had used for clandestine operations in Laos and elsewhere. “The airplanes were old, and not in very good shape,” recalls Gary Pflughaupt, a navigator who arrived at Bien Hoa, the Farm Gate base near Saigon, in November 1963. “Minor maintenance had been done, but the structural aspect of the airplane was never checked, and ultimately there was metal fatiguing. They were just falling apart.”
Tom Smith, a pilot who arrived in July 1963, recalls, “When I stepped off the plane at Bien Hoa, I heard something overhead and looked up to see a B-26 coming into the landing pattern. As he pitched out [peeled off], the plane made this whistling sound. I thought he had a turboprop engine. As it turned out, what I heard was air passing over the holes in the plane—they whistled like when you blow over a bottle.”
Losses on several missions raised questions about causes, but no crew had survived to tell if they had been brought down by enemy action or structural failure. “There was some suspicion of [failure], but because of the way the airplanes were lost, nobody ever saw it happen,” says Pflughaupt. “The presumption was they were shot down.” A lot of stories from forward air controllers, or FACs, both Vietnamese and American, hinted otherwise.
The squadron kept flying. “They put a big old G-meter up there in the cockpit and we weren’t to exceed 3.5 Gs,” Smith says. For self-preservation, pilots obeyed. Did crews worry? “I didn’t pay any mind to the wing,” says Smith’s navigator, Francis Hayes. “It was the guys on the ground shooting at us that I worried about.”
On typical night bombing missions to the Mekong Delta, there were plenty of guys on the ground shooting. “Particularly when you dropped napalm,” says Hayes. “You knew you’d take fire because it would light up the underside.” Smith says his aircraft returned with battle damage “all the time, often near the trailing part of the wings or rear fuselage. Small arms, .50-cal. A whole unit would stand up and fire a burst.” Hayes has firsthand proof: a spent .45 round that came up through the Invader’s cockpit floor. It was the caliber used in Thompson machine guns, M3 “grease guns,” and various others in the hands of the enemy. The A-26’s underside was not armored, and the round tore through the thin aluminum easily. Hayes reflects, “If they shot at you, you knew you were in the right spot.”
The unit had “one and a half crews per bird”—enough, Hayes recalls, for crews to fly about every other night. But suddenly, in February 1964, an urgent order cancelled all missions.