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 3 of 5)
“The final straw was when a B-26 wing came off on a demonstration flight on Eglin’s Range 52,” says Pflughaupt, referring to Hurlburt Field, an auxiliary field of Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base where B-26 crews were trained. The cause of the crash: wing spar failure. The airplanes were grounded.
This could have spelled the end of the Invader story, but instead the Air Force awarded a $16 million contract to a company called On Mark Engineering in Van Nuys, California, to rebuild 40 B-26s. Most Invaders picked for makeovers came from the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, where, according to Hagedorn, 300-some Invaders were parked in the ready-for-ingots section. The new designation: B-26K.
Visible changes included permanent wingtip tanks, a slightly taller rudder, new underwing pylons, eight .50-caliber machine guns in the nose, dual controls (as opposed to pilot side only), new instruments, and radios. Invaders that still had dorsal and ventral turrets lost them. Performance modifications included improved Pratt & Whitney R-2800-52W radial engines with water injection and 2,500 horsepower (replacing the 2,000-hp version of the R-2800s) with fully reversible Hamilton-Standard props. The contractor also partially rebuilt the fuselage and tail, redesigned the wings, reinforced wing spars, and installed brake components from the much larger KC-135. No more G-force restrictions.
Smith and Hayes picked up a fresh B-26K directly from On Mark at Van Nuys Airport. “It was like a spanking new airplane—smelled like a new Volkswagen,” Smith says. He thinks for a moment, then continues: “The plane flew the same. But more gee-whiz. More powerful, more solid—you could tell in the takeoff. A good bit more power. And you could carry more.”
You could not only carry more, you could also carry it faster and farther: Maximum armament load increased from 7,500 pounds to 12,000—still 4,000 pounds internal, but now 8,000 under the wings. Maximum cruising speed went up to 305 mph, 29 mph faster. And thanks to the wingtip tanks, combat radius increased to 575 miles, up from 241.
The K model came packing an extra-wide variety of ordnance, from LAU-3A rocket pods to 750-pound M117 general-purpose bombs—and a whole lot of attitude. It also carried several thousand rounds of .50-caliber ammunition for the eight nose guns. Favorites for truck busting were the World War II M31 and M32 thermite incendiary clusters (referred to as “funny bombs” and shaped like water heaters with fins) and 500-pound BLU-23 and 750-pound BLU-27 finned napalm bombs.
“I don’t know of anyone who wanted to bring ordnance back home,” says Jay Norton, who arrived in Southeast Asia with navigator Tom Bronson in January 1968. Both had completed an overseas tour and were teamed up during training at England Air Force Base in Louisiana after they chose A-26s. “I had flown C-7 Caribous,” Norton says. “The first time I got shot at, I searched for a way to shoot back. That’s how I decided on A-26s.” Bronson opted for the Air Commandos after seeing A-26s lighting the trail on C-130 flareship missions.
When the Counter Invader debuted in Southeast Asia in 1966—the 609th Air Commando Squadron later absorbed the mission—it became known for its permanent call sign: “Nimrod,” a Biblical reference to Noah’s great-grandson, “a mighty hunter.” Thereafter fliers in the unit were called by the same nickname: The Nimrods.