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 4 of 5)
They were based at Nakhon Phanom in eastern Thailand. The Royal Thai government did not want “bombers” based there flying against its neighbors, so in May 1966 the Invader’s name changed from B-26K back to an attack designation, A-26A, since an attack plane was not technically a bomber. Besides, the airplane didn’t look like a bomber; it was much trimmer and sportier.
Shortcutting through Thailand’s neighbors Laos and Cambodia, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was a vital artery for communist supplies that were being shuttled from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. It has been called an ingenious logistical network: mostly hidden under the jungle canopy, trucks could travel on dirt or gravel roads that split into multiple routes, with numerous truck parks, fuel and ammo dumps, barracks, and command facilities along the way. U.S. commanders realized night interdiction here was crucial, and “choke points” on the trail in Laos became prime hunting grounds.
Bronson describes an average night over the trail: “We typically flew at 5,500 to 6,500 feet, navigating with TACAN [Tactical Air Navigation, which provided bearing and range], and we’d drop to 2,000 to 3,000 feet over the target area. The FAC would drop one to three logs [ground flares that glowed like firewood].” The controller then radioed the elevation of the target, terrain, and obstacles to look out for, and recommended attack and exit headings. “The FAC used a starlight scope to help him see movement on the trail, and he’d radio where it was, saying, ‘Trucks are 100 meters northeast of the log.’ ”
The navigator armed the ordnance, and the pilot nosed the A-26 down into a 30-degree dive. During descent, the navigator would call out altitude while the pilot concentrated on the logs and rapidly approaching target. “Then I’d pickle and pull [drop the bombs and climb],” Norton says. Sometimes a single truck would go up in flames, sometimes a huge secondary explosion indicated a hit on a truck park, and other times a pass resulted in just a cratered moonscape.
During this time, A-26s flew individually, taking off at intervals through the night to fly over assigned sections of the trail. “But we were far from alone,” says Bronson. Besides the FAC flying in an O-2, C-123, or C-130, the A-26s might be joined by “a C-130 dropping flares, Navy A-4s that didn’t have targets in Vietnam, [or] our own F-4s and B-57s over the trail. It could be quite crowded airspace. Mid-air collisions were a real concern. We went through jet wash sometimes.”
While the fast movers came and went quickly, A-26s stayed over the target area. “With plenty of gas, we could wait for something to develop,” says Norton. That also gave enemy gunners plenty of time to take aim. Enemy action and other causes brought down a dozen A-26As. Crews routinely took fire from unseen 37-mm and sometimes larger guns, hidden by the darkness and jungle canopy. “The longer the tracer gets when it goes by, the closer it is,” Norton says. “When we saw tracers coming closer, I would break left or right.”
Norton shares one of the tricks for flying the twin-engine Invader: “To keep the gunners guessing…we kept the props out of sync. It causes a hmmm mum mum sound that, to a person on the ground, is very hard to tell where the sound is coming from.” But even the best tricks could not always stop determined North Vietnamese gunners from finding their mark; still, when they did, “the airplane was terribly rugged—it brought you back home,” says Norton.
Just ask Ken Yancey. His aircraft sustained battle damage bad enough to warrant the complete replacement of his tail section—three times. All were 37-mm hits to the stabilizers—vertical, horizontal, or both—followed by bone-shuddering flights back to Nakhon Phanom. But in 217 missions, enemy gunners never brought Yancey down.