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.
“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.”