Truck Killer

For one mission in Vietnam, the best aircraft for the job was a bomber from World War II

The 609th Air Commando Squadron flew out of Nakhon Phanom airfield in eastern Thailand. (NARA)
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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.

He has only praise for the airplane. “It was like flying a fighter,” he says. “The airplane would do what I wanted it to do.”

“Such a nice plane to fly,” says Smith. “You won’t find anybody who’s flown it that wasn’t really impressed with it—before or after the conversion. It had a mystique, a charm to it. It’s what brings us here [to the reunion].” Smith’s claim held up at every table of the reunion’s hospitality room (or as the attendees called it, the “hostility room”). Pressed to identify the airplane’s vulnerabilities, they grudgingly gave up only two: “no ejection seats” and “too slow for daytime.” “Our salvation was flying in the dark,” says navigator Frank Nelson.

The push for an all-jet air force is what some Air Commandos believe brought an end to their missions in November 1969 and retirement of the A-26. The warplane had seen service in three wars spread across three decades, never quite getting pushed out of the inventory because it always managed to find a niche, even while performing its work in the same low-tech, dive-bomb, shoot-’em-up way it had since World War II. This time, though, the airplane would stay retired for good.

Tim Black and his navigator, Bruce “Gus” Gustafson, ferried one of Nakhon Phanom’s 15 remaining A-26s back to the States, island-hopping across the Pacific with fuel stops at some legendary World War II locales: the Philippines, Guam, Wake, Midway, and Hawaii’s Hickam Field. The two had trained as a crew, flown combat as a crew, taken Combat Time Off together in Bangkok. And together they brought home an A-26. One night at the reunion, seated side by side (perhaps because it felt most natural, Gustafson in the right-hand chair—the A-26’s navigator’s position), they tell the story: “We landed at Davis-Monthan and taxied over to the boneyard side of the base,” Black recalls. “We went through some gates where you’re supposed to park your airplane to get it ready to put into storage. A guy chocks us, then comes over and says, ‘Shut ’em down.’ We say, ‘No.’ He says, ‘Shut ’em down.’ After several nos, the guy finally walks off and leaves us sitting there.”

The two glance at each other, flashing back to a moment frozen in time, circa January 1970, and say in unison, “We still have gas.” Then Gustafson chimes in, “And it’s still our airplane.” Black shrugs, “And it might be the last time this airplane flies.” The pair remembers staying there 15 or 20 minutes more, just sitting in the cockpit, with the engines running.

A senior researcher at National Geographic magazine, David Lande wrote "Live and Let Fly" (Aug./Sept. 2008).


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