Long-Time Warrior...The A-26 Invader in War and Peace
By Nolan Schmidt and Peter Bowers
In the fall of 1968, Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina, found itself with a C-130 navigator with an attitude problem, but that description didn't make me particularly unique! Quite a few C-130 navigators felt the same. At heart, most were frustrated fighter-- pilot "wannabes" who, for one reason or another, had not been selected for pilot training. My case was fairly typical. In my senior year at college, I found it increasingly difficult to read the 20/20 line on the flight surgeon's eye chart. Having a burning desire to fly high-performance aircraft, I easily fell victim to the Air Force professor of air science's line: "Don't worry, kid; go to navigator training. Every good nav eventually gets a slot in a pilot-training program." Today's appropriate response would be, "Yeah, sure!"
So with my shiny new brown lieutenant bars, along with several fellow "gullibles," I headed off to nav school. At graduation time, there was a furious scramble to avoid the Strategic Air Command (SAC) tankers or bombers where most navigators were needed. SAC was infamous for its dreaded "Gen. LeMay operational readiness inspections (ORIs)" and endless hours of ground alert. I wanted no part of that. Of course, in the reality of my next assignment, I soon discovered that Tactical Air Command also had its ORIs and similarly onerous inspections.
Nevertheless, I was in tactical aviation, more or less content to fly low-level missions supplying forward bases in Vietnam and sometimes dropping troops and heavy cargo from what the Army called "mortar magnets." (The name came from a game sometimes played when C-130s landed at one of the forward areas. The Viet Cong would lob in a series of mortar rounds, trying to blow up a C-130 with a load of munitions. Sporting times!)
Back to the problems at Pope. After a couple of thousand hours of C-130E navigator time and three 60- to 90-day rotations to Southeast Asia (SEA), a pilot-training slot still eluded me. None of my SEA time counted as a combat tour (we were there only on "temporary duty"). My turn for a full-year tour coincided with my first opportunity to voluntarily leave the Air Force. Then it happened! The fourth disapproval in my series of applications for pilot training arrived with comments that not only was my eyesight getting worse, but the maximum acceptable age was at hand and, by the way, stop bothering us!
That was enough! I snatched the manual typewriter from under my bunk and composed a brilliantly blunt letter of resignation. Smith-Corona must have built some incredibly durable machines to have been able to withstand the pounding I gave mine that day.
At this stage of frustration, merely placing a letter in the squadron commander's distribution box didn't seem enough; something more dramatic was necessary: without knocking, I stormed into the commander's office and, without the usual courtesy of a salute, slapped my resignation and the pilot rejection letter on his desk and said, "I quit!"
I hope the Air Force still has mature, combat-hardened veterans who are as composed as that lieutenant colonel was. He glared at me and glanced at the paper on his desk and responded calmly, "You really want to fly airplanes, don't you?" Then he added, "Look, I can't fix your eyes, and I can't get you into pilot training, but how would you like to be assigned to an aircraft where the nav has his own flight controls and gets to split flying time?"
He caught me off guard with that one.
In the late '60s, England AFB was the home of the First Air Commando Wing. As we taxied in, you couldn't help but be awed by the curious mix of semi-- ancient aircraft on the ramp: a couple C-47s, some C-123s, an A-1 or two and other oddities. The eye-catchers, though, were the lines of AT-37s and A-26s.
Even back then, most folks thought that the twin-engine A-26-a WW II veteran, hero of Korea, used at the Bay of Pigs (and on and on)-was out of the Air Force inventory. Not so! Here on the ramp was quite a collection. This was, of course, what this part of our trip was all about.
Ever hear the country-and western hit, "I like my women a little on the trashy side?" The song could have been the words of a pilot or navigator talking about his A-26. It was absolutely beautiful-in a sinister sort of way. It was obviously a warbird and built for function but had the lines of an aerodynamically efficient piece of engineering. The two big and beefy engine nacelles contained two large radial engines. The propellers were wide, square-tipped and flat; the tires looked too big; and the fuselage was uniquely boxy. Eight ugly wing stations for bomb carriage and eight mean-looking .50 caliber guns sticking out of the nose (made even more menacing because of the blast tubes that enclosed the barrels) gave it a decidedly "macho" look. Talk about love at first sight! I was "bit," and this wasn't to be a one-night stand.
In reality, this was not quite the A-26/B-26 of Korean War fame: the Air Force called it the "K" model. Back in the early '60s, the Air Force contracted with On Mark Engineering of Van Nuys, California, to rebuild some 40-odd old A- 26s and incorporate a number of modifications. Changes included swapping the old 2,000hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800 for the improved 2,500hp "-52" engines with water/alcohol ADI (anti-detonant injection), tip tanks for extra fuel, eight wing pylons rated at 1,000 pounds each, a radio package of UHF, VHF, HF radios, spar caps on the wings (to end the nasty problem of the wings being pulled off in flight), removal of the bottom and top gun turrets, KC-135 brakes, installation of a standardized eight-- gun .50-caliber nose package and numerous other improvements. This was not merely a rebuild of the old A-26; the "K" was far more capable and reliable.
An instructor navigator, introduced as "Zorro," joined our little tour group. That a navigator could have such a "cool" tactical call sign added to the macho mystique of this increasingly attractive unit. It was time for a one-on-one discussion about duties with a fellow navigator. After a quick walkaround, we climbed up and I sat in the nav seat-the right seat in a side-by-side cockpit configuration. Nice view! On my side were flight controls, flight instruments, the weapons select and arming panels and lots of other switches and circuit breakers to play with. Within my immediate reach were fuel controls, engine throttles, mixtures, other engine and propeller controls, radios and transponders. Neat! It looked as though this machine could be flown from either side!
The usual classical navigation equipment was absent: no sextant, no astrodome, no loran, no radar, no absolute altimeter, no drift meter or any other "tool of the trade" that I was used to.
The obvious first question was: "OK; so what does the nav do?" Zorro delineated the duties: work the radios; accomplish responsibilities on engine start; manage the fuel systems; feed, cross-feed and balance fuel; work the arming switches; monitor the engines and tweak performance, as necessary; navigate by means of TACAN and dead reckoning; fly the aircraft to relieve the pilot whenever required and be able to land in emergencies; monitor hydraulic systems; monitor the flight instruments and call altitudes, dive and bank angles during a strike; monitor the tactical situation to assist as required; and bring it all back if the pilot gets hit. Zorro's lengthy laundry list of navigator responsibilities begged the obvious next question: "OK, then what does the pilot do?" The cynical nature of the question drew a patient but deliberate response. Zorro made it clear that this was specialized training for a specific combat environment where the old competitive pilot/navigator banter had no place. The success of the mission, the lives of the crew, the lives of the wingmen and all involved-in the air and on the ground-were at stake. Mutual trust and professionalism was the rule, and there was no room for petty squabbles.
Fair enough! My revised career plans were set in concrete: this is where I belonged. There was only one catch. Transitioning to the A-26 would mean that immediately after training, all upgraded aircrews would be sent to Southeast Asia for a one-year combat tour. Oh, well; we were all headed there sooner or later. At least I would be sitting up front where I could see what was going on.
It's amazing how fast paperwork can be processed when aircrews are sent to war. Orders were cut, inoculations were suffered, and I was on my way to England AFB for transition training.
THE A-26 INVADER
Upgrading a navigator in the A-26 was a unique program. The aircraft navigation system consisted only of a TACAN, and since all navs in this small class had extensive operational experience, our time was spent on tactical considerations. After aircraft familiarization came the Reciprocating Engine school, courses on fuel management, ordnance and weapons classes and tactics courses. After an orientation ride in the confines of a jump seat behind a navigator, it was time to try out the front seat. At last, I had my chance at the controls of something more than a "puddle jumper," and I was in ecstasy.
Following a few orientation flights, it was time for gunnery range rides on the Claiborne scorable range where we practiced dive and low-angle skip bombing, rocket firing and strafing. Next came tactical deliveries on the Peason Ridge range that was part of the Fort Polk complex. After some day missions, it was time for serious practice of what we would be doing in Southeast Asia: night low-level attack and interdiction. Eventually, enough of us "upgradees" scared our instructors the requisite number of times for them to send us off to war. Next stop: Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand.
Nakhon Phanom or NKP (aka Naked Fanny) was home to the 56th Air Commando Wing, and the Wing and its units were renamed Special Operations toward the end of the '60s. Rumor had it that "Air Commando" sounded a little too "warlike"!
The 56th was parent to the A-26s of the 609th Squadron, the only A-26s in Southeast Asia. The Wing also had other squadrons that included A-1s, Forward Air Control (FAC) squadrons of UC-123s, OV-10s, 0-2s and more. The mission of the A-26s was twofold:
1. Night interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to stop truck and other logistical traffic between North and South Vietnam;
2. Close air support to Laotian forces in Northern Laos.
NKP was located in Northeast Thailand about a mortar round's distance from the Mekong River that separates Thailand from Laos. The infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail was only about SO miles from the end of the runway.
When we arrived at NKP, the once again familiar heat, humidity and smells and sounds of a Southeast Asian airbase hit me. A contingent of greeters shook hands with the new arrivals and pressed welcome cold beers into our outstretched palms. They seemed incredibly delighted to welcome us to NKP: our arrival brought them one step closer to going home.
After the obligatory round of paperwork, we toured the base. At the flightline, I completed a close inspection of a couple A-26s. Nice to know the condition of the aircraft that carries you into battle (and, hopefully, back). It was obvious they were receiving good care and feeding. As expected in a combat zone, there was a patch or two covering evidence that someone didn't like us very much. An unusual item caught my attention: none of the A-26s wore a U.S. insignia.
The reason, we were told, was that because we would be flying at low altitudes, we wouldn't want light glinting off the "stars and bars" to betray our position to the gunners. "What have we gotten into this time?" we wondered.
It was time to get serious about Laotian low-level night interdiction, but first, we needed a combat area orientation. Mine was twofold: a day mission in the back seat of an OV-10 and a night mission in a UC-123 (call sign "candlestick").
The OV-10 ride was a medium altitude (above the range of most antiaircraft fire) FAC mission. The pilot was to conduct and direct several flights of "fast movers" (F-105s and F-4s), while I had to memorize the route structure and view the terrain in daylight before flying among the rocks at night. My OV-10 driver and I toured the length of the trail, and it was my first look at valleys, canyons, river fords and karst, which we had heard about but had never seen up close. The karst looked like a Southwestern mesa or chimney rock but draped with foliage. So the plot thickens! Not only do we get shot at while diving into and out of valleys in the bottom of canyons at night, but we also get to dodge karst.
There wasn't much enemy traffic on the trail during the day and only minimal antiaircraft fire. The North Vietnamese would not risk running their logistics up and down the trail during daylight when they would be lucrative targets and the antiaircraft gunners wouldn't waste their ammunition when there were no trucks to protect, so our reconnaissance mission was relatively quiet. The bad guys were waiting for the cover of darkness.
During the sortie, my front-seater directed a couple of flights of F-105s in on a segment of the trail. There was no significant enemy activity, so he put the Thuds (F-105 Thunderchiefs) in on "choke points"-segments of the trail where it was hoped that the bomb craters would slow down the motorized traffic. Looking at all the craters in the route, it seemed that all we were really accomplishing was breaking up boulders into gravel for the North Vietnamese to fill the potholes in their road. Oh well; the politicians in Washington had decided we would do it that way.
As we called in the Thuds, it became clear why our aging A-26s were ideal for this mission. Both flights of F-105s were down to minimum fuel. They couldn't go back to home base and land with external ordnance suspended from the bomb racks, so they had to find a target or dump their bombs in an authorized jettison area. Those F-105s were never designed to orbit or stalk a target area for three to four hours while waiting for a situation to develop. Those tactics were for those of us who had the endurance to be patient and tactically selective.
The following night we took another orientation ride, this time in a C-123, call sign: "candlestick." The aircraft's floor was modified with a large hole so that a starlight scope (early generation of night-vision devices) operator could hang in a harness looking out the bottom of the aircraft with his scope and peer at the trail beneath. The aircraft also could drop parachute-suspended flares and ground markers. Once trucks were spotted, a ground-burning marker was dropped near the area as a point of reference for attacking aircraft.
The weather was miserable, ceilings were low, and we dodged in and out of clouds and precipitation throughout the flight. There didn't appear to be much traffic on the trail that night either. Apparently, the heavy weather had slowed their truck traffic as well as our operations.
Orientation was over, and it was time to "demonstrate an ability to successfully complete a night low-level attack mission" (that is what it says in my theater checkout log). Late in the evening of April 11, 1969, after a thorough mission briefing and a soaking preflight in the monsoon, I wriggled into the right seat of A-26A, no. AF641661, with a seasoned "old head" pilot in the left seat and an instructor nav in the jump seat. I couldn't have found two better aircrewmen to watch over me; they had patience and the experience that comes with hundreds of hours of combat time. We fired up, taxied out, and with our wingman, lined up on the runway for launch.
Our call sign was Nimrod 32. Nimrod was the squadron's regular tactical call sign and the name came from the Old Testament in Genesis, Nimrod was "the Lord's great warrior and mighty hunter." A demanding reputation to have to live up to!
It was my first heavy-weight takeoff, and we three triple-- checked everything. The aircraft was loaded with full fuel and as much ordnance as could be carried and, amazingly, could still get off the runway in the humid heat of NKP. Nightly, we learned to live with "coffin corner," the name given to the critical part of the takeoff roll during which an engine malfunction might prevent the plane from reaching takeoff speed yet still be propelling it too fast for it to stop on the remaining length of runway. So if you had a really bad power hiccup, you could wind up in a flaming ball off the end of the airfield. To avoid this fate, you could jettison the ordnance from the wing stations, but the guards at the end of the runway and the field's perimeter never really appreciated having eight 500- to 750-pound bombs/napalm rain on them, armed or not. That was a last recourse. So with our standard load of six 700-pound napalm canisters, two 500-pound MK-82 general-purpose bombs, six 260pound M-81 fragmentation bomb clusters in the bomb bay and 2,800 rounds of .50 caliber ammunition for the eight nose guns, we rolled, and rolled and rolled until ... it flew!
The Ho Chi Minh Trail's proximity to the runway at NKP meant that after you completed the after-takeoff checklist, reached cruise altitude, tweaked the engines and transferred or switched fuel, you were already near the target area. In the meantime, you contacted the FAC and copied the target area briefing. Hey, even in "slow movers" (non jets), lots happened fast.
The weather was rotten, and we dodged and diverted around clouds for three hours while driving up and down the trail. Not many trucks were moving, no targets were readily identifiable, and the only practice I got was working radios, tweaking engines, transferring fuel and navigating from checkpoint to checkpoint. Pretty hum-drum stuff! After three hours of milling around in the soup, we were finally put in on a choke point, dropped ordnance on a few "suspected hostile areas" and went home.
Back at Operations, we filled out all the requisite paperwork and headed for the officers club. The time was 4:30 in the morning (remember, we were a night operations squadron). Squadron mates greeted me, and we celebrated the survival of my first night low-level combat mission. Piece of cake! Hey, I can handle this!
After a couple more moderately eventful missions, the checkout was over and very thankful instructor navigators no longer had to ride behind me. The checkout log showed me "fully combat ready."
After the next day's sleep, it was time for another briefing. The rain had stopped and a thin, high-cloud condition prevailed. We were told that due to improved road conditions, "movers" (euphemisms for enemy trucks and armored vehicles) were anticipated on the trail and antiaircraft fire could be active. I was advised about a "gunners' moon"-an almost full moon that highlights a high, thin, overcast cloud ceiling and silhouettes an aircraft for the antiaircraft gunner. Not ideal for us, but part of the game.
Again we fired up, got a "go" from "Sundial" (the command post), danced over "coffin comer" on the takeoff roll and headed for the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We contacted "Invert," the area controller, and found that business was picking up. Several convoys were moving in our segment of the trail, and our FAC tracked a couple of trucks headed south. I Time to get serious.
Candlestick narrowed the potential targets to a small convoy of four trucks, blacked out and headed south in a valley. He deployed his flares and gave us the target position relative to the flare marks on the ground. Since it was night and we were blacked out, our wingman took top cover above us in a matching box pattern, and with the fuel feeding from the mains, the props in full increase and the power back, we rolled in.
The pilot called for a napalm (nape) from station two. Good tactics. We would put "nape" on the target for ground reference and work from there. I armed the station and called the altitudes in 500-foot increments during the dive. "Seventy-five hundred, seven thou, thirty-degree dive, sixty-five hundred, six thou," down to the release altitude and then, "Pickle!" (term for bomb release). We felt a slight "thunk" that coincided with some "G" as we pulled out of the dive.
No muzzle flashes from antiaircraft artillery, but from the right came the first volley, a clip of seven 37mm AAA tracers heading our direction. Obviously, we were bothering the folks on the ground.
Though the AAA wasn't exactly on a collision course, I called for a left break to avoid the stuff, and the pilot broke to the right. Focusing on the tracers now coming at a more converging angle, my voice went up and I said, "Left break." The pilot banked hard right, and I yelled, "The other left!" The tracers from the right went in front of us, and I was startled to see several pass by on the left side-and they were close! While I was watching a minor threat on my side, the pilot dodged a serious threat on his side. We were bracketed by two AAA sites.
Climbing back to altitude, I assessed my crew coordination procedures as our wingman called in on his pass. We noted the location of the AAA fire directed at him and rolled "in on the gun" to cover him. My pilot called for a nape off station seven (opposite side of the aircraft; the wing-station weapon load is balanced). We rolled in, dropped and again jinked our way out between bracketing 37mm and now 23mm fire. The gunners really worked us over: it seemed as though we were looking down the barrel of a freshly squeezed shotgun.
Back at altitude, I reflected on our situation. So far, we had made two passes, had maybe 40 to 50 rounds of 37mm, 23mm ZPU and who knows what else fired at us and had only dropped two bombs?!! Considering the fuel and ordnance load we carried, expending at this rate would have us work (and being shot at) for at least 10 passes, maybe many more if we fired the .50-caliber machine guns.
And so it was to be! This squadron's credo was to be persistent and take the time to inflict the greatest damage on the enemy. That took patience and perseverance-and meant dodging considerable hostile fire.
We continued the strike, pass after pass, and each aircraft provided cover and support to the other. Antiaircraft gunners became more accurate with each pass, and I had to force my eyes away from the fireworks and attend to the duties of engine monitoring, fuel management, ordnance selecting and arming and "flying the instruments" while the pilot was "visual."
When the last of the bombs had been dropped, we worked over the antiaircraft sites with the eight .50-caliber guns. After the first burst of fire from us and watching the tracers arc in the direction of the hostile gunners, I was impressed by the accuracy of the returning fire. Guess what? Tracers work both ways! It's nice to see where your rounds are going, but that also reveals your position, blacked out or not!
Having expended all the .50-caliber ammunition, we headed home. On the way back, our FAC reported that we had destroyed several trucks and a couple of AAA positions and that we received an estimated 800 rounds of antiaircraft fire! Maybe the estimate was on the high side, but we'd been in battle! I was sweaty and tired, and the pulse rate was returning to normal when my pilot turned the aircraft over to me with, "You got it; I need a break." He needed a break?! So did I!
For me, flying the airplane bad a very relaxing effect. That was my joy. It gave my mind something to think about-besides the brilliant fireworks display that I had been inside of for the last hour. Again, this "old head" knew what he was doing.
On the way back, an absurd conversation from the night before ran through my mind. We were marveling that our government paid us $65 a month combat pay. Now, if we flew a mission like this 25 times a month, that meant we would earn $2.60 per mission. If each mission had 10 passes over the target, that meant we would get 26 cents per pass. If on each pass they shot 50 rounds at us, that meant we would get a half cent for each shot fired at us. Yup, it seemed to me that taxpayers got their money's worth on that one!
Back at NKP, we "de-armed" the aircraft, did the post-flight, filled out the paperwork and later ate a sandwich. I was too bushed to party at the club.
In my room, I reminisced about that night's events-what went right and what could have gone wrong. As I replayed the vision of antiaircraft fire in my mind, I began to sense a strange new fear. It wasn't so much about my mortality; I had been shot at before. This new fear was that at some critical point in the heat of the pandemonium of battle, I might he distracted, or hesitate, and let someone down. Survival depended on mutual support, remaining cool and being accurate and objective. Each combatant bore a somber responsibility to the others that affected the success and survival of "all the individuals of the brotherhood." I could trust them implicitly and in turn, I could not let them down.
Time to try and get some sleep. Only 356 more nights to go before rotating back to the States!