Douglas A/B-26 Invader

The B-26 in Vietnam

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A report from 1963, titled 'Tactical Analysis of B/RB 26 Aircraft in Republic of Vietnam,' listed the various types of COIN missions undertaken in Vietnam, and analyzed the strength and weakness of the B 26 in each one. The following is a summary of the findings. The percentages given indicate the proportion of each type of mission, out of the total number of Invader combat missions flown during the first quarter of 1963.

Interdiction (40%):

This heading covered all strikes against a pre determined target, with the exception of close air support, and was by far the most common type of mission. The B 26 was considered effective in this rôle, judging from the mission results reported by ground forces. Since the targets attacked were often buildings or structures in wooded or jungle areas, they were seldom observed directly by the B 26 crews. The crews had to rely totally on the directions of the FACs.

Close Air Support (18%):

The B 26 was found to be suitable for air support of friendly ground forces, mainly because the variety and amount of ordnance carried permitted sustained delivery of firepower against multiple and varied targets. However, firing patterns generally had to be made to the left, since the pilot could not see his target in a right hand turn. This rather restricted the options in any given situation and made the strike patterns more predictable. But the Viet Cong apparently never caught on to this.

As already mentioned, the B 26 was found to be particularly suitable for outpost defence at night, which accounted for about a quarter of the close air support missions flown. This was of major importance, since most Viet Cong activity took place at night.

Air Cover (15%):

The long endurance of the B 26, giving it up to five hours over the target, made it effective in this rôle. A major problem, however, was the lack of compatible communications. The Vietnamese ground forces primarily used VHF FM radios, while the Farm Gate aircraft were equipped with VHF AM radios. This meant that all information had to be relayed through an airborne VNAF FAC, even if there was a FAC on the ground. From August 1962, VHF FM was gradually introduced in the B 26s, but it was a very slow process.

Photo Reconnaissance (13%):

Around 70% of the photo targets assigned were not completed due to low cloud ceiling, particularly in the mountainous I and II Corps areas. Another problem was that the pilot could not sight directly over the nose of the RB 26, so the navigator had to move to the nose position to direct him.

Escort (9%):

Again, the favourable endurance of the B 26 made it suited for most escort duties. Escorting trains or convoys was accomplished by a slowly advancing race track pattern, always keeping within sight of the escorted vehicles. No attacks were ever carried out against any escorted vehicles, at least not up to mid 1963. The B 26 was less suited for helicopter escort, due to its poor low speed capabilities.

Armed Reconnaissance (5%):

The long endurance of the B 26 theoretically made it suitable. However, since no strikes could be undertaken without a FAC, it was not much use flying this type of mission: even if a target was spotted it could not be attacked. Armed reconnaissance was therefore only carried out during deployment flights, seldom yielding intelligence and never resulting in strikes.

Visual Reconnaissance (0%):

Since the B 26s could be more profitably used on strike missions, visual reconnaissance was usually left to other types of aircraft.

The Douglas B-26 Invader was involved in the fighting in Vietnam for nearly twenty years, from 1951 when they were used by the French, until 1969 when the last aircraft in American service were withdrawn.

The first aircraft to go to Vietnam were five RB-26s and twenty four B-26s provided to the French during 1951. These aircraft were taken by aircraft carrier to Hawaii and then flown to the French at Tourane, and were followed by another nine that flew directly from the United States. The supply of surplus B-26s then dried up as they became increasingly in demand for service on Korea, and the aircraft didn't reach the French until 1954, when sixteen B-26s from the Far East Asian Air Forces were loaned to the French, before being replaced by sixteen normal bombers and three more RB-26s under the Mutual Defence Assistance Program. A final batch of twenty five B-26s were provided before the end of 1951.

The French used their aircraft to drop Lazy Dog finned bullets against Viet Minh anti aircraft guns, but they were unable to save the garrison at Dien Bien Phu, and the French use of the B-26 ended in May 1954. The Geneva Accords, which ended the French involvement in Vietnam included a provision banning the introduction of jet powered combat aircraft in the area.

This provision played a part in the reappearance of the B-26 in the skies over Vietnam towards the end of 1961. It was one of a number of piston driven aircraft used to equip the new 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron, which was created at Elgin Air Force Base Florida as the first step towards creating a counterinsurgency force.

In late December 1961 four RB-26s from the 4400th were amongst the first American combat aircraft to go to Vietnam, under the Farm Gate program. In theory these aircraft were to be used to train South Vietnamese Air Force crews, but in fact they were used in combat by their American crews, something that became public knowledge when on 3 February 1963 one aircraft was shot down, with the loss of Captains John F. Shaughnessy Jr and John P. Bartley. The Farm Gate program became the First Air Commando Squadron on 8 July 1963, by which time it had 10 B-26s and 2 RB-26s at Bien Hoa and eight B-26s on detachment at Soc Trang and Pleiku.

Problems soon developed with the increasingly elderly B-26s. During 1963 two aircraft were lost when their wings failed, and the cause was eventually traced to failure of their wing spars. In the spring of 1964 the basic B-26 Invader was withdrawn from service.

Two years earlier the Air Force had asked On Mark Engineering to produce an updated version of the B-26, with the designation B-26K. When these aircraft appeared they had reinforced wings, more powerful engines, and eight hard points under the wings which could be used to carry 8,000lb of ordnance, doubling the payload of the B-26. These rebuilt aircraft were used to equip the 609th Special Operations Squadron, which operated them from Nakhom Phanom Air Base in Thailand. This eventually forced a final change of designation, when the Thai government objected to the use of bombers from their air bases. The Air Force responded by re-designating the B-26K and the A-26A, apparently to the satisfaction of the Thais.

The B-26K/ A-26A was used against he Ho Chi Minh trail, often repeating the night attacks carried out with some success by the B-26 in Korea. Operations began in 1966 and continued until November 1969, when a combination of losses and a shortage of spare parts forced the Air Force to withdraw the remaining aircraft from combat, ending a service career than had lasted for 24 years.