Douglas A/B-26 Invader

On a factual but lighter note

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Many innovations have been dreampt up in the course of aircraft development, from bouncing bombs too underwing personnel carriers, but the examples of improvised weapon systems listed below, were rather unique in their application and forethought.

The Jan Zumbach gun management system

Biafra 1970 - The blind gunner


It goes without saying that no machine guns suitable for aircraft mounting were available in Biafra. However, the Biafrans were masters of improvisation and, following a visit to the government armoury from which he was invited to take his pick of the available equipment, Zumbach returned to the airfield with two antiquated army issue Czech made machine guns. Biafran mechanics soon had the first one mounted in the nose of the Invader with the barrel protruding from the nose.


The hapless forward gunner was obliged to crouch in the dim recesses of the nose cone, without any view of the outside world and without any voice communication with his pilot. Again, Biafran ingenuity came to the rescue. A length of cord was attached to the gunner's arm with the other end threaded through to the pilot's station. Zumbach, equipped with a simple home made gunsight, simply tugged once on the cord to instruct the gunner to start firing and twice when he was to stop.


A simple solution! The second one was rigged to fire through the open bomb bay.




With regard to the bomb release system


The electrical bomb release mechanisms were still in place but were designed to function with conventional bombs of a certain configuration and weight. The Biafran bombs were makeshift affairs often fashioned from oil drums and gas cylinders so were in no way compatible with the relatively sophisticated systems in the Invader. Zumbach, who by this time was calling himself “Johnny or Kamikaze Brown” had no choice but to instruct his "bombardiers" to throw them out the opened bomb bay.


The bombs were made by a Biafran artificer, Willy Achukwe, whose former trade, it was rumoured, lay in the manufacture of fireworks! Willy's bombs were marvels of ingenuity and even included delayed action devices. Zumbach describes one creation having "a base containing phosphorus suspended in an insulating liquid. A Bickford fuse ran from this compartment through a partition plugged with wax, into a second stage. This compartment contained gunpowder. The third was crammed with scrap metal. Two big nails protruded from the base of the thing. The impact of landing drives the nails into the base of the bomb and pierces the first compartment. The insulating liquid runs out of the resulting punctures and the air gets in. It sets the phosphorus alight, the heat melts the wax and the Bickford fuse detonates the gunpowder."


Mid position bomb aimer

Hanging on for dear life


Another method of utilising someone to operate a piece of targeting equipment during an attack came in the form of Major Wickstrom of the 609th SOS.


A number of other innovations were also taking place, especially in the night interdiction mission. It was during 1967 that the 56th first began testing the effectiveness of the handheld Starlight scope** for spotting trucks traveling through the darkened terrain below the aircraft, primarily in the Barrel Roll sector at this stage of the war.  The A-26 showed more promise.  The impatient Aderholt had another card up his sleeve that promised to expedite still faster the experiments in his wing. The “card” turned out to be a navigator so eager to fly in the A-26 he accepted a bizarre proposal from the 56th commander.


Aderholt confesses: “I told Tom Wickstrom that if he wanted to fly and fight from the front of the A-26, he had first to figure out a system for making the Starlight scope effective from the plane. I needed a third set of eyeballs in the -26s for the scope, and I also had some enlisted Combat Controllers who weren’t getting any combat pay or tax breaks. They were available if Wickstrom could figure something out.”


What Major Wickstrom figured out was that by lying head forward and face down on the belly of the aircraft, with the top half of his body extended out over the open bomb bay, he could get a great view of the ground below. With a harness that kept the bottom half of his body secured to the aircraft, and using the Starlight scope hanging from a bungee cord just in front of his face, he could get the same great view at night.


And the great view Wickstrom got on the third night test mission resulted in the North Vietnamese Army losing seven trucks, along with their drivers and supplies—an impressive debut. A man of his word, the wily Aderholt subsequently rewarded Wickstrom by allowing him to risk his life on future missions from the front of the A-26! While the limited number of enlisted combat controllers restrained the program, such innovations continued to rack up an ever-growing tally of truck kills by propeller-driven aircraft fighting over the Ho Chi Minh Trail at night.