The A-1 Skyraider did not make its appearance in the green, brown, and tan Southeast Asia camouflage paint scheme until after it had established a superlative reputation in service with the US Navy and USMC. The Skyraider had proven itself in combat time and time again with its long range and large weapons carrying capacity. Most books written about the Skyraider cover this early period in the history of the AD (A-1) extensively. Since many of them were written in the late 60s they fail to adequately cover the USAF part of the story.
The Skyraider experience was far from over, however. USAF units began flying the Skyraider in Vietnam in 1964 and by the end of 1972, the last of the A-1s of the 1st Special Operations Squadron were turned over to the VNAF and the rest, as they say, is history. In those eight years of operations, the Air Force used the Skyraider for a variety of missions. There were A-1 squadrons which flew exclusively at night to interdict truck traffic along the Ho Chi Mihn trail. Other squadrons were supporting General Vang Pao and his loyalists in Laos. Army special operations were also supported by A-1s on priority missions. The common bond between all A-1 squadrons was SAR. In my opinion, there could not have had a better aircraft for the search and rescue mission than the A-1 Skyraider.
The Skyraider had all the necessary assets; speed, ordnance carrying capability, communications, and the ability to withstand punishment. Of course when I talk of speed I am talking about the optimum speed to perform the SAR mission. Since the A-1 was frequently operated near its maximum gross weight, its speed capability was not fast. There was a standing joke among Spad drivers. There was only one speed you had to remember- 120 knots. You took off at 120 knots, cruised at 120 knots, and landed at 120 knots. Weapons deliveries were planned at higher airspeeds, maybe as high as 250 knots. (You fast mover guys can quit laughing now.) But working a target area was an energy losing proposition. You could be back up on base at the desired altitude or airspeed, but not both. After your third or fourth pass, 120 knots worked for weapons delivery too! This is precisely why the A-10 is the second best close air support aircraft ever built, it doesn't go fast.
Other sections of this site have talked about the weapons carrying capability of the Skyraider. The Sandy SAR load was perfect. It had ordnance such as CBU-25, HE 2.75 " rockets, and 20 mm to kill trucks and other light skinned vehicles. It had the highly accurate, high rate of fire SUU-11 mini-gun pod with 7.62 mm ammo. And it had specialized SAR ordnance such as the M-47 smoke bomb, CBU-22, and WP rockets.
The A-1 had three different radio capabilities. The UHF radio was used to communicate with the survivor and strike aircraft that had only UHF. The UHF also had an ADF (automatic direction finder) capability that was used to help pinpoint the location of the survivor on the ground. Additionally, the UHF Guard receiver had to be left on to avoid missing the inevitable bandit calls from the various GCI agencies covering the area. The VHF-AM radio was used to coordinate with command and control agencies, primarily King, the HC-130 that also served as an airborne tanker for the HH-53 Super Jolly Green rescue helicopters. Finally, the VHF-FM radio was used by the Sandys for inter-flight communications. It was quite normal for all three radios to be in use at the same time. It was normally the wingman's job to handle the coordination with King while Sandy Lead worked with the survivor. Oh, I almost forgot (this was 25 years ago!), we also had HF-SSB and LF-ADF. The latter was especially useful for listening to tunes on the way to, or from, an airstrike. Every once in a while on a bright sunny day, we even flew approaches using the ADF, usually on check rides.
The A-1 was notorious for being able to take hits and stay and fight. The battle damage images speak for themselves. With the exception of the aircraft with part of its wing missing, these A-1s made it back safely. There was added armor plating around the cockpit area for added pilot protection.
With the total remaining A-1 assets residing in but one operational USAF squadron, the mission priorities had to be set. The SAR effort got first priority for several reasons. First and foremost, the absence of a viable and capable SAR force would have had a negative impact on the rest of the air operations in SEA. The prospect of getting shot down with no possibility of rescue was not a happy one. Certainly, the SAR force was not as robust with 20 A-1s as it was in the earlier days of the war when there were over 100 Skyraiders spread out over a half dozen squadrons. But the capability was there. One need look no further than the pickup of Capt Roger Locher near Yen Bai Airfield northwest of Hanoi to see this was true. A story on this mission was written in the August 1997 issue of Flight Magazine. The SAR for Bowleg 02 was another example of being able to go onto Hanoi's doorstep to retrieve downed aircrews. Another factor was the impact these SARs had on the enemy. Certainly, we did not get every downed airmen back home safely, but we got our fair share.
Another high priority mission during this final chapter in the Skyraider's SEA war experience was the support given to Gen Vang Pao in Laos. He had his headquarters at Long Tien with a landing strip (LS 20A) nearby. High to the north and east of LS20A was a large ridge of mountains called Skyline Ridge. This was the scene of many missions I flew in the fall of 1971.
These "Barrel Roll" missions were never dull, always unpredictable, and usually dangerous. The bulk of these missions were flown to northern Laos which was comprised of mountainous areas with limestone karst pinnacles and terrain (target) elevations of at least 4,000 feet. There was seasonal drama here when the communist forces would wait for the rainy season to invade when US air power would be hampered by low ceilings and poor visibility. The A-1 was well suited to work this area including the infamous PDJ (Plaine des Jarres). This was a relatively level plateau in northern Laos that was about 15 nautical miles across from south to north, and 20 nautical miles wide from east to west.
Still another high priority mission for the 1st SOS in the final year was support of "special operations" in Laos. These were protecting the insertion and extraction of special teams in the border area. These missions could either be boring as hell or so busy that you wished you had another set of hands.