"The Sandy Spad"

story and photo
Robert S. DeGroat

This story along with many more of Bob DeGroat's great photos first appeared in the Feb 1996 issue of EAA Warbirds magazine. .. used here with the kind permission of the author... SpadGuy

See other Robert DeGroat photos.

The Skyraider closed on us quickly, then slid into position off our right side. It proved difficult at times to take pictures of it, knowing the history of the type and how it got to be here, right beyond the wingtip of the plane I was flying in. I would get mesmerized as I watched the big single-engined aircraft thunder along beside Pete Knox's T-28. The Skyraider pilot would grin at me from time to time. Since becoming an owner in the partnership of this AD, businessman and pilot Rick Hegenberger of Westport, Connecticut is learning what deep convictions people have for this fine Douglas product.

My friendship with Rick began almost ten years ago with an introduction by good friend Peter Knox, who kindly flew his T-28C (N2304K) for me to use as a camera platform for many years at Oshkosh. Rick had wanted to get some photos of his T-28A (N272NA) in U.S. Air Force markings. He is the third generation of his family to be a pilot (his son Ryan makes four). Rick's grandfather, General Albert F. Hegenberger, had distinguished himself with several inventions and records, including work on the first artificial horizon with the Sperry Company and being generally acknowledged as the father of the Instrument Landing System. His awards included the Mackay Trophy (shared with Lt Lester J. Maitland) in 1927 and the Collier Trophy in 1934. Quite a heritage.

Two years ago, Rick sold the T-28 and got an L-19. He loved flying the Birddog, but I could tell he yearned for something bigger and more powerful. Then came the phone call: "I think I've lost my mind. I just put a bid on a Skyraider." It did not take too long to find out which one, an AD-4NA, Bureau Number (BuNo) 126959, with an interesting history.

Let's start at the beginning. In June 1944, Douglas began developing an heir to the successful SBD Dauntless. Their first try resulted in the mediocre BTD-1 Destroyer. The second submission, designed virtually overnight in the Statler Hotel in Washington D.C., was the BT2D Dauntless II, later to be known as the Skyraider.

The initial concept by chief designer Ed Heinemann used the Pratt & Whitney R-2800, which would have resulted in a lighter single-seat attack plane. However, since the Navy insisted on the Wright R-3350, he had to revise his design accordingly. First flight of the Dauntless II was Sunday, 18 March 1945 out of Mines Field (now the site of LA International) by Douglas test pilot LaVerne Brown.

In April 1946, the U. S. Navy changed the way planes were identified, as if it wasn't complicated enough already. Douglas aircraft would be identified by the "Sky-" prefix for nicknames. The BT2D-1 Dauntless II therefore became the A (for Attack) D (for Douglas) "Sky"raider. The first variant was now called the AD-1 (and we all know the AD really means "Able Dog"). It would eventually be produced in seven basic versions, and 28 variations.
Almost throughout its long career, the Skyraider has also been dubbed the "Spad". Originally only a reference to an earlier era, some wag even made "SPAD" an acronym, as in "Single Place Attack, Douglas".
By Christmas 1946, ADs were being delivered to carrier air squadrons and several U. S. Marine Corps units. During a comparison test in December 1948, an AD-2 was pitted against a Grumman F8F-1 Bearcat to see how the Skyraider would acquit itself against a fighter. Against one of the finest (and fastest) piston-engined planes ever built, the AD could maintain a standoff if used correctly. The result surprised nearly everyone.
Publicity photos of the time also record the Skyraider's load-carrying capability. It was duly advertised that the single-engined Skyraider could haul more ordnance than the four-engined B-17 of World War II fame.
By 1949, Douglas had delivered its 500th Skyraider. Introduced that same year and generally acknowledged as the definitive Skyraider, the AD-4 was built in larger numbers (1,051 of the total 3,180 manufactured) than any other variant of the type (though the Korean Conflict undoubtedly helped inflate those figures). It had the improved APS/19A radar, a P-1 autopilot as an aid to pilots during long distance missions, a new instrument panel, and an improved windshield. The gross weight was increased from 18,500 to 24,000 pounds.
The AD-4N was the night attack version (with a crew of three: pilot, radar operator, and ECM operator). The AD-4NA was a stripped -4N used for day attack, minus the dive brakes. The AD-4NL was the designation for the winterized night attack version, and actually a -4N with deicer boots. There was a total of 307 AD-4Ns built.
When the U. S. military changed its designation policy (again!) on 18 September 1962, the
AD-4 became the A-1D. They apparently did not change the designations of earlier versions of the Skyraider, so there was never an A-1A, A-1B, or A-1C.

Douglas Skyraider Bureau Number 126959 began life as an AD-4NA, with the manufacturer's construction number 7759. It was one of 143 aircraft manufactured in the block containing BuNo 126876-to-127018. In its brief service with the U. S. Navy, it was stationed aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Intrepid.
At about the same time, the French Government began looking for a replacement for their aging Republic F-47 Thunderbolts that had been used in the ground attack and counter-insurgency (COIN) role during their continuing disagreement with rebels in Algeria. The Skyraider was selected, based on the excellent ground attack capabilities it had displayed in Korea. No fewer than 113 of the type were surplus to American needs at the time, and were shipped to France beginning in 1959. The AD-4NA model represented about half of that number, and included 126959. This particular Skyraider was delivered to the French Air Force on 7 December 1960.
The SFERMA Company was contracted to assemble the planes as they arrived. Each Skyraider was given an identification number, so 126959 became Number 50. It was attached (now with the identification code 20-FI) to EC.3/20, where it was used in combat in Algeria. 20-FI was stored as part of Escadre Aerienne de l'Attack (EAA).601 at Chateaudun, France from 29 July 1963 until 23 April 1964 before going to Ivato, Madagascar with EAA.2/21 (and with another identification code, 21-ZC) until 27 February 1967. 21-ZC was stored with EAA.601 again until January 1968.

The much-traveled Skyraider then became part of EAA.1/21 at Djibouti until 27 March 1970, including temporary detached service to Fort Lamy, Chad. The identification number on the aircraft during this period was in the 21-L series, but the last letter in the code remains unknown.
After being stored once again with EAA.601 from March 1970 to 27 November 1970, the Skyraider was pressed back into service with EAA.1/21 until 29 June 1974. It wasn't long, however, before the aircraft appeared again at Chateaudun, now with the identification code ME.
All told, the French Spads remained in service through the early 1970s. It was the last piston-engined combat aircraft France ever used, the last being retired in 1974. The French loved their ADs, having logged over 105,000 hours in the type since the 1960s. Later on, a few, like 126959, were given to the Republic of Chad; some of the others found their way to Cambodia despite the protests of U. S. authorities. Skyraider BuNo 126959 was officially transferred to Chad's Air Force on 7 April 1976, with 3,892 hours on the airframe. Its military career ended in the oppressive heat of Africa.

In the meantime, civilian interest in this large type had increased. The first large-scale Skyraider imports began in the late 1970s. Other reports of existing Skyraiders began to surface and Didier Chable of Melun/Etampes, France went to N'djamena, Chad to check them out. Of the aircraft he eventually purchased in August 1988, one was BuNo 126959. The Skyraider, soon registered as F-AZFP, finally arrived back in France on 20 March 1989 after a most difficult journey.

The airframe came home again when it was shipped to Long Beach, California, eventually reaching the Chino, California facility of John Muzala's Pacific Fighters on 9 September 1989. Don Hanna of Costa Mesa, California purchased the aircraft and kept it for several years on the register as N2088V before deciding to sell it.
That's when Rick Hegenberger decided to take the plunge. He bought the aircraft in January 1995 (since that time selling a half-interest to Mike Schloss; they are known as Warbird Associates), then chose to have the annual inspection and a general cleanup done at Pacific Fighters, as they had maintained the aircraft for the previous owner and had a good deal of experience working with the type. For more information on Pacific Fighters, they can be contacted at 7000 Merrill Avenue, Box 15, Hangar P-400, Chino, California 91710. Their phone number is 909-597-9787 and FAX is 909-597-5210.

With the registration changed to N959AD, John Muzala even undertook some of the test flying before Larry New ferried it to Connecticut. Rick soloed the aircraft on Tuesday, 16 May 1995. He was tremendously impressed with the power and handling of such a large beast.
While the plane was being inspected, Rick asked me for information about Skyraiders in Vietnam, so I sent him all the reference material I had. As the Skyraider had been left in natural metal finish by the previous owner, he had decided on a U.S. Air Force camouflage, since almost everyone else seems to paint their ADs in those flashy VA-176 bumble bee markings.

After first considering the appropriate tail code AD of the 4407 Combat Crew Training Squadron based at Hurlbert Field, Florida, Rick started to concentrate on the actual combat units. The tail code for the 4407th (later designated 8th Special Operations Squadron [SOS]) was interesting, but he was looking for something a little more distinct.
Further research showed that there were two Congressional Medal of Honor winners who flew Skyraiders in Vietnam: Maj Bernard G. Fisher (on 10 March 1966) and LTC William A. Jones III (on 1 September 1968). Fisher's daring landing and rescue of Maj Dafford W. Myers from the Special Forces camp at A Shau while it was under attack is legendary and resulted in his being the first Air Force recipient of that award in Vietnam. His A-1E (132649) resides today in the U. S. Air Force Museum, Dayton, Ohio.

LtCol William A. Jones III was commander of the 602nd SOS on 1 September 1968 when the call came in that an F-4 Phantom had been shot down. As "Sandy One", identifying him as the lead in the forthcoming search-and-rescue mission, Jones would be responsible for directing the operation.

An hour was wasted when coordinates for locating the downed F-4 pilot were misunderstood. The pilot was finally pinpointed, but his backseater had been captured. As Jones determined the survivor's location and nearby enemy gun positions, his Skyraider was repeatedly hit by heavy and accurate gunfire. The aircraft caught fire, and Jones subsequently lost the ability to transmit the location of the downed pilot.

Rather than lose that information, or further complicate matters by bailing out himself, Jones flew his heavily damaged Skyraider back the 90 miles to his home base at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand. After landing, he refused medication for his severe burns until he had passed the essential information over to the debriefing officer. The Phantom pilot was rescued later that afternoon. For his gallantry on that September day, LtCol Jones truly earned his Medal of Honor. Rick Hegenberger decided on 602nd markings for his Skyraider, largely because of Jones' story.
As a result, the Skyraider is painted in a camouflage scheme officially sanctioned during the Vietnam Conflict by Tech Order 1-1-4 and known as "Southeast Asia camouflage". Pacific Fighters undertook the painting of the large aircraft, using the tech orders to correctly place the basic color patterns, lettering, numerals, and other markings. In fact, they found the original paint manufacturer of that time period and bought the actual paint they needed. The finished product has more than impressed those veterans who have seen it.

The TT tail code identifies the aircraft as being from the 602nd Special Operations Squadron, based at Nahkon Phanom (NKP), Thailand. One nickname for NKP was the derogatory "Naked Fanny", hence the art on the nose of this aircraft. NKP was a closed society because of units like the 602nd, so secret in fact that no media was ever allowed to visit.

Initially called Air Commando Squadrons, these specialized units were renamed Special Operations Squadrons (SOS) by the Pentagon on 1 January 1967. All units reported to the 56th Special Operations Wing (SOW) and all flew Skyraiders. The 1st SOS (call sign "Hobos") had the tail code TC and was based at NKP until 1972. The 6th SOS (call sign "Spads") had the tail code ET and was based at Pleiku from 1968 to 1969. The 22nd SOS (call sign "Zorros") had the tail code TS. This unit operated out of NKP from mid-1968 until 1970.

The 602nd SOS (call sign "Fireflys" or "Sandys") had the tail code TT and was based at NKP. This particular unit had moved a great deal. It sent a detachment to Udorn, Thailand in 1965, while the whole squadron moved from Bien Hoa to Nha Trang (both in Vietnam) in March 1966. In May of that year, it rejoined its detachment at Udorn. By 1967 it had made its final move to NKP. However, by 1972, the 1st, 6th, and the 602nd had all been reduced to one unit called the 1st SOS (tail code TC). Their last Sandy sortie was the last one of the war, occurring on 7 November 1972.

Some of the most dangerous flying ever done was accomplished in Southeast Asia using the Douglas Skyraider. Whether involved in fighting the secret war in Laos or attacking the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam at night, the Skyraider again and again proved its fine close air support capabilities.

The AD came late to the USAF inventory (1964), but those who flew it felt that the plane was special-almost like going back to the goggles-and-scarf era. It was not as though they were flying obsolete equipment. Rather, it was the right aircraft for the job and many took note that few of the newer jet types could do as well. Some pilots had to fight their way into orders transferring them into the Skyraider cockpit, giving them the special opportunity to fly a relic of another time, the last of a breed. Talk to these pilots today and the reverence for this aircraft remains as strong as ever.

One of them, Richard Drury, wrote the outstanding book My Secret War (Aero Publishers, 1979) about his experiences flying the Skyraider. As he so eloquently states it, he found the Spad "as expected, a time machine measuring fifty feet and one-quarter inches wingtip to wingtip. It was heavy for a single-engine ship at 12,000 pounds empty and it was big. The engine was a Wright R-3350-26WD and rated at nearly 3,000 HP. It carried nearly 40 gallons of oil, most of which wound up on the aircraft surfaces and on the pilots. It also burned about 100 gallons an hour of fuel. For all that it barely went three miles a minute with an ordnance load. But speed was a relative thing and had lost all its importance in the sort of war we would be in."

The war the Skyraider was engaged in varied with the seasons. Generally, nothing much would happen during the rainy season, but the most intense ground fire would occur during the dry season as the enemy began its offensives.
Nearly all Spad bombing missions were structured in a similar way. After arriving at the briefed target area, the Skyraider pilot would radio the command and control center for the position and radio frequency of the Forward Air Controller they were to rely on for more precise target information.

The Forward Air Controller, or FAC, was an integral part of the air equation in Laos and Vietnam. Early on, FACs flew the Cessna O-1 Birddog and Cessna O-2 Skymaster. They transitioned into the purpose-built North American OV-10 Bronco when enough of those became available later in the war.

They were responsible for finding suitable ground targets, then relaying the location information to the command and control center. After processing the information, the controller would direct the waiting fighter-bombers (in this case, Skyraiders) to the FAC reporting the best target for the ordnance carried. Working in direct contact with the fighter-bombers, the FAC would mark the target, direct the attack, then stay afterward to assess the damage. Operating at near sensory overload was a daily occurrence.

These bombing missions were quite demanding, especially those flown at night against heavily defended targets. As Drury remembered, "It took total concentration to keep everything together and was always a strain unnoticed in the strike but realized afterwards when I relaxed on the way home. Groundfire had a queer way of looking pretty, the pink and red streaking from the ground, passing beside the aircraft, bursting above. And as long as it didn't hit the airplane it was sport to avoid the stuff."

Another type of mission flown by U. S. Air Force Skyraiders was rescue escort, identified by the call sign "Sandy" (the U. S. Navy had its RESCAP). It entailed providing on-scene command for the rescue of downed aircrew by coordinating the helicopters and support aircraft while suppressing enemy gunfire. The Skyraider, with its long loiter time and formidable weapons load, was the perfect aircraft for the job. It did not need to throttle back much to stay with the rescue choppers, and could orbit over the rescue area almost forever.

While Spads were flown mostly at night due to their perceived vulnerability, the rescue mission meant that all bets were off. No matter what the time of day, if the Skyraiders were needed during a rescue attempt, they went. Few things were probably more frightening than the prospect of flying in the severely hostile airspace over the Ho Chi Minh Trail during daylight hours-and all in a 150-mph airplane. But Rick Drury felt it was the most important mission they had, and also the most rewarding, if they succeeded in extracting an aircrew member from virtually the enemy's backyard.

During rescue operations, lead was known as "Sandy One", and it was his job to decide on the tactics to be used and he was also the first one on the scene. Every rescue was different, each mission unique in its own way. It was not the sort of job from which one expected any longevity.

Due to the Spad's large radial engine out front, the enemy often heard them coming. Many times they would allow pilots or crew to survive to call for help, then set up an ambush for the rescuers. In addition, Sandy One had to be concerned with many other things: where the downed airman was in relation to surrounding landmarks, trolling for ground fire to determine enemy gun positions, controlling other resources (helicopters with their Sandy escorts and supporting jet fighters), and, most important, deciding when to call in the helicopters to try for the actual pickup.
The Conflict itself seemed to take a back seat when American aircrew went down. Everything became secondary to getting the man out before the enemy could capture him. It was tough work and extremely dangerous, but the rewards of success incalculable. As one ex-Thud (F-105) pilot so aptly put it: "If a Sandy pilot walked into the bar, he would have a hard time paying for a drink."

As the value of these relics became more clear, the Navy Department even sent a request to Douglas Aircraft to inquire about the feasibility of starting the Skyraider assembly line again. The idea was eventually rejected as too expensive, but compared to what? Some beancounter even did the arithmetic and found that (in 1960s dollars) the Skyraider cost $20 per hour to fly, while it cost $130 per hour to fly jets. Perhaps most telling, though, is the fact they found that jets cost three times as much to buy.

However, the Skyraider position in the Air Force eventually became as untenable as it had been in the U.S. Navy. Each service had come to the conclusion that an all-jet force was the most desirable. But to the ground forces whose lives depended on it, the sight and sound of the Skyraider overhead represented survival. In Laos and Vietnam, the slow Spad provided better accuracy and could absorb more punishment than its faster jet cousins. It could stay on station longer and carry more ordnance. Ah, expediency.

U. S. combat operations officially ended on 27 January 1973. All operational Skyraiders were eventually left in Vietnam and given to the South Vietnamese when the U. S. withdrew after "Vietnamization". For their part, the Vietnamese apparently liked the old Spad, but referred to it as "trau dien", or "crazy water buffalo".

As it was once explained to me, the music of the Skyraider is something very special. This impressive aircraft that Rick Hegenberger and Mike Schloss fly is dedicated to those who wore the Sandy patch with pride and determination. Their story is little known, but inspiring nonetheless. They did an outstanding job under the most difficult circumstances.

My thanks to Rick Drury for allowing me to quote from his book. - Robert S. DeGroat

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