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Why Was the A-1E Used In-Lieu-Of Jet Aircraft in Vietnam?

by Lt. Col. John Larrison, USAF (Ret.)

To answer this question, we need to go back to the French battles with the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam.  The French used the B-26 in their failed combat actions to save the garrison at Dien Bien Phu.  With the downfall of Dien Bien Phu, the French ended their use of the B-26 in May 1954. At that time, peace negotiations spelled out in the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam into North and South, but also 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. The squadron was created at Elgin Air Force Base Florida as the first step towards creating a counterinsurgency force to counter the infiltration of North Vietnamese Communist (VC) forces into South Vietnam.

In late December 1961 four B-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 (VNAF) crews.  In fact, they were used in combat by their American crews. This only became public knowledge in February 1963 when one was shot down.  The First Air Commando Squadron joined Farm Gate in July 1963, with twelve B-26s at Bien Hoa and eight B-26s on detachment at Soc Trang and Pleiku, South Vietnam.

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  In the spring of 1964, the B-26 Invader was withdrawn from service.

Farm Gate also utilized the T-28 Trojan in an air to ground mode.  T-28s had been supplied to both the South Vietnamese and Laotian Air Forces. It was basically a restored trainer aircraft which had “hard points” added to the wings to permit arming with bombs and guns.  At the time, they had Vietnamese markings.  

The A-1E was an excellent fit to the requirements. There were two basic models of the A-1.  The “H” model which had a single seat and the “E” model with had a two seat, side-by-side, cockpit.  The “E” model would support the cover story of training Vietnamese pilots in the air-to-ground Close Air Support (CAS) mission.  Both the A-1H and A-1E had been first line carrier fighter aircraft for the Navy in the 1950s.  One shot down a Mig in 1965.

A-1s were removed from storage and given complete overhaul and restoration.  They were then shipped by boat to Vietnam and used by the 1st Air Command Squadron (ACS) and the 602nd ACS, both operating out of Bien Hoa, South Vietnam.  The VNAF was also flying USAF-supplied single seat A-1Hs at Bien Hoa.

That’s how, in 1964, the USAF ended up flying a Korean War vintage propeller aircraft in Vietnam when the F-100 was, at the time, the Air Force’s primary jet fighter.  It met the Geneva Accords restrictions, fit the cover story of training VNAF pilots, and was an excellent CAS aircraft.  Note: We did train a few VNAF pilots before their training was moved to Hulbert AFB, Florida.

To re-enforce the training cover story the A-1Es had Vietnamese markings and when we flew combat missions (which were many) we had to have a Vietnamese “Observer” in the right cockpit seat.  This observer was there only in case we were shot down.  There was no flight training involved on these combat missions.  He spoke no English and we spoke no Vietnamese.  We were told that he was a Vietnamese enlisted type that received about $5 extra a month for flight duty.  It was mid December 1964 that I arrived at Bien Hoa following two months of A-1E transition training at Hulbert AFB, Florida.

In mid-1965 it became obvious to all involved that the Russians and Chinese were pouring large amounts of supply, money, equipment, and even manpower into North Vietnam.  This resulted in the US “Build-Up” in South Vietnam by both US Air Force and Army.  Soon Bien Hoa had a ramp full of jet aircraft in the form of F-100s.

Bien Hoa soon became a wing size operation with all the Colonels that come with a state side wing operation.  This was a major operational change. However, with the arrival of the single seat F-100, we were able to say farewell to our right-seat Vietnamese “observers.” Both the A-1Es and F-100s operated out of Bien Hoa through the remainder of 1965. 

In 1966, both the 1st and 602nd ACS were moved to Thailand.  There they continued to fly numerous types of combat missions in both the their A-1E and A-1H.  They earned a place in history flying Search and Rescue (SAR) missions using the “Sandy” call sign.  They were responsible for the recovery of many downed aircrews in North and South Vietnam as well as Laos.  These missions were flown in A-1Hs as well as A-1Es.

To complete the aircraft history of the Vietnam war, the F-100s were later replaced with the F-4. These were flown out of several additional air bases constructed following the buildup in Vietnam, as well as Thailand.  They were also joined in missions to North Vietnam by F-105s and F-111, which flew primarily from Thailand.