During the United States Air Force’s jet era, the A-1 Skyraider may have been a tortoise among hares, but true to the fable’s ending, the venerable “Spad’s” slow and steady delivery won the race every time.
Manufactured by Douglas Aircraft in the late 1940s to 1950s, the A-1 Skyraider’s smart combination of long loiter times and sheer size made it the perfect aircraft for dangerous delivery missions and bombings. It was most well-known for its ability to withstand enemy fire and return in one piece. As one of the few propeller aircraft still used in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, A-1 Skyraiders were a key element of the USAF’s Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) mission as close air support of the CSAR helicopters.
The Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation is fortunate to have two A-1 Skyraiders within the program: Wiley Coyote and Heritage Flight Museum’s The Proud American.
“With a big motor, big wings, big airframe, she’s the biggest, baddest fighter on the ramp,” said Air Force Heritage Flight pilot Greg “B.A.” Anders.
The airframe that would eventually become the museum’s “The Proud American” was a Naval AD-4 model officially cataloged as BuNo 126965. It was deployed to Korea with the U.S. Navy after the cease-fire had been called, so it never saw combat. However, as a part of the Naval attack squadron VA-115, the aircraft was then tasked with patrolling the DMZ for the duration of their mission.
Once it returned stateside the aircraft traveled across the United States, with stops at both Alameda and then Norfolk, Virginia with the “FAETULANT” unit, and was eventually stored and stricken from the Navy list in July 1958.
Two years later, the Skyraider was purchased by the French Air Force (officially known as l’Armee de l’Air) and was based in Chateaudun with tours in Algeria, Djibouti, Madagascar, and Chad throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Ultimately, the aircraft was acquired by Greg Anders and the Heritage Flight Museum in 2005 from a private owner in Belgium. Anders’ brother, Alan, had been especially passionate about adding a Skyraider to the museum following his work with the Commemorative Air Force and the Ravens, a renowned group of pilots that flew covert missions across Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
However, getting a 6-ton “Spad” across the Atlantic to Washington state proved a feat of its own.
“Getting it home was pretty interesting,” Anders said. “Once it was purchased in Belgium, it was sent to France where it got on a ‘Roll-On-Roll-Off’ boat to come across the Atlantic and be delivered to Charleston [South Carolina].
“They had to lift the aircraft off the boat and tow it through the streets to the nearby airport. You can imagine how large this plane was, even with the wings folded up, being towed through the narrow streets, and at one point, they literally had to build ramps to get the wings over the cars because they couldn’t get all the cars out of the street.”
When the Skyraider arrived in Charleston, the next task was flying the plane from the Southeast to the Pacific Northwest with a little help from Greg’s brother and a Grumman Tiger.
“The guy that we bought it from flew from Charleston to up to the Pacific Northwest – Bellingham at the time. His English was poor, so my brother had to chase him in a Grumman Tiger and do all the talking on the radio,” said Anders.
In the end, the Skyraider arrived in Washington, and then the restoration work began. The size of the aircraft played a role in this process as well, with the Skyraider boasting a 50-foot wingspan, 39-foot length, and weighing almost 12,000 pounds.
“It’s newer technology than seen in a typical P-51 Mustang, but it’s a somewhat complicated airplane because it’s so robust. Thankfully, it had been flying in France for many years, and it been kept in great condition. The aircraft restoration was challenging, but most of the parts we really needed were there or could be fabricated very easily.”
When it came time to decide on the paint scheme and name for the museum’s Skyraider, Anders — who served with the USAF for over 23 years — felt it was only fitting to have it dressed in official Air Force colors as an homage to the Skyraider pilots from the Vietnam War.
The name The Proud American pays tribute to Vietnam veteran Lieutenant Colonel William Jones, one of two USAF Skyraider pilots who received the Medal of Honor. Lt. Jones’ Skyraider was also the last USAF aircraft shot down in the Vietnam War.
“Everyone knows the story of Maj. Bernie Fisher, so we really wanted to pay homage to the lesser-known Medal of Honor recipient,” said Anders. “And with Lt. Jones’ aircraft being the last Skyraider shot down in the Vietnam War, it felt serendipitous.”
The size of the aircraft would have made a professional paint job extremely expensive for the small family museum, so Anders and a team of museum volunteers painted the entire exterior, just as troops would have done in the rivets of Vietnam.
“We’ve gotten a lot of compliments from people about how authentic the paint scheme looks, as opposed to some Skyraiders today which have a high-gloss finish,” said Anders.
The Proud American has since become a staple fixture for both the Heritage Flight Museum and the Air Force Heritage Flight program. The passion and enthusiasm for the “Spad” is incomparable, especially from many Vietnam veterans. The A-1 Skyraider was instrumental in their missions, and more importantly, their survival.
“I was at the Luke Air Show [in Glendale, Arizona] one Saturday morning to prep The Proud American for the show quite early in the morning and this guy was standing about 30 feet away just standing and looking at it,” said Anders.
“I knew it was a very private moment for him, so I continued my walk around without bothering him. I eventually approached him and said, ‘Hey, how are you? I see you have an interest in our Skyraider. Can I answer any questions for you?’ And he goes, ‘Nope. I was lying in a ditch in Vietnam getting shot at, and I would be dead now if it wasn’t for this airplane.’”
“It’s incredible to get those stories of feedback, as there’s a lot of passion there. I still get emotional just telling that story. What the Skyraider did was extremely impactful, and that’s why it’s so important to continue telling those stories,” said Anders.
For Anders and his team, there are still plenty of challenges in maintaining this rare piece of history. His team is already on their third engine for The Proud American and has an equally difficult airframe to maintain. Nonetheless, The Proud American is emblematic of the sacrifice and service of so many Americans and another way to pay tribute to their service then and now.