The A-26 Invader was one of the outstanding aircraft of its time. A twin engine attack bomber, the A-26 arrived late in the Second World War, only getting into action in June 1944. They would then gradually begin to replace other twin-engine attack aircraft throughout the USAAF, until by the time of the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 the B-26, as it had been redesignated in 1948, was the principal twin-engine attack bomber for the United States Air Force.
But Korea also showed that the age of this type of aircraft seemed to have past, and in the face of advanced jet fighters like the MIG-15, the B-26 found itself used mainly as a low-level night intruder – a job that it admittedly did very well. But the writing was on the wall, and by the mid-1950s the B-26 was being phased out, replaced by much faster jet-powered aircraft like the Martin B-57 and the Douglas B-66 Destroyer.
But despite not appearing to have a lot of use on the front line of the Cold War, in fact the B-26 was about to start a new and surprisingly active part of its career. The large numbers of surplus aircraft, plus plenty of veteran crews available, meant that not only did foreign air forces start using B-26s in considerable numbers when they were doled out as part of military assistance programs, but also the CIA who used the B-26 in several covert operations.
In 1958 a CIA B-26 was used to support an attempt to overthrow President Sukarno of Indonesia. This went south when the aircraft was shot down and the American pilot was captured, causing a bit of an international incident.
Then in 1961 the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion was supported by eight CIA-provided B-26s, which attacked Cuban air fields and assisted with the invasion. This too didn’t work out so well and most of the aircraft were eventually lost, along with several of their Cuban exile and American personnel.
To be honest, these examples are the best known because they didn’t work out so well. But the CIA was also using B-26s in Southeast Asia by this point, part of the escalation of the United States initially covert and then overt support for governments in the region with their struggles against communist insurgents.
In 1960 the CIA began Operation Millpond which planned to use B-26s based in Thailand and flown by their Air America front to provide air support to the Royal Laotian Army fighting communists in that country. But as the United States became more involved in the region, this effort transitioned to a more semi-official operation with B-26s being flown in South Vietnamese markings but with largely USAF crew.
These began fighting and in 1962 were formed into the 1st Air Commando Wing, home based out of Hurlbert Field, Florida. With their B-26s the 1st Air Commando operated out of bases in Thailand in support of friendly forces across the battlefields of Southeast Asia, where the Invaders combination of good range, bombload and speed made them a hard hitting and valuable asset.
But there was a problem. No new B-26s had come off the production line since the end of the Second World War, and those still flying had seen plenty of hard use in military service and in conflicts all over the place. Though the B-26 was a generally solid aircraft, age was beginning to tell on them and if they were to be kept flying and in combat, thought needed to be given to updating the aging airframes.
So, it was in 1962 that the USAF ordered the development of the ultimate and final variant of the Invader.
The B-26K Counter Invader.
This saw a major rework of the basic airframe to make the B-26 into not just a much sturdier aircraft, but one much better suited to its new role fighting counter insurgency.
Hence the pun around the name – Counter Invader, Counter Insurgency, both COIN for short, plus taking the B-26s original name and implying it was now fighting invaders.
There was a minor problem in that Douglas, the original builder, obviously had better things to do by the 1960s than mess around with ancient B-26s, such as building jet liners and parts of the Saturn moon rocket. But luckily the USAF had an alternative.
The B-26 had been a popular aircraft for conversion after the Second World War into civilian roles, notably as a fast executive passenger aircraft – kind of like the Lear Jet of their day. California-based On Mark Engineering had established themselves as an expert in this field, rebuilding surplus B-26s into several different versions for the civilian market, and though they had no experience of building military aircraft they received a contract to develop the B-26K.
The first of these, the YB-26K, first flew in late-January 1963 and was delivered to Hurlburt for service evaluation in June of that year.
As it was the timing was a little late, though the requirement to update the old airframes proved completely correct because two B-26’s would be lost in short order – one that August, the other in February 1964 – when their wings came apart. This led to the grounding of the B-26s in service and the urgent requirement being issued for the conversion of forty aircraft to the new B-26K standard at a cost of $12.6 million.
What that bought was a very thorough reworking of the old airframes, essentially turning them into zero-hour aircraft.
The wings were substantially reinforced with steel strips added to the spars, plus the fuselage rebuilt to make it almost new and the ventral and belly gun turrets removed and fared over. The tail was also refurbished, and the rudder increased in size., which allowed the B-26K to fly better on a single engine, an important and useful consideration for a combat aircraft.
The cockpit was made over, with some new instrumentations and electronic installed, and the engines were switched to a standard two Pratt & Whitney R-2800-52W models with water injection, which produced 2,500hp each, thus providing an extra 1,000hp on the earlier B-26 variants.
The propellors were also switched to a broader reversible pitch design that gave better efficiency and allowed the aircraft to use smaller runways.
In addition to being strengthened, the wings received additional wingtip fuel tanks and eight new pylons for underwing stores added. Some of the aircraft converted originally had six .50 caliber Browning heavy machine guns fitted in the outer wings, as was a feature in some late production A-26s, but these were all removed.
Instead, a new standard fixed armament of eight Brownings in a solid nose mounting was fitted. Interestingly, though the solid gun-nose was the standard, the B-26K had the ability to change to a glazed nose in a few hours, a feature intended to improve the type’s reconnaissance capabilities.
The B-26K retained the internal bomb bay of the type, with a capacity for carrying 4,000lbs (1,814kg) of ordnance, but added another 8,000lb (3,628kg) on its wing pylons, meaning the B-26K effectively doubled the capacity of the B-26 from 6,000lb (2,721kg) in the original models to 12,000lb (5,443kg) in the Counter Invader.
In addition, the pylons meant that the B-26K could carry a range of weapons and equipment, such as rockets, gun pods, napalm tanks, flare dispensers and cluster bombs – often in various combinations for maximum mission utility.
The additional fuel tanks also meant that range and time on station was improved.
But despite the improvements, the B-26Ks almost missed their moment. The grounding of the old B-26 fleet in Southeast Asia in February 1964 – which the B-26Ks had meant to replace – had led to the emergency issuing of A-1 Skyraider’s to the Air Commandos and other clandestine air support groups. As a result, the urgent need for the Counter Invader was alleviated, and as all forty were delivered to the USAF between June 1964 and April 1965, there wasn’t a desperate need to get them into combat in their originally intended warzone.
But a need for the new aircraft soon came about, and in a very different area than from where intended.
In the war wracked Democratic Republic of Congo a fresh crisis was occurring. The Simba Rebellion had seen large amounts of the country fall to rebel forces, and a large number of foreign nationals were being held hostage in the city of Stanleyville. The Simba’s had a brutal reputation and so in November 1964 a bold plan was set into motion that would see Belgian paratroopers drop from USAF C-130s to seize the city and liberate the hostages.
And the plan called for two B-26Ks to escort the Hercules’ in while they made their low level drops and suppress any hostile fire, then provide aerial support for the Belgian troops while they conducted their mission.
The CIA had been covertly supporting the Congolese Air Force with supplies and pilots for several years, and in August had delivered three of the brand-new B-26Ks to the country. Flown by Cuban exiles – some who had flown at the Bay of Pigs – and contracted Americans, the B-26Ks were now called upon to assist the operation, which would ultimately see 1,700 of the hostages rescued and flown out by the USAF.
The B-26Ks would then go on to see plenty more action in Congo throughout 1965, including playing a critical role in breaking up the attempted intervention in that country by Che Guevara by bombing the Cuban’s supply routes.
In this comparatively little known intervention, the B-26Ks firmly established their mettle as COIN aircraft and by 1967 where withdrawn from Congo.
Because now, they were needed elsewhere. By early 1966 the situation in Laos was worsening. The country was wracked by fighting between the Royal Lao Army, supported by the American and the Thais, and the communist Pathet Lao, aiding in turn by the North Vietnamese.
Laos was critical for both sides as the majority of the Ho Chi Minh trail ran through it, a critical supply artery between North Vietnam and their forces and guerilla allies fighting in South Vietnam. Interdicting this route became a priority and so it was decided that the B-26Ks would be sent.
But to be most effective, they would have to operate out of Thailand. And the Thai’s had a prohibition at the time on allowing American bombers from operating in their country.
So the B-26Ks were redesignated…as A-26A’s.
Talk about squaring the circle.
Regardless of the politics, the Counter Invaders were soon in action, hitting the communist supply routes and strongpoints throughout Laos and soon became known as formidable truck killers. Though flying with USAF Air Commando Squadron’s, the program was very much “in the black” and the aircraft flew with national markings obscured.
As the defences the North Vietnamese used to defend the Ho Chi Minh trail improved in the face of air attack, the B-26Ks transitioned more and more to night interdiction, often using hand held night vision scopes to fly their missions. They continued to see increasingly heavy use as the war in Vietnam and the surrounding countries ramped up, and losses were correspondingly heavy.
When the B-26K was finally retired from service in November 1969, replaced by the AC-130 gunship, twelve of the thirty deployed to Thailand had been lost to enemy action.
By now positively ancient for a combat aircraft, the B-26Ks were put into storage, though five were given to the South Vietnamese. These would be destroyed at the end of the Vietnam War, and the rest largely scrapped and a handful put into museums.
But there is one, currently in the possession of the Vintage Flying Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, that has been restored to flight condition and I believe still does on occasion.
So, with a bit of luck, you may still have the opportunity to see one of these aircraft, a terror of the night skies, flying overhead.
Watch out for the Stinger! – the Fairchild AC-119G/K Gunships
The Lockheed YO-3A Quiet Star; Charlie’s Silent Stalker