In my previous article, I covered the development of the Brewster XA-32. This was built to fulfil a desire of the United States Army Air Corps to have a dive bomber. It failed, and was probably the worst aircraft built by Brewster, which is quite a claim. But if the Air Corp missed a bullet with the XA-32, they arguably missed an opportunity with another contender for the job which, had things worked out differently, may well have become legend.
As said, the Army Air Corps was impressed by the German use of dive bombers that helped smash the opposition their ground forces faced in their campaigns of 1939 and 1940. This led to them adopting several different models, principally a version of the US Navy’s SBD Dauntless, the A-24 Banshee and also several hundred Vultee Vengeance’s that they took over from British orders.
But though both these aircraft had good reputations with other services and did see use with the then US Army Air Force when America joined the war, the USAAF never really took to them. They considered the two-seat dive-bomber too cumbersome, slow and quite frankly a bit of a “one trick pony”, with combat experience pushing them to either twin-engine attack aircraft like the A-20 Havoc, or else to much higher performing fighter bombers like the A-36.
But apparently some hope of finding the right combination of load-carrying, solidity and performance lingered, and in mid-1942 they requested design proposals for a single-seat dive bomber. Vultee was one of the companies to make a bid, and the USAAF was sufficiently interested to award a contract in November 1942 for the building of two prototype’s of the aircraft that Vultee had offered.
Things were all to change just a few months later, however. In March 1943 Vultee merged with Consolidated. Although originally known as Consolidated Vultee, the company would ultimately come to be known as Convair.
Then a few weeks later the USAAF decided that they didn’t want a dive bomber after all and requested that the XA-41 instead become a dedicated low level ground attack aircraft. They also wanted it to have the option of being able to carry a torpedo, very much a product of the fighting they were engaged in against the Japanese in the Pacific.
This delayed things as the designers went back to the drawing board to alter the aircraft for its new role. It also makes the XA-41 arguably Convair’s first aircraft design, and what emerged was a real monster of a ground pounder.
Measuring in at 48 ft 8 in (14.83 m) and with a wingspan of 54 ft (16 m), the XA-41 was a giant!
I mean, lets look at some comparisons:
The P-47 Thunderbolt, which was pretty much doing the role the XA-41 was intended for
– 36 ft 2 in (11.02 m) long and wingspan of 40 ft 9 in (12.43 m).
The A-1H Skyraider, which would pretty much do a similar job as the XA-41?
– 38 ft 10 in (11.84 m) long and a wingspan of 50 ft (15.25 m).
So let’s look bigger.
How about the Martin Mauler? That was famously massive.
Only 41 ft 3 in (12.57 m) long and again 50 ft (15.24 m) wide.
OK, so even bigger. How about the De Havilland Mosquito?
True, this was a twin-engine aircraft with a two-man crew. So, it was wider than the XA-41…by two inches (5cm). But it was still shorter than the XA-41 by more than four feet (c.1.3m)!
Basically, the XA-41 was massive.
Of all metal construction and intended to be armoured in accordance with its role as a low-level attacker, it was also a heavy aircraft with a maximum gross weight of 24,188 lb (10,971 kg).
Such a big aircraft naturally also carried a huge amount of firepower. Weapon payload is listed as a maximum of 6,400lb (c. 2,900 kg), with 2,000lb in the internal bomb bay and the rest on wing shackles, with the XA-41 able to also carry rockets in addition to bombs.
But the fixed firepower mounted in the wings also provided serious teeth to the aircraft. Though the prototype was only fitted with four 0.5-calibre Browning heavy machine guns, the intention was to fit the XA-41 with four machine guns and four 37mm cannon.
These would have been M9 autocannons, a derivative of the M1 anti-aircraft gun rather than the better known M4 fitted in the P-39 fighter. In contrast to the M4, the M9 used a much longer cartridge case that provided this weapon with 50% more muzzle energy than its smaller brethren.
With each gun on the XA-41 having fifty rounds, the XA-41 would likely have proved capable of tearing open pretty much any tank it encountered with armour-piercing ammunition, while with high-explosive it would have been horribly effective against soft targets and troops.
Obviously, such a lump of an aeroplane would need a lot of power. But fortunately, that was available in the shape of the Pratt & Whitney Wasp Major. This in the XA-41 produced 3,000hp and provided the aircraft with a surprisingly good turn of performance.
When the aircraft began flight trials in February 1944 it showed a top speed of 363mph (584 km/h). But what impressed the pilots was the good handling of the big bird, proving a great aircraft to fly and a very stable gun platform. Perhaps more impressive was its agility, and the XA-41 it showed that it could out turn a P-51B Mustang in low altitude simulated dogfights.
Now, it must be admitted that this is all in the prototype and not the fully equipped service aircraft. But still, it was highly promising, and the XA-41 would have likely made an excellent combatant.
But alas even before it first flew the USAAF had, in November 1943, decided that they didn’t need the new aircraft, effectively dooming it. In fact, they had allowed the building of the single prototype because it was in an advanced state of construction, and they thought it worth using it both to see what it could do and to act as an engine testbed for the new Wasp Major engine.
The USAAF had instead become convinced that the best option for providing tactical air support was in the use of either twin engine attack aircraft or with standard fighters configured for ground attack with bombs and rockets.
This in fact pretty much summed up the USAAF’s entire philosophy on the issue, and their doctrine essentially called for all their single engine aircraft to be multi-role, able to hit ground targets and tangle with enemy fighters. The XA-41 might have been surprisingly nimble on the deck, but it was never going to be a fighter, and that was now what policy dictated.
To be fair to the USAAF, they had a point. They had plenty aircraft that could perform the role of tactical air support in the shape of reallocated fighters – which after all could also still perform their original role if needed to – plus twin-engine attackers that could carry more ordnance further, plus be more durable.
The cost and expense of getting another aircraft into production and service at such a late stage of the war, moreover one with a very specific focus on a role that was being adequately covered, would seem an extravagance. All told, the choice was perfectly logical.
But the US Air Force’s war experience and the doctrine it generated would have unforeseen results. Because after the war, they largely continued with the idea that employing comparatively fast fighter-bombers was the correct approach.
This saw a dynasty of such aircraft become the mainstay of US tactical air power throughout the late 1940s and into the ‘50’s, with jet engines providing even more speed. This principle seemed reasonable enough…until Vietnam. At this point the policy of using jet fighters, normally of the previous generation, for close air support started to show its limits. Worse, the supposed tactical support aircraft had effectively become strike fighters, designed for extremely fast single passes over defended targets.
This still made sense if the US military was to fight the war it was largely geared up for – countering an invasion of Western Europe by the Warsaw Pact, probably with nuclear weapons involved. But for the grind of Vietnam, the policy was recognisably flawed. Aircraft like the F-100 and the F-105 Thunderchief did admittedly do sterling work supporting American and allied troops on the ground, but they had limitations for the sort of war that was being fought. This in turn saw the USAF have to rapidly acquire aging Skyraiders from the US Navy, as well as starting programs to purchase even more specialist aircraft like the OV-10 Bronco.
So yes, the USAAF probably made the right decision in 1944. But it does seem that the XA-41 would have been hugely useful in the following years, much as its smaller cousin the Skyraider was. Over Vietnam (and, indeed, Korea) a heavily armed and armoured ground stomper, capable of providing support at close range and remaining on station for a considerable period, would have been much appreciated, I have no doubt.
Of course, hindsight is, as they say, a wonderful thing. But considering that after Vietnam the USAF would field numbers of slower, dedicated attack aircraft in the shape of first the A-7 and then the A-10, it does make one wonder how the XA-41, had it got into service, might have performed.
But as said, that was never to be. After consideration was given by the US Navy as to whether they wanted to use it as a carrier aircraft, the XA-41 was handed over to Pratt & Whitney, who used it as a development testbed for their engines. Ultimately, the single XA-41 would go to the scrap yard in 1950 – an unfortunate ending for an aircraft that, had things worked out differently, may have proven a real asset to the USAF.