Developed during World War II for the U.S. Navy, the Douglas AD Skyraider almost disappeared before having the chance to excel during the Vietnam War, where the aircraft proved well suited for close air support (CAS) to ground forces.
Nevertheless support of search and rescue (SAR) missions had been the Skyraider’s crowning achievement during the conflict. In fact it became dramatically apparent early in the war that lone helicopters were too vulnerable to conduct combat search and rescue (CSAR) missions. For this reason in 1965 a SAR task force decided that rescue helicopters would work in pairs, and that Skyraiders would provide rescue escort.
At first, this kind of mission was performed by U.S. Navy A-1s, but by mid August 1965 the 1st Air Commando Squadron (ACS) sent a flight of A-1Es to Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB), Thailand, to cover F-105 air strikes into high-threat areas. This move marked the beginning of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) sophisticated CSAR program.
As explained by Wayne Mutza in his book The A-1 Skyraider in Vietnam, the famous callsign “Sandy” was founded in late 1965 by Capt. J.W. “Doc” George during an A-1 replacement flight to one of the several A-1 groups that rotated through Udorn. Actually it was George’s Bine Hoa departure callsign. After having landed at Udorn he was asked what call sign he would like to use while there. George answer was “Sandy.” Not only the callsign was retained by George’s replacement, but also became the callsign of any Skyraider assigned the SAR mission.
Glen Mackey, an A-1 pilot with 1st ACS at the time recounts to Mutza the first days of the Sandy operation. On Sep. 20, 1965 Mackey had the chance to fly in support of a SAR mission along with Maj. Lou Gang (commander of a flight of Skyraider from the then 602nd Fighter Squadron (Commando)). The sortie was aimed to rescue the pilot of a downed F-105. “We arrived on scene in the afternoon, in good weather, guided to the site by three remaining F-105s, who were circling at about 12,000 feet. The Air Force rescue helicopter capability at that time consisted mostly of HH-43 ‘Huskies’ positioned at NKP [Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base]. We were advised that two were on the way. We picked up the survival radio beeper almost immediately and circled over the area, which was hilly and completely covered with trees. The HH-43s arrived shortly thereafter.”
Makckey and Gang circled again in the area homing on the survival radio, when as Mackey explains “The survivors noted the helicopter and popped red smoke; the HH-43 went into a hover and started to lower the sling. I remember thinking, ‘This is really a smooth operation.’ Suddenly, the rescue helicopter was shot down, crashing almost on top of the survivor. We had seen no ground fire until then. It happened so fast that I didn’t actually see the crash. We called in Huskie number two, who started taking fire immediately on arrival in the area. He shortly called an abort, stating he had a crew member hit and was leaking fuel in the cabin.”
Mackey and Gang called in all the fighters in the area and began putting air strikes around the crash site to give the chance to escape to the downed crews. “We stayed in the area for about two hours until dark, trying to give the survivors a best shot at evading. One of the helicopter crew almost made it to the Thai border before being captured. When we got back to Udorn we counted about a dozen holes in the aircraft. Score of the day: one F-105 and one HH-43 down; one HH-43 and two A-1Es damaged; and no rescues. […] I thought, ‘This is going to be a very interesting month’.”
Later the same month Mackey’s flight was able to cover a successful pickup of an F-105 pilot down near Dien Bien Phu, but they had two very frustrating and unsuccessful missions as well: an F-105 and an F-4C. “Capt. Doyle Ruff took major damage from a large gun he ran across near Route 6 west if Hanoi while we were looking for the F-105 pilot in poor weather. With over 150 holes in the airplane – one in the right wing big enough to jump through – he was fortunate to be able to get the ship back to Udorn. But we all survived.”
The following footage (which actually is one of the awesome aerial sequences featured in the movie Flight of the Intruder) gives you an idea of what a Sandy sortie was like.
The A-1 Skyraider in Vietnam is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
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