Decals: Three versions (2 for USAF Korean War, 1 for USAAF World War II)
Comments: Rivets complicate decal adhesion; Nose weight essential
When designers Ed Heinemann and Robert Donovan began developing the A-26 Invader for Douglas Aircraft in 1941, their goal was to build a state-of-the-art attack bomber that would succeed the A-20 Havoc, with better performance and a heavier payload. The A-26 incorporated certain features from its predecessor, including a tricycle landing gear, additional bomb racks under the wings, and a large, central bomb bay in the fuselage. Heinemann and Donovan had no idea the type would be flown by the U.S. military not only in the coming World War, but also in Korea, Vietnam, and a series of smaller brush-fire wars, counterinsurgency and paramilitary operations, including the failed U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961.
Initially, there were 3 prototypes. The first prototype XA-26 was a three-man attack bomber with a glass nose for the bombardier/navigator — this later became the XA-26C. The second was a two-man nightfighter (XA-26A), carrying an Airborne Intercept radar in an elongated nose and four 20mm cannon in a ventral tray beneath the bomb bay. The XA-26A program was ultimately cancelled, since its performance was not much better than the Northrop P-61 Black Widow, which was further along in development. The third (the XA-26B) had a three-man crew and a solid nose that could be equipped with various armament options, including six or eight .50 caliber machine guns, or a 75mm cannon. The first prototype XA-26 took its maiden flight on July 10, 1942. Afterward its test pilot, Ben Howard, told Army officials that the plane was ready for action, but it would be nearly two years before the A-26 went into service.
The gun-nosed X-A26B was ordered into production, but not with the 75mm cannon, since the gun was found to have too slow a rate of fire. The glass-nosed XA-26C also went into production, although the C designation initially went to an experimental gun-nosed version carrying four 20mm cannon.
The hopes for putting the A-26 into production quickly were not realized. Douglas Aircraft, involved in massive war production of multiple aircraft for the U.S. military, including the DC-3/C-47 Skytrain, SBD Dauntless dive bomber, and the A-20 Havoc, could not assign the required number of engineers to the A-26 program. Other factors, such as a shortage of manufacturing equipment and the Army’s inability to arrive at a quick decision on the design of the all-metal nose of the A-26B, caused multiple delays. The prototype flown in July 1942 did not go into production until September 1943, and did not see widespread service until the Fall of 1944. Nonetheless, the XA-26 eventually justified test pilot Howard’s high praise.
The glass-nosed A-26C with its bombardier’s position in the nose was otherwise identical to the gun-nosed A-26B. Like the A-20, the A-26 had a single pilot’s seat in the cockpit, but also had a fuselage wide enough to accomodate a jumpseat to the right and slightly behind the pilot. Bombardiers in the A-26C were discouraged from riding in the nose for take-off, since the nose had a tendency to break off in crashes with deadly consequences. The bombardier generally rode up in the jumpseat for take-off, climbing down into the nose through a crawlspace in the right side of the cockpit bulkhead once airborne. Both the A-26B and C had two remotely controlled gun turrets with a pair of .50 caliber machine guns each, mounted on the top and bottom of the fuselage aft of the bomb bay. They were controlled by a gunner in a compartment also aft of the bomb bay with a periscope sight similar to that used on the B-29. The upper turret could be turned forward and fired by the pilot during strafing runs, together with any nose guns.
All A-26C’s benefited from improvements to the early A-26B’s, chief among them a redesign of the heavy frame canopy. This was so unpopular on the B version because pilots exited the plane by swinging the rear portion of the canopy up and forward toward the nose. This made getting out in an emergency nearly impossible, since he was struggling to move the canopy against the slipstream. The first canopy was replaced with a clamshell style version whose two halves swung outward and featured less metal and more Plexiglas, were lighter and offered much better visibility. The A-26 Invader had a total bomb load of 6,000 pounds, 2,000 of them in under wing racks outboard of the engine nacelles. Later versions featured launchers under the wings for 5-inch high velocity aircraft rockets (HVAR). The Invader could carry two or four .50 caliber gun pods beneath its wings, with two guns to a pod. While they increased the available firepower, the increased drag cut the Invader’s top speed. Later versions beefed up the firepower without sacrificing speed by installing three .50 caliber guns internally in each wing.
World War II
The Invader’s debut in the Pacific Theatre in the Summer of 1944 was unimpressive. The first unit to receive gun-nosed A-26B’s was the 13th Bomb Squadron, 3rd Bomb Group in New Guinea, which was operating A-20’s at the time. Two criticisms of the Invader came in relatively quickly: poor cockpit visibility, and lack of firepower for strafing (none of the A-26’s had under wing gun pods). Visibility was a serious concern due to the low-level attacks against Japanese targets which the 13th frequently flew. The commander of the 5th Air Force to which the 13th was assigned, stated upon completion of the evaluation that he had no desire for the A-26’s to replace any of his current planes, and all four of the evaluation aircraft were left behind when 3rd Bomb Group moved out for the Phillipines.
A second evaluation got underway when 18 A-26B’s were sent to the 553rd Bomb Squadron, 386th Bomb Group in England in August 1944. In September, 8 missions were flown with no losses. Air crews liked the new plane, which had better range than the B-26 Marauder or A-20 Havoc, and by late November enough A-26C’s had arrived to fly sorties with the 409th Bomb Group during the Battle of the Bulge. The Invader’s war service was solid but unremarkable, due mainly to the fact that the Allies had achieved air superiority by the time it entered service late in the war. Fighter opposition was rare, and most losses were incurred by flak during the medium bombing and low-level strafing attacks against German formations that made up the bulk of the missions.
The Invader played a critical air interdiction role in the early stages of the Korean War, when the U.S. was caught relatively unprepared for a major conflict in the Far East. Redesignated the B-26 by the newly created U.S. Air Force in 1947 (the original Martin B-26 Marauder, a rather unforgiving aircraft, was scrapped at war’s end), the Invader was reclassified as a light bomber when the attack designation was dropped.
Within days of the North Korean invasion on June 25, 1950, B-26 crews of the 3rd Bomb Group based at Iwakuni, Japan were ordered to provide air cover for the evacuation of U.S. personnel and their dependents in Korea. On June 29th the Group was ordered to make the first air attack into North Korea at the large enemy base at Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Subsequent attacks destroyed North Korea’s small air force, consisting largely of Russian-made propeller-driven Yak-3 fighters. Air interdiction and ground support missions quickly followed as North Korean ground forces streamed south, squeezing U.S. and South Korean troops into the Pusan Perimeter. Air support, provided in part by the B-26, bought time during these first critical weeks and helped prevent South Korea from being entirely overrun.
In a few months, as American air power in the region was built up, it became too hazardous for the North Koreans to move troops and supplies by day. B-26 squadrons switched to night operations, working with C-47 “Firefly” transports dropping flares to illuminate troop movements, or in hunter-killer pairs sent to seek out and destroy enemy truck columns. B-26’s operated in Korea for the duration of the war, occasionally returning to daylight bombing but doing most work at night.
Cuba and Vietnam
The CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba was preceded by a single wave of air strikes by B-26 bombers launched from Nicaragua and painted in the scheme of Fuerza Aerea Revolucionaria (FAR), the Cuban Air Force. Their objective was to destroy the FAR — mostly armed Lockheed T-33 jet trainers provided to the Batista regime by the United States — on the ground. During April 15-16, 1961, B-26 strikes destroyed only part of the T-33 force, and one flight of B-26’s was mauled by Castro’s jets. President Kennedy cancelled a planned second air strike due to political concerns about the “noise level” of the the operation and the desire to conceal U.S. involvment — assuring Castro’s air superiority over the invasion beach head. At least four American B-26 crewmen, members of the Alabama Air National Guard recruited for the operation by the CIA, were killed during the operation. While the Invaders failed to achieve their objective, their force was too small to accomplish it in less than two air strikes. The cancellation of the second strike was fatal to the entire operation, but had the strike proceeded, success was still not assured, since in the 5 hours it took to return to Nicaragua, re-arm, re-fuel, and fly back to Cuba, the element of surprise would have been lost.
Vietnam was the Invader’s swan song. While still in service with the U.S. Air Force as a transport by 1960, many Invaders had been sold to several air forces all over the world as surplus aircraft, a key reason the CIA had selected it for the Bay of Pigs operation. The B-26 took on a counterinsurgency role, which often required slower, propeller-driven aircraft. Four RB-26’s were sent to Vietnam in late 1961 as part of the Farm Gate program, performing reconnaissance missions for the South Vietnamese and their American advisors. Ultimately a force of 12 aircraft arrived in-country, all flying combat missions until structural failures in flight forced the B-26 from service in early 1964. But the Invader soon returned to Southeast Asia after several airframes were rebuilt by On Mark Engineering specifically as counterinsurgency aircraft, and designated B-26K. Operating from Thailand with the 609th Special Operations Squadron, the newly modified Invaders reprised their role as night interdiction bombers, this time against targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They also saw a great deal of action over Laos in the Plain of Jars region in support of the pro-Western forces of General Vang Pao, and performed other classified missions near the Chinese border. The Invader was withdrawn from service for the last time in 1969, and in 1972, the last known airworthy example was turned over to the National Air and Space Museum.
A total of 1,086 A-26C’s were built at Douglas’ Tulsa, Oklahoma plant. Five more rolled off the assembly line at Long Beach, California.
Wingspan: 70 feet (21.34 meters)
Length: 50 feet, 8 inches (15.44 meters)
Height: 18 feet, 6 inches (5.64 meters)
Weight, Empty: 22,362 pounds (10,143 kilos)
Weight, Fully Loaded: 41,800 pounds (18,960 kilos)
Powerplant: Two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 18-cylinder air cooled radial engines
Armament (A-26C): Ten to eighteen .50 caliber machine guns; 6,000 pound bomb load (2,373 kilos)
Maximum Speed: 322 mph (518 kph)
Service ceiling: 24,500 feet (7, 470 meters)
Range: 2,914 miles (4,690 kilometers)
MPC’s A-26 Invader is an old Airfix mold, so assembly was uneventful except for the need to install weights in the nose and the forward part of the engine nacelles to ensure the model did not tip back on its tail. Since I chose to build the Plexiglas-nosed A-26C, my options for nose weights were limited. I chose to pack the hidden area of the cockpit below the instrument panel with ball bearings, but that was not enough. Next I glued metal bolts just behind the engines using expoxy, but still the tail tipped. Finally, more ball bearings up front in the bombardier’s compartment, and still more in the nose wheel bay got the job done, and the kit sits on its tricycle landing gear as it should. Other than replacing the kit decals, I built the kit straight out of the box with one exception — the turret machine guns. They were totally lacking in detail, and I replaced them with gun barrels from the 1/72 Quick Boost set for the P-61 Black Widow.
The kit interior (cockpit, bombardier/navigator’s compartment, rear gunner’s compartment, and bomb bay) is painted Model Master acrylic Yellow Zinc Chromate. I installed the landing gear and masked them and their bays before painting the exterior of the kit Tamiya Semi-Gloss black. In Korea, the previously natural metal B-26’s were re-painted gloss black when they switched to night operations after the first few months of the war. The landing gear were more delicate than I realized and each one of them broke as I removed the masking after the paint job. Luckily, I was able to repair each one without incident. The wing tips and top of the tail are painted Model Master acrylic Navy Red, another paint scheme detail that was unique to the Invader’s Korean service. “Dream Girl” is painted entirely in enamels and is based on an actual aircraft that flew with the 452nd Bombardment Group in Korea. The 452nd was a reserve unit that operated from August 1950 to May 1952, when it was deactivated and its personnel and planes were absorbed by the 17th Bomb Group.
Since the kit is about 35 years old, its decals, while intact, were in no condition to be used. I replaced them with an Aeromaster set, “Invaders in the Sky,” and the actual markings depict a plane of the 12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron based at Kimpo Air Base, 1953. Aeromaster’s decals were excellent as always, but given the sea of rivets all along the surface of this kit, getting them to lie down required multiple applications of Micro Sol decal solvent, which is usually enough to destroy decals of lesser quality. Even then, touch-up painting was required to mask several tiny air pockets that remained.
This kit was fun and very easy to assemble, but if you are a real Invader fan I recommend newer molds that offer superior detail, and it’s worth paying more for the best kit you can find. The Invader has a certain mystique about it, given its rather unique place in Cold War history, having served in both the Cuba operation and America’s secret war in Laos, in addition to Vietnam. If I were to build this kit again, I’d begin by sanding down all the rivets, and I’d consider an Eduard photo-etch set for the cockpit. Definitely recommended, since the ease of construction and interesting history of the subject make up for its relative lack of detail.
- A-26 Invader in Action by Jim Mesko, Squadron Signal Publications, 1993;
- Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story by Peter Wyden, Simon and Schuster, 1979;
- “CIA Documents Confirm U.S. Deaths at Bay of Pigs,” Los Angeles Times, March 17,1998.
- Douglas A-26 Invader: Walk Around No. 51 by Jim Mesko, Squadron Signal Publications, 2008;
- The Korean War by Max Hastings, Simon and Schuster, 1987;