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FEEDING FRENZY

by MICHAEL O’LEARY

AIR CLASSICS MAGAZINE NOVEMBER 1995

Finished in markings to honor the Douglas A-26 Invaders that saw combat during the Korean War, this particular aircraft has a very interesting history and, at one time, was even piloted by Howard Hughes!

With the final defeat of Nazi Germany, much of Europe lay in abject ruin. France, in particular, had been subjected to years of Nazi domination and a majority of the country’s industry had been destroyed or taken over to provide equipment for the German war machine - often using slave labor. France’s once-proud aeronautical industry had, with the Battle of France, been largely destroyed by those enterprising Germans soon realized that the French could build quality airframes, components, and engines so surviving factories were conscripted into building a wide variety of German designs - from Ju 52s to FW 190s.

As France struggled to regain international stature following six years of warfare, that nation’s overseas colonies were beginning to cause trouble - perhaps sensing the inherent weakness of the "mother" nation. Those pesky colonials in French Indochina were doing more than causing trouble - there was active warfare going on with a strong, motivated force of communist-inspired insurgents. To counteract these forces and to protect France’s heavy financial stake in the area, France needed to get military forces to Indochina in a hurry. However, the French Air Force had basically ceased to exist and rebuilding the force was proving costly and time consuming. It was decided to keep building some of the German designs after the end of the war simply to keep the industry employed until newer French designs could be created.

As France began to rebuild during the late 1940s, action started to really heat up in French Indochina, France called up on the United States for military assistance. In a program similar to WWII’s Lend-Lease, the French were supplied with a variety of surplus US aircraft that included C47s, Hellcats, Bearcats, Kingcobras -and Douglas Invaders.

During the closing stages of WWII, the Invader had rapidly proven itself to be a tough combat machine: Fast, heavily-armed, and maneuverable, the Invader quickly became a "jack-of-all-trades," hitting enemy targets by day and night and even taking on enemy fighters. After the conclusion of hostilities, the USAAF decided to keep the Invader in its inventory while many of its combat brethren were assigned to the smelter.

However, there were many Invaders surplus to Air Force requirements and some of these aircraft were stored at various locations across the country. Beginning in 1950, USAF and French representatives started picking low-time airframes from these storage yards and preparing the aircraft for shipment to France and Indochina. One of these aircraft was A-26B USAAF s/n 44-34538, an Invader that had been built at Long Beach during the closing days of the war. Instead of being assigned to a combat unit, the A-26 was flown to the storage facility at Hill Army Air Force Base in Utah where it was put aside for possible future use - a use that came to fruition when the low-time airframe was selected by the French.

In January 1951, the Groupe de Bombardement of the Armee de l’Air was formed at Tourane with 111 Invaders (consisting of RB-26Cs, B-26Cs, and b-26Bs - the aircraft had picked up the "B" designation after the Martin Marauder had been phased out of the USAF inventory) on loan from America. Three Invader bomber groups were created within this organization (GB 1/19 Gascogne, 1/25 Tunisie, and 1/91 Bourgogne) along with a lone reconnaissance flight (Escadrille de Reconnaissance Photographique ERP 2/19 Armagnac).

The Invader-armed units were soon in Indochina where they did considerable damage against the communist insurgents - but not enough damage to prevent the final communist victory. Out of this group, 25 Invaders were lost in combat or in accidents while one machine was purchased outright by the French government. The remainder of the survivors were handed back to the United States.

Invader ‘538 was assigned to 1/19 Gascogne and saw combat action in French Indochina, receiving light flak damage on several occasions. The aircraft passed through Clark Field in the Philippines after French service and then was, presumably, put into storage - perhaps at Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona.

When the government began clearing out lots of surplus Invaders in the early 1960s (some going to On Mark at Van Nuys for conversion to Counter Invader status to fight in the "new" Indochina war), ‘538 was purchased by Rock Island Oil and Refining Company, Wichita, Kansas, and assigned the civil registration N6839D. Rock Island bought numerous ex-military Invaders and may have been contemplating some form of executive conversion or resale to third world air forces (if readers have more information on this company, we would appreciate details).

By 1966, N6839D had been sold to Hughes Aircraft Company in Culver City, California, to join several other Invaders. The aircraft was internally modified to carry electronic equipment relating to the development of missile warheads and guidance systems. Seats were provided in the rear fuselage for several technicians, the bomb bay doors were sealed and equipment racks and wiring installed. Several different styles of nose were built for the aircraft and the Invader was finished in an overall white and blue paint scheme.

After Hughes moved its flight test division from Culver City of Van Nuys, the Invader could be seen operating regularly out of the field, often with some form of missile sensor protruding from the nose. Even though the Invader was a rugged and reliable aircraft, time did take its toll and the company disposed of the plane in 1988 (its place being taken by a fleet of surplus Douglas A-3 Skywarriors that are operating out of Van Nuys on the same mission.)

The craft was purchased by an airline pilot in Seattle who painted the plane overall black but undertook little flying. In 1990, Film producer Bill Timmer made the decision to buy the Warbird and had the craft flown to Van Nuys where extensive work was undertaken on the Invader and its systems. Along with N6839D (which soon had its registration changed to N34538 to match the "last five" of its military serial), Timmer had also purchased the extensive ex-Hughes parts holdings for the Invader.

Although Timmer wanted the Invader to remain a functional aircraft that could be utilized in his business, he also wanted the plane to have more original military equipment and, accordingly, added a top turret shell, wing guns, and a glass C model nose that was obtained from Aero Union. Many of the Hughes modifications were also removed and a set of bomb bay doors have been obtained from Air Spray in Canada and will be fitted as time permits. Bill Timmer had the black scheme touched up and finished the craft in representative Korean war markings to honor the USAF’s extensive use of the Invader in that conflict.

Fitted with freshly overhauled Pratt & Whitney R-2800s, the Invader, named Feeding Frenzy, is based at Burbank Airport and regularly flown by Bruce Guberman with Ken Levin as crew chief. Bill Timmer not only utilizes the aircraft for business but also regularly displays the Invader at west coast airshows where spectators can admire one of America’s most efficient combat aircraft.

November 1995

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