Do you recognize this airplane? Probably not. Only two of them were ever built, and the program was canceled by the US Navy before production began. This is the Douglas XB2D Skypirate. It was designed by the brilliant Douglas engineer Ed Heinemann, who is known for creating some of our most successful warplanes, such as the TBD Dauntless dive bomber, the A-20 Havoc and the A-26 Invader, the A-3 Skywarrior, and the A-4 Skyhawk. And while you may not know the Skypirate, you will almost certainly know what it became.
As WWII raged in 1942, the Navy started looking for a dedicated torpedo bomber to replace the outdated Douglas TBD Devastator. Heinemann proposed the Devastator II, later called the Skypirate, a huge, heavy and complex plane by WWII-era carrier standards. The XB2D was powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major driving contra-rotating propellers, and would have been armed with four torpedoes (the Devastator carried just one) or four 2000 pound bombs, along with two 20mm cannons or four .50 caliber machine guns in the wings and twin .50s in a powered dorsal turret for self defense. The Skypirate took its first flight in March of 1945. The Japanese would surrender just six months later, ending WWII. The Skypirate was canceled.
But the story of the Skypirate doesn’t end with the Navy’s cancellation of the project. Rather than relegate the design to the dustbin of aviation design history, Heinemann, along with fellow engineer Bob Donovan, took the Colin Chapman approach: Simplify, then add lightness.
Heinemann figured out that for every 100 pounds of weight savings they could find, the airplane’s takeoff distance would be decreased by 8 ft, the combat radius would be increased by 22 miles, and the rate of climb would increase by 18 ft/min. So they wielded their cutlasses and began slashing the Skypirate. They saved 270 pounds by simplifying the fuel system; they lopped off 200 pounds by eliminating the internal bomb bay and using wing mounted pylons for ordnance; they shaved off 70 pounds by using a fuselage-mounted dive brake; they found 100 pounds more weight savings by ditching the nose wheel; they removed the dorsal turret, and eliminated two crewmen. Then they swapped the Wasp Major and its contra-rotating propeller for a Wright R-3350, saving about 1000 pounds. In all, Heinemann and his team found over 1800 pounds of weight that could be trimmed from the Skypirate. The result was the XTB2D-1, which would come to be known as the A-1 Skyraider, one of the greatest combat aircraft ever produced.
The Skyraider was a prop-driven anachronism in a jet age, affectionately given the nickname “Spad” by its pilots after the WWI French fighter plane. Starting with a Wright R-3350 radial engine, and later upgraded with more powerful engines, the Skyraider’s straight wing design gave it excellent low-speed maneuverability over the battlefield, and enabled the Spad to carry 8000 pounds of ordnance, equal to a B-17G Flying Fortress. Its piston engine gave it an enormous range and excellent loiter time over the target. The Skyraider was beloved by the troops on the ground for its ability to deliver munitions accurately against the enemy, and it saw combat with devastating effectiveness in both Korea and Vietnam. It wasn’t until the introduction of the LTV A-7 Corsair II, a subsonic jet, in the 1970s that the Spad was eventually phased out.