Historical Pilot - A-20 Havoc spanned the war with grace and speed
THE DOUGLAS A-20 HAVOC ATTACK BOMBER REPRESENTS AN ADVANCED PRE-WAR DESIGN THAT PROVED EFFECTIVE IN COMBAT IN WORLD WAR II. MODIFICATIONS KEPT THE A-20 VIABLE TO THE END OF THE WAR.
The A-20 was a sporty design, with a narrow fuselage just wide enough for a single-pilot cockpit. The crew was either two or three, depending on variant. R-2600 engines mated to Hamilton Standard three-bladed propellers gave the A-20 a top speed well over 300 miles an hour. In some scenarios, A-20s made minimum-altitude ground attacks with hit-and-run dash capabilities.
In the South Pacific, General Kenney’s Fifth Air Force embraced the use of small parachute bombs he had devised many years before the war. A-20s and other bombers dropped these bombs from low altitude over parked enemy aircraft, the parachutes slowing their fall while the A-20s escaped their blast.The intensity of antiaircraft fire over continental Europe in 1944 and 1945 saw A-20s and other bombers prosecute the war from higher altitudes than treetop level. By the end of the war A-20s were quickly retired and by 1945 the A-26 Invader was the attack bomber of choice.
Some A-20s contributed to flight test research. In April 1942, an A-20 with internal liquid-fuel JATO assemblies in the nacelles pioneered the exploration of assisted take-offs, whilst an A-20G test used tracked landing gear to spread the load over unprepared surfaces.
The genesis of the design that became the A-20 began with the Douglas Model 7A of 1936, strongly influenced by designer Ed Heinemann. The airplane grew as a high-performance attack aircraft with the Model 7B prototype that first flew on 26 October 1938. Nine months later the Army Air Forces placed an order for the twin-engine attack bomber as the A-20. The first user of the new warplane was France, that ordered hundreds under the designation DB-7. The DB-7 used 1000-horsepower Pratt and Whitney R-1830 engines and featured a smaller vertical tail than subsequent A-20s. Next was the DB-7B, equivalent to the AAF’s A-20, using Wright R-2600 engines of 1600 horsepower. Turbo superchargers were applied, but the A-20’s operating altitude was typically too low to benefit from the turbos, so they were deleted on most production aircraft. Those built with turbos were modified, either as P-70-night fighters or F-3 photo recognisance aircraft, both of which could leverage the high-altitude benefits of turbo super chargers.
The A-20A of 1939 and 1940 eliminated the complexity and weight of turbos and was the first bomber variant in mass production for the Army Air Forces. The A-model was also designed with a quirky defensive armament, the placement of a .30-caliber machine gun aimed rearward from each long engine nacelle. A few A-20Es were modified A-models that probably retained their original serial numbers and are largely lost to history. The 999-production model A-20Bs for the Army Air Forces were about five inches longer than adjacent models due to changes in the nose glazing. The lone XA-20B, converted from an A-20A, tested power dorsal and ventral turrets as did the XA-20F.
To facilitate overseas orders for the Douglas DB-7B attack bomber, Boeing contracted in May 1940 to build them in Seattle. Among the first produced were 240 for a French order, which was taken over by England after the fall of France in 1940. These were delivered in Royal Air Force markings between October 1941 and March 1942. Boeing production continued with 140 Army Air Forces A-20Cs, built to British Boston III standards. Some went to the RAF and others flew with the Army Air Forces.
By now the basic production rationale and style were set for the A-20. Crew consisted of one pilot in a narrow cockpit, with a bombardier in the glazed nose ahead of the pilot and a gunner in the fuselage just behind the wing. The C-model, which deleted the nacelle machine guns, represented an effort to standardise production for the Army Air Forces and Great Britain. Ultimately, the A-20 series came to be known as the Havoc in the Army Air Forces, this name coined by the British for their fighter and intruder versions.
The next production version of the Havoc for the Army Air Forces was the A-20G,representing two key changes. Gone was the Plexiglas bombardier nose, replaced with an aluminium nose housing strafing armament that varied between .50 calibre and 20-millimeter on some models. Then, starting with the A-20G Block 20, the aft fuselage widened by six inches to accommodate a Martin power gun turret in an aft dorsal location. Underwing bomb racks on the G-model could double the bomb load from 2,000 to 4,000 pounds. The A-20H was like the G-model but featured a different R-2600 engine that promised a modest increase in speed. A return to bombardier noses with fewer metal ribs resulted in the A-20J, based on the G-model and A-20K, based on the H. The final A-20 rolled out by Douglas left the plant on 20 September 1944. Douglas built a total 7,385 of the bombers.
In addition to bomber versions, the A-20 emerged as the F-3 photo aircraft, based initially on early A-20 models. Later, some A-20Js and Kays became F-3As. Other early A-20s were fitted with radar acquired from the British. They received revised armament as P-70-night fighters. Some saw operational duty. Other P-70s found their greatest value as trainers for P-61 Black Widow night fighter crews. The Soviets used several thousand A-20s, sometimes prosecuting the war from extreme low altitudes. A few A-20s survived and several museums display Havocs in the United States and in other parts of the world. In the US, collector Rod Lewis’ A-20G is a flying example seen at airshows around the country.