First of the 86th

by Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

Tracing back the lineage of the 86 Airlift Wing, one finds it was started just after the attack on Pearl Harbor and designated the 86th Dive Bomber Group.

 Its first aircraft was one that is little known today and is never used by Army Air Force in combat – the Vultee A-31 Vengeance.

In fact, the Vengeance was a product of the stunning success of the German Ju 87 Stuka in the Spanish Civil War, which had a major impact on the French Armee le Aire and Britain’s Royal Air Force, neither of which lacked a dive bomber.

The United States had a dive bomber – the Navy’s SBD Dauntless (which also briefly served in the 86th under the AAF designation of A-24) – but all the SBD production was going to the Navy, so both the French and British Purchasing Commission came to the United States looking for a dive bomber had to have a new one designed and built.

The most promising proposal was the Vultee V-72, which seemed to offer significant advantages over any current dive bomber.

The V-72 was powered by a powerful 1,600 horsepower engine, had retractable landing gear (the Stuka had fixed, high drag landing gear) and carried two heavy bombs internally (both the Stuka and the Dauntless carried a single heavy bomb externally).

The British were so impressed they ordered 600, and the first prototype, now named the Vengeance Mk. I, flew on March 30, 1941.

It was a large, mid-wing monoplane with a long, one piece canopy and a very unusual W-shaped wing. The wing was also set at a 0 degree angle of incidence to keep the nose down in a vertical dive, but this also meant the Vengeance flew nose high and had very poor forward visibility.

Although the first Vengeances were just arriving in the United Kingdom in December 1941, an improved version, a Vengeance Mk. II, had been developed and the Royal Air Force ordered a total of 1,500.

Then, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, the American attitude toward the Vengeances changed. Faced with huge losses of tactical aircraft in the Pacific, the Army Air Force repossessed a number of the Vengeances, designated them the A-31 and provided them to newly forming units, including the 86th Dive Bomber Group.

They served briefly in the 86th, supplemented by A-24s, the AAF version of the Dauntless, and the A-20 Havoc light bomber.

These aircraft were replaced by the A-36 Apache, the dive bomber version of the P-51 Mustang, and the 86th DBG went to war in the A-36. Surprisingly, the British were not overly concerned when the delivery of the Vengeances stopped temporarily. The RAF’s success against the slow Stuka in the Battle of Britain made them think the day of the dive bomber was over (it was not, but that is another story) and they began to cast about for a role for the Vengeance.

Since they were considered vulnerable to enemy fighters, the RAF sent them to an area where few enemy fighters were likely to be found – the Burma-India Theater. There was a great deal of ground combat there, and the accurate dive bombing of the Vengeances was lauded by the ground troops.

While it was adequate, the Vengeance was not in the same class of dive bombers as the Stuka and the Dauntless.

Dive bombing procedures had to be followed precisely or it would not recover; it had center of gravity problems and a very long takeoff roll – not ideal for Asia’s hot climate.

Four RAF squadrons in Asia received Vengeances, as well as two Indian Air Force squadrons and five squadrons in the Royal Australian Air Force.

The Vengeances were eventually replaced by more versatile fighter bombers, usually the P-47 Thunderbolt as they became available in mid-1944. When they retired from combat, many Vengeances were used as target tug with a winch mounted on the side to extend and retract a towed target sleeve.

And why did the Vengeance have a W-shaped wing?

It was not a bold aeronautical experiment for improved performance; the design was caused because the engineers had miscalculated the center of gravity.

By the time it was discovered, the prototype was under construction and sweeping the outer wing forward was easier than reworking the whole fuselage to relocate the wing root.

For questions or comments, contact Dr. Michel at