The world’s only flying On Mark B-26K Counter Invader turned heads at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2018.
Warbird enthusiasts respond to the restorations that fly in to events like EAA AirVenture. Some warbirds are all sleek and shiny sex appeal; a few are gritty working machines. The B-26K at Oshkosh hit the sweet spot with meticulous attention to detail that makes this bomber a time machine.
And that’s part of its new mission. Scott Carson, whose credentials include Air Force service in Southeast Asia, told a crowd of several hundred at a Warbirds in Review session that this B-26K has the mission to honor veterans of the war in Southeast Asia and “bring these guys home.”
This B-26K was one of 40 Douglas Invaders upgraded and extensively modified by On Mark Engineering at Van Nuys, California, in the 1960s. Aging standard Invaders had suffered wing failures in the early 1960s. On Mark had already developed wing strengthening measures for its line of business aircraft made by converting surplus Invaders.
The B-26K brought night warfare to the communists’ Ho Chi Minh supply route into South Vietnam from 1966-1969. Some K-models also served in combat in the Congo in 1964.
This particular K-model was not sent overseas. After serving as a stateside trainer, it was sent to the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona around 1970.
In May 1971, the state of Georgia acquired the B-26K, intending to convert it to a firefighting air tanker. A change in plans and a mishap in Macon led to the sale of the aircraft to Lynch Flying Service in Montana in 1978.
Never converted by Lynch into an air tanker, this K-model was long considered for restoration as a warbird. Its hiatus at Lynch saved the K-model from the scrapper.
The Lynch family sold the B-26K, and it made a ferry flight to its new home with the Vintage Flying Museum in Fort Worth in 2010.
But there’s a long, arduous trail from “ferryable” to “restored,” and the airplane, now nicknamed Special Kay, was not flown again until last year.
When the group began the restoration process in 2010, they filled two garbage cans with debris — like bird nests — from the airframe.
JR Hoffman is crew chief and restoration lead for “Special Kay’s restoration team, which totals about 65 volunteers over the years.” Warbird restorations don’t come cheap, and Hoffman figures the price tag on this rebuild “is somewhere north of $900,000.”
Tasks include rebuilding the R-2800 engines by Anderson Aeromotive in Grangeville, Idaho. Anderson has become the go-to shop for many warbird radial engine projects.
The restoration crew also made sure the details were correct on Special Kay. The eight .50-caliber nose guns are represented, along with the stainless steel flexible ammunition chutes and micarta ammunition boxes required to feed the weapons.
The paint on Special Kay is a well-applied matte Southeast Asia camouflage pattern that visually transports visitors to the humid airfield in Thailand that hosted combat K-models. That’s where mechanics laboriously poured tar into holes in the metal mat ramp so the reverse pitch propellers of the B-26Ks would not kick up rocks that could damage the bombers.
Hoffman told the gathering that the B-26K has some custom features not present on earlier Invaders, including gap seals for the control surfaces that improve performance, and bigger Bendix brakes like those applied to the C-119.
Special Kay flew a special sortie over Oshkosh when retired Air Force Col. Tim Black, who flew B-26Ks in combat over Southeast Asia, took to the skies again in this K-model. Flying with Colonel Black at Oshkosh was Bruce Gustafson, who had been his trusty navigator during those night missions over hostile mountainous terrain.
Gustafson told a poignant story about his previous last flight in a K-model, when he and Colonel Black ferried one to the boneyard in Arizona. Once in parking, the two sat in the cockpit with engines running, not wanting to shut the Counter Invader down for probably the last time.
“We didn’t want to give it up,” he told the Oshkosh crowd.
The crew from Vintage Flying Museum see their B-26K as a vehicle to reach back to honor Southeast Asia veterans while simultaneously reaching forward to engage youth in the restoration and operation of warbirds.
And while doing that, they’ve gained accolades for their workmanship. At EAA AirVenture 2018, the B-26K earned Best Bomber bragging rights, along with a Silver Wrench award.
A-26 or B-26: What’s in a Name?
The Douglas Invader flew under three designations in as many wars. When this attack bomber design was introduced during World War II, it was the A-26 Invader. Meanwhile, over at the Martin plant, the entirely different B-26 Marauder was built.
When the Martin Marauders were retired with the end of World War II, the Douglas A-26 Invader was redesignated the B-26 Invader, and that’s how it was known during the Korean War.
So when On Mark produced the beefy Counter Invader in 1964, it gained the nomenclature B-26K.
Things got dicey when Counter Invaders were sent to a base in Thailand in 1966, due to some Thai restrictions on the basing of bombers. The problem was neatly solved by taking the B-26K out of the bomber category and into the attack realm by renaming it the A-26A.
The sleek Douglas Invader has been an aircraft with aliases throughout its life.