The Flying Dorito
The US Navy kicked off the Advanced Tactical Aircraft Program in 1983. The goal of the program was to procure a replacement for the Grumman A-6 Intruder. At the time, the Vought A-7 Corsair II was filling the carrier ground attack role, and the F-18 Hornet was being developed as a general-purpose fighter aircraft. Neither the A-7 nor the F-18 was intended for night or poor weather attack duty, thus leaving the job to A-6. The Intruder was well liked, and deservedly so, but it was a 1960 design and therefore already a generation-old airplane by 1983.
In 1988, a contract for the new aircraft was awarded to McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics, who would be working together on the project. Their design was dubbed the A-12 Avenger II, and a radical design it was. The Navy wanted stealth capability, so a stealthy, futuristic flying wing layout was selected. Since it was intended for carrier plane, the aircraft was relatively small with folding wings. From above, the concept drawings looked almost perfectly triangular, earning it the comical nickname “Flying Dorito.”
The projected capabilities of the Flying Dorito were impressive, and expectations were high, with the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force all ordering significant quantities. Unfortunately, the administration of the program was messy, and the modern composite materials required to actually construct a plane with the A-12’s specifications were not available. By 1990 the plane was overweight, over budget, and behind schedule. The engineers had spent seven years and roughly $5 billion on development, and all they had to show was a full-size mockup.
In January 1991, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney canceled the A-12 project. Both parties demanded to be reimbursed for expenses, and the ensuing legal battle dragged on until 2014 (!). The largely forgotten mockup plane that cost so much money and strife is currently an outdoor display at the Fort Worth Aviation Museum.
The A-12 Avenger II is just one tiny part of the story of US military attack aviation. Dozens of fantastic designs have been produced by proud firms such as Grumman and Vought, and these planes have been heroically flown into harm’s way by thousands of pilots from the Army Air Corps, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. US Attack Aviation: Air Force and Navy Light Attack, 1916 to the Present by RG Head is the most comprehensive record of this subject to date. Mr. Head is a retired Air Force brigadier general, with 325 combat missions to go with command and procurement experience, and even 15 years of private-sector systems engineering work done in close collaboration with the Navy. His firsthand involvement in attack aviation, over the course of several decades and from a wide variety of perspectives, makes him the perfect author for this project.