The U.S. Air Force’s First ‘Raider’ Was a Funky Transport Plane

September 27, 2016 0

The military should have named the new B-21 the Raider II by JOSEPH TREVITHICK On Sept. 19, 2016, after poring over thousands of online submissions,...

The military should have named the new B-21 the Raider II


On Sept. 19, 2016, after poring over thousands of online submissions, the U.S. Air Force announced the official moniker of the top-secret B-21 bomber would be “Raider.” However, under the traditional method of handling reused names, the flying branch should have named the sleek flying wing “Raider II.”

More than 65 years earlier, Northrop had delivered the first plane to carry the Raider nickname to the Air Force. A far cry from the up-coming stealth bomber, this aircraft was a funky propeller-driven transport.

The original Raider served only five years. Truth be told, the Air Force and Northrop Grumman probably both hoped this Raider would remain obscure.

Engineers at California-based Northrop cooked up the N-23 Pioneer — the plane that would become the Raider version 1.0 — in the aftermath of World War II, specifically to appeal to companies working in remote areas or in poorer countries without large, modern airports.

The first prototype of the cargo hauler took to the skies on Dec. 21, 1946.

A tail-dragger with three propeller engines — one in the nose and one on each wing — the N-23 looked positively dated. But the high wing and tri-motor arrangement meant the transport could take off from relatively short runways. The plane could then lug 36 people or five tons of supplies more than 1,850 miles.

Above and at top — one of the last surviving YC-125B Raiders. U.S. Air Force photos

Unfortunately for Northrop, the firm faced unexpected competition from the hordes of cheap, surplus planes the Pentagon was selling as wartime forces disbanded.

Of course, the post-war peace was not to last. By 1948, the Cold War was in full swing with an increasingly divided Europe and a split Germany, Communists pushing to take control in China, American- and Soviet-backed troops staring each other down on the Korean Peninsula and other hot spots flaring up around the world.

The fledgling U.S. Air Force saw planes like the Pioneer as one way of rushing troops into underdeveloped future battlefields. World War II had shown how useful airborne troops — either parachuting out of planes or landing in unpowered gliders — could be.

An “assault transport” should be able to shuttle troops and gear close to the front lines and then take off again to go right back to their bases for more cargo. In 1948, the flying branch hired Northrop to build more than a dozen military versions of the N-23 for tests.

In the end, the California firm delivered two slightly different sets of prototypes under the YC-125A and YC-125B designations. The A-models were basic transports, while the B-types boasted special modifications for flying in Arctic temperatures.

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Northrop renamed these improved types “N-32 Raider.” The Air Force picked that moniker as the official nickname.

Two years after ordering the planes, the Air Force started getting the new Raiders. By that point, tensions in Korea had escalated into full-scale war.

None of the YC-125s ever made it to combat in Asia … or anywhere else. The Air Force was sorely disappointed with the new planes.

The Raider was portly and sluggish, with a top speed of just over 200 miles per hour — slower than the twin-engine World War II-era C-47 transport. Though fine for small airlines and other private companies, the Raider would have been vulnerable to enemy planes and air-defenses in a war zone.

New technology and politics compounded the problems. As the Air Force tested the Raider, various plane-makers were offering innovative helicopters that could carry troops, cargo and more.

Raiders await a final inspection on Northrop’s assembly line. Northrop photo via the San Diego Air and Space Museum archives

In Korea, the new type of aircraft became life-savers, especially as medical-evacuation craft capable of rushing troops back to field hospitals. Although the new helicopters were even slower than the Raiders were and boasted less range, they didn’t need runways to take off and land and could remain close to the front lines.

As the Air Force asserted its new independence from the Army, helicopters became a major point of contention. “Noting the Army’s increasing interest in this role, the Air Force’s Tactical Air Command called, in 1949, for the development of … troop carrying helicopter units,” Dr. Ian Horwood explained in Interservice Rivalry and Airpower in the Vietnam War.

“The Air Force then set about forming such units and, in order to do so, it obstructed Army transport helicopter orders for which it bore responsibility under existing interservice arrangements.”

The Army ultimately won the argument and the Air Force gave up most of its transport choppers. Afterwards, the flying branch changed tack and focused on promoting the abilities of its traditional transport planes.

The Army repeatedly tried to circumvent the younger service and buy its own cargo aircraft, such as the Chase XCG-20 glider and a powered version, the YC-122 Avitruc. The Air Force took charge and had Chase redesign the aircraft into the C-123 Provider transport plane.

Testifying before Congress in 1958, retired Army lieutenant general James Gavin, a major advocate for Army aviation, bitterly complained about the situation. “The Air Force, having no requirement of its own for an assault transport, over-developed the C-123 … considerably increasing its weight in the process,” the officer noted, according to Horwood.

The idea of the assault transport — and interest in planes such as the Raider — evaporated. Three years earlier, the Air Force had started selling off the odd-looking N-32s.

With the same motors as many other aircraft, the N-32s had already spent most of their five-year stints in the military on the ground as training tools for mechanics. The kind of customers Northrop had originally hoped to court with the N-23 ended up buying the YC-125s on the cheap from the Pentagon.

Both surviving Raiders came back to the United States after flying for years with private firms in Mexico. In 1994, Northrop merged with New York-based Grumman to form Northrop Grumman, now headquartered in Virginia.

The company makes no apparent mention of the first Raider, the YC-125, on its website.

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