The Douglas A-3 Skywarrior
was a strategic bomber
built for the United States Navy
and among the longest serving carrier-based jet aircraft. It entered service in the mid-1950s and was not retired until 1991. For many years after its introduction, it was also the heaviest aircraft ever flown from an aircraft carrier
, earning it the unofficial nickname "The Whale". Its primary function for much of its later service life was as an electronic warfare platform and high capacity aerial refueling tanker.
A modified derivative also served in the U.S. Air Force until the early 1970s as the B-66 Destroyer. The Skywarrior is the only Navy attack aircraft intended as a strategic bomber to enter service. The Martin P6M SeaMaster tested well, but never entered service due to the Navy fearing loss of funding for surface ships and submarines if it encroached on the USAF strategic bomber role. The pending elimination of the flying-boat platform from the United States Navy also entered into the decision regarding the P6M. Later aircraft, like the carrier-based supersonic A-5 Vigilante, were also originally designed for strategic nuclear strike missions. However, with the removal of aircraft carriers from the SIOP and the transfer of the Navy's strategic nuclear deterrence mission to the Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) submarine force, the Vigilante also saw its mission changed, in its case to tactical air reconnaissance.
The U.S. Navy published its requirement for a long range, carrier-based bomber with a 10,000 pound bomb load in January 1948. The contract was awarded to Douglas Aircraft on 29 September 1948 and the first flight of an A-3 was 22 October 1952. The first A-3, at the time designated as the A3D-1, was assigned to Heavy Attack Squadron ONE (VAH-1) on 31 March 1956.
Design and development
Early in World War II, the Navy began to explore the concept of a jet-powered aircraft operating from aircraft carriers. Success encouraged further development of the concept, and early in the post war years the Navy began to consider jet power as a possible means of operating from carriers, aircraft that were large enough to provide a strategic bombing capability.
In January 1948, the Chief of Naval Operations issued a requirement to develop a long-range, carrier-based attack plane that could deliver a 10,000-pound (4,500 kg) bomb load or a nuclear weapon. The contract which the Navy awarded to the Douglas Aircraft Company on 29 September 1949 led to the development and production of the A3D Skywarrior. It was designed by Ed Heinemann, also to win fame for the A-4 Skyhawk. The prototype XA3D-1 first flew on 28 October 1952.
Considerable development problems, largely with the original engines, delayed the introduction of the Skywarrior until spring 1956. The A-3 was by far, the largest and heaviest aircraft ever designed for routine use on an aircraft carrier, though ironically it was the smallest proposal among other proposals which could only be deployed on even larger carriers not yet in service. For storage below deck, the A-3's wings folded upward outboard of the engines, lying almost flat, and in order to accommodate the tall tail, its vertical stabilizer was hinged to starboard. Because of its cumbersome size, and less-than-slender profile, it was nicknamed "The Whale" (after it converted to the electronic warfare role, it became "The Electric Whale"). Production ended in 1961.
The Skywarrior had a 36° degree swept wing
and two Pratt & Whitney J57 turbojet
engines. Although prototypes
had used the intended Westinghouse J40
, that powerplant proved disastrous, and was subsequently canceled. The turbojets could be supplemented by a provision for 12, 4,500 lbf (20 kN) thrust JATO
bottles, allowing takeoff from carriers that did not have catapults
. The aircraft had a largely conventional semi-monocoque
fuselage, with the engines in underwing nacelles. Flight controls
were hydraulic, and both wings and vertical tailfin could fold for carrier stowage. Capacious internal fuel tanks provided long range.
The early A-3 variants had a crew of three: pilot, bombardier/navigator (BN) and crewman/navigator(aka third crewman). An unusual cockpit configuration was incorporated with the three crew sitting under a framed canopy. In the raised compartment, the pilot and bombardier/navigator sat in a side-by-side arrangement with the pilot's station on port side having full flight controls. On initial variants, a third crew member who acted as a gunner sat behind the duo in an aft-facing seat. The third crewman station had the sextant for celestial navigation and the defensive electronic counter measures equipment. Later electronic counter-measures variants could accommodate a crew of seven with flight crew consisting of a pilot, co-pilot and navigator plus four electronic systems operators occupying stations in the sumptuous fuselage.
Efforts to reduce weight had led to the deletion of ejection seats during the design process for the SKywarrior, based on the assumption that most flights would be at high altitude. A similar arrangement with an escape tunnel had been used on the F3D Skyknight. Aircrews began joking morbidly that "A3D" stood for "All Three Dead" (in 1973 the widow of a Skywarrior crewman killed over Vietnam sued the company for not providing ejection seats). In contrast, the USAF B-66 Destroyer was equipped with ejection seats throughout its service life.
Documented history of mechanical failures in the A3D / A-3 showed a rate well above average. While there were magazine articles that conjectured that the safety problem was compounded by assigning weaker pilots to slower jets like the A-3, during their heyday, Skywarrior pilots were often "best-of-the-best" due to its critical nuclear strike mission role.
The Skywarrior could carry up to 12,000 lb (5,443 kg) of weaponry in the fuselage bomb bay, which in later versions was used for sensor and camera equipment or additional fuel tanks. An AN/ASB-1A bomb-director system was initially installed, later replaced by a revised AN/ASB-7 with a slightly reshaped nose. Defensive armament was two 20mm cannon in a radar-operated tail turret designed by Westinghouse, usually removed in favor of an aerodynanic tail fairing. While some bombing missions would be carried out early in the Vietnam war, most bombing would be carried out by more nimble attack and fighter bombers, and the Skywarrior would serve mostly as a tanker and electronic warfare support aircraft.
Prior to the initial operational capability of the U.S. Navy's Polaris-armed Fleet Ballistic Missile submarines
, the A-3 was the Navy's critical element in the US nuclear deterrent. Squadrons were established in two Heavy Attack Wings (HATWINGs), with one wing established at NAS Whidbey Island
, Washington while the other wing was initially established at NAS Jacksonville
, Florida before relocating to NAS Sanford
, Florida. The wing at NAS Whidbey Island
would later transition to the EA-3 variant, eventually forming the nucleus for the Navy's EA-6B Prowler
community, while the wing at NAS Sanford
would convert to the A3J Vigilante
in the nuclear heavy attack mission, followed by conversion to the RA-5C
and transition to the reconnaissance attack mission. The Vigilante wing would also continue to retain a small number of TA-3B aircraft for training Naval Flight Officers
in the Vigilante's radar and navigation systems. The Skywarrior's strategic bombing role faded quickly after 1960, briefly replaced by the A3J Vigilante
(later redesignated as the A-5A Vigilante
) until 1964. Soon after that, the Navy abandoned the concept of carrier-based strategic nuclear weaponry with the success of the Polaris missile-equipped Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) submarine program and the A-5As were converted to the RA-5C variant.
Skywarriors saw some use in the conventional bombing and mine-laying role during the Vietnam War from 1965 through 1967. The Navy would soon use only more nimble fighter sized attack bombers over Vietnam, but the A-3 found subsequent service in the tanker, photographic reconnaissance, and electronic warfare roles. Equipped with a drogue refueling hose and basket that was compatible with the "probe and drogue" refueling systems of all U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and some U.S. Air Force tactical jets, the Skywarrior would not only extend the range of a strike force, but save returning pilots short on fuel, much like the larger and more well known USAF KC-135 Stratotanker.
During Vietnam, the Skywarrior was modified into a multimission tanker variant, the EKA-3B, that was a real workhorse for the carrier air wing. A-3 attack aircraft were modified to KA-3 tankers. Electronic jamming equipment was added without removing tanker capability so the EKA-3 could jam enemy RADAR while waiting to refuel tactical aircraft. Buddy tanking
using A-4 Skyhawks and A-7 Corsair IIs, and inflight refueling using A-3 Skywarriors was utilized by the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam theater of operations from at least 1966 through 1970. Eventually, the EKA-3B was replaced by the smaller dedicated KA-6D Intruder
tanker, which although it had less capacity and endurance, were more numerous in number with each carrier's air wing. In the mid-1990s, the KA-6D was replaced by the S-3 Viking
in the organic tanking role, even though the S-3 was slower and had even less fuel capacity. With the ongoing retirement of the S-3B, future organic aerial tanking in carrier air wings will be accomplished by F/A-18E
and F Super Hornet
aircraft configured as mission tankers.
The EA-3 variant was an indispensable resource for the Fleet Commander and was used in critical ELINT role operating from aircraft carrier decks and ashore supplementing the larger EP-3. Its last service was as an ELINT platform during Desert Storm.
The EA-3B model was modified for electronic intelligence against the Warsaw Pact. Missions were flown around the globe beginning in 1956, with the U.S. Air Force EB-47 Stratojet
flying a similar mission. The EA-3B carried a crew of seven, with flight crew of three in the cockpit and four electronic systems operators/evaluators in the converted weapons bay. It offered unique electronic reconnaissance capabilities in numerous Cold War-era conflicts and the Vietnam War.
For more than two decades, the 282 Skywarriors the Navy procured served effectively in many roles with the last USN Skywarriors retiring on 27 September 1991. Navy RDT&E units, notably Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) activities at NAS Point Mugu and NAWS China Lake, attempted to retain their A-3 testbeds. VADM Richard "Dick" Dunleavy, as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air Warfare, and an old A-3 bombardier/navigator himself, regretfully made the decision final.
In an agreement Hughes Aircraft had with the Navy, the Navy agreed to retain at least one A-3 aircraft in inviolate storage at Davis-Monthan AFB
for long term support for major structural parts. Westinghouse
also operated an A-3 in a similar arrangement.
The NAVAIR Weapons System Manager, who participated in the drafting of the contract, saw that support as no longer possible and Hughes was contacted to meet with Westinghouse and Raytheon to finalize plans for the support shutdown of the aircraft. At the last Integrated Logistics meeting at NAS Alameda, California both Raytheon and Hughes indicated their willingness to obtain fleet A-3 Skywarrior assets vice sending them to Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, thereby saving the airframes from destruction and saving the Navy the cost of storage at AMARC.
As the plan matured, two other contractors, Thunderbird Aviation and CTAS also elected to participate in similar agreements. The fleet spares from ASO were distributed between the contractors evenly, and warehouses were emptied all over the United States. Unfortunately, due to misunderstandings and reorganizations within the Navy, the world wide ASO assets were scrapped, not getting to the contractors. In early 1993, CTAS decided that they no longer had use for their aircraft, and Hughes had several programs needing additional assets.
In early 1994, a USAF program decided to modify an A-3 for F-15 Radar tests, and the only available airframe was stored at NAS Alameda since the fleet shutdown. Hughes added that aircraft to the bailment, and ferried the aircraft to Van Nuys for modifications. An entire nose section was removed from a stricken F-15B at AMARC at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona and grafted onto the front of the aircraft. Racks and equipment were installed in the cabin, and the aircraft is utilized by Hughes and the USAF for F-15 software development.
In 1994 Westinghouse decided to terminate their agreement with the Navy, and Thunderbird added their aircraft to the Thunderbird bailment. In 1996, Thunderbird Aviation went into receivership, and Hughes, through mutual cost savings to the Government, added the Thunderbird assets to the contract, prepping them for ferry at Deer Valley airport, and relocating them to Mojave, California and Tucson, Arizona for long term storage.
In December 1996, Raytheon bought the aerospace units of Hughes Aircraft Company. Hughes Aeronautical Operations, now a part of Raytheon Systems, continues to operate the A-3s from their base at Van Nuys Airport, California. These aircraft have participated at several military air shows, telling visitors that the plane continued to be valuable for its load capacity compared to corporate jets, and its performance compared to small airliners.
A-3s are currently on static display at several locations, to include the National Museum of Naval Aviation at NAS Pensacola, FL; NAS Key West, Florida; the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona; and Naval Station Rota, Spain. When released by Raytheon, an additional A-3 is also programmed by the National Museum of Naval Aviation for relocation to the former NAS Sanford, Florida and eventual display.
The US Air Force
ordered 294 examples of the derivative B-66 Destroyer
, most of which were used in the reconnaissance
and electronic warfare
roles. The Destroyer was fitted with ejection seats, but did not have a primary refueling role as did its naval counterpart.
Note: under the original Navy designation scheme, the Skywarrior was designated A3D (i.e., third Attack aircraft from Douglas Aircraft). In September 1962 the new Tri-Services designation system was implemented and the aircraft was redesignated A-3B. Where applicable, pre-1962 designations are listed first, post-1962 designations in parentheses.
- XA3D-1: Two prototypes with Westinghouse J40 turbojets, no cannon in tail turret.
- YA3D-1 (YA-3A): One pre-production prototype with Pratt & Whitney J57 engines. Later used for tests at the Pacific Missile Test Center.
- A3D-1 (A-3A): 49 initial production versions, serving largely in developmental role in carrier service.
- A3D-1P (RA-3A): One A3D-1 converted as a prototype for the A3D-2 with camera pack in the weapon bay.
- A3D-1Q (EA-3A): Five A3D-1s converted for the electronic reconnaissance (ELINT) role, with ECM equipment and four operators in weapons bay.
- A3D-2 (A-3B): Definitive production bomber version, with stronger airframe, more powerful engines, slightly larger wing area (812 ft² versus 779 ft²), provision for in-flight refueling reel for tanker role. Final 21 built had new AN/ASB-7 bombing system, reshaped nose; deleted tail turret in favor of electronic warfare installation.
- A3D-2P (RA-3B): 30 photo-reconnaissance aircraft with weapons bay package for up to 12 cameras plus photoflash bombs. Increased pressurization allowed camera operator to enter the bay to check the cameras. Some retained tail guns, but most were later converted to ECM tail of late A-3Bs.
- A3D-2C (EA-3B): 24 electronic warfare versions with pressurized compartment in former weapon bay for four ESM operators, various sensors. This was the longest serving version of the "Whale" and the most widely known throughout the fleet. Some early models had tail guns, but these were replaced with the ECM tail. The EA-3B was assigned to fleet reconnaissance squadrons VQ-1 and VQ-2 where they flew alongside the EC-121 and the EP-3E. It served in the fleet for almost 40 years, and was replaced by the inadequate ES-3A Shadow which was so dismal in its performance that the two Fleet Air Reconnaissance (VQ) squadrons that flew it, VQ-5 at NAS North Island, California and VQ-6 at NAS Cecil Field, Florida were decommissioned less than 10 years after their commissioning.
- A3D-2T (TA-3B): 12 bomber-trainer versions. Five later converted as VIP transports (two redesignated UTA-3B).
- KA-3B: 85 A-3B bombers refitted in 1967 for the tanker role with probe-and-drogue system in place of bombing equipment.
- EKA-3B: 34 KA-3B tankers refitted for dual ECM/tanker role, with electronic warfare equipment and tail fairing in place of rear turret. Most were converted back to KA-3B configuration (with no ECM gear) after 1975.
- ERA-3B: Eight RA-3Bs converted as electronic aggressor SEAD aircraft with ECM in new tail cone, ventral fairing, cylindrical fairing atop vertical fin, and wing tips. Added chaff dispensers and four ram-air turbines (two per side) to power the new equipment. Crew increased to four (pilot, navigator, crew chief and EWO) with addition of one Electronic Countermeasures Officer and countermeasures crew station in a pressurized cabin in the bomb bay. A "jump seat" to the aft of the Electronic Countermeasures Officer was used for occasional observers or passengers on transits.
- NRA-3B: Six RA-3Bs converted for various non-combat test purposes.
- VA-3B: One EA-3B converted as a VIP transport.
United States Navy
- VAH-1 Based at NAS Sanford, FL (later RVAH-1, now decommissioned).
- VAH-2 Based at NAS Whidbey Island, WA (now VAQ-132).
- VAH-3 Based at NAS Sanford, FL (later RVAH-3, now decommissioned).
- VAH-4 Based at NAS Whidbey Island, WA (now VAQ-131).
- VAH-5 Based at NAS Sanford, FL (later RVAH-5, now decommissioned).
- VAH-6 Based originally at NAS North Island, CA,
moved to NAS Whidbey Island, WA 1958, moved to NAS Sanford, FL
(later RVAH-6, now decommissioned).
- VAH-7 Based at NAS Sanford, FL (later RVAH-7, now decommissioned).
- VAH-8 Based at NAS Whidbey Island, WA (now decommissioned).
- VAH-9 Based at NAS Sanford, FL (later RVAH-9, now decommissioned).
- VAH-10 Based at NAS Whidbey Island, WA (now VAQ-129).
- VAH-11 Based at NAS Sanford, FL (later RVAH-11, now decommissioned).
- VAH-13 Based at NAS Sanford, FL (later RVAH-13, now decommissioned).
- VAH-123 Based at NAS Whidbey Island, WA (now decommissioned).
- VAW-13 Based at NAS Agana, Guam (now decommissioned).
- VAQ-130 Based at NAS Whidbey Island, WA (now flying the EA-6B and EA-18G).
- VAQ-131 Based at NAS Whidbey Island, WA (now flying the EA-6B).
- VAQ-132 Based at NAS Whidbey Island, WA (now flying the EA-6B).
- VAQ-133 Based at NAS Whidbey Island, WA (now flying the EA-6B).
- VAQ-134 Based at NAS Whidbey Island, WA (now flying the EA-6B).
- VAQ-135 Based at NAS Whidbey Island, WA (now flying the EA-6B).
- VAQ-129 Based at NAS Whidbey Island, WA (now flying the EA-6B & EA-18G).
- VAQ-33 Based at NAS Key West, FL (now decommissioned).
- VAQ-34 Based at NAS Point Mugu, CA (now decommissioned).
- VAK-208 Based at NAS Alameda, CA (now decommissioned).
- VAK-308 Based at NAS Alameda, CA (now decommissioned).
- VAP-61 Based at NAS Agana, Guam (now decommissioned).
- VAP-62 Based at NAS Jacksonville, Florida (now decommissioned).
- VQ-1 Based at NAS Agana, Guam (now at NAS Whidbey Island, WA flying only the EP-3E).
- VQ-2 Based at NS Rota, Spain (now at NAS Whidbey Island, WA flying only the EP-3E).
- National Parachute Test Range Based at NAF El Centro, CA
- Naval Air Development Center Based at NADC Johnsville/NADC Warminster, PA (activity now decommissioned)
Specifications (A3D-2/A-3B Skywarrior)
- Donald, David and Jon Lake, eds. Encyclopedia of World Military Aircraft. London: AIRtime Publishing, 1996. ISBN 1-880588-24-2.
- Winchester, Jim, ed. "Douglas A-3 Skywarrior." Military Aircraft of the Cold War (The Aviation Factfile). London: Grange Books plc, 2006. ISBN 1-84013-929-3.