Willie the Whale was one nickname, do you know the other?
On March 23rd 1948, Douglas test pilot Russell Thaw took off in the prototype XF3D-1 Skyknight for the first time. The first purpose-designed and built jet-powered night fighter, the Skyknight was successful in that role during the Korean War, achieving a 6:1 kill ratio over the North Korean opposition. The Skyknight would go on to a 20 year service life in several roles for the United States Navy and Marine Corps.
The Skyknight began as Douglas’ design to fill a 1945 Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) requirement for a jet-powered and radar equipped, carrier-based night fighter. Ed Heinemann and his Douglas team designed the aircraft around the large air intercept radar systems in use at the time with side-by-side seating for the pilot and radar operator. The aircraft’s fuselage was wide and deep with twin underslung engines.
Douglas interpreted the BuAer requirement for the Skyknight literally. This would be no dogfighter. The Skyknight would function exactly as required by the Navy. With its straight wings and large control surfaces it would be both a stable gun and radar platform, providing radar performance unseen in any previous night fighter design.
After the first flight of the prototype, testing continued through 1948. The first production Skyknight flew on February 13th 1950. Jet engines being as evolutionary as they were at the time, the SkyKnight saw several changes to its engines, resulting in incremental performance improvements, during its early development which begat two distinct variants: The F3D-1 and the F3D-2 with improved engines. The Westinghouse AN/APQ-35 was the fire control system in both F3D variants. It in turn consisted of three vacuum-tube technology main components- a search radar, a tracking radar, and a tail-warning radar.
The initial F3D-1 aircraft were used primarily to train F3D crews and did not see combat in the Korean War. In September of 1952, the Marines began flying 12 of the F3D-2s in Korea. Skyknights shot down a total of six enemy aircraft- the record for any naval aircraft type in the war. When the United States Air Force found they required night fighter escorts for their B-29 Superfortresses flying night bombing raids, the Marine Skyknights of VMF(N)-513 Flying Nightmares filled the role. When in early 1953 their numbers increased to 24 in-theater, the Marine F3D-2s were even more effective as B-29 escorts.
After the Korean War, the F3D performed valuable service as a development platform for the country’s first generation of air-to-air missiles- the Sparrow I, II, and III. Developed at the Navy’s Pacific Missile Test Center, the Sparrow series of missiles heralded an entirely new category of weapon- the radar-guided air-to-air missile.
During the late 1950s, several Marine F3D-2s were re-configured as electronic warfare aircraft. Some additional Skyknights were also converted to trainers. F-3Ds outlasted many of their contemporaries in these roles, seeing service into the 1960s and experiencing both the aircraft color scheme and designation changes of the time. In 1962 the F3D-1 Skyknight became the F-10A and the F3D-2 Skyknight became the F-10B.
The Marine electronic warfare version of the F-10B, the EF-10B, began its eavesdropping career during the Cuban Missile Crisis, locating and monitoring the activities of the Soviet air-defense radars on Cuba. EF-10Bs then served in the electronic warfare role during the Vietnam War from 1965 until 1969, becoming the only fighter aircraft to serve in both Korea and Vietnam. Even though no more than ten EF-10Bs were in service in Vietnam at any given time, the VMCJ-1 Golden Hawks effectively used their EF-10Bs as surface-to-air missile (SAM) radar and guidance system jammers. The EF-10Bs also dropped radar-confusing chaff over the North Vietnamese radar sites on these “Fogbound” missions.
Several of the EF-10Bs were lost during these risky missions and their role was gradually taken on by the more advanced, capable, and survivable Grumman EA-6A Electric Intruder. Other aircraft taking over some of the electronic warfare load were the Navy Douglas EA-3B and EKA-3B Skywarrior and the Air Force RB-66 and EB-66 Destroyer. Continuing to contribute, the EF-10Bs flew sorties in lower-threat areas until they rotated out of Vietnam in October of 1969. With a nod toward tradition and a sense of history, the first Skyknight pilot to shoot down a Mig-15 in Korea also flew the last operational Marine EF-10B sortie in May of 1970.
A total of only 268 Skyknights were produced, but the aircraft served several purposes over its 20 year service life. Perhaps more importantly, the F3D was an important evolutionary step on the way to the Grumman Prowlers and Douglas Whales that eventually replaced it.