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The Largest Navy Jet To Commonly Land On Carriers Entered Service 61 Years Ago Today

“Crank that arresting gear and catapult up to 11!”

On March 31st 1956 the Douglas A3D-1 Skywarrior entered service with United States Navy Heavy Attack Squadron One (VAH-1) Smokin’ Tigers. Better known as “The Whale”, the A3D would go on to perform several roles over its 35 year career with the Navy. Only 282 Whales were built between 1956 and 1962, but they did everything asked of them well. Whales were the largest and heaviest aircraft ever to operate from aircraft carriers. The combination of that size and weight, coupled with the narrow track of the Whale’s landing gear, made every carrier recovery an adventure. In order to operate Whales, carriers had to turn their arresting gear engines and catapult systems “up to 11.”

Douglas KA-3B Skywarrior of VAK-308 Griffins refuels a Vought A-7B Corsair II of VA-303 Golden Hawks.

The first operational Navy carrier-based strategic (atomic) bomber was the hybrid jet and propeller driven North American AJ Savage. Douglas was asked to design an all-jet powered, carrier-based strategic bomber in 1948. The new design would operate from the proposed “super-carrier” United States class, therefore size was less of a consideration than payload. The atomic bombs of the day were exceedingly large and heavy, so the loaded weight requirement for the design was 100,000 pounds.

Douglas EA-3B Skywarrior of VQ-2 Batmen in flight during 1991

Ed Heinemann of the Douglas design team, considering the possibility that the carrier United States might be cancelled, designed the A3D to operate from the aircraft carriers in service at the time. While still whale-like at 68,000 pounds loaded weight, the Skywarrior was comparatively svelte and considerably smaller than the other designs in consideration. Within weeks the United States was indeed cancelled, and the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) awarded the contract to Douglas on September 29th 1949.

Douglas EKA-3B Skywarrior of VAQ-133 Wizards pictured in flight during 1971.

Douglas had their hands full designing and building an aircraft as large and heavy as the A3D for carrier use. The prototype XA3D-1 Skywarrior first flew on October 28th 1952. Besieged by issues with the available engines and complicated landing gear required by the design, it took another four years to get the A3D into service. Ironically the Skywarrior would eventually operate from the decks of all Navy attack aircraft carrier classes- from the smaller Essex-class all the way up to the Nimitz-class.

Douglas RA-3B Skywarrior of VAP-61 World Recorders about to launch from a carrier in the Pacific.

The A3D was not really a revolutionary design apart from its sheer size and weight. Equipped with folding wings as well as a folding vertical stabilizer, the Whale was always the easiest aircraft to identify on a carrier deck- it was still huge even when all folded up. The original J40 engines intended to power the aircraft turned out to be unsuitable and they were replaced with the widely-used and proven Pratt & Whitney J57 turbojets- which also powered everything from Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses and 707 commercial airliners to Lockheed U-2s and Vought F-8 Crusaders. A distinctive A3D design feature is the hollow point bullet-shaped oil cooler installed forward of the engine intake in each nacelle.

Douglas RA-3B Skywarrior of VAP-61 World Recorders pictured showing off its camera windows.

Skywarriors carried crews ranging in size from three to seven or even more- none of whom sat in ejection seats. The less popular and more morbid nickname for the Whale became “All 3 Dead”, derived from the aircraft designator but referring to the lack of a way to quickly exit the aircraft in extremis. Electronic warfare, VIP transport, and training versions of the Whale carried personnel in the pressurized bomb bay. The A3D-1 Whales were equipped with twin remote controlled 20 millimeter cannon mounted in their tails. Electronic countermeasures “boat tails” replaced the guns in short order on most of the Whales. Others simply had the guns removed and the original production tail left in place.

On July 31st 1956, an A3D-1 Skywarrior flew nonstop and unrefueled from Hawaii to New Mexico (3200 miles) in just 5 hours and 40 minutes. In 1957 two A3D-1s launched from the aircraft carrier Bonne Homme Richard (CVA-19) and trapped aboard the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CVA-60). This flight is unremarkable except that Bonnie Dick was steaming in the Pacific Ocean and Super Sara was underway in the Atlantic Ocean at the time.

Douglas EA-3B Skywarrior electronic aggressor of VAQ-34 Electric Horsemen pictured at NAS Dallas in 1988.

Once the Navy switched from carrier-based strategic bombers to Polaris missile submarines to fulfill its end of the nuclear deterrence equation, Skywarriors were adapted to perform several other roles for the fleet. Like every other aircraft in the inventory the Whale endured a top-to-bottom designator change in 1962. Alphabet soup anyone? Here goes: The basic attack A3D-1 became the A-3A. The photo reconnaissance A3D-1P became the RA-3A. The electronic warfare A3D-1Q became the EA-3A. The conventional attack A3D-2 became the A-3B. The photo reconnaissance A3D-2P became the RA-3B. The electronic warfare A3D-2Q became the EA-3B. The trainer A3D-2T became the TA-3B. The first A3D-2s (A-3Bs) were delivered to VAH-2 Royal Rampants in 1957. The A3D-2 featured uprated J57 engines, an inflight refueling system, and a larger bomb bay. The KA-3B, ERA-3B, EKA-3B, VA-3B, NRA-3B, NTA-3B, and a few others would come later.

Between 1965 and 1967, A-3B Skywarriors were used for bombing and minelaying missions in Vietnam before smaller and lighter aircraft took on those missions The KA-3B tanker and EKA-3B hybrid electronic warfare / tanker versions of the Whale saw yeoman’s duty as gas-passers and saved more than one pilot by keeping fuel flowing into his damaged tanks until he was feet wet (over water and not Vietnam). Photo reconnaissance RA-3Bs flown by Heavy Photographic Squadrons (VAP)-61 World Recorders and VAP-62 Tigers captured photographic intelligence all over Southeast Asia. EA-3Bs were stalwart electronic support aircraft responsible for gathering electronic intelligence and jamming North Vietnamese ground control and missile guidance radars- tasks taken over at least in part from Marine EF-10B Skyknights.

Douglas EKA-3B Skywarrior of VAQ-135 Black Ravens Detachment 42 pictured in flight during 1971.

Some TA-3Bs and VA-3Bs were (comparatively) well-appointed transports used by flag-level officers as VIP transports. The ERA-3B “electronic aggressors” of VAQ-33 Firebirds and VAQ-34 Electric Horsemen performed their roles in exercises worldwide and though based at CONUS air stations they were the gypsies of their communities. Skywarriors were modified and updated throughout their service lives and in many cases received entirely new designations fitting their modifications- sometimes more than once. Sprouting various lumps, bumps, and blades as their installed electronic equipment required, I wouldn’t be surprised to find there was a NREUTVKA-3BD in service at one point or another.

Douglas EA-3B Skywarrior of VQ-2 Batmen in flight during 1991.

Although they disappeared from carrier decks in 1987, Whales served with the two Navy reserve aerial refueling squadrons, VAQ-208 (later VAK-208) Jockeys and VAQ-308 (later VAK-308) Griffins, tanking Navy and Marine aircraft into the early 1990s. EA-3B Electric Whales of VQ-1 World Watchers and VQ-2 Batmen provided detachments of their Whales to deployed Carrier Air Wings for decades and some of them served during the 1991 Gulf War. Finally retired from Navy operational use on September 27th 1991, Whales proved to be some of the most versatile and adaptable aircraft in Naval service. But the Whale had not quite yet become extinct.

Douglas KA-3B Skywarrior of VAK-308 Griffins flying with a Douglas TA-4J Skyhawk of VC-12 Fighting Omars during 1986. Note the whale on the tail of the Whale.

Navy research and development organizations wanted to retain their Skywarriors used for aerial testing but it was not to be. However, Navy Whales had been used for years by companies like Hughes, Raytheon, and Westinghouse for development of radar, missiles, and electronic warfare systems to be used in newer tactical aircraft like the General Dynamics-Grumman F-111B, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, and the McDonnell-Douglas (Boeing) F/A-18 Hornet. When the Navy retired the Whale a total of five civilian contractors acquired the remaining A-3 airframes and continued to use them for their development efforts.

Douglas KA-3B Skywarrior of VAQ-34 Electric Horsemen flying with a Douglas EA-4F Skyhawk of VAQ-33 Firebirds during 1983.

Whales flying around with the nose sections from other aircraft grafted on them and other strange bulges and shapes attached to noses and tails were fairly common occurrences until the mid-1990s when most of the remaining Skywarrior airframes went into storage. Except for an Air Force F-15 Eagle radar project, the Whales were grounded. Things went on more or less like that, with the Whales being displayed at airshows and compared to more modern designs (usually quite favorably for the Whales), until June 30th, 2011. On that date, after a short tour of former Whale air stations, the last flyable civilian EA-3D Skywarrior arrived at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola in Florida for display at the National Naval Aviation Museum.

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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