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Ranger 12: Naval Aviation is a Risky Business- Especially at Night

A Combination of Bad Timing and Cumulative Errors Brought Down This Whale

VQ-2 EA-3B. Image via US Navy

The Douglas A3D Skywarrior was the largest and heaviest aircraft to regularly operate from US Navy aircraft carriers. They were not restricted to the Forrestal-class “supercarriers” either. They operated from the Essex-class carriers fitted with angled decks and steam catapults as well as the Midway-class carriers. Although fitted with folding wings and a folding vertical stabilizer, the Whale was still huge on a carrier deck.

VQ-2 EA-3B on deck. Image via US Navy

Skywarriors were modified to perform a number of roles in the fleet. While some early A3D-1s (later A-3As) were converted for specialist roles, the A3D-2 (later A-3B) was the basis for the majority of fleet Whales. A3D-2Ps (later RA-3Bs) were equipped with a photo reconnaissance package. A3D-2Qs (later EA-3Bs) were modified for electronic warfare/electronic intelligence (ELINT) work. KA-3Bs were tankers. EKA-3Bs were set up for both electronic warfare and tanking. Other Whale variants were built but seldom if ever saw a carrier deck.

VQ-1 EA-3B. Image via US Navy

The EA-3B was the longest-serving carrier-based variant. Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron ONE (VQ-1) World Watchers and VQ-2 Batmen/Sandemen embarked detachments of EA-3Bs aboard carriers for decades. These two squadrons lost relatively few Whales while operating from carrier decks, but on 26 February 1970 VQ-2 lost EA-3B BuNo 144851 when a cold catapult shot put the jet into the water approximately 300 yards in front of the Midway-class carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42)- which promptly ran the inverted but partially intact aircraft over. Lost that day were pilot Lieutenant Commander Roger B. Thrasher, navigator Lieutenant Thomas L. Walls, and Aviation Ordnanceman First Class Floyd R. Bond. Incredibly, even though he was run over by the ship and nearly chewed up in her screws, Plane Captain Aviation Structural Mechanic 2nd Class Sam Rozier survived!

VQ-2 EA-3B. Image via US Navy

On the night of 25 January 1987, EA-3B BuNo 144850 “Ranger 12” operating from the carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68) in the eastern Med made five passes at the ship before attempting to tank from a Vought A-7 Corsair II carrying a buddy store. Ranger 12 damaged the buddy store during the attempt, making a bingo departure to Crete impossible. With no other tanker available in time, the carrier rigged the barricade and prepared to take the Whale aboard. However, the jet’s approach was slightly high and the barricade was rigged too low, resulting in only the nose gear catching the top of the barricade. The jet was not arrested, but instead careened down the deck, breaking in half before going over the side.

VQ-2 EA-3B. Image via US Navy

But there was a glimmer of hope. The forward section of the Skywarrior remained afloat for nearly 13 minutes, during most of which a search and rescue (SAR) helo was overhead. But the crew did not make it out of the stricken jet. Though the Nimitz searched for three days, no trace of the crew was ever found. Lost aboard Ranger 12 that night were pilot Lieutenant Alan A. Levine, navigator Lieutenant Commander Ronald R. Callander, intelligence evaluator Lieutenant Stephen H. Batchelder, junior evaluator Lieutenant James D. Richards, Aviation Electronics Technician Second Class Richard A. Herzing, and Cryptologic Technicians Third Class Patrick R. Price and Craig H. Rudolf. Herzing was aboard the jet that night in place of another AT so he could earn his coveted 100 traps patch.

National Vigilance Park EA-3B display. Image via NSA

News of the loss of Ranger 12 was not widely released, at least in part due to the still-secret nature of the ill-fated Whale’s mission. However, the loss of Ranger 12 added another seven men to the list of 210 others who had lost their lives due to shoot downs or accidents while serving aboard US Navy airborne electronic reconnaissance/signals intelligence aircraft. Of course other Skywarriors were also lost. The Navy retired the EA-3B in October of 1991 after the last hurrah for the WhaleDesert Shield and Desert Storm. Today there is an EA-3B Skywarrior displayed in the National Security Agency’s National Vigilance Park and painted to represent Ranger 12 while serving aboard the Nimitz. A second EA-3B is displayed aboard the museum ship USS Yorktown at Patriot’s Point in Charleston, South Carolina.

National Vigilance Park EA-3B dedication plaque. Image via NSA

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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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