Douglas A-3 Skywarrior

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A-3 (A3D) Skywarrior
RoleStrategic bomber
ManufacturerDouglas Aircraft Company
DesignerEd Heinemann
First flight28 October 1952
Retired27 September 1991
StatusPhased out of service
Primary userUnited States Navy
Number built282
Developed intoDouglas B-66 Destroyer
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A-3 (A3D) Skywarrior
RoleStrategic bomber
ManufacturerDouglas Aircraft Company
DesignerEd Heinemann
First flight28 October 1952
Retired27 September 1991
StatusPhased out of service
Primary userUnited States Navy
Number built282
Developed intoDouglas B-66 Destroyer

The Douglas A-3 Skywarrior was originally designed as a strategic bomber for the United States Navy and was among the longest serving carrier-based jet aircraft in history. It entered service in the mid-1950s and was retired in 1991. For many years after its introduction, it was also the heaviest aircraft to enter operational status operating from an aircraft carrier[1], earning it the unofficial nickname "The Whale".[2] Its primary function for much of its later service life was as an electronic warfare platform, tactical air reconnaissance platform, and high capacity aerial refueling tanker.[3]

A modified derivative also served in the U.S. Air Force until the early 1970s as the B-66 Destroyer, serving as a tactical bomber, electronic warfare aircraft (EB-66C) and RB-66 reconnaissance bomber. The Skywarrior is one of only two U.S. 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 Air Force's strategic bombing mission. The pending elimination of the flying boat platform from the U.S Navy also entered into the decision regarding the P6M. The carrier-based supersonic North American A-5 Vigilante was also originally designed for strategic nuclear strike missions and initially supplanted the A-3 in that role beginning in the early 1960s. However, with the removal of aircraft carriers from the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) and the transfer of the U.S. 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 carrier-based tactical air reconnaissance.


A3D-1 at NAS Jacksonville, Florida in the 1950s

Early in World War II, the U.S. 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 U.S. Navy began to consider jet power as a possible means of operating carrier-based 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 lb (4,536 kg) bomb load or a nuclear weapon.[4] The aircraft was planned to operate from the proposed United States-class "supercarriers", much larger than existing carriers, and the specification set a target loaded weight of 100,000 lb (45,500 kg). Ed Heinemann, chief designer of the Douglas Aircraft Company, later to win fame for the A-4 Skyhawk, fearing that the United States-class was vulnerable to cancellation, proposed a significantly smaller aircraft of 68,000 lb (31,000 kg) loaded weight, capable of operating from existing carriers.[5][6] The contract which the U.S. Navy awarded to the Douglas Aircraft Company on 29 September 1949 led to the development and production of the A3D Skywarrior. 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.[4] 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. Early prototypes had used the intended Westinghouse J40, a powerplant that proved to be disastrous and subsequently canceled. The turbojets could be supplemented by a provision for twelve 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 for storage below deck, the A-3's wings folded outboard of the engines, lying almost flat, and its vertical stabilizer was hinged to starboard.[4] Capacious internal fuel tanks provided long range.

Camera arrangement of a camouflaged RA-3B of Heavy Photographic Squadron 61.

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 also acted as a gunner for the twin tail-mounted 20mm cannons that equipped early versions of the A3D/A-3B, 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 former bomb bay in the sumptuous fuselage.[4]

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.[7] Aircrews began joking morbidly that "A3D" stood for "All Three Dead."[8] (In 1973, the widow of a Skywarrior crewman killed over Vietnam sued the McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company for not providing ejection seats in the A-3.[7]) 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.[9]

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 20 mm (.79 in) cannon in a radar-operated tail turret designed by Westinghouse, usually removed in favor of an aerodynamic tail fairing. Although 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.

Operational history

Nuclear bomber

An A3D-2 from VAH-9 landing on USS Saratoga (CVA-60) and suffering a minor accident, c. 1959.

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 U.S. 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 Grumman 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 all A-5As were converted to the RA-5C Vigilante reconnaissance variant.


A VAH-4 A-3B from USS Oriskany dropping a Mk 83 bomb, 1965.
A black RA-3B from VAP-61 aboard USS Constellation, 1967.

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 Air Force Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker.

For most of the Vietnam War, EA-3Bs of Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 1 (VQ-1) flew from Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam, providing continuous electronic warfare capability over the area, including the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail and all the way north to Haiphong harbor. This was known as VQ-1 "Det.B". The aircrew and ground support personnel were TAD from their home base at NAS Atsugi, Japan and after 1970, NAS Agana, Guam. After Det B was disestablished, VQ-1 provided detachments of two EA-3B aircraft that deployed with Western Pacific and Indian Ocean (WESTPAC/IO) bound aircraft carrier battle groups up until the late 1980s when it was replaced by the Lockheed ES-3A Shadow.

In addition, a version of the A-3B was modified into the RA-3B and used in Vietnam as a photo reconnaissance aircraft. Heavy Photographic Squadron 61 (VAP-61) at NAS Agana, Guam and sister squadron VAP-62 at NAS Jacksonville, Florida furnished crews and flew out of Da Nang AB performing mapping and intelligence gathering flight over the Southeast Asia area. With 12 camera stations the RA-3B was well equipped to perform cartographic mapping of areas where no detail maps existed. With IR gear installed, the RA-3B was used at night to monitor the movement of troops down roads and trails in Laos. Other locations included Det Tango at Don Muang Royal Thai Air Force Base in Bangkok, Thailand, Det Southpaw at RAAF Base Townsville, Australia, as well as work out of Osan Air Base, South Korea.

Tanker role

An EKA-3B from VAQ-135 refueling an VF-211 F-8J off Vietnam, 1972.

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-3B tankers. Electronic jamming equipment was added without removing tanker capability so the EKA-3B could jam enemy radar while waiting to refuel tactical aircraft.[10] 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 1973.[citation needed] Eventually, the EKA-3B was replaced by the smaller dedicated Grumman KA-6D Intruder tanker, which although it had less capacity and endurance, was deployed in greater numbers within the carrier's air wing. Two additional Naval Reserve units were established in the early 1970s as air refueling squadrons, VAK-208 and VAK-308, at NAS Alameda, California. Both units operated aircraft with electronic warfare equipment removed and were redesignated as KA-3Bs. VAK-208 and VAK-308 were decommissioned in the early 1990s.

Cold War

An EA-3B of Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron Two (VQ-2) lands on the USS Kitty Hawk in 1987

The EA-3 variant was an indispensable resource for the Fleet Commander and was used in critical electronic intelligence (ELINT) roles operating from aircraft carrier decks and ashore supplementing the larger Lockheed EP-3. Its last service was as an ELINT platform during Desert Storm.

Spy plane

The EA-3B variant 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 an Electronic Warfare Officer and three 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.[11]


EA-3Bs survived long enough to participate in the first Gulf War in 1991, although the Skywarrior was out of Navy service by September 1991. For more than three decades, the 282 Skywarriors the U.S. Navy procured served effectively in many roles with the last USN Skywarriors retiring on 27 September 1991. U.S. 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. This plan ultimately failed when Vice Admiral Richard Dunleavy, as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air Warfare and an old A-3 bombardier/navigator himself, made the final decision to retire the type.

Post-retirement career

In an agreement Hughes Aircraft had with the U.S. Navy, at least one A-3 aircraft was retained 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 instead of sending them to Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, thereby saving the airframes from destruction and saving the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

NRA-3B of the Pacific Missile Test Center in 1982

In early 1994, a U.S. Air Force 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.[12] 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.

On 30 June 2011, the last flyable EA-3D (N875RS) a Raytheon aircraft, arrived at NAS Pensacola, Florida for retirement and display at the National Naval Aviation Museum.


An A3D-1 of Heavy Attack Squadron 3 (VAH-3) on the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1957. VAH-3 became the A3D/A-3 Replacement Air Group (RAG) squadron for the Atlantic Fleet in 1958.

Note: under the original Navy designation scheme, the Skywarrior was designated A3D (third Attack aircraft from Douglas Aircraft). In September 1962, the new Tri-Services designation system was implemented and the aircraft was redesignated A-3. Where applicable, pre-1962 designations are listed first, post-1962 designations in parentheses.

A VA-3B used by the Chief of Naval Operations at Nellis AFB.

B-66 Destroyer

The U.S. 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.


An A3D-2 of Heavy Attack Squadron 6 (VAH-6) lands on the USS Ranger in 1958
 United States


On Display

Specifications (A3D-2/A-3B Skywarrior)

A3D-1 BuAer 3 side view.jpg

Data from McDonnell Douglas Aircraft since 1920[15]

General characteristics



See also

Related development
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era
Related lists



  1. ^ the heaviest aircraft operated from a carrier, was a USMC KC-130F used in a test from the USS Forrestal unarrested and unassisted in takeoff in 1963
  2. ^ O'Rourke, G.G., CAPT USN. "Of Hosenoses, Stoofs, and Lefthanded Spads". United States Naval Institute Proceedings, July 1968.
  3. ^ Winchester 2006, p. 74.
  4. ^ a b c d Winchester 2006, p. 75.
  5. ^ Polmar 1988, pp 50–51.
  6. ^ Francillon 1979, pp. 493–494.
  7. ^ a b Francillon 1979, p. 494.
  8. ^ a b Polmar 1988, p. 53.
  9. ^ "A-3 dispositions, accident reports." Click ready room. Retrieved: 28 July 2012.
  10. ^ Lake, Julian S., RADM USN & Hartman, Richard V., LCDR USN "Air Electronic Warfare" United States Naval Institute Proceedings October 1976 p. 49
  11. ^ Fallen naval crew to be honored
  12. ^ "A picture of the modified A-3 currently (2011) based at Van Nuys." Retrieved: 29 June 2011.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l (pdf) A-3 Skywarriors On Display, A-3 Skywarrior Association,, retrieved 11 November 2011
  14. ^ "Douglas A3D/A-3 Skywarrior." Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor, 13 March 2012. Retrieved: 15 March 2012.
  15. ^ Francillon 1979, p. 501.
  16. ^ Francillon 1979, p. 496.
  17. ^ a b Polmar 1988, p. 57.


  • Ciampaglia, Giuseppe. Bombardieri Attomici Strategici della US Navy (in Italian). Rome: Rivista Marittima, 2006.
  • Donald, David and Jon Lake, eds. Encyclopedia of World Military Aircraft. Westport, Connecticut: AIRtime Publishing, 1996. ISBN 1-880588-24-2.
  • Francillon, René J. McDonnell Douglas Aircraft since 1920. London: Putnam, 1979. ISBN 0-370-00050-1.
  • Heinemann, Ed. "A Whale of an Airplane". Naval Aviation News, November/December 1987, pp. 18–21.
  • Polmar, Norman. "Skywarrior... The US Navy's "Ultimate" Nuclear Bomber". Air Enthusiast, Thirty-five, January–April 1988, pp. 48–63. Bromley, UK: Fine Scroll. ISSN 0143-5450.
  • 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.

External links