The Douglas A-3 Skywarrior was a jet-powered strategic bomber designed by Douglas for the United States Navy.
It was intended to be carrier-capable and bested eight other aircraft companies’ submissions, earning the contract in July 1949.
Unlike other designs, the Skywarrior was developed for a take-off weight of 68,000 lb (31,000 kg) to be used from the Navy’s existing Midway-class aircraft carriers.
Westinghouse Electric Corporation produced significant portions of the aircraft, including its early Westinghouse J40 turbojet engines, which were later replaced by the rival Pratt & Whitney J57 engine by mid-1953 due to their failure to meet promises.
On 28 October 1952, the prototype XA3D-1 took to the skies, marking the Skywarrior’s maiden flight.
It entered squadron service with the Navy on 31 March 1956, being initially used for nuclear-armed strategic bombing.
However, as effective ballistic missiles emerged, this mission was deprioritized by the early 1960s.
The Skywarrior was then tasked with various secondary missions, such as electronic warfare, tactical reconnaissance, and high-capacity aerial refuelling.
The Skywarrior was among the longest-serving carrier-based aircraft in history, being used from the mid-1950s until its withdrawal from service in 1991.
It was nicknamed “Whale” due to its weight and being the heaviest operational aircraft to operate from an aircraft carrier.
The Skywarrior was one of only two U.S. Navy attack aircraft designed as a strategic bomber to enter full-scale service, the other being its predecessor, the North American AJ Savage.
The carrier-based supersonic North American A-5 Vigilante was also initially designed for strategic nuclear strike missions, briefly supplanting the A-3 in that role in the early 1960s.
A modified derivative of the Skywarrior, the B-66 Destroyer, served in the United States Air Force as a tactical bomber, electronic warfare aircraft, and aerial reconnaissance platform until its withdrawal in the 1970s.
The Skywarrior aircraft featured a 36-degree swept wing and was equipped with two Pratt & Whitney J57 turbojet engines.
The original plan was to use the Westinghouse J40 powerplant, but it was deemed disastrous and ultimately cancelled.
To supplement the turbojets, the aircraft could carry up to twelve 4,500 lbf (20 kN) thrust JATO bottles.
The A-3 had a standard semi-monocoque fuselage with underwing nacelles for the engines.
Its wings could fold outward of the engines for storage, and its vertical stabilizer was hinged to starboard.
The A-3 also had capacious internal fuel tanks, providing long-range capabilities.
The early A-3 models had a crew of three, including the pilot, bombardier/navigator, and crewman/navigator, who was also the gunner for the twin tail-mounted 20mm cannon that was briefly equipped on the original bomber version of the A3D/A-3A.
The cockpit configuration was unusual, with the three crew members sitting under a framed canopy.
The pilot and bombardier/navigator sat side by side in the raised compartment, with the pilot’s station on the port side having full flight controls.
The third crewman station had the sextant for celestial navigation and the defensive electronic countermeasures equipment.
Later variants could accommodate a crew of seven, with the flight crew consisting of a pilot, co-pilot, and navigator, plus four electronic systems operators occupying the former bomb bay in the spacious fuselage.
To make the Skywarrior suitable for carrier operations, efforts were made to reduce weight during the design process, leading to the deletion of ejection seats.
This decision was based on the assumption that most flights would be at high altitudes.
However, this decision proved to be problematic, and aircrews began jokingly referring to it as “All Three Dead.”
In contrast, the US Air Force’s B-66 Destroyer was equipped with ejection seats throughout its service life.
The Skywarrior had a documented history of mechanical failures, with a rate well above average.
The Skywarrior had a fuselage bomb bay capacity of up to 12,000 lb (5,400 kg) for weaponry, which was later used for sensor and camera equipment or additional fuel tanks.
The aircraft was initially fitted with an AN/ASB-1A bomb-director system, which was later replaced by a revised AN/ASB-7 with a slightly reshaped nose.
Defensive armament included two 20mm cannons in a radar-operated tail turret designed by Westinghouse, which was soon removed in favour of electronic countermeasures equipment.
While some bombing missions were carried out early in the Vietnam War, the Skywarrior mostly served as a tanker and electronic warfare support aircraft, as it was not as manoeuvrable as other aircraft. Variants XA3D-1 Two prototypes with Westinghouse J40 turbojets, no cannon in the 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 a developmental role in carrier service. A3D-1P (RA-3A) One A3D-1 was converted as a prototype for the A3D-2P with a camera pack in the weapon bay. A3D-2 (A-3B) Definitive production bomber version, with a stronger airframe, more powerful engines, slightly larger wing area (812 ft²/75 m2 versus 779 ft²/72 m2), and provision for in-flight refuelling reel for tanker role. Final 21 had a new AN/ASB-7 bombing system, reshaped nose, and deleted tail turret in favour 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 the 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-2Q (EA-3B) 24 electronic warfare versions with pressurized compartments in a former weapon bay for one Electronic Warfare Officer and three ESM operators, various sensors. Some early models had tail guns, but these were replaced with the ECM tail. It was assigned to fleet reconnaissance squadrons VQ-1 and VQ-2 where they flew alongside the Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star and the EP-3B and EP-3E. It served for almost 40 years, being the longest serving variant, and was replaced by the ES-3A Shadow flown by two Fleet Air Reconnaissance (VQ) squadrons: VQ-5 and VQ-6. They were decommissioned due to budget constraints less than 10 years after commissioning. A3D-2T (TA-3B) 12 bomber-trainer versions. Five were 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 electronic countermeasures (ECM)/tanker role, with electronic warfare equipment and tail fairing in place of the 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 aircraft (primarily for war-at-sea exercises) with ECM gear in an extended tail cone and fairings, along with two detachable ram-air turbine powered ALQ-76 countermeasures pods (one under each wing), chaff dispensers (on the tail cone and aft fuselage) and four ram-air turbines (two per side) to power equipment located in the former bomb bay. Crew increased to four: pilot, navigator, crew chief, and Electronic Countermeasures Officer (ECMO) with one mostly unused “jump seat” in the aft crew compartment (the former weapon bay) which lacked an equipment position for a second Electronic Countermeasures Officer or enlisted crewman. The “jump seat” was used by instructor ECMOs training new ECMOs, as well as by guest observers and passengers during operational flights. While the ERA-3B could withstand a cable-arrested landing, the ALT-40 and ALR-75 equipment was not stressed to withstand catapult launches, thus it was never deployed aboard carriers. The ERA-3B served with VAQ-33 and later with VAQ-34. NRA-3B Six RA-3Bs were converted for various non-combat test purposes. VA-3B Two EA-3B converted as VIP transports. Both aircraft were assigned to the Chief of Naval Operations flying from Andrews AFB in Washington, DC. NTA-3B One aircraft converted by Hughes/Raytheon was used to test radar for the F-14D Tomcat. Specifications Crew 3 Length 76 ft 4 in (23.27 m) Wingspan 72 ft 6 in (22.10 m) Height 22 ft 9.5 in (6.947 m) Wing area 812 sq ft (75.4 m2) with slats and CLE from A3D-2/A-3B Airfoil Root NACA 63-009.9 (modified cambered leading edges) Tip NACA 63-008.25 (modified cambered leading edges) Empty weight 39,409 lb (17,876 kg) Gross weight 70,000 lb (31,751 kg) Max take-off weight 82,000 lb (37,195 kg) Powerplant 2 × Pratt & Whitney J57-P-10 turbojet engines, 10,500 lbf (47 kN) thrust each dry 12,400 lbf (55 kN) with water injection Performance Maximum speed 530 kn (610 mph, 980 km/h) at 10,000 ft (3,000 m) Cruise speed 520 kn (600 mph, 960 km/h) Range 1,825 nmi (2,100 mi, 3,380 km) Ferry range 2,520 nmi (2,900 mi, 4,670 km) Service ceiling 41,000 ft (12,000 m) G limits +3.4 Wing loading 86.2 lb/sq ft (421 kg/m2) Thrust / Weight
0.357 Armament Guns 2 × 20 mm M3L cannon in the tail turret Bombs 12,800 pounds (5,800 kg) of free-fall bombs or mines, including any combination of: 12 × 500 pounds (230 kg) Mark 82 bombs Or 6 × 1,000 pounds (450 kg) Mark 83 bombs Or 8 × 1,600 pounds (730 kg) armor-piercing bombs or 4 × 2,000 pounds (910 kg) bombs 1 × free-fall nuclear weapon Avionics AN/ASB-1A (early radar) AN/ASB-7 bomb-director Defensive electronic countermeasure gear.
A-3 Skywarrior in Action, No.148 Squadron Signal Publications.
McDonnell Douglas aircraft since 1920: Volume 2-René J Francillon.
Naval Fighters No.45 Douglas A3D Skywarrior, Part 1, Design/Structures/Testing-Bruce Cunningham & Steve Ginter.
Naval Fighters No.46, ”Fleet Whales”, Douglas A-3 Skywarrior, Part 2-Bruce Cunningham & Steve Ginter.
San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive.
The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
War Paint Series 112, Douglas A3D Skywarrior-Charles Stafrace.