A3D / A-3 Skywarrior

One of the brainchildren of prolific designer Ed Heinemann, the A3D was the result of the USN’s postwar push to develop its own nuclear strike force. The original requirement called for a 100,000lb aircraft to operate from United States class supercarriers, but Heinemann’s decision to make the A3D a much lighter aircraft paid off when the ship was cancelled just after being laid down, as the type could still operate from Midway class ships (and as it turned out, from modernized Essex class carriers).

The aircraft’s size was dictated by the need for a bomb bay large enough to carry a 10,000lb nuclear bomb, as well as sufficient fuel for a 2,000-mile range. Drastic measures had to be taken to trim weight by any means possible, and these included not fitting ejection seats, – the “Whale’s” other nickname, “All Three Dead” reflected the view of Skywarrior crewmen. Although Douglas had built the D-558-II swept wing research aircraft, the Skywarrior would be the firm’s first swept wing combat type.

The prototype XA3D-1 flew in October 1952; this machine and the second prototype were powered by the anemic Westinghouse XJ40, but the A3D-1 service version and the ultimate A3D-2/A-3B had the much more powerful P&W J57.

A total of 282 A3Ds were delivered by the time that the line shut down in early 1961, with the strike versions being divided between units based at NAS Sanford on the east coast, and NAS Whidbey Island on the west.

The bomber Skywarriors (or “Whales”, as they were far more often called) were out of service in their original role by the late 1960s, but the type’s capabilities would keep in active in support and test roles until the early 1990s. The EA-3Bs (originally A3D-2Q) performed shipboard based ELINT missions until the late 1980s, and flying from land bases, lasted long enough to participate in Desert Storm. The KA-3B tanker conversions saved many tactical aircraft low on fuel over Southeast Asia, while the EKA-3Bs served as both tankers and jammer aircraft until the EA-6B Prowler became available.

One of the more radical alterations to the basic A-3 would have been an early 1980s NASA proposal to use a surplus airframe as the basis for a Quiet Short Haul Research Aircraft (QSRA) demonstrator. This would have combined a Skywarrior fuselage and a new wing with winglets, canards, and a T-tail.

Skywarrior Bibliography:

Photo: view from underneath of the initial test flight of the XA3D-1 Aviation Week December 22, 1952 p.9

Photos: "Douglas Jet Bomber Tries Its Wings" Aviation Week January 5, 1953 p.9 XA3D-1 in flight

Hamilton Standard ad, with color artwork depicting a blue-scheme A3D flying past a modernized Essex-class carrier Aviation Week May 17, 1954 p.11

David A. Anderton “How Douglas Designed the Skywarrior” Aviation Week December 13, 1954 p.28-30+ “Skywarrior: Designing The World’s Heaviest Carrier-Based Aircraft” Flight 18 February 1955 includes a frontal shot, component breakdown, and a cutaway drawing.

Irving Stone "Skywarrior Custom Built for Attack" Aviation Week August 30, 1956 Includes structural drawings, A3D-1 production line photos.

“35 ton bomber gets carrier shakedown” Douglas ad with artwork depicting an A3D launch from USS Forrestal Flying December 1956 p.11

Photo: Flight Refueling, Inc. ad showing a blue scheme Skywarrior acting as a tanker for a gray scheme A3D receiver Aviation Week March 18, 1957 p.108

Photo: “Douglas A3D-2P Carries Cameras” Aviation Week October 20, 1958 p.97

Koppers Sound Control ad, with photos showing a run-up silencer attached to an A3D that has its wings and tail folded Aviation Week April 13, 1959 p.46

Photo: Side view of Skywarrior BuNo 135427 test launching a Phoenix AAM Aviation Week & Space Technology August 22, 1966 p.20

Photo: group of four Ratheon A-3s, including N870RS Aviation Week & Space Technology June 13, 2005 p.126

James Ashton "Electric Warrior" Model Aircraft October 2016 Building Trumpeter's 1/48 scale ERA-3B kit

Photo: In-flight view of the radar signature tester NTA-3B N577HA with a B-2 Aviation News December 2017 p.54

David Donald Spyplane p.59 color shot of an EA-3B landing at Da Nang with braking chute deployed. p.81 color profile of a VQ-1 EA-3B from the USS Constellation.

Chris Bishop, editor The Encyclopedia of 20th Century Air Warfare ISBN 0-7607-2770-8 p.375: color profile of a camouflaged VAP-62 RA-3B

Paul Eden The Encyclopedia of Modern Military Aircraft Aerospace Publishing, 2004 p.117 – photo of a KA-3B refueling the first prototype Hornet

Gerry Manning Military Aircraft of the 1970s p.122: photos of EKA-3B BuNo 138922, EA-3B 144852

Jim Sullivan A-3 Skywarrior in action Squadron/Signal Publications color profiles include XA3D-1/125412, A-3A 135435 of NATF, A3D-2/VAH-11, KA-3B/VAH-10, EKA-3B/VAQ-131. TA-3B/RVAH-3, camo’d RA-3B/VAP-61

Martin Streetly World Electronic Warfare Aircraft p.51-53: Photo of EA-3B with wing folded aboard carrier; EKA-3B, EA-3B, ERA-3B side view drawings.

Jim Winchester American Military Aircraft: A History of Innovation p.150-153: color profiles of A-3B BuNo 147650 of VAH-2 with Vietnam missions and an ERA-3B of VAQ-34; small color photo of an early aircraft in the dark blue scheme

J.P. Wood Aircraft Nose Art 80 Years of Aviation Artwork p.94: photo of a sharkmouthed Skywarrior