Historic Aircraft

By Norman Polmar Author, Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet

"Oh no!" he growled, shaking his head, "not you."

I was wide-eyed, stunned.

"I thought you were an honest engineer, Ed," he said pointedly. "You know good and well you can't produce an airplane of that capability for that weight!"

Not knowing what to say I remained silent, anger building in my own mind.

"I hoped you wouldn't lie about the weight, just to get the business," he said.

Those were fighting words and I was instantly mad as hell. In defense of Murphy I'm sure he was as frustrated about the new bomber and all its ramifications as many of us in the industry were. But if nothing else in my lifetime dealings with the navy, or anyone else for that matter, I have been honest. I was offended but didn't feel that a rejoinder would serve any purpose.

"OK, Murph," I said, gathering up the drawings, "if you're not interested I won't bother you." He knew I wasn't kidding. I could see him hesitating in thought.

"Just leave the drawings here," he muttered hurriedly, "and I'll have them checked over anyway." 1

In service the A3D had a normal gross weight of approximately 70,000 pounds (84,000 pounds for the tanker version), a wingspan of 72 feet 6 inches, and a 74-foot 4.5-inch length. Swept back 36 degrees, the plane's high wings folded for carrier storage, as did the plane's 22-foot 9.5-inch tail fin. Twin jet engines in pods under the wings pushed the Skywarrior to 628 m.p.h. at 1,700 feet (Mach 0.83) and to a ceiling of 41,000 feet.

The three-man crew—pilot, bombardier, and navigator-tail gunner—was housed in a pressurized cockpit forward. Because of the state of technology in ejection seats, Heinemann opted for an escape chute from the cockpit, a scheme that would have many critics refer to the A3D as "All 3 Dead." In the electronic and training variants, ejection seats could not have been provided for personnel in the specialized weapons bay working space.

A maximum bomb load of 12,800 pounds could be carried in the internal weapons bay. The Skywarrior would be able to deliver—in all weather—a nuclear bomb against targets at a distance in excess of 1,000 nautical miles at altitudes over 40,000 feet. Bomb aiming was done with an AN/ASB-1A bomb director/radar. For defense, a pair of 20-mm M3 cannon with 500 rounds per barrel were fitted in a Westinghouse Aero 21B remotely operated tail turret.

The prototype first flew on 28 October 1952, when Douglas test pilot George Jansen took off in the first XA3D-1 (BuNo 125412) from Edwards Air Force Base, California. The flight revealed that the Westinghouse XJ40-WE-3 turbojets, at 7,000 pounds-static-thrust each, were unreliable and lacked sufficient power for the aircraft. After several months they were replaced by 10,000 pounds-static-thrust Pratt & Whitney J57s. They proved to be highly reliable and capable engines and were used in all production aircraft. For short-run takeoffs from airfields ashore, the aircraft could be fitted with 12 JATO bottles to provide an additional rocket thrust of 54,000 pounds for a four-second takeoff with a run of only 100 yards. When landing ashore the A3D could deploy a deceleration parachute.

The first production aircraft reached operating squadrons in March 1956. An A3D-2 with improved equipment soon replaced the earlier variants on the production line, and a limited number of photo-reconnaissance (A3D-2P) and electronic countermeasures/reconnaissance (A3D-2Q) aircraft were also built for carrier operation.

Seven-to-ten-plane A3D heavy attack squadrons (VAH) went aboard carriers of the Midway (CVB-41) and Forrestal (CVA-59) classes, providing the fleet with an all-weather, day-night nuclear-strike capability. With these larger carriers operating mainly in the Atlantic and Mediterranean in the latter 1950s, the smaller attack carriers of the Hancock (CVA-19) class in the western Pacific were assigned four-plane A3D detachments to give the Seventh Fleet a modern, heavy-attack capability.

The Skywarrior performed well and was held in high regard by Navy fliers. More than ten years after the first Fleet deliveries, carrier-based Skywarriors—and the land-based Air Force EB-66 Destroyer, derived from the A3D—were performing outstanding service in the air war over Vietnam in a variety of roles.

Of the 282 Skywarriors Douglas built for the Navy, 213 pure attack aircraft were produced for 12 fleet squadrons plus the fleet transition units, attrition replacements, and testing. Beginning with the 178th aircraft, an A3D-2 built in 1958, all attack variants were delivered with a tanker package to permit their rapid conversion to in-flight tankers. The last Skywarrior was delivered in January 1961. (Douglas also built 209 similar B-66 Destroyer aircraft for the U.S. Air Force.)

During the Skywarrior program the Navy considered a possible fighter configuration that would be an aerial picket for carrier defense. These planes would have an air-search radar, probably the AN/APS-20, and air-to-air missiles. They would be stationed aloft some 80 to 175 nautical miles from a carrier task force, a concept that later was called "missileer."

But the true versatility of the Skywarrior was demonstrated in the Vietnam War. (See Part 2, in the October issue.)


1. Edward H. Heinemann and CAPT Rosario Rausa, USNR (Ret), Ed Heinemann: Combat Aircraft Designer (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1980), p. 202.

2. The dozen T-bird trainers had dual controls, the only Skywarriors so fitted.


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