In the years following World War II, as the U.S. Navy sought to retain its long-standing position as the front line of the nation’s defense in the nuclear age, it contracted for development of a jet-powered bomber to wield naval aviation’s atomic punch. Famed Douglas Aircraft Company engineer Ed Heinemann and his team delivered the A3D Skywarrior. They focused on limiting the aircraft’s weight wherever possible, allowing the Skywarrior to fly from modified World War II-era angled-deck Essex-class carriers. A downside to shedding pounds from the design was the elimination of ejection seats, the crew instead bailing out of the aircraft using an escape chute leading from the cockpit to the bottom of the fuselage. The inability to exit the aircraft quickly prompted Skywarrior crews to apply a nickname to the aircraft based on its designation. A3D, they swore, stood for “All Three Dead.” Despite these efforts, the Skywarrior remains the largest airplane to ever operate from an aircraft carrier, which prompted its more enduring nickname—the “Whale.”
The new aircraft demonstrated its capabilities almost immediately. On July 31, 1956, a Skywarrior logged a 3,200 mile nonstop, non-refueling flight from Hawaii to New Mexico in just 5 hours, 40 minutes, and the following year another pair of A3Ds flew a carrier to carrier transcontinental flight. This involved launching from Bon Homme Richard (CVA 19) off the coast of California and flying nonstop to a recovery on board Saratoga (CVA 60) steaming off the coast of Florida. The year 1957 also marked the first extended deployment of the A3D on board Forrestal. It was a high point for the Navy as its most modern attack aircraft went to sea on board the service’s first super carrier.
With the advent of the Polaris missile, the Navy’s carrier-based heavy attack mission faded and the versatile A3D (redesignated A-3 in 1962) assumed other roles and missions, which included aerial refueling, photoreconnaissance, and electronic countermeasures. An anecdote illustrates the longevity of its service. During a tour of the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy (CVA 67) in 1972, a scientist remarked on what he took to be one of the Navy’s more modern aircraft. Heinemann replied with a laugh. “That sir, is a Skywarrior. We started work on it in 1948.” To think, the airplane had nearly two decades left, finally retiring from front-line service in 1991.
The museum displays two examples of the Skywarrior, an A3D-1 (Bureau Number 135418) and a NEA-3B (Bureau Number 144865).
Manufacturer: Douglas Aircraft Company
Dimensions: Length: 74 ft, 5 in.; Height: 22 ft., 8 in.; Wingspan: 72 ft., 5 in.
Weights: Empty: 35,999 lb.; Gross: 70,000 lb.
Power Plant: Two 9,700 lb. static thrust Pratt & Whitney J57-P-6 turbojets
Performance: Maximum Speed: 621 M.P.H.; Service Ceiling: 39,000 ft.; Range: 2,990 miles
Armament: Two 20mm cannon in tail and provision for 8,700 lb. of ordnance, including nuclear weapons
Crew: Pilot, bombardier/navigator, gunner (attack configuration)