Douglas A-3 (A3D) Skywarrior

Excerpts taken from: McDonnell Douglas aircraft since 1920, by Rene J. Francillon
 
 
 
The main constraint confronting the design team led by Project Engineer Harry Nichols and supervised by Ed Heinemann and Leo Devlin was the need to provide a large internal bomb bay accessible from the cockpit, as the nuclear device had to be armed in flight. This requirement led to the selection of a swept wing configuration with the wing mounted above the capacious bomb bay, with the crew of three grouped in a single cockpit immediately behind and above the nose radome housing the navigation and bombing radar. Two other early design decisions concerned the location of the undercarriage and powerplant. As the wing, which had a quarter-chord sweep of 36 deg. and a thickness/chord ratio of 10 per cent at the root and 8 1/4 per cent at the tip, was shoulder mounted, it was necessary to use a narrow-track undercarriage with the main units retracting rearward into the fuselage. The two engines were to be installed in individual pods ahead of and below the wing and fed from integral fuel tanks in the wing inner sections and from large tanks fore and aft of the bomb bay.
 

Ed Heinemann, always weight conscious, strove even harder to keep the aircraft weight well below the 100,000 lb. limit as he was convinced that construction of the super carrier would be canceled as a result of the power struggle between the USAF and USN. The result was soon evident as in mid-1948 Douglas submitted a proposal for a 68,000 lb. (30,844 kg) aircraft capable of operating from Midway-class carriers whilst the Curtiss proposed design weighed close to 100,000 lb. The third competitor, North American, had already dropped out of contention as it did not believe that the Navy's requirements could be met by an aircraft weighing less than 100,000 lb. Although doubting that Douglas could build an aircraft two thirds the weight of its rival, the Navy gave Curtiss and Douglas a three month preliminary design contract to enable them to refine their proposals. Soon it became evident that indeed Ed Heinemann and his team would be able to realize their promise, and on 31 March,1949, Douglas was awarded a contract for two XA3D-ls and a static test airframe.

Detailed design proceeded apace during the next two years under the watchful eyes of Ed Heinemann who continued his fight against excess weight. In the process, the decision was made to install a crew escape chute similar to that fitted on the F3D Skyknight as the use of ejector seats would have resulted in a 3,500 lb. (1,589 kg) increase in gross weight (although this decision was wise at the time, the lack of ejector seats later led to the filing against Douglas of a $2.5 million damage suit by the widow of Lt-Cdr Charles Parker who had been unable to abandon his crippled EKA-3B during a mission over Vietnam on 21 January, 1973). Much attention was also paid to the problems of wing flutter and of interference between the engine pod, pylon and wing and, as a result of computer calculations and wind-tunnel testing, the wing structure was strengthened whilst the pylons were extended and cambered. Meanwhile, the Navy was considering the fitting of the British-devised angled deck and steam catapult to its Essex and Midway-class carriers. The adoption of these carrier improvements and Heinemann's success in the fight against increases in aircraft weight paid off handsomely as, before the first flight of the XA3D-1, it became evident that the new carrier bomber would be able to operate from the smaller carriers at a weight exceeding its design gross weight and would thus have a substantial growth potential.

When ordering the XA3D-1 the Navy had specified that the aircraft should be powered by Westinghouse J40s. Accordingly, Douglas fitted two 7,000 lb. (3,175 kg) thrust XJ40-WE-3 engines to the XA3D-1 and proposed using 7,500 lb. (3,402 kg) J40-WE-12s on the production A3D-1 Skywarriors. Powered by two of the ill-starred Westinghouse engines, the first XA3D-1 (s/n 7588, BuNo 125412) was trucked to Edwards AFB, where on 28 October, 1952, George Jansen took it up for its maiden flight. During the following months, as the higher portion of the speed envelope was progressively explored, the XA3D-1 ran into flutter problems. Fortunately for Douglas, as the use of J40s would also have resulted in the production A3D-ls being markedly underpowered, that engine's development had by then run into serious teething troubles and a proposal to fit the more powerful Pratt & Whitney J57 two-spool turbojet on the A3D- 1s was endorsed by the Navy. Initially mounted on the first of fifty A3D-1s (BuNos 130352/130363 and 135407/135444), which was redesignated YA3D-1 and first flew at El Segundo on 16 September, 1953, the 9,700 lb. (4,400 kg) thrust dry (11,600 lb. (5,262 kg) thrust with water injection) J57-P-6 turbojets were housed in modified pods located further forward. The revised powerplant installation solved the flutter problem, and the increased thrust and reduced fuel consumption enabled the YA3D-1 to live up to expectations. Company and Service trials continued for the next two and a half years whilst additional orders were placed for the bomber version, as well as for trainer, electronic reconnaissance and counter measures, and photographic reconnaissance models.

Deliveries to a fleet squadron began on 31 March, 1956, when five A3D-1s were ferried from NAS Patuxent, Maryland, to NAS Jacksonville, Florida, for assignment to Heavy Attack Squadron One (VAH-1) and soon the new carrier-borne bomber showed its might. The first public demonstration of the Skywarrior's performance was given exactly four months after its entry into service when Lt-Cdrs P. Harwood and A. Henson and Lt. R. Miears flew 3,200 miles (5,150 km) nonstop and without inflight refueling from Honolulu to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 5 hr 40 min at an average speed of 565 mph (909 km/h). The range capability of the A3D-1 was further exhibited during the first three days of September 1956 when aircraft of VAH-1 were launched from the USSShangri-la whilst the carrier was steaming the Pacific from Mexico to Oregon and flew without refueling to their Florida home base at NAS Jacksonville.

The following year saw the service debut of the A3D-2, the main production variant of the Skywarrior which was first delivered to VAH-2, and as more A3D squadrons were formed the US Navy acquired a new role as part of the overall strategic deterrent concept. The year was also marked by a number of spectacular Skywarrior flights including that made by Cdr. Dale Cox and his crew who during a single flight on 21 March, 1957, broke the westbound US transcontinental record with a time of 5 hr 12 min 39.24 sec and the Los Angeles-New York-Los Angeles record with a time of 9 hr 31 min 35.4 sec. Two and half months later, on 6 June, two Skywarriors landed aboard the USS Saratoga off the east coast of Florida 4 hr 1 min after having been launched from the USS Bon Homme Richard off the California coast. Record flights between the San Francisco bay area and Hawaii were made twice during 1957, two A3D-2s of VAH-2 covering the distance in 4 hr 45 min on 16 July whilst on 11 October a VAH-4 Skywarrior covered the distance in 4 hr 29 min 55 sec.

Joined in the late fifties by the specialized electronic reconnaissance (A3D-2Q), photographic reconnaissance (A3D-2P) and-trainer (A3D-2T) versions, the A3Ds grew in importance until a peak of eighteen squadrons was reached shortly after the last Skywarrior was delivered in January 1961. Twelve of the fourteen Heavy Attack Squadrons—VAH-1, VAH-2 and VAH-4 to VAH-13 -- flew A3D-2s primarily in the strategic bombing role whilst VAH-3 and VAH-123 were equipped with A3D-1s and A3D-2Ts and functioned as replacement training squadrons. Beginning in June 1961 with VAH-7, however, the A3D-2s were replaced in five squadrons by North American A-5A/RA-5C Vigilantes. Longer lived were two electronic reconnaissance/counter measures squadrons, VQ-1 and VQ-2, which operated A3D-2Qs, and two photographic reconnaissance squadrons, VAP-61 and VAP-62, which flew A3D-2Ps; these four units provided detachments aboard fleet carriers as required.

Progressively the Skywarrior’s role evolved as the Navy relinquished its strategic bombing role and began emphasizing the use of carriers and their aircraft in the context of limited wars such as the new conflict then flaring up in Vietnam. Fortunately, the A-3 (the A3D-1 and -2 had been redesignated A-3A and A-3B in September 1962 in accordance with the new Tri-Service designation system) was a remarkably adaptable aircraft and most A-3Bs were modified into KA-3B tankers or EKA-3Bs with dual ECM and tanker capability. Thus, When after August 1964 the Navy took an active part in the air operations over North Vietnam, detachments of KA-3Bs and EKA-3Bs were regularly embarked aboard the carriers operating in the Gulf of Tonkin. Providing the necessary intelligence on the North Vietnamese radar system and escorting most strikes to jam enemy radar and communication networks, the EKA-3Bs proved invaluable, whilst the KA-3Bs saved scores of lives and much valuable equipment by flight refueling aircraft about to run out of fuel short of their carrier or having sustained battle damage to their fuel system.

Following the end of the Southeast Asia War and the development of ECM and tanker versions of the Grumman Intruder (EA-6A, EA-6B and KA-6D), the Skywarrior finally began to fade away. In 1976, EA-3Bs and RA-3Bs were operated only by two fleet squadrons, VQ-1 and VQ-2, whilst other versions were ending their useful life with reserve squadrons VAQ-208 and VAQ-308. As retirement day approached, the Skywarrior remained the heaviest aircraft ever to be operated from a carrier, a record take-off weight of 84,000 lbs. (38,102 kg)---still well below the original Navy limit which Ed Heinemann had succeeded in bettering by a fantastic margin---having been demonstrated on 25 August, 1959, during suitability trials preceding the commissioning of the USS Independence.