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Douglas A-3 Skywarrior - United States, 1956

Detailing the development and operational history of the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior Fleet Air Reconnaissance / Strategic Bomber Aircraft.

 Entry last updated on 8/29/2016; Authored by Staff Writer; Content ¬©

  Douglas A-3 Skywarrior  
Picture of Douglas A-3 Skywarrior

The Douglas A-3 Skywarrior series soldiered on through most of the Cold War while in service with the United States Navy.

Douglas supplied its large, twin-engine Skywarrior jet-powered bomber to both the United States Air Force (as the B-66 Destroyer) and the United States Navy (as the A-3 Skywarrior). Some 282 of the latter were produced and these managed a healthily-long operational service life spanning from 1956 to 1991. While introduced as a carrier-based bomber, the Skywarrior eventually took on the roles of reconnaissance, in-flight refueling tanker and Electronic Warfare Aircraft (EWA) before its story was fully written. Design of the aircraft was credited to famous American aviation engineer Ed Heinemann best known for his lead in the design of the USN's fabled A-4 "Skyhawk" carrier-based fighter. When adopted by the USN in 1956, the Skywarrior became its first twin-engine nuclear-capable bomber and the largest (and heaviest) aircraft to serve on an aircraft carrier.

The USN commissioned for several design studies to test the feasibility of a carrier-based strategic bomber with the primacy concern being operating weights and size on a space-strapped aircraft carrier deck. Douglas engineers then began design work on such an aircraft in 1947, mostly operating without the benefit of all the design details the USN envisioned - such was the secrecy surrounding any new aircraft intended to deliver a nuclear-minded payload. In January of 1948, U.S. Navy authorities issued their formal requirement for a carrier-based bomb-delivery platform with this nuclear capability in mind - the aircraft intended to operate from the deck of current American carriers while also displaying inherently good operating ranges. Douglas secured the development contract and went on to produce the "XA3D-1" prototype to which this aircraft first flew on October 28th, 1952. The development phase was a protracted affair and service entry for the aircraft that would eventually become the "Skywarrior" was not until 1956. Production spanned from 1956 to 1962 and from this design the USAF's B-66 "Destroyer" platform was also realized.

As completed, the Skywarrior exhibited a wingspan of 72 feet, 6 inches, a length of 74 feet, 5 inches and a height of 22 feet, 9.5 inches - a large aircraft indeed. Maximum Take-Off Weight was in the vicinity of 82,000lbs. With its 2 x Pratt & Whitney J57-P-10 turbojet engines of 10,000lbs thrust each, the aircraft could reach speeds of 620 miles per hour (520mph cruising) and a service ceiling up to 40,500 feet. Engines were held underwing in individual nacelles while an internal bomb bay allowed for 12,000lbs of ordnance to be carried. Operational range was 2,300 miles. A turret was fitted to the tail unit for some self-defense capability and was remotely-controlled from the cockpit. The aircraft's crew number three.

Picture of the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior
Picture of the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior

Externally, the aircraft featured a long, slender fuselage with an elegant fuselage spine curving to become the single vertical tail fin. Wings were shoulder-mounted and heavily-swept while displayed some dihedral. Conversely, the horizontal tailplanes were cranked slightly upwards and mid-mounted along the vertical tail fin. Since the engines were held outboard of the fuselage, this allowed for the needed internal volume for fuel stores, avionics and munitions. The undercarriage was of a tricycle arrangement with three single-wheeled legs. The crew sat under a framed canopy offering generally adequate views of the action around the aircraft - save perhaps to the rear. As a navy aircraft, the main wing assemblies were able to fold outboard of the engine installations.

Beyond the XA3D-1 prototype - of which two were built, the Skywarrior line included the YA3D-1 development prototype (single example) and the initial production-quality A3D-1 of which 49 were delivered. The A3D-1P mark was a one-off prototype form modified for the photographic reconnaissance role and A3D-1Q were five converted airframes for ELectronic INTelligence (ELINT) with additional crew for the role. The A3D-2 became the primary bomber form of the Skywarrior line and the A3D-2P was its photo-reconnaissance form, the A3D-2Q serving as the ELINT variant. Trainers became a dozen A3D-2T airframes to which five were then later revised as VIP transports, joining the two VA-3B examples in the same role. KA-3B signified some 85 airframes modified for the aerial tanker role beginning in 1967. The EKA-3B served to cover aerial tanker modified airframes and ERA-3B were electronic "aggressor" aircraft for USN training. NRA-3B was used to designated some six test airframes and a sole NTA-3B example served as an aerial testbed for the powerful Hughes-brand radar system to be eventually fitted on Grumman F-14D "Tomcat" carrier-based interceptors.

All designations were revised in the 1962 under the new Tri-Services designation scheme. This produced the A-3A (A3D-1), RA-3A (A3D-1P), EA-3A (A3D-1Q), A-3B (A3D-2), RA-3B (A3D-2P), EA-3B (A3D-2Q), TA-3B (A3D-2T) designations in turn.

The Skywarrior was one of the many American aircraft pressed into combat service during the Vietnam War (1955-1975). Early in their tenure, the Skywarriors undertook their intended conventional bombing role against enemy positions in both North and South Vietnam. With the arrival of newer aircraft showcasing better performance, capabilities and technologies, the Skywarrior's intended strategic bombing role eventually faded over time. The aircraft found renewed use as an in-flight refueling tanker while other airframes were eventually outfitted with specialized equipment for the dedicated reconnaissance role. Additional mounts served as crew trainers.

Amazingly, the 1950s-era Skywarrior, in its "EA-3B" form (A3D-2Q), was around long enough to participate in the 1991 Gulf War before seeing formal retirement.

Douglas A3D-2/A-3B Skywarrior Specifications

Service Year: 1956
Type: Fleet Air Reconnaissance / Strategic Bomber Aircraft
National Origin: United States
Manufacturer(s): Douglas Aircraft Company - USA
Total Production: 282

Structural (Crew, Dimensions, Weights)

Operating Crew (Typical): 3
Overall Length: 76.35 feet (23.27 meters)
Overall Width: 72.51 feet (22.10 meters)
Overall Height: 22.80 feet (6.95 meters)

Weight (Empty): 39,410 lb (17,876 kg)
Weight (MTOW): 82,001 lb (37,195 kg)

Power / Performance (Engine Type, Top Speed)

Engine: 2 x Pratt & Whitney J57-P-10 turbojet engines developing 10,500 lb of thrust each.

Maximum Speed: 530 knots (610 mph; 982 kph)
Maximum Range: 1,825 nautical miles (2,100 miles; 3,380 km)
Service Ceiling: 40,997 feet (12,496 meters; 7.76 miles)

Armament / Mission Payload

2 x 20mm M3L cannons in tail barbette

Up to 12,800lb of conventional drop ordnance.

12 x 500lb bombs
6 x 1000lb bombs
8 x 1,600lb bombs
4 x 2,000lb bombs
1 x Nuclear Bomb

Global Operators (Customers, Users)

United States (retired)

Model Variants

A-3 "Skywarrior" - Base Series Designation
XA3D-1 - Prototype designation of which two completed.
YA3D-1 (YA-3A) - Single developmental model
A3D-1 (A-3A) - Initial production bombers; 49 completed.
A3D-1P (RA-3A) - Photographic Reconnaissance mark; single conversion example.
A3D-1Q (EA-3A) - ELINT mark; five conversions
A3D-2 (A-3B) - Follow-up bomber variant
A3D-2P (RA-3B) - Photographic reconnaissance version based on A3D-2 form.
A3D-2Q (EA-3B) - ELINT model of A3D-2
A3D-2T (TA-3B) - Trainer variant
KA-3B - In-flight refueling tanker variant
EKA-3B - Hybrid ECM/refueler type
ERA-3B - Electronic aggressor aircraft
NRA-3B - Test platforms; six examples
VA-3B - VIP transports; two examples
BTA-3B - F-14D Tomcat Hughes radar system testbed

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