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.
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.
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