18 January 2016

The Bomber Career of the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior, 1955-1968

Douglas ad for the A-3 Skywarrior
The origins of the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior lay in a 1948 Navy requirement for a jet-powered, carrier-based, nuclear attack bomber. Even though at the time, the Navy's first purpose-built carrier bomber capable of nuclear attack, the North American AJ Savage, was in the midst of flight testing, the Navy had set its eyes on a more capable successor aircraft that could carry a 10,000 lb nuclear bomb over a combat radius of 2,000 miles. The planned operating weights of the new jet bomber would limit its use to the new 61,000-ton super carrier USS United States as it was too large to operate off the Essex-class carriers and even the much larger Midway class carriers. The program was seen as the most challenging of the Navy's postwar aircraft programs and the VAX(H) Program only received two formal submissions- one from Douglas and the other from Curtiss-Wright. Headed by the legendary designer Ed Heinemann who was already widely regarded for his work on the SBD Dauntless and the AD Skyraider, the Douglas team emphasized that a smaller aircraft was possible that could meet the stringent requirements of the VAX(H) specification. Heinemann championed a smaller aircraft that could also operate safely from the 45,000-ton Midway class carriers as well as even the smaller 29,000-ton Essex class carriers and still accommodate a notional 10,000 lb nuclear weapon. 

The preliminary Douglas designs were for a twin jet aircraft that was less than half the planned operating weight limit set by the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics. BuAer felt that the nuclear attack mission required an aircraft of 200,000 lbs weight but Ed Heinemann felt that he could meet the mission requirements with an aircraft only 70,000 lbs at maximum operating weight. Naturally his design was met with considerable skepticism within the Navy but Heinemann's planning for a more flexible design not limited to super carriers was validated with the 1949 cancellation of the USS United States. Given that the Douglas submission could also operate off smaller carriers made it the winner of the VAX(H) competition. 

VAH-4 Skywarrior pilot. Note the set back B/N console.
The prototype A3D Skywarrior took the air for the first time on 16 September 1953. Initially low-powered with the troublesome Westinghouse J40 turbojet, the Navy wisely switched the more powerful and widely used Pratt & Whitney J57 engine. A three year flight test program ensued and proved the Skywarrior able to safely operate not just off the super carrier decks of the United States' replacement, the Forrestal class, but also the Midway and Essex classes as well that had been duly upgraded with angled decks and steam catapults. The crew of three consisted of the pilot on the left side, the bombardier/navigator (B/N) on the right side and slightly more aft than the pilot, and the plane captain/navigator who sat behind them facing aft who controlled the twin 20mm cannon in the tail. The cannons proved to be a maintenance nightmare and were all removed from the Skywarrior flight between 1960 and 1961 and replaced with a dovetail or "duck butt" fairing that contained electronic warfare gear. 

The first production Skywarriors weighed in at 43,000 lbs empty, the maximum weight for a catapult launch was 73,000 lbs, and the maximum landing weight was 50,000 lbs. In 1959 an A3D-2 was catapulted from the USS Saratoga with a weight of 84,000 lbs, setting a record that still stands for the heaviest aircraft to be catapulted from an aircraft carrier. 

The first Skywarrior squadron was Heavy Attack Squadron ONE (VAH-1) established on 1 November 1955 a NAS Jacksonville, followed by VAH-3 on 1 June 1956. "Heavy One" went to sea first aboard the USS Forrestal in October 1956, followed by a Mediterranean deployment in January 1957. "Heavy Three" went to sea next, embarked aboard the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt for a Mediterranean cruise in July 1957. Getting used to operating the A3D took a lot of work given it's size which gave it its nickname "Whale". In the first full year of fleet deployments, there were seven flight deck accidents that cost the lives of nine crew. One of the main issues with the high accident rate was that many A3D crew came from the land-based patrol community as it was assumed they were most experienced at handling large aircraft. Turns out, it was carrier experience that was needed as well as more standardized training. As new Skywarrior squadrons were established, they were assigned to NAS Jacksonville to pool experience and training. Eventually Heavy Attack Wing ONE moved to NAS Sanford north of Orlando. By 1958, the accident rate was dropping significantly with the influx of personnel experienced in carrier jet operations. Previously the Navy preferred to keep its carrier air wings united at a single base, but the Skywarrior community set the pattern for the future, for the first time the Navy based all of one aircraft type together at a single base at NAS Sanford. 

With the new A3D-2 variant entering service to replace the earlier A3D-1, a second Skywarrior base for the Pacific Fleet was established at NAS Whidbey Island in Washington. Heavy Attack Wing TWO was set up in Washington, having previously been based at NAS North Island when its heavy attack squadrons flew the AJ Savage. Even numbered VAH squadrons were with the Pacific Fleet, odd numbered VAH squadrons were with the Atlantic Fleet in Florida. The first Pacific Fleet deployment was carried out by VAH-2 aboard the USS Bon Homme Richard in July 1957. Interestingly at the time, there were no Forrestal class carriers assigned to the Pacific Fleet, so nearly all of the Pacific Fleet Skywarrior cruises at the time were done aboard the small Essex-class carriers.

Special nuclear storage facilities were set up on the carriers where the nuclear weapons were stored, guarded by special Marine detachments. Alert aircraft on the carrier deck were also guarded by Marines. Essex class carriers carried three A3D-2s, nine to eleven A3D-2s were embarked on the Midway class and full twelve-aircraft squadrons were sent aboard the Forrestal class decks when they were finally assigned to the Pacific Fleet.  While tanking and conventional bombing were routinely practiced, they were considered secondary to the nuclear deterrent mission. At any given time, a carrier with Skywarriors aboard had at least one or two aircraft armed and on alert for immediate launch. Alert Skywarriors were sometimes kept in the hangar deck near an elevator for immediate movement to the flight deck. The Skywarrior's preferred nuclear attack profile was to make the run into the target at low level at 520 knots. Once the B/N had the target on his radar, the A3D would pull up at 2.5Gs at full throttle, pitching up to 60 degrees climb to release the weapon. After release, the Skywarrior would roll 120 degrees, still pulling 2.5Gs, and hit the deck to egress the target area to escape the nuclear blast. 

By 1960, NAS Whidbey Island was home to five A3D Skywarrior squadrons- four operational squadrons and one training squadron. The last of the Skywarriors were delivered in January 1961, from a production run of 283 aircraft. The zenith of Skywarrior operations was in mid-1961 when there were 227 aircraft in service. With the entry into service of the Polaris sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) in 1961, the nuclear deterrent mission of the Skywarrior and its replacement, the supersonic North American A3J (designated A-5 after 1962) Vigilante, was soon to end. The Skywarrior units with the Atlantic Fleet based at NAS Sanford transitioned to the Vigilante, the first fleet deployment taking place in 1963 aboard the USS Independence. By 1965-1966, there were no more Skywarriors with the Atlantic Fleet as all the squadrons in Florida had converted to the Vigilante, leaving NAS Whidbey Island in Washington as the center of the Skywarrior's world with four operational squadrons, VAH-2, -4, -8, and -10, with VAH-123 acting as the training squadron. 

VAH-4 Skywarrior in a shallow dive bombing run
(Skywarrior Association)
On the night of the Tonkin Gulf incident on 2 August 1964 that set in motion the long US involvement in the Vietnam War, VAH-4 had three A-3B Skywarriors embarked on the USS Ticonderoga and twelve A-3Bs with VAH-10 aboard the USS Constellation. The A-3B (as the A3D-2 was redesigned after 1962) could carry up to 8,000 lbs of conventional bombs. Usually the high drag box fin Korea-era bombs were carried as most could fit in the A-3B's bomb bay. The low drag Mark 82 series bombs were reserved for aircraft that had to carry their bomb loads externally. The first bombing missions by Skywarriors in Vietnam were carried out by VAH-2 in 1964 which was uniquely split between two aircraft carriers, the USS Ranger and the USS Coral Sea. Many Skywarrior missions going into 1965 were level bombing runs at night using radar. Most Skywarriors did dual roles, both tanking and bombing. During VAH-2's marathon 331-day deployment 1964-1965, the unit's A-3Bs flew 4900 hours, dropped over 400,000 lbs of bombs, and offloaded over 4 million pounds of fuel. 

During 1966-1967, many of the targets in the North weren't good radar targets for the Skywarrior. Driven as well by concerns about the A-3B's survivability in the increasingly lethal air defenses of North Vietnam, Skywarrior squadrons shifted Viet Cong targets in South Vietnam as well as missions against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. But there was a problem. If the juicy targets in North Vietnam weren't very good radar targets, how much better was a target somewhere in the jungles of South Vietnam and Laos? The Skywarrior crews adopted dive bombing, attacking in 30-degree dives. While it wasn't anything new as it had been done in exercises in the past, the A-3B lacked an optical sight for dive bombing. Skywarrior pilots resorted to grease pencil marks on the windscreen, some used the refueling probe as an improvised aim point in their dive attacks. The pilots began their attack runs at 8,000 to 10,000 feet, pulling out at 3,000 feet to avoid light caliber anti-aircraft guns and to avoid over stressing the aircraft. More enterprising units resorted to bolting gunsights from A-1 Skyraiders to the glare panel and one unit even got its hands on some gunsights from A-4 Skyhawks. Some Skywarrior missions involved leading groups of A-4 Skyhawks on level bombing runs, the Skyhawks dropping on command from the A-3B's B/N. 

A steeper bombing attack by the Skywarrior over Vietnam
(Skywarrior Association)
A usual A-3B bombing mission involved both bombing and tanking. A Skywarrior would launch, refuel aircraft in the departing strike package, then go on its own bombing mission. On return to the carrier, it would refuel the next outgoing strike package before recovering. When not loaded with bombs or a tanker package, the bomb bay could carry critical spare parts, mail and other high priority items. It was common for a spare A-3B to be sent to NAS Cubi Point in the Philippines for critical aircraft spare parts or get sent to Japan to pick up combat pay for the ship's crew. 

The Skywarrior's role in Vietnam as a bomber began to wind down in late 1967 as it was deemed that its air refueling role was a more vital mission and that more capable, more survivable attack aircraft like the Grumman A-6 Intruder and Vought A-7 Corsair were available. The last bombing missions were carried out in 1968. But there is an oft-repeated apocryphal story amongst Skywarrior veterans of Vietnam that General William Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam, himself ordered an end of A-3 bombing missions. The story goes that he was shocked when visiting an aircraft carrier that Skywarriors were providing close air support to Army troops "without the benefit of a proper gunsight". 

Nearly every aircraft carrier that participated in Vietnam had A-3 Skywarriors aboard, mostly as tankers, bombers until 1968, and later in the war, in reconnaissance and electronic warfare roles. Just in the bomber/tanker roles, Skywarrior squadrons made 62 combat cruises in Southeast Asia, ranging from three-aircraft detachments on the Essex class to full twelve-aircraft squadron deployments on the larger super carriers. Sixteen different aircraft carriers operated Skywarriors in Vietnam, only the USS Intrepid and USS Saratoga never operated Skywarriors during the war. Six Skywarriors were lost in combat, twelve were lost to operational accidents in the theater, and 35 crew were lost. 

Related reading:

Sources: A-3 Skywarrior Units of the Vietnam War by Rick Morgan. Osprey Combat Aircraft No. 108, Osprey Publishing, 2015, pp8-30. Strike From the Sea: US Navy Attack Aircraft from Skyraider to Super Hornet 1948-Present by Tommy Thomason. Specialty Press, 2009, p75-87.

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