Skywarrior in Service with US Navy

Last revised March 29, 2004

The first delivery of A3D-1s to fleet squadrons took place on March 31, 1956. On that date, five A3D-1s were delivered to Heavy Attack Squadron One (VAH-1) at NAS Jacksonville, Florida. In April of that year, VAH-2 intoduced the Skywarrior to the Pacific Fleet. In September of 1956, the aircraft of VAH-1 were deployed aboard the USS Shangri-la in the Pacific. The National Air Show in Oklahoma City was September 1, 2, and 3, 1956. Capt. Blackburn, Commodore HatWing One and Cdr. Charles T. Frohne, XO Hatron One (VAH-1) and their crews staged from Jacksonville FL to the Shangri-la off the Oregon coast for a demonstration flight. Launching from the carrier they flew to Oklahoma City at an average speed of 606.555 mph, and Capt. Blackburn was awarded the Douglas Trophy for that feat.  Without landing they continued on to NAS Jacksonville.

In January of 1957, VAH-1 took the A3D-1 on its first major deployment aboard the USS Forrestal on a cruise to the Mediterranean. The A3D-1s were primarily designed to be service test aircraft that would explore the feasibility of operating large jet-powered aircraft aboard aircraft carriers, and were not considered as being combat-ready.

While it is correct that the first "major" deployment of VAH-1 and the A3Ds commenced on 15 January 1957, the actual first deployment of the A3D-1 was during the Suez Crisis.  On 7 November 1956 VAH-1's A3Ds were craned aboard the USS Forrestal at Mayport.  Carrier qualifications were actually accomplished enroute to the Eastern Atlantic! The carrier returned to the US on December 12, 1956.

The A3D-2 began to reach fleet squadrons in 1957. It was first delivered to VAH-2. The A3D-2 was used to set some impressive records. In a single flight on March 21, 1957, an A3D-2 set a west-bound US transcontinental speed record with a time of 5 hours 12 minutes as well as a record for Los Angles-New York--Los Angles speed record of 9 hours 31 minutes. On June 6, a pair of Skywarriors took off from the USS Bon Homme Richard that was steaming off the California coast, flew across the country and landed 4 hours later on the USS Saratoga stationed off the east coast of Florida. The A3D-1 and the A3D-2 went on to equip 13 VAH squadrons (including two replacement training squadrons). They operated primarily in the strategic bombing role. The fuselage shape and the sheer size earned the aircraft the appelation "Whale", reflecting the difficulty that carrier crews had in moving the plane around on crowded flight decks.

In the late 1950s, the specialized electronic reconnaissance A3D-2Q, the photographic reconnaissance A3D-2P, and the trainer A3D-2T began to be delivered. The A3D-2Q/EA-3B was issued in 1959 to VQ-1 and VQ-2, these two units being destined to fly Skywarriors for more than 30 years. The A3D-2P/EA-3B was supplied to VAP-61, VAP-62, and VCP-63 beginning in 1959. These squadrons were primarily land-based, but they did provide frequent carrier-based detachments. 

The last of 283 Skywarriors rolled off the production line in January of 1961.

Skywarriors figured prominently in the Cold War crises of the late 1950s and early 1960s, including the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. However, the A3D's role in nuclear deterrence began to fade in 1960 with the first deployment of the Polaris fleet ballistic missile submarines and the introduction of the supersonic North American A3J (later A-5A) Vigilante. VAH-7 converted to the A3J-1 in August 1961, and seven other VAH squadrons exchanged their Skywarriors for Vigilantes, while RVAH-3 flew Vigilantes alongside A3D-2T/TA-3Bs between 1961 and 1979. The remaining VAH squadrons continued to fly Skywarriors until they were either disestablished or redesignated.

When the Vietnam War began to heat up in 1964, the Skywarrior was pressed into service, initially as a conventional bomber during 1965 and 1966 with VAH-2, VAH-4, and VAH-8, dropping "iron" bombs on lightly defended targets. Mining missions were flown as late as March of 1967. However, most Skywarriors in the Southeast Asian theatre were destined to serve as tanker aircraft. 85 A-3Bs had their bombing equipment removed and permanent tanker packages installed, being redesignated as KA-3Bs. Later, 34 of these KA-3Bs were modified at NARF as combination electronic countermeasures/aerial tanker aircraft. These were redesignated EKA-3B. The tanker Skywarriors were useful not only in routine combat operations but also in refuelling combat aircraft returning from their missions that were about to run out of fuel short of their carriers or which were suffering major battle damage. Tanker Skywarriors with VAH and VAQ squadrons were credited with saving over 700 aircraft from loss during the course of the war.

Reconnaissance RA-3Bs flew nighttime missions over North Vietnam, identifying road traffic for later strikes. VAP-61 lost four RA-3Bs to ground fire. VQ-1 and VQ-2 operated EA-3B electronic reconnaissance aircraft throughout the war, providing vital intelligence to the fleet and valuable information about North Vietnamese radar systems.

As the Vietnam War wound down, the KA-3B and EKA-3B aircraft were replaced by the KA-6D and the EA-6B respectively, and many KA-3Bs were transferred to the Naval Air Reserve. The EA-3Bs soldiered on for a few more years with Navy carrier-based squadrons. The EA-3B was withdrawn from carrier use and from VQ-1 in December of 1987. VQ-1 turned its planes over to VQ-2, which operated them in support of Operation Desert Storm in January of 1991.

The Naval Reserve unit VAK-308 finally relinquished its KA-3Bs on September 30, 1988, the unit itself was decommissioned a year later. VAK-208 continued on with the KA-3B until 1989.

Beginning in 1970, the RA-3Bs were retired from their photoreconnaissance role and many were modified into ERA-3B electronic aggressor aircraft for service with VAQ-33 and later VAQ-34. These aircraft served in many locations throughout the world, providing realistic simulation of potential enemy threats to shipboard radar operators. These units also operated between them a handful of TA-3Bs, KA-3Bs, and at least one each of the EA-3B, EKA-3B, and UA-3B versions. VAQ-34 retired its ERA-3Bs in February 1991, leaving VAQ-33 the last squadron to operate the Skywarrior. The last Skywarrior was officially retired from VAQ-33 on September 30, 1991.

The following Navy Squadrons used the Skywarrior


  1. McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Since 1920, Vol 1, Rene J. Francillon, Naval Institute Press, 1988

  2. American Combat Planes, 3rd Edition, Ray Wagner, Doubleday, 1982.

  3. United States Navy Aircraft Since 1911, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Naval Institute Press, 1990.

  4. A-3 Skywarrior Association web site--

  5. E-mail from Chuck Huber on initial deployment of A3D-1.