Douglas Skywarrior
Operational History

Nuclear bomber

Prior to the initial operational capability of the Polaris-armed submarine, the A-3 was the Navy's critical element in the US nuclear deterrent. Squadrons were established in two Heavy Attack Wings. One wing was established at NAS Whidbey Island, Washington while the other wing was initially established at NAS Jacksonville, Florida before relocating to NAS Sanford, Florida. The wing at NAS Whidbey Island would later transition to the EA-3 variant, eventually forming the nucleus for the Navy's EA-6B Prowler community, while the wing at NAS Sanford would convert to the A3J Vigilante in the nuclear heavy attack mission, followed by conversion to the RA-5C and transition to the reconnaissance attack mission. The Vigilante wing would also continue to retain a small number of TA-3B aircraft for training naval flight officers in the Vigilante's radar systems. The Skywarrior's strategic bombing role faded quickly after 1960, briefly replaced by the A3J Vigilante until 1964. Soon after that, the Navy abandoned the concept of carrier-based strategic nuclear weaponry with the success of the Polaris program.


Skywarriors saw some use in the conventional bombing and mine-laying role during the Vietnam War from 1965 through 1967. The Navy would soon use only more nimble fighter sized attack bombers over Vietnam, but it found subsequent service in the tanker, photographic reconnaissance, and electronic warfare roles. The Skywarrior would not only extend the range of a strike force, but save returning pilots short on fuel, much like the larger and more famous KC-135 Stratotanker.

Tanker role

During Vietnam, the Skywarrior was modified into a multimission tanker variant (EKA-3B) that was a real workhorse for the carrier air wing. Buddy tanking using A-4 Skyhawks and A-7 Corsair IIs, and inflight refueling using A-3 Skywarriors was utilized by the US Navy in the Vietnam theater of operations from at least 1966 through 1970. Eventually, the EKA-3B was replaced by the smaller dedicated KA-6D Intruder tanker, which had less capacity and endurance, and later by the S-3 Viking which had even less fuel capacity. With the ongoing retirement of the S-3B, future tanking will be accomplished by F/A-18E and F mission tankers.

Cold War The EA-3 variant was an indispensable resource for the Fleet Commander and was used in critical ELINT role operating from aircraft carrier decks and ashore supplementing the larger EP-3. Its last service was as an ELINT platform during Desert Storm.

Electronic Warfare

The EA-3B model was modified for electronic intelligence against the Warsaw Pact. Missions were flown around the globe beginning in 1956, with the EB-47 flying a similar mission. It carried a crew of seven, with flight crew of three in the cockpit and four electronic systems operators in the converted weapons bay. It offered unique electronic reconnaissance capabilities in numerous Cold War-era conflicts and the Vietnam War.


For more than two decades, the 282 Skywarriors the Navy procured served effectively in many roles with the last USN Skywarriors retiring on 27 September 1991. RDT&E units, notably Point Mugu and China Lake, attempted to retain their A-3 testbeds. VADM Dunleavy, as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air Warfare, and an old A-3 navigator himself, regretfully made the decision final.

Post-retirement career

In an agreement Hughes Aircraft had with the Navy, the Navy had agreed to retain at least one aircraft in inviolate storage at Davis-Monthan for long term support for major structural parts. Westinghouse also operated an A-3 in a similar arrangement.

The NAVAIR Weapons System Manager, who participated in the drafting of the contract, saw that support as no longer possible, and Hughes was contacted to meet with Westinghouse and Raytheon to finalize plans for the support shutdown of the aircraft. At the last Integrated Logistics meeting at NAS Alameda, both Raytheon and Hughes indicated their willingness to obtain fleet assets vice sending them to Davis-Monthan, thereby saving the airframes from destruction and saving the Navy the cost of storage at AMARC.

As the plan matured, two other contractors, Thunderbird Aviation and CTAS also elected to participate in similar agreements. The fleet spares from ASO were distributed between the contractors evenly, and warehouses were emptied all over the United States. Unfortunately, due to misunderstandings and reorganizations within the Navy, the world wide ASO assets were scrapped, not getting to the contractors. In early 1993, CTAS decided that they no longer had use for their aircraft, and Hughes had several programs needing additional assets.

In early 1994, a USAF program decided to modify an A-3 for F-15 Radar tests, and the only available airframe was stored at NAS Alameda since the fleet shutdown. Hughes added that aircraft to the bailment, and ferried the aircraft to Van Nuys for modifications. An entire nose section was removed from a stricken F-15B at AMARC at Davis-Monthan AFB, and grafted onto the front of the aircraft. Racks and equipment were installed in the cabin, and the aircraft is utilized by Hughes and the USAF for F-15 software development.

In 1994 Westinghouse decided to terminate their agreement with the Navy, and Thunderbird added their aircraft to the Thunderbird bailment. In 1996, Thunderbird Aviation went into receivership, and Hughes, through mutual cost savings to the Government, added the Thunderbird assets to the contract, prepping them for ferry at Deer Valley airport, and relocating them to Mojave, California and Tucson, Arizona for long term storage.

In December, 1996, Raytheon bought the aerospace units of Hughes Aircraft Company. Hughes Aeronautical Operations, now a part of Raytheon Systems, continues to operate the A-3s from their base at Van Nuys Airport, CA. These aircraft participated at several military air shows, telling visitors that the plane continued to be valuable for its load capacity compared to corporate jets, and performance compared to small airliners.

Wikipedia: A-3 Skywarrior