Flying & Fighting in the A-3 Skywarrior


Catapult take-off in an aircraft that weighs the same as fifteen wartime Corsairs is a daunting prospect, yet the US Navy’s Skywarrior served with aplomb from US aircraft carriers for 35 years. Ed Heinemann’s ‘Whale’ was huge, fast and challenging — and could do almost anything asked of it. We spoke to Captain ‘Dirty Duck’ Niemyer to find out more. 

What was the role of the aircraft?
“Shortly after debuting as a purpose-designed carrier-based strategic nuclear bomber, the Navy and Douglas’s legendary Ed Heinemann recognised its immense and roomy fuselage design would lend itself to a variety of other tasks. This included a design change that would beef up pressurisation and make the cockpit, companion-way and bomb-bay area one large, sealed and pressurised vessel, allowing room for massive amounts of equipment, including four extra systems operators and equipment to fulfill a CVA-based electronic/signals intelligence collection capability. After a few A3D-1Q’s, the Navy went on to build around 20 or so A3D-2Q/EA-3B’s over the years, including the conversion of several VA-3B’s and TA-3B’s to replace losses. The ‘Whales’ provided a fused SIGINT product that could be passed to Battle Group Commanders, strike leaders and strike packages in real and near-real time, as well as collecting important and new data for later, fine-grain analysis by other entities.”

VQ-2 EA-3B Ranger 14 touch and go #2
What was the best and worst features of the aircraft?

Its size and its size. The A-3 was huge, for it was designed to fulfil a late-1940’s NAVAIR requirement for a nuclear bomber with a roughly 2000-NM range at high altitude and very high sub-Mach 1 cruise speed. Ed Heinemann was incredibly proud that his design came in well, well under the 100,000-pound projected maximum gross weight, with performance numbers well ahead of its competition. Nonetheless, with a demonstrated max catapult weight of 83,000 pounds (Routinely kept to 73,000 pounds in actual use) and a very long unrefuelled, still-air range in excess of 2000NM, the Skywarrior was over 74 feet long and its long, high aspect ratio swept wings were over 72 feet wide. (Which meant line-up at the boat was everything. Don’t be drifting or lining up to the right!) See why it almost immediately got the fleet nickname of the ‘Whale’?


That size meant that she rapidly became a jack-of-all trades. Nuke and conventional bomber and minelayer, the last two of which they did during Vietnam; reconnaissance; trainer; VIP transport, tanker-jammer, tanker, EW aggressor; developmental testbed. All these and more made the Whale a unique and valued platform. The range we offered meant that an Admiral, who wanted information, that morning, on what the various elements of the Soviet Mediterranean Fleet might be up to, could dispatch us over the course of a day to acquire what information we could from all of the three major SOVMEDFLT anchorages. Something we called “Getting a hat-trick” on the day. (At that time, due to our slim fuel reserves brought about by our high empty gross weight versus maximum landing weight of only 50,000 pounds, we did only daytime carrier operations. That later changed.)


That size also made us hated by the Flight Deck and Hangar Deck Officers. Our so-called “Flight Deck Multiple”, or footprint, with wings folded was huge. We simply took up, in their’s and often the carrier CO’s and even sometimes CAG’s (Carrier Air Wing Commanders) eyes, too much room they could use stuffing in more shooters and bomb-droppers. For us VQ bubbas, depending on who had been “read in” on our mission and its value to the Wing and the Battle Group, that meant that sometimes we were made welcome and other times made us the true cross-eyed stepchild in the Air Wing. (At the time I flew in the EA-3B we didn’t do the extensive pre-deployment work-up cycle stateside. We joined the Air Wing when it in-chopped the Med as a Detachment and left when the carrier left the Med for home)


The Whale was NOT easy to bring aboard, in the least. The Pratt & Whitney J-57 was a straight axial-flow engine with attendant lag in spool up and the jet had the low thrust-to-weight ratio of its era. So, pilots had to constantly be anticipating their next power response well ahead of when that was going to be needed. They learned the individual characteristics of each boat we cruised on, as each seemed to have its own characteristics. Some moved in a unique way, others’ turbulence aft of the ship, the ‘burble’, was unique.


NRA-3B ‘Snoopy’

The distance between the pilot’s eyes and the hook point to capture the cross-deck pennant was significant, so most pilots I flew with, in both the EA-3B and later, when I was a navigator up front in the KA-3B, flew the Whale seeing the ball in the optical landing system, the “Meatball,” about ½ ball higher from what was considered optimal in other aircraft. The Whale had very narrow main landing gear track, and at the high tire pressures called for in carrier operations, when combined with a perhaps excessive descent rate, maybe a little bit of left or right wing down, or even worse, an in-flight engagement of hook before the wheels actually hit the deck or a too-flat attitude could lead to, well, spectacular results. Not in a good way. Which see: Whale Dance. (I’ll save that for another time).


Oh, did I forget to mention, we didn’t have ejection seats. In the late 1940’s ejection seat technology wasn’t very good and when needed most, on launch and recovery, one was already outside the speed and altitude envelope. So, we had individual parachutes, two overhead ditching hatches, one in the cockpit and other in the EW compartment, a large emergency bailout hatch on the right side of the EW compartment and the main entry/exit door that could be blown and locked down as a bailout slide. Looking back at it, out of the 282 Whales manufactured, over 125 were either lost or damaged enough to be struck from the register including several EA-3B’s. We tended towards dark humor as a result. “What are you going to do to me? Make me fly Whales? Off the Boat? You don’t scare me, there’s a reason it was originally known as ‘All 3 Dead,’ I’m a dead man walking already.”

EA-3B ECM Compartment

Rare view of the ECM console of the EA-3B

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The other thing the Whale had working against it was both the airframe design age (Late 1940’s) and actual manufacturing age. The last Whales came off the El Segundo line in January 1961. By the late 1970’s, they’d been rode hard and put away wet. Aircraft parts failed more frequently, and parts were hard to find for both our sister squadron, VQ-1 in Guam and us. The Maintenance Man hours/flight hours ratios were not good at times. On more than one occasion we would literally have to divert from an in-flight mission back to Rota to get the plane fixed, leaving the Det on the boat to wait, often days, for our return. That loss of capability often hurt.

VQ-2 EA-3B's over Gibralter (2)

On the other hand, the back-end systems were being constantly updated. We had a mix-and-match of “Old, but reliable,” “Old, and needs a lot of TLC” and “New, cool (For 1978) tech” gear. But constant catapult shots and arrested landings take their tolls on anything electronic and we sometimes worked with some systems working a little less well than we would have liked. But the data we could collect was wide across the spectrum and a good crew at all five stations could collect a massive amount of useful information.

What was the hardest system to operate?
“Each of the five operator positions, four in the EW compartment and one in the cockpit was equipped with receiver equipment able to collect data from various parts of the RF spectrum, with some cross-coverage between individual stations. In the most general sense, it depended on the operator himself. (No women flew the EA-3B when I was flying these missions) Some operators could be running different bands of the spectrum through two receivers, one going in each ear and know when he had a ‘hit’ just from the audio sounds generated by the specific receiver. He could then look at the signal analysis equipment and know if he had an emitter worth focusing some detailed analytic attention upon. Sometimes we focused on what the emitter was and the weapons system associated with it and other times we wanted to know where it was radiating from. Sometimes, both. Adding in other source data, we were able to build a much more complete picture of what was happening involving the platform, etc. That was the stuff worth getting.

EA-3B Cockpit from Pos 4

That being said, for me, the hardest system to get to work right was the massive data recorder, using what was for the 1970s, state-of-art wide magnetic tapes to record any data of high interest we were collecting. The tapes were heavy and huge, and the recorder was a bitch to operate. You’d thought you’d recorded a real signal of interest only find out when it got back for analysis that it didn’t collect squat.”


What was the most effective system and why?
“The generation of EA-3B I flew in was equipped with an updated ‘system of systems’ contracted and put together by GE, called Seawing. As a collective system, it was incredibly effective in extending the carrier battle group commander’s situational awareness. When all the receivers were working well and with an experienced crew of operators, we were able to do a job, with just five of us, that many larger platforms couldn’t do. Plus, the system allowed us, in the right scenarios, to be incredibly effective in giving carrier air strikes valuable I&W of the air defence systems they were facing and how effective their countermeasures may be, in real time.”

Kuznetsov from EA-3B (1)

Keeping an Eye on Ivan, Kuznetsov from an EA-3B

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How effective was it and why?
“The EA-3B was, when properly tasked by the BG commander and/or often “Higher Authority,” incredibly effective. We had an inherent taking flexibility that neither of the predominant land-based assets possessed. We were part of the Carrier Air Wing we were assigned to and we felt it our duty to look out for our fellow fliers as best we could and to help them do their mission, be it offensive or defensive. When teamed up with the E-2, S-3 and the EA-6B we could add a significant ISR and I&W package to any operation, before we called it “ISR” or “I&W.” That came in very, very handy when the carrier group would start to nose its way south or east in the Med towards littoral nations that may not have seen us as the loveable liberty risks we really were.

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We always considered a huge compliment if, when debriefing any operation where instead of just taking off and heading over the horizon on our own (“Don’t ask and we won’t have to lie to you”) we worked with the fighter and attack squadrons, they’d ask “How the hell did you guys know that? That made a huge difference!”


How well would it have survived in a full-scale war with the USSR?
“Like all air assets, that depends. Because we normally operated at high altitudes, well above where most of the Air Wings of that era operated, we had incredible stand-off range from any of the SAM’s that then equipped the Soviet Med Fleet’s and their allied nations’ assets. Plus, with the equipment we had, the Whale’s max speed and other factors, any land-based aircraft intercept would be very hard-pressed to get to where we were when he launched, much less get to where we’d be by the time he got to the first point. We were way more concerned about the Soviets’ subs sinking “mother.” After all, that’s where the food was! Plus, the Soviets maintained an AGI off Rota pretty much 24/7/365. We knew Homeplate was a primary target. Something you simply accepted.”

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What was your most memorable missions and why?
“The ones I feel most comfortable in talking about were a series of daily reconnaissance missions we flew in early 1979 off Libya while operating from USS Eisenhower. Tensions were more than a little ratcheted up and there was some genuine concern that the Libyans might do something stupid. We flew two-three missions a day, with two crews swapping out between launch and recovery cycles. We had a bird with tight systems and the mission ‘take’ was good. (We’d write up a daily mission summary and send it out via message).


When we returned, our Commanding Officer, a man I always held in the very highest respect, for a whole different number of reasons, came out and met us on the parking ramp in front of the squadron. He told us to our faces that we had done “spectacular” work out there. He took me aside and told me he’d been up at a regular conference at  Commander in Chief, Europe ( Commander in Chief, Europe) headquarters and that then CINCEUR, General Haig, had told him he’d been reading my nightly messages and asked him to pass on his personal “Attaboy” to me specifically for the missions and the results we were getting.


As well as frontline duties, the A-3 served as a testbed for weapon systems. An XAIM-54A Phoenix air-to-air missile is launched from the Douglas NA-3A Skywarrior on 8 September 1966. Note that the NA-3A has been fitted with an AWG-9 radar. These tests were vital in the development of the F-14 Tomcat.

As a junior officer, flying a ‘Cats-and-Dogs’ aircraft, in an obscure squadron and with a personal reputation among some of the ‘older’ folks for being a bit of a loose cannon and overall crazy man, to know that what I was doing was being noted at that level and that our missions were being briefed daily to the National Command Authority, was pretty affirming stuff.”


Tell me something I don’t know about the aircraft?
“Until the advent of the FA-18, no US Navy aircraft normally cruised at the altitudes and speeds the Whale did. Our most fuel-efficient flight was 420-480 knots TAS and well in the 30,000 feet and well above altitude range. The FA-18 only matched us on its emergency fuel ‘bingo profile.'”

Describe the aircraft in three words
“Big, fast, challenging.”

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  1. Pingback: Flying & Fighting in the A-6 Intruder | Hush-Kit
  2. Big Ol Head Carlisle

    Loved flying the Whale in VQ-1. It was the highlight of my 21 year career! I really enjoyed being able to outrun everybody else on flights of 200 or more miles or late in a shortie!

  3. Carroll Watson

    The A-3 with the big nose was naturally called Snoopy. The one with the sharp nose was a Phoenix test bed which I think was bailed to GD. Snoopy was based at Point Mugu Naval Air Station and operated by the Electronic Warfare Department. I got to fly in one with the round windows. We placed two competing Laser Warning Receiver in the window frames and flew circles to map out the field of view and detection capability. I was a civilian engineer and got to fly in the bomb bay. In order to do the tests we measured the laser reflectivity of the AC in a hanger.

  4. Chris

    My Dad flew the A-3 out of Whidbey and was later one of the first A-6 pilots. (Navy Cross recipient) He was the X.O. of the A-6 RAG at Whidbey and later a C.O. of an A-6 Squadron. He was on the USS Eisenhower as an 0-6 when the author flew his mission in 1979. Interesting read that strikes close to home.

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  6. Michael Greene

    Great site, great story. I was a “backender” on VQ-1 Whales in the 70s WestPac. Greatest career in the world. I had 5 sensors to watch, so I put one in each ear and two in front of my eyes, with the fifth in my peripheral vision. I used both thumbs and both pinkies to push the buttons simultaneously. When I got a signal, it took a second to figure out which sensor got it.

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