Every two years we hold a reunion  for the crewmen and mechanics who operated the Navy A-3 Skywarrior airplane.  Since we just had another reunion, I thought it would be fun to show some pictures of that venerable and highly versatile airplane as well as some pictures of long time friends who flew beside me, either in the airplane or in formation in another airplane.   In my 20 year career, I spent 3,400 hours flying the A-3, more than any other Navy plane that I flew.  I got just under 200 carrier landings in the airplane, about 40 of those at night.

First a bit of history.  In the early 1950s, with the Cold War setting in, the Navy had a need for a long range nuclear bomber.  Ed Heineman, of Douglas Aircraft, took on the challenge and designed the A-3 Skywarrior around two Fat Boy nuclear bombs.  It would be, and still is, the largest aircraft designed to fly off of an aircraft carrier.  With a carrier launch weight of 73,000 pounds, it was a big airplane.  Although the A-3 could land and launch from the  27-Charlie Class carriers, the big airplanes, even though their wings folded,  took so much space on the deck as to make it logistically  impossible to operate. To accommodate a squadron of planes that size, the Forrestal Class aircraft carrier went into design.  The first A-3 went into production in 1954, and the USS Forrestal, (CVA-59), was completed in 1956.    

The Vietnam War came along and the Navy did not need nuclear bombers for that war.  They began to convert existing A-3s and design new versions for other missions.  In the bomb bay they installed an extra fuel tank and as well as a tanker package with a refueling hose.  They also installed high power electronic jammers which could send strong radar energy to to blind the Russian Sam radars that Vietnam was using.  Other versions had a a pressurized back end carrying additional crewmen, replacing the bomb bay.  These were used for photo reconnaissance and other specialized missions.  

One A-3 refueling another near Midway Island in the Pacific.  Just below the lead aircraft, 

you may be able to make out the faint ring of a submerged coral atoll.

It was the tanker/jammer version, known as the EKA-3B, in which I started my operation with the A-3.  In a typical mission, we would be the first aircraft to launch and we would climb to perhaps 10,000 feet.  We would stream our hose and the off-going A-3 would plug in and check our tanker package.  When it proved good, we would do a lead change, and I would plug the off going A-3 and take the rest of his expendable fuel, leaving just enough for him to safely land back on the carrier.  By then the fighter and attack planes would be lined up on our left wing and would plug in for usually 2,000 pounds of fuel apiece.  This happened quickly; we could usually pass 2,000 pound in a couple of minutes.  As they topped off, they would stack up off our right wing, and when all planes had fueled, they would break away in formation to do their mission.  We would then drop down to 2,000 feet and "hawk the recovery."  That meant circling above the landing airplanes in case one had trouble landing and needed more fuel.  

At night, this was particularly important, as the bolter rate would go up (missing the arresting wires and flying off the end) and often there would be a plane needing fuel.  We would keep track of the planes approaching a low fuel state, and adjust our circle so as to fly right along side them, but above them, as they came in for their trap.  If they missed the wires they would look up and see our green twinkling light right above them.  By the time they got up to us, the hose would be extended, and as soon as they plugged in, we would turn downwind to set them up for another approach.  Once they had their fuel, they were already in position to begin another approach on the ship.   This was all more difficult at night, as the sea and sky are completely black, with no horizon. Unless one flew instruments, it was perilously easy to fly into the ocean without even suspecting it.

At other times, the A-3 would escort the strike force to near the target area and set up jamming while the force did its mission.  If the distances were great enough, the force would need extra fuel from the tanker on the flight home.  If a plane was shot through its fuel tank and leaking fuel, it would typically stay plugged into the tanker all the way to the carrier and disconnect just before trapping. 

When not operating aboard the carrier, the A-3s were used to tank squadrons across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.  Usually between four and six A-3s were used.  An hour after departure, half of the A-3s would give all of their expendable fuel to the fighter and the lead A-3s.  Low on fuel, those A-3s would return to the departure base, and the lead A-3s would provide long range navigation to the squadron of fighters.  Approaching the half way point, the lead A-3s would top off the fighters, ensuring that they had enough fuel to make it to destination, and would continue to provide the long range navigation to destination.  A Pacific crossing might take three days, going Alameda (San Francisco) to Honolulu the first day, then to Wake Island the second day, and to Guam the third day.  

 

A formation of A-3s. 

Two A-3s refueling.  The lead aircraft flies steadily.  The receiving aircraft flies its probe into the basket and pushes it forward about six feet.  A light below the lead aircraft turns green, indicating that fuel is transferring.  The lead aircraft shuts off fuel when the proscribed amount has been transferred and the light turns amber.  The receiving aircraft backs out.  It can all happen very fast.   

I have just finished refueling from a KC10 during a major exercise.  I am looking up to maintain my proper bearing while flying formation on the KC10.  Formation flying is all about staying on precisely defined bearing lines, which involves lining up two points on the lead aircraft, such as a wingtip light and a canopy bow.  This removes the unlimited number of variables in three dimensional space and reduces the equation to just moving in and out on a single line.  Although the water looks close here, we are at 25,000 feet.  Those waves are actually large Pacific swells.

About to launch from the right catapult of the USS Oriskany (CV 34).  End speed will be about 150 knots with a fully fueled A-3.  The kick from the catapult and the tingle in the stomach is beyond anything found at Disneyland.

Liftoff involves cleaning up the gear and flaps while accelerating to 300 knots.  One stays below 500 feet for five miles to stay clear of the landing aircraft coming into the break overhead.  At night, everything you see here is black with no horizon.  It is critically important to be on instruments and to get climbing despite the huge acceleration  just experienced by the catapult.  This is the USS Hancock, a small 27-Charlie class carrier.

Approaching the ramp on a small 27-Charlie.  On the left, the amber light between the row of green lights shows very slightly above glide slope.  The pilot is completely focused on glide slope, line-up using the center line, and airspeed.  The A-3 is so heavy that 3-4 knots fast can snap the arresting wires and ensure the plane ends up in the water.  At night this is all black except for some dim lights shining down on the deck.  One stays on instruments until 200 feet above the water, then makes the transition to visual flight.  If one bolters and goes off the end, it is essential to get immediately back into the instrument scan.

On the small 27-Charlie carriers, the A-3 only had about 12 feet of hook to ramp clearance, so flying a low on glide slope was not tolerated.  Notice on the carrier the Landing Safety Officer and his two under-studies.  He makes radio instructions as necessary and waves off the airplane if he sees an unsafe situation developing.  Every pass is graded and the grades are posted on the ready-room wall for all to see.   This makes the landings very competitive.  Notice how much bigger the A-3 is than the A-4 on the left edge of the photo.  This aircraft is probably doing about 130 knots over the ramp. 

Pictured below are some of my close friends who were at the recent San Diego reunion.  We did countless operations together and relied on one another's' skill and judgment for our own safety.  Planning was everything.  A math mistake in fuel planning or navigation would have ended up with planes in the water.  It is a real privilege to be able to get together periodically and reminisce about  our experiences in days past.

Cdr. Ed Norton and Cdr. Dave Sturgeon. 

 

Cdr. John Horton and Cdr. Bill Talunas

 

Cdr. Charlie Gore, Cdr. Dave Sturgeon, Cdr. Don Webster, Capt. Dave Mason. 

On our last night, we had an auction of A-3 memorabilia as a fund raiser for the A-3 Skywarrior Association.  While the A-3 and the USS Forrestal were  under construction, Douglas Aircraft commissioned a painting of the ship and the aircraft.  This photograph of that painting hung in the Douglas engineering offices for five decades.  Not only did I fly the airplane, but my second eleven month cruise was on the USS Forrestal.  Pat and I were engaged just prior to that long cruise, and immediately after the cruise, we were married.   I was able to submit the winning bid to get this picture for my office.

That's the story and I'm sticking with it.  I was honored to be entrusted with the responsibility of flying the A-3 and performing its mission.  I made some close friends in the process.  I hope this explains some of what I did during those 20 Navy years.  Don Webster

Don's Home Page:  www.jali.net

Don's email: websterdr@yahoo.com