Cold War Era

Did you know that even though the A-3 Skywarrior didn’t have a bombsight was the most accurate dive bomber during the Vietnam War?

The A-3 Skywarrior

The Douglas A-3 Skywarrior was designed as a strategic bomber for the United States Navy and was among the longest serving carrier-based aircraft in history. It entered service in the mid-1950s and was retired in 1991. Throughout its service, it was the heaviest operational aircraft to operate from aircraft carriers, earning its nickname, “The Whale.” Its primary function for much of its later service life was as an electronic warfare platform, tactical air reconnaissance platform, and high capacity aerial refueling tanker.

The most accurate dive bomber during the Vietnam War

According to the book The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, the Skywarrior was first used in a conventional bombing role on Mar. 3, 1965, when six A-3s of VAH-2 based on Coral Sea took part in a strike against Bach Long Vi Island in the Gulf of Tonkin. Then Lieutenant (jg) David Mason, a junior pilot in VAH-4 based on the USS Constellation in 1967, recalled that when the carrier first arrived in Southeast Asia, “We operated from Dixie Station and the A-3s engaged in dive bombing and close air support, which was pretty amazing because they didn’t have a gunsight or bombsight that was capable of putting the ordnance on target. But we had a reputation as being the most accurate dive bombers around.”

This lasted until General William Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam, saw an A-3 dive-bombing mission and was told the aircraft didn’t have bombsights. “It didn’t matter how accurate we were; Westmoreland wasn’t about to allow any reporter to announce that the Navy was bombing by gosh and by guess. They tried fitting some A-3s with gunsights from A-4s, but it was a lash-up effort. A-3s weren’t allowed to bomb visual targets in north or south Vietnam again.” Since the A-6 Intruder had not yet arrived in the fleet in large numbers, A-3s did perform radar bombing missions over both North and South Vietnam at night and in bad weather.

The A-3 Skywarrior last combat mission of the Vietnam War

The last combat mission flown by the Skywarrior involved the Navy’s first attempt to mine the river approaches to Haiphong Harbor in May 1967. US military planners pleaded throughout the war to be allowed to choke off Haiphong, the main port for supply of war equipment sent to North Vietnam by the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries, and were finally given the go-ahead by President Johnson in the spring of 1967, when it was sold to the president as a way to bring the enemy to the negotiating table. Constellation’s VAH-4 detachment was given the assignment.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. EA-3B Skywarrior VQ-2 Sandeman, JQ12 “Ranger 12” / 146448 / 1980

They planned a night mission using two waves of two Skywarriors each, with each A-3 carrying ten 1,000-pound Mark 52 magnetic mines, which they would drop into the two river entrances to the harbor from an altitude of 50 feet above the water.

Mason recalled:

‘I was number two in the second group. Just before we were set to launch, they lost contact with one of the two aircraft in the first wave. No one knew what happened, whether the NVAs got it, or what. But with the possibility that the NVAs had downed the plane and now knew about the mission, our strike was scrubbed.’

A-3 Skywarrior Cut from the Vietnam War strike force

It was later determined that the missing A-3 had most likely hit the water and suffered a catastrophic breakup of its airframe. When Operation Pocket Money was given the go-ahead in May, 1972, following the North Vietnamese assault on South Vietnam, the plans made by VAH-4 were dusted off and the mission was carried out by Grumman A-6 Intruders.

There were two reasons that the A-3 was cut from the strike force: the first was that the Grumman A-6 Intruder – half the size of the A-3 but capable of carrying a similar offensive load – had equipped sufficient attack squadrons to be a fleet-wide presence by 1967. The second was that the A-3 was no longer fast enough to survive in the highly threatening defensive environment of North Vietnam.

The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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