The Douglas A-3 Skywarrior is one of the most unique, versatile and striking aircraft in the history of Naval Aviation, excelling in every mission area assigned to it. It was the largest aircraft ever to operate regularly from the flightdeck of an aircraft carrier, earning it the fleet-wide nickname ‘Whale’. Built for nuclear weapon delivery, the A-3 actually forged its reputation in Vietnam as a conventional bomber, tanker and Electronic Warfare platform. Highly modified versions such as the EKA-3B, RA-3B and EA-3B also developed an excellent record in specialist roles such as intelligence and photo-reconnaissance.
However, what made the A-3 famous was the lack of ejection seats for its crew members.
As explained by Rick Morgan in his book A-3 Skywarrior Units of the Vietnam War, the crew of three sat in a pressurised cockpit, with the pilot sitting on the left side with a yoke for control and the throttles mounted on a centre console. To his right, and offset slightly aft, was the seat of the bombardier/ navigator (B/N). Early in the community this position was frequently occupied by an enlisted aircrewman, although by the early 1960s commissioned officers, rated as Naval Air Observers (NAOs), were taking over the job. The B/N operated the navigation/bombing radar — either an ASB-1 or ASB-7 depending on when the A3D was delivered. Both could provide an excellent picture for the jet’s intended purpose. The B/N was also provided with an optical bombsight that featured a periscope exiting under the nose.
Sitting back-to-back with the pilot was the plane captain — normally an enlisted aircrewman. Also called the ‘crewman/navigator’, the plane captain controlled the aft-facing twin 20 mm cannon turret defensive armament. The guns had proved in practice to be of questionable effectiveness. The weapons were also hard to maintain. They were removed in the 1960-61 timeframe, with the back end being modified with a ‘dovetail’ (or `duckbute) fairing that could hold defensive Electronic Counter Measures (ECM).
In addition to the normal crew of three, a ‘jump’ seat was also fitted as a simple folding affair to the back wall for an additional rider.
Entry into the aircraft was via a belly hatch that was located immediately behind the nose gear. The bombers had a second, inner door that closed flush with the cockpit floor — it also provided the cabin’s pressure seal. The cockpit could be depressurised and the inner door opened to allow a crewman to enter the bomb-bay to arm a nuclear device or carry out some emergency procedures such as manual landing gear extension or resetting failed auxiliary systems.
Emergency egress was either via the belly or through a sliding overhead hatch while on deck or in the water. Bailing out of an A-3 involved pulling a handle on the side of the pilot’s seat, which pneumatically blew down the inner and outer doors that then formed a continuous slide. Each crewman would then sequentially jump feet-first down the slide, with a barostatic release opening their parachute at 14,000 ft. Leaving the aircraft through the roof hatch while in flight was not recommended. In fact it was considered to be an absolutely last-ditch option only due to the likelihood of hitting the tail surfaces. Needless to say, successfully jumping out of an A-3 required time and altitude. NATOPS (Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization) recommended a minimum of 8000 ft and no more than 250 knots for a controlled bailout, but in reality conditions frequently required much less altitude and greater speeds.
The pilot, not surprisingly, had the hardest path to egress the aircraft. He had to stand up with his parachute and seat-pan survival kit and then rotate to his right while avoiding the centre console. Bailout at low altitudes was practically impossible, and it usually left the crew with no option other than to ‘ride the aeroplane in’, particularly if after a failed catapult shot on the carrier. An out-of-control condition would make safe egress all the more unlikely. Nonetheless, there were numerous successful escapes by ‘Whale’ crews over the years, some in situations that would otherwise defy belief.
The decision not to equip the A-3 series with ejection seats was not made lightly by the Douglas engineering team. When the aircraft was designed in the late 1940s there were no seats available that could save three men at low altitudes, particularly within the required weight limits. It would not be until delivery of the A2F Intruder a decade later that the US Navy had a fleet aircraft with two ‘bang seats’ installed. Ejection seat technology evolved quickly, however, and by the late 1950s requests from the fleet began to be submitted to retrofit the Skywarrior with the devices. Despite these calls the A-3 family retained its original egress design throughout its long life.
A-3 Skywarrior Units of the Vietnam War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy
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