The inherent versatility of the A-3 Skywarrior airframe led to it being used for many years as a developmental aircraft, working for both US Navy and industry contractors through to 2011.
Brought to my attention by Carroll Watson, a reader of The Aviation Geek Club, the unusual main photo of this post features the NRA-3B the radar test conversion of the A-3 Skywarrior.
As told by Rick Morgan in his book A-3 Skywarrior Units of the Vietnam War, the inherent versatility of the A-3 airframe led to it being used for many years as a developmental aircraft, working for both US Navy and industry contractors through to 2011. NAS Point Mugu, California, was home for most of the US Navy’s test ‘Whales’, like the NRA-3B which is shown in this picture with its ‘Snoopy’ nose.
Another A-3 conversion was the NA-3. The aircraft was fitted with an AWG-9 radar for tests of the AIM-54 Phoenix missile later carried by the F-14 Tomcat.
Noteworthy VQ-2 sent the Skywarrior into combat one last time in late 1990 when it deployed a pair of EA-3Bs to Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia for what became Operation Desert Storm.
The aircraft provided the same service they had long supplied the fleet — expert electronic surveillance in a combat environment, providing pre- and post-strike reconnaissance for the Red Sea carrier battlegroups. Indeed, a single EA-3B was on station for each carrier strike into Iraq, the ‘Whale’ crews coordinating their activities with E-2Cs and EA-6Bs for the targeting of HARM against Iraqi SAM and radar sites. EA-3Bs also provided a similar service to USAF elements attacking targets in northern Iraq, the ‘Whales’ flying from Naval Support Activity Souda Bay, Crete.
With the end of combat in Iraq, VQ-2 wrapped up its jet operations and sent its few remaining aircraft back to the US. The A-3’s retirement from active duty occurred at NAS Key West on Sep. 27, 1991 when the CO of VAQ-33, Cdr Bruce ‘Chicken Lips’ Nottke, presided over a formal ceremony celebrating more than 35 years of Skywarrior operations by the US Navy. The event was attended by Capt Paul Stevens, the first CO of VAH-1 in 1956, as well as former A-3 navigator Vice Admiral Dick Dunleavy, at that time the head of US Naval Aviation as OP-05. Also present was retired Capt James Tac Man’ Vambell, the legendary former commander of FEWSG and VAQ-33 who led all others with the most flight time in the A-3 — more than 6500 hours in type.
Even that would not be the end of the A-3, however, as the aircraft would continue to be used by defence contractors for a further two decades. Thunderbird Aviation at Phoenix, Arizona, and Hughes (later Raytheon) had a weird and wonderful assortment of modified A-3s operating as electronics test beds out of Van Nuys, California, until Jun. 30, 2011. On that date the last flight of an A-3 Skywarrior was made by Raytheon’s chief pilot, Ron ‘Coyote’ Woltman, Cdr US Navy (Ret), when he delivered EA-3B N875RS (BuNo 144865) to Pensacola for display. When he shut down the J57 engines at the end of the flight the distinctive howl — the song of the ‘Whale’ — passed into history.
A-3 Skywarrior Units of the Vietnam War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: PHC Thornsley / U.S. Navy