Cold War Era

The NRA-3B Snoopy, the Skywarrior deployment during Operation Desert Storm and the last Days of the Whale

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.

NA-3 Skywarrior

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.

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

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

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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