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Fifty-nine years ago this month, the USN/Douglas XA3D-1 Skywarrior prototype strategic bomber made its initial test flight at Edwards Air Force Base, California.  Legendary Douglas test pilot George R. Jansen was at the controls of the swept-wing, turbojet-powered, carrier-based aircraft.

The USN/Douglas A3D Skywarrior was the product of late 1940’s Navy studies calling for a carrier-based, long range bomber capable of delivering a 10,000 lb bomb load.  Douglas Aircraft Company was awarded a contract to manufacture and test a pair of XA3D-1 airframes (BuAer No. 125412 and No. 125413) in 1949.  Westinghouse was selected as the powerplant provider.

The XA3D-1 had a design weight of roughly 68,000 lbs, which would allow the aircraft to operate from existing Navy aircraft carriers.  Power was provided by a pair of Westinghouse J40 turbojets.  Each of these powerplants generated 7,500 lbs of military thrust and 10,500 lbs of afterburner at sea level.  Unfortunately, the XA3D-1 was underpowered with these powerplants.  In any event, the J40 engine experienced significant development problems and never did see production.

The No. 1 XA-3D-1 (BuAer 125412) made its maiden flight on Tuesday, 28 October 1952 with Douglas test pilot George R. Jansen doing the piloting honors.  Although a Navy program, the flight was conducted at Edwards Air Force Base in California.  The safety provided by the presence of the world’s longest (11.5 miles) natural runway, Rogers Dry Lake, was one reason for doing so.  The XA3D-1 initial test hop was unremarkable.

The results of early Skywarrior testing significantly aided the evolutionary development and improvement of the aircraft.  The A3D-1 was the first Skywarrior variant to see limited production.  This was ultimately followed by the A3D-2; considered by many to be the definitive Skywarrior.  Large for a carried-based aircraft, the Skywarrior was nick-named “The Whale”.

The A3D-2 measured 76.3 feet in length and had a wing span of 72.5 feet.  Wing leading edge sweep and planform were 36-deg and 812 square feet, respectively.  The aircraft had a GTOW of 82,000 lbs versus a empty weight of 39,400 lbs.  Power was provided by twin Pratt and Whitney J57-P-10 turbojets.  Each powerplant generated 10,500 lbs of military thrust at sea level.  Each engine could produce an additional 2,400 lbs of thrust using water injection.

The A3D-2 could carry a maximum conventional or nuclear bomb load of 12,800 lbs.  Maximum unrefueled range was 1,826 nm.  With a service ceiling of 41,000 feet, the aircraft typically cruised at 452 knots.  Maximum airspeed was 530 knots.  The A3D-2 flight crew consisted of a pilot, navigator and bombardier.  Interestingly, the crew was not provided with ejection seats as a cost-saving measure.  This led Skywarrior crews to asert that “A3D” was actually an acronym that meant “All 3 Dead”.

While the Skywarrior was designed as a strategic bomber, the aircraft was used in other roles over the course of its long operational life.  Indeed, the Skywarrior was modified to serve in the electronic warfare role, as a photo-recon platform and as an aerial tanker.  Historical records indicate that 282 Skywarriors were produced between  1956 and 1961.

The Skywarrior and its crews served faithfully throughout the Cold War period including Vietnam.   Significantly, the Skywarrior holds the distinction of being the largest and heaviest aircraft ever to see operational service aboard an aircraft carrier.   The last operational Skywarriors were taken out of the active inventory in September of 1991.

As a further tribute to the Skywarrior, the Air Force liked the aircraft so much that it contracted with the Douglas Aircraft Company to design, test and produce a very similar aircraft; the B-66 Destroyer.  First flight occurred in June of 1954.  Operationally, the B-66 was used primarily in the electronic warfare and recon roles.  A total of 294 airframes were ultimately produced for the junior service.  Happily, ejection seats were standard equipment.

Posted in Aerospace, History

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