On May 10, 1972, one of the most intense air battles of the jet age raged over the skies of Hanoi and Haiphong as Navy F-4J Phantoms and Vietnamese MiGs exchanged missiles and stitched the sky with cannon fire while SA-2 surface-to-air missile batteries took potshots at the American jets from below.
In the space of twenty-four hours, nearly a dozen jets were blasted from the sky—and it looked to Navy Phantom pilot Lt. Curt Dosé that his turn had come in an incident described in A-3 Skywarrior Units of the Vietnam War by Rick Morgan:
“Two SA-2s in echelon burst out of the undercast, having already dropped their boosters. I pushed my nose over with negative-G to check their targeting and both SAMs nodded down—they were both on me. I pulled 7G up and into them but it was too late. They were tracking straight for us at Mach 2. Not only would they shoot us down, but their ball bearing warheads would explode directly into our cockpit.
“I watched the missile’s small canards making final corrections and prepared to die, but they did not detonate. The lead SA-2 flew five feet over our canopy and the second flew 20 feet in front of our nose…I rolled right and watched the two SAMs continue straight past us, upward above the setting sun. They never did go off…”
Dosé returned safely to his carrier. While debriefing, he learned that his escape was likely due to the handiwork of an EKA-3B Skywarrior electronic warfare plane, a hulking ex-strategic bomber converted to serve as a multi-role tanker and jamming platform.
Overwhelmed by the numerous Fansong missile guidance radars around Hanoi, the EKA-3B’s systems operator switched to jamming the frequency used to transmit detonation commands to the fuses on the missiles. The Phantom pilot gifted his rescuer with his remaining half-case of vodka.
The Douglas A-3 Skywarrior, or “Whale,” was the largest combat aircraft to regularly operate from a carrier deck. While it’s intended mission as a nuclear strategic bomber didn’t last long, the A-3 spawned an alphabet-soup of variants whose contributions to the Navy proved far more long-lasting and impactful. A companion piece looks at the Skywarrior’s early career as a bomber and tanker, while this article focuses on the other colorful missions undertaken by reconnaissance and electronic warfare variants.
The Skywarrior had already proven far more useful over Vietnam as a tanker supporting more agile naval strike planes, than as a bomber. But Navy jet pilots also desperately need electronic warfare support to improve their odds of dodging deadly Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles.
Thus in 1967, the Navy began converting thirty-four Skywarrior tankers to the EKA-3B model, which incorporated an ALT-27 jamming system in an under fuselage ‘canoe’ to disrupt communications used to direct intercepts by Vietnamese MiG pilots, and two ALQ-92 jamming pods in side-blisters to fog long-range low-bandwidth surveillance radars. Combined with refueling equipment, the EKA-3B weighed two additional tons, for a total of 22 tons empty.
The dual-role jets served in VAQ-130 and VAQ-131 and were divvied up in detachments across U.S. Navy carriers. The versatile aircraft could both top up jets with fuel for a mission, then orbit 20 miles offshore, helping keep their charges alive by disrupting missile guidance radars and communications directing enemy interceptors.
Three squadrons continued to operate the EKA-3B on five carriers through the final U.S. air campaigns over Vietnam in 1972-1973 before the type was phased out in 1975 in favor of the smaller EA-6B Prowler.
Photo Recon, Aggressor, and… VIP Transport?
Douglas also built thirty specialized RA-3B (originally designated A3D-2P) photo-reconnaissance jets mounting twelve high-resolution cameras in the newly pressurized bomb bay and photoflash bomb dispensers. These served in “Heavy Photo” squadrons VAP-61 and VAP-62, which were frequently assigned to perform cartographic missions leveraging the type’s 2,100-mile range.
But starting in 1966, Guam-based VAP-61 was called to perform far more dangerous night missions with infrared cameras scanning the Ho Chi Minh trail—a jungle supply line used by North Vietnam to support Viet Cong guerillas in South Vietnam at night. These runs were performed flying very low (1,500 feet) and slow (400 miles per hour), while weaving between high-rising hills and being shot at by short-range air defense artillery!
RA-3Bs sometimes returned riddled with shrapnel and leaking fuel. Four were lost in action, including at least two confirmed losses due to anti-aircraft fire. Pilots spray painted their jets black for night-time camouflage, only for the Navy to ban the field-solution, insisting on a mottled grey camouflage scheme instead.
Eight RA-3Bs were later re-fitted as ERA-3B jets equipped with ALT-27, ALT-40, and ALQ-76 jammers. These served in squadrons VAQ-33 and VAQ-34 as electronic aggressors, ie. mock enemy electronic warfare planes used for training. This mission became quite intense in December 1972 when a British Phantom from the carrier Ark Royal accidentally blew out an engine of an ERA-3B with a Sparrow missile–though fortunately it was not armed with a warhead. The Skywarrior’s pilot managed to safely land on one engine at Puerto Rico.
Douglas also built twelve TA-12B trainers bomber/trainer aircraft (AKA A3D-2) with seating for five trainees in the fuselage and practice bomb dispensers. Six were later converted to high-speed VIP transports with cozy accommodations for five or six passengers—a preferred high-speed transport for the Chief of Naval Operations. However, to conceal the number of Navy VIP aircraft from Congress and the Air Force, only one or two received the appropriate VA-3B designation.
Electronic Spies and Radar Hunters
The longest-serving Skywarriors were 24 EA-3B aircraft operated by Fleet Air Reconnaissance squadrons VQ-1 (based in Japan and later Guam) and VQ-2 (stationed in Rota, Spain). Unlike the EKA-3B, the EA-3B wasn’t a jamming platform—instead it was a spy plane equipped with a battery of electromagnetic sensors (ESMs) to identify and locate enemy communications and sensor transmitters. These were operated by four cryptological technicians seated in the fuselage, expanding the crew to seven.
VQ-1 was frequently active near Vietnamese airspace using its jets’ sensor to identify the type and location of northern Vietnam’s dense air-defense network, a technique known as reconnoitering an enemy’s Electronic Order of Battle.
The huge electronic surveillance planes also sometimes teamed up with A-4 Skyhawk jets on more aggressive SAM-hunting missions. Skyhawk pilot Gary Aron describes in Morgan’s book the tactics used:
“The EA-3B would listen, as would I, to the pulse repetition frequency of the SA-2’s “Fan Song” target-tracking radar. If we got the dreaded ‘warble’ I was to take the Whale’s directions for heading, lock-on and then shoot a Shrike at the site.”
The long-range electronic spy jets remained in service throughout the 1980s, but continued to exhibit the type’s notoriously high accident rates, with one crash in 1987 claiming the lives of all seven crew onboard.
Finally, in 1990 two EA-3s from VQ-2 deployed to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. From there the old Whales coordinated operations targeting Iraqi radars and missile batteries during the 1991 Gulf War. That September 27 the huge aircraft were finally retired from U.S. Navy service, their role subsumed by S-3 Viking multi-role jets.
Even then, civilian operators continued to fly Skywarriors as avionics testbeds for two more decades. The type’s final flight, a delivery to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola in June 2011, was funded by the association of Skywarrior fliers.
The huge aircraft designed to inflict nuclear annihilation, instead made its mark providing jamming and tanker support that saved the lives of hundreds of naval aviators and pioneered refueling and electronic warfare techniques still practiced today.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.