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Dear Kossacks, I wrote this for my own blog, Paul's Thing, with the intention of cross-posting it here to reach a larger audience. Two days ago, while looking up additional information on the aircraft, I discovered fellow Kossack shortfinals had already posted a dKos diary on the Skyknight. His diary contains valuable information I had not uncovered on my own (and which I shamelessly incorporated), but I want to credit his dKos diary on the Skyknight as the authoritative one and ask you to read mine as a supplement. I hope he approves. -- pwoodford

F3D_Skyknight_3-view_Greg_GoebelThere's a Skyknight on display at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona, where I work as a volunteer tour guide. It catches my eye every time I walk past it, maybe because it's so different. I decided to take some photos, do some research, and write about what I learned. Turns out the old tub -- also known as Willie the Whale, the Turtle, and the Drut (spell it backwards) -- was a far more significant aircraft than I had imagined.

I remember building a model of this airplane during the 1950s. I built a lot of models as a kid and have surely forgotten most of them, but that one stuck in my mind. All I knew about the Skyknight at the time was that it had been one of the Navy's first jet fighters. It seemed utterly antiquated with its straight wings, bulky fuselage, and side-by-side seating, so unlike the other jet fighters developed after WWII. If anyone had told me then that Skyknights were still flying, or indeed would continue flying for many years to come, I would have scoffed -- surely the type had been long retired, replaced by sleeker designs like Douglas' F4D Skyray or A4D Skyhawk.

Douglas F3D-2 Skyknight, Pima Air & Space Museum (photo: Paul Woodford)

The Skyknight originated with a 1945 Navy requirement for a jet-powered, radar-equipped, carrier-based night fighter. The prototype flew in March 1948 and the Navy ordered 28 production F3D-1 aircraft a few months later. In August 1949 the Navy ordered a second batch of 237 aircraft, an improved version called the F3D-2. The first F3Ds entered USN and USMC service in 1950, and although production ended in March 1952, Skyknights remained in service until the 1970s.

The F3D-1 never deployed outside the United States, but was used to train aircrews who then flew the F3D-2 in combat in Korea. In 1962, after Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered the military services to adopt a uniform aircraft designation system, the remaining F3Ds became F-10s. An electronic warfare variant, the EF-10, saw combat in Vietnam. The last military Skyknight, an EF-10B assigned to the Marine Corps, was retired in 1970.

After the Skyknight's retirement a few aircraft were given to Raytheon to use in missile and radar testing, and at least one of these was still flying in mid-1978 at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, when I completed USAF fighter lead-in training there (I didn't know at the time it was a Raytheon bird, but given that Holloman is co-located with the Army's White Sands Missile Range, it makes sense to me now).

Douglas F3D-2 Skyknight, Pima Air & Space Museum (photo: Paul Woodford)

What was so significant about the Skyknight? For one thing, it was built around three separate radars: the search and tracking radars located in the nose plus a tail warning radar in the aft fuselage. The size of these early vacuum tube radars dictated the Skyknight's wide, deep fuselage, side-by-side crew seating arrangement, and the location of the engines in pods located on the outside of the lower fuselage. The search radar was surprisingly effective for the early 1950s, able to pick up bomber-sized targets at 20 miles and fighter-sized targets at 15. The tracking radar could lock on at 4,000 yards and guide the Skyknight all the way in to firing position. The tail warning radar could detect attacking aircraft as far as 4 miles away, giving the Skyknight crew ample time to react.

In the pre-missile days of the Korean War, the F3D made its mark as a night fighter. Skyknight crews used the radar to acquire enemy aircraft and close in, unobserved, for the kill. The F3D was actually the most successful Navy or Marine Corps air-to-air fighter of the war: USMC Skyknight crews were credited with six kills (one Polikarpov Po-2, one Yakovlev Yak-15 and four MiG-15s). During the initial part of the war Skyknight crews got their kills with the four 20mm cannon located below the nose; later on they used air-to-air rockets to supplement the guns.

Douglas F3D-2 Skyknight, Pima Air & Space Museum (photo: Paul Woodford)

Also of significance, at least from my point of view as a former USAF fighter pilot, immediately after the Korean War the Skyknight was used to test the first generation of air-to-air radar-guided missiles, and in fact became the first Navy jet to carry an operational air-to-air radar missile: the Sparrow I, the ancestor of the AIM-7 Sparrows I carried on my F-15 Eagle.

F3D-2M Launch project steam
F3D-2 with Sparrow I missiles

Douglas proposed an evolutionary version of the Skyknight in 1959, the F6D Missileer, in an effort to win a Navy contract for a carrier-based fleet defense missile fighter. The Missileer was meant to carry an advanced long-range air-to-air missile called the AAM-N-10 Eagle. Although nothing came of that effort, the Missileer's weapon system and side-by-side crew arrangement was later adapted for the General Dynamics-Grumman F-111B, which was to have been the Navy version of Robert McNamara's joint service fighter, and which was to have carried another advanced long-range air-to-air missile, the AWG-9 Phoenix. The F-111B was built and tested, but the Navy eventually rejected it and developed the F-14 Tomcat instead, which also employed the Phoenix missile. The USAF, of course, flew versions of the F-111 fighter/bomber for many years.

F6D Missileer (never built)
F-111B (tested, then rejected)

Speaking of the side-by-side crew seating arrangement, one of the details I remember from building that Skyknight model way back when was the escape chute. Although ejection seats were in use at the time the F3D was designed, they weren't yet safe for side-by-side operation, so the Skyknight came with a more primitive escape system. In the event the crew had to bail out, they would depressurize the cockpit and pivot their seats toward each other. The first crewmember would get out of his seat, face aft, and kick open the escape chute door, which would presumably fall out and away through the chute. Grasping a horizontal bar, the crewmember would swing into the chute feet first, then slide out the belly of the aircraft, followed by the second crewmember. Here are some photos of the escape sequence:
1: unstrap & pivot inward
2: grasp bar, kick open door
3: slide down escape chute
4: land on mattress (not included)

I had no idea the Skyknight played such an important role in air-to-air radar and missile development, or that many of the systems and concepts it tested and proved live on today, not only in the F-15 Eagle that I flew, but in fifth generation air-to-air fighters as well. I don't know about you, but I'm impressed.


Originally posted to Kossack Air Force on Sat Mar 08, 2014 at 12:56 PM PST.

Also republished by Aviation & Pilots.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Paul, what is Your take (9+ / 0-)

    on DOD's plan to take the A-10 out of service? As an peace time army vet, I would hate to see that happen.

    •  No problem. (9+ / 0-)

      The F-35 will replace it, just fine.


      I deal in facts. My friends are few but fast.

      by Farugia on Sat Mar 08, 2014 at 01:36:22 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  It Depends (14+ / 0-)

      I know you didn't ask me but I thought I'd weigh in.

      The argument that the Air Force makes, and I think it has some merit, is that the A-10 would not survive in a 4th-generation air defense environment.

      The A-10 did very well in the Gulf War, right up until they ran into the Republican Guard units which had better tactical air defenses. Then the loss rate became unacceptable and they had to be held back.

      In a relatively benign threat environment the A-10 does very well, but the argument is that we may not be fighting insurgents in Afghanistan next time around.

      I know the Army loves them, but they won't do much close air support if they're busy dodging SU-35s and 4th-generation SAMs.

      If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

      by Major Kong on Sat Mar 08, 2014 at 01:57:07 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Fine. (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        mookins, Simplify, ER Doc, Jay C

        The A-10 is too light on EW and ECM. A slightly bigger A-10, possibly a twin-seater, would be the solution, essentially a light bomber (a mostly heretical concept, nowadays).

        But if there are SU-35s lingering in an area, there's probably no business flying CAS in that area in the first place. It's up to the AF to do its job to supply cover or clean the place ahead of CAS. I can't see what an aircraft, any aircraft, loaded for CAS can do against a Su-35.

        I deal in facts. My friends are few but fast.

        by Farugia on Sat Mar 08, 2014 at 02:38:22 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  You're correct (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Farugia, xaxnar, Tinfoil Hat, Jay C

          I think that in an era of shrinking budgets the Air Force would rather have a multi-role airplane that can do other things besides CAS.

          I don't want to come off like I'm shilling for the F-35. I'm not sure it's ever going to be worth what we're spending on it.

          If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

          by Major Kong on Sat Mar 08, 2014 at 05:00:34 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  I hope that's going to be the case (0+ / 0-)

            I've been following news on the F-35, and it looks like the Air Force is serious about getting all the bugs out. As for the expense, well there's nothing more expensive than fielding weapons systems that can't survive actual combat.

            "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

            by xaxnar on Sat Mar 08, 2014 at 07:04:58 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

          •  Jack of all trades... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            Granted, you can always turn a good fighter into an OK ground attack aircraft (and stuff like recon, EW, etc.), given enough hardpoints, enough drop tanks and the right software on the sensor suite.

            But CAS?

            The characteristics of a good CAS aircraft are just 100% incompatible with those of a decent fighter : maneuverability at low speeds, resilience to low level flak, high payload, loiter time, etc.

            Trying to mix CAS in the same frame as a fighter just makes for a crap CAS aircraft AND a crap fighter AND a very expensive package all around. Paying a lot more for a lot less. No cost savings there, quite the contrary.

            Anyway, the best solution is well known: return fixed-wing CAS to the Army :->

            And the Army grunts will buy a lot of stuff like that, so it'll be really cheap.

            I deal in facts. My friends are few but fast.

            by Farugia on Sun Mar 09, 2014 at 04:11:08 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

    •  My take? (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      vzfk3s, xaxnar, Simplify, Jay C

      No expert, but will offer this. Plan as I understand it was to have retired all the A-10s by 2028. New budget moves it up to 2020. All this predicated on sufficient #s of F-35s in the inventory by then. So the A-10 isn't going away overnight.

      Expect congressmen w/A-10 bases in their districts to resist, but unlike with the ancient C-130, which is still being built in some districts, am betting the AF will win the showdown. Also, many more congressmen stand to win with the F-35.

      I'm willing to bet a similar outcry accompanied the retirement of the Sandys after Vietnam. I have friends who fly the A-10 and I feel for them. But my jet will retire soon too, and I think we'll survive.

      One last point. In the early 1970s many thought the F-15 would turn out to be a failure, and when it was first fielded it had a lot of problems and even on a good day didn't work as advertised. But by the late 70s things started to turn around, and from that point on the Eagle more than lived up to its promise. I expect the F-35 will follow a similar curve.

      •  Amazing when you think about it (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Even in 2014, roughly 40 years after its inception, the F-15 is still a very capable airplane.

        If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

        by Major Kong on Sat Mar 08, 2014 at 05:02:38 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Yhea at 10 times the cost, and (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ER Doc

    with less protection for the pilot.

  •  Dog forbid the aircraft rolled over on it's back.. (5+ / 0-)

    when trying to use that escape system.

    "I'm gonna dance between the raindrops"

    by IB JOHN on Sat Mar 08, 2014 at 01:40:45 PM PST

  •  F-111B Controversy (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mookins, ER Doc, Jay C

    As I recall from my reading in the literature at the time, the Navy wanted the side-by-side seating in the F-111B because of its experience with the F3D.  The Navy had always planned on using the TFX-B as its fleet air protector and felt that the side-by-side seating facilitated coordination between the pilot and the radar operator.  The Air Force had wanted the typical front-and-back seating arrangement but got overridden to satisfy the Navy.  Of course, the Navy then used the seating arrangement as one of its excuses to kill its participation in the project.  The Navy never wanted to buy an airplane designed along with the Air Force and they wanted to make damned sure they'd never have to deploy it.

    The real problem for the TFX-B was its weight.  That was used by the Navy to end its participation in the project too.  Oddly many years later I heard a report that the Navy was fighting with Grumman about getting the weight on the F-14 down under the specified target.  Ultimately, the F-14 seems to have weighed as much as the TFX-B.  The Navy just accepted the weight growth, because it was their airplane, not some goddamned mongrel forced on them by the civilians in the Pentagon.  

    From what I can tell, the only reason the F-4 was flying in the Navy was that it was their airplane from the git-go before getting picked up by the Pentagon to serve as the military's hot new air-to-air missile carrier even though it started life as an attack plane for the Navy.  Of course, it did dogfight like an attack aircraft masquerading as a fighter.

    "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

    by PrahaPartizan on Sat Mar 08, 2014 at 02:01:26 PM PST

  •  What a tub (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mookins, Farugia, ER Doc

    The A-6 only somewhat improved upon the aesthetics of that particular aircraft configuration.

    Government and laws are the agreement we all make to secure everyone's freedom.

    by Simplify on Sat Mar 08, 2014 at 02:09:22 PM PST

  •  1951-1970 - 19 years in service (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ER Doc, xaxnar, DavidMS

    Not bad for such a ugly early duckling.

    I deal in facts. My friends are few but fast.

    by Farugia on Sat Mar 08, 2014 at 02:17:08 PM PST

  •  If the "land on mattress" part of the escape (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    system could be perfected it would be a boon to pilots everywhere.  Nasa should work on this.

    Rivers are horses and kayaks are their saddles

    by River Rover on Sat Mar 08, 2014 at 04:34:00 PM PST

  •  Thanks, Paul. (0+ / 0-)

    I've seen that one, and it's nice to know the history of the model. Reminds me of a very large A-37 in appearance. Or should that be the other way round?

    And yeah, I know tarantulas don't really act like that at all, so no snarking, this is the internet damnit!

    by itzadryheat on Sat Mar 08, 2014 at 04:35:44 PM PST

  •  The escape system (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Jay C, RiveroftheWest

    very closely resembles how you would get out of a KC-135.

    There was a hinged metal grate that covered the crew entry (and escape) chute. Normally there was a pad on the bottom but not always.

    One day a boom operator from the Meridian Mississippi unit had to come up on my plane to deliver a message.

    I hear him come tearing up the ladder and then "Clang!"

    He hit that grate with his head so hard he almost knocked himself out. Then he starts yelling at us for not having the pad on the bottom of the grate. Apparently his thing was to come up the ladder and open it with his head.

    Yeah, he was a little "off".

    I pointed out to him that most people didn't attempt to open it with their head and left it at that.

    If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

    by Major Kong on Sun Mar 09, 2014 at 04:55:46 AM PDT

  •  You can sure see the A-3 Skywarrior coming out of (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    that design.  Similar escape "system" and extensive service life....more than 40 years.  

    "Personally, I'm a cultured sort of fellow, I read all sorts of extraordinary books, you know, but somehow I can't seem to make out where I'm going, what it is I really want, I mean to say-to live or shoot myself, so to speak. " APC

    by Brian1066 on Sun Mar 09, 2014 at 09:58:43 AM PDT

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