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F3D (F-10) Skyknight

The Douglas F3D Skyknight was the world's first jet fighter designed for use as carrier-based night fighter. Its radar equipment required a wider-than-usual fuselage, so it was nicknamed "Willie the Whale".

The Navy asked Douglas to develop a carrier-based night fighter in 1946. Specifications included twin-jet power, side-by-side seating for a radar operator, a top speed of 500 mph, a combat radius of 500 miles, an operating altitude of 40,000 feet, and an escape system that allowed the crew to depart downward through the bottom of the fuselage.

The result was the straight-wing, two-seat, twin-engine F3D, first flown on March 23, 1948. The first of 28 production-model F3D-1s was delivered to the Navy in late 1950, as work began on the more powerful F3D-2. The F3D-2 flew 100 mph faster and had twice the range. It incorporated new electronic and radar equipment, air-to-air rockets, a thicker bulletproof canopy, wing spoilers to improve rate-of-roll, and an automatic pilot. Douglas produced 268 Skyknights, including several conversions to special-duty variants.

The F3D, affectionately known as "Willie the Whale," was a conservative design suitable for use on carriers, and featured the largest radar (the APQ-36) ever put in a fighter. It was an aircraft with immaculate handling qualities, featuring hydraulically boosted ailerons and spoilers for high speed roll control, and "speed retarder brakes" (or panels) which could be extended out of the fuselage to help slow down the plane when making an approach for a carrier landing.

The 3,400 pounds, thrust in each engine in the production version of the F3D-2 gave a top speed of 460 knots at sea level. With drop tanks, the speed dropped 25-40 knots, Maximum ceiling ranged from 35,000 to 45,000 feet, depending upon weight. Low power made for tense takeoffs on the short runways of the day, however. Even a moderately loaded F3D needed more than a mile of pavement to get airborne on a summer day at 86 degrees.

The side-by-side cockpit was spacious and had the vital amenity of pressurization for high altitude flight, as well as air conditioning of sorts. Radio equipment was elaborate with ten channels of very high frequency, a receiver, indentification friend or foe (1FF), a radio altimeter, radar beacon reception up to 200 miles, and a long-awaited radio-compass.

The heart of the F3D was the complex weapons system which consisted of three separate radars. One searched on a scope left and right and in broad elevation from down to up. A single target could be selectively tracked. This track-while-scan capability would prove to be very effective. Although the "desired" acquisition range of the radar against a bomber target was 125 miles, in practice airborne radar operators found maximum ranges to be little more than 20 miles. Even so, it was enough to operate independently of ground control on some types of escort missions.

For protection against stern attacks, a second radar radiated rearwards in a conical search pattern with a range of about two miles. When a target was detected, an appropriate rear quadrant warning light came on. The third radar set was the gun aiming radar for the pilot, which was activated when his radar operator tracked a target. A primitive "ballistics computer" produced an aiming dot on the scope inside of 4,000 yards and the pilot maneuvered that into crosshairs, firing his four nosemounted 20mm cannon when in range. It was now technically possible for the first time for a fighter to shoot down another aircraft sight unseen.

The first F3D-2 flew in February, 1951. Over the next two years, 237 were delivered. Sixteen of these were F3D-2Ms in the Sparrow I configuration, prototyped by the one XF3D-1M in 1950. The F3D-2s served with Navy composite and Marine night fighter squadrons, but went into combat in Korea only with Marine land-based squadrons, in the fall of 1952.

As land-based night fighters, the F3Ds were effective, destroying both jet and prop aircraft in night engagements. However, for carrier use, smaller, single-plane night fighters were considered more satisfactory. There were serious problems with the Skyknight at sea. This was the era of the violent hydraulic catapult, the landing signals officer with his hard-to-see guidance paddles, and, above all, the straight carrier deck itself which allowed no possibility of a go-around or "wave-off," once the throttles were cut for landing. If the arresting wires were missed, a crash into a web barrier was inevitable. If a "wave-off" was not prompt - and the F3D's engines required up to 15 agonizing seconds to go from idle to 100 percent power - there was danger of imminent collision with aircraft parked forward on the flight deck. Indeed, the F3D-l's poor showing in carrier suitability tests was the primary reason the Marine Corps received the Skyknight. There were too many problems in the plane for effective night carrier service: its shallow approach angle, its poor visibility for the pilot, and its radar equipment failures at sea.

During the Korean War, in 1952, an F3D Skyknight shot down a Yak-15 in the first jet-to-jet aerial victory scored at night. One Marine Corps night-fighter squadron went on to rack up the best night-fighter record of the Korean conflict. The 2-seat, radar equipped fighter achieved this distinction during the Korean war and by the time hostilities ceased it could also claim more enemy aircraft destroed than any other Marine or Navy type.

The Skyknight was the only Navy/Marine fighter to fly combat missions in both Korea and Vietnam. After 1953, Skyknights were converted as trainers for radar intercept officers and for use as electronic reconnaissance and countermeasure aircraft during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. The Skyknight was the only Navy/Marine fighter to fly combat missions in both Korea and Vietnam, and the last was retired in l978.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:29:54 ZULU