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The Tale of Our Whale

By Greg Ely

The large airplane on display in the rear of the museum with the folded wings is our KA-3D Skywarrior, also known as “The Whale”. This particular aircraft has, not only a very interesting history, but is also the “newest” A-3 in existence! There were 283 A-3’s built by Douglas Aircraft from the mid-50’s till production ended in 1961….our aircraft is number 281, and the last 2 that were built after her are no longer in existence. She was accepted by the Navy in December of 1960 as a A-3D bomber, serial number 12430 and assigned BuNo 147666. The original mission of the A-3’s was as a tactical bomber that could carry a nuclear weapon from an aircraft carrier and it was the largest and heaviest (84,000lbs) operational aircraft that was used on the carriers. As time went on and the mission of the Skywarrior changed, the A-3’s were modified for other tasks, such as ECM operations (electronic counter measures), aerial refueling tankers, cargo carriers and training aircraft. Our Whale was converted to a KA-3D tanker in June of 1961, then modified again at Alameda Naval Air Station to an EAK-3D in 1968, which is a combination of tanker and electronic counter measure aircraft.

In 1968, our aircraft was involved in an incident that would put her in the history books. While going through night carrier qualifications off the coast of San Diego from the USS Constellation while assigned to VAW-13 Det 64, the plane suddenly snap rolled 3 times before the pilot, LCDR Frank Burrows, could gain control. As he fought to right the plane, he called for crew bail-out, and his Nav, Lt Floyd Stokes blew the top hatch and bailed out, hitting the tail of the plane as he left. He was slightly injured, and landed in the sea and was rescued later. In the meantime, Burrows, and the remaining crewman, LTJG Paul Zubritsky, stayed with the plane and tried to get it back on the ground. Imagine trying to fly a heavy jet, barely under control, at night, at 300 mph, with a howling wind coming through the open top hatch….and land.

As a result of Burrows courage, and expert airmanship, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions. Here’s a remark from his Commanding Officers report on the event..”in order to state my admiration for the pilot’s courage, professionalism and skill in the face of this situation in which one wrong movement would have resulted in tragedy. His almost incredible feat of flying has not only saved the lives of himself and his crewmen, but also preserved a valuable aircraft. That this aircraft was saved is now resulting in a program of inspection throughout the A-3 community which no doubt will save other aircraft which might otherwise be lost due to similar mishaps.”

AND, this is just the beginning of our Whale Tale…..!

Just after the incident, she was deployed to the Pacific on the USS Constellation through 1969 and was with various air wings until being sent back to Alameda in 1974. During that time, she suffered landing gear failure, and had to land wheels up in Japan, and was one of very few airplanes that was launched from a carrier….WHILE IN PORT !!

After arriving back home, she was converted back to a KA-3D, and assigned to VAK-208, later to be VAK-308. During that time till she was retired in 1988, she provided pathfinding and refueling duties for Navy, Marine and Air Force operations to Europe and Asia. She also participated in Air Force “Red Flag” operations, supported Canadian F-5’s and F-18’s from CAB Cold Lake in Alberta Canada and also played the “bad guy” in RIMPAC exercises in the Pacific. She remained at Alameda until the base closed, and was given to the museum in 1994.

Our Whale has had quite a life, and we’re proud to share all her history and stories with everyone that comes in contact with her, in fact, our Board President, John Horton, flew this very plane when he was in the Navy !! When he’s around the ramp, stop him and say HI, and he can tell you more about the A-3’s and their proud heritage. Here’s a few specs on the Skywarror:

  • Crew-pilot plus two

  • Engines-2 Pratt & Whitney J57-P-6 turbojets

  • Wingspan-72’6”

  • Weight-75,000lbs gross

  • Speed-630 (sort of)

  • Range-1,050 on internal fuel

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