Some warplanes look just right; they are beautifully proportioned, fly like a dream, have a great combat record, and are called classics – for an example, think De Havilland Mosquito, Supermarine Spitfire. Then there are others; awkward, even ugly, looking distinctly ‘odd’, yet they do an unexpectedly great job – think Westland Lysander and, yes, Douglas SkyKnight.
The Douglas F3D was designed around a very bulky fuselage, which was necessary to hold the early generation AN/APQ-35 radar system, which was really three separate systems integrated into one. The AN/APG-26 component – the fire control radar – had a range of 4,000 yards, with firing solutions being offered from 2,000 yards to the target. The target was acquired by the AN/APS-21 component, which was the search radar (as used in the Gloster Meteor NF Mk.12); this allowed bomber-sized aircraft to be detected at 20 miles, and fighters at 15 miles. An AN/APS-28 tail warning radar was integrated into the whole system, giving protection to the F3D from the rear quadrant, from 4 miles down to a minimum range of 150 yards. All this meant that there was no room for the engines inside the fuselage! Consequently, the F3D-2 ’s two Westinghouse J34-WE-36 turbojets, each of 3,400 lbs thrust, were ‘scabbed’ onto the underside of the fuselage, giving the SkyKnight a profile which would lead to it being given the nicknames ‘Turtle’ and ‘Willie the Whale’.
Designed for Douglas by the redoubtable Ed Heinemann (F4D Skyray, A-26 Invader, etc), you could hardly call this aircraft an aesthetic triumph, yet it did its job well – it scored more victories than any other US/Marine aircraft type in the Korean War. On the night of 2nd November, 1952, Major William Stratton, USMC and his radar operator, Master Sgt. Hans Hoagland, USMC, of VMF(N)-513, used their SkyKnight’s 4 x 20mm Hispano-Suiza M2 cannon to blast a North Korean Yak-15 from the sky; this was the first-ever ‘jet on jet’ kill at night. Although the F3D-2 gave sterling service in Korea, it was obvious that better performance was needed from the next generation of fighter aircraft, and a number were converted to F3D-2T night fighter trainers, and some as F3D-2T2 radar operator trainers.
In 1962, a new Tri-Service Aircraft Designation System was introduced. Under this, the remaining F3D aircraft became known as F-10s. Although their days as a night fighter were over, a number of SkyKnights managed to get themselves into another shooting war – Vietnam. Some F-10s were converted to electronic countermeasures aircraft, and became EF-10Bs. These were operated by the Marine Corps VMCJ-1, VMCJ-2, and VMCJ-3, usually out of Da Nang, Vietnam on anti-radar missions over Vietnam and Laos, a predecessor, in effect, of the Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler. The EF-10B would detect and pinpoint radar emissions, then either give the job of attacking the enemy installation to strike aircraft or jam the signals using onboard equipment. The EF-10B was finally retired in May, 1970.
Here we can see one of the few remaining SkyKnights, Bu. No. 124620, on display at Quonset Air Museum, Rhode Island. It served with VMF(N)-513 in Korea, and after use by the Marines in southern California and MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina, was converted to EF-10B standard and then shipped to Vietnam. It was finally acquired by QAM, following its retirement, from storage at Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, Arizona.
A number of F-10 aircraft were used on experimental radar or air-to-air missile work (some by VX-4 out of Point Mugu, California, the Naval Air Missile Test Center), and three other SkyKnights were operated into the 1980s by the Raytheon Corporation for the US Army on classified tasks.
It could be said that the SkyKnight was less than beautiful, but it was rare that Ed Heinemann designed an aircraft that didn’t do a good job!