With a profile that would never be considered glamorous, the Douglas Skyknight was a conventional design delivering truly mediocre performance. Still, the Navy needed a sedan, not a sports car, and designer Ed Heinemann, who won fame for the World War II Douglas Dauntless and the 1953 Collier Trophy for the F4D Skyray, gave them what they wanted. Surprisingly, Skyknights would soldier on for two decades of service, easily outlasting speedier, more nimble contemporaries.
Conceived as the Navy’s first purpose-built night fighter, the Douglas F3D was built big to accommodate a complicated radar system along with a powerful battery of four 20-mm cannon. There were three radars: search, fire control, and a novel tail-mounted unit warning of threats approaching from behind. Pilots took off in darkness, flew by instruments, and trusted the radar operators sitting next to them to guide them to enemy aircraft that blipped across scopes mounted on the radar console.
In its attempt to achieve the range that the Navy optimistically specified for the search radar—125 miles—Westinghouse endowed it with an antenna dish 30 inches in diameter—this at a time when most aircraft radar antennas were half that size. Douglas stuffed the thing into a bulbous fiberglass radome. Although the radar never did attain the 125-mile range, it could see a fighter-size target up to 20 miles away, and that made it a valuable weapon system in the Korean War, especially to the bombers set upon by MiG-15s.
When B-29s were sent into North Korea to attack factories, bridges, and dams, their gunners were no match for MiG-15 fighters, which quickly prevented the B-29s from flying daytime missions. Switching to nighttime raids worked until the enemy countered by using a system of ground radar sites to guide MiGs to within visual range of the bombers. After three B-29s were shot down on June 10, 1952, by a dedicated night-fighting team of MiGs, raids were suspended until jet night fighter escorts became available.
That summer, Marine fighter squadron VMF(N)-513 (“N” for “night”) acquired F3D-2s. The squadron was known as the Flying Nightmares. Assigned the dual missions of bomber escort and combat air patrol over United Nations-held territory, the pilots hunted MiG-15s and on November 8 bagged the first one.
Captain Oliver Davis and his radar operator Dramus Fessler were flying at 19,000 feet when a U.S. ground controller radioed from a radar intercept site: enemy aircraft 10 miles straight ahead and nearly 7,000 feet below. Diving at full speed to catch up to the target, the Skyknight crew stalked the bandit with their radar. Davis reported having to apply full power while closing with the enemy, but once within range, he fired into the bright glow of the MiG’s tailpipe, sending the aircraft down in flames. The Flying Nightmares shot down three more MiGs before the end of the war.
Along with North American F-86 Sabres and Lockheed F-94B Starfires, Skyknights were among the few allied aircraft that sought combat with the intimidating MiG-15s during the Korean War. Although no match for the MiG during daylight hours—Skyknight crews were even leery of flying under a full moon—when cloaked by darkness, their radar “eyes” made them killers. Originally assigned to fly B-29 escort missions every other night, taking turns with U.S. Air Force night fighters, the Marines were soon flying nightly, at the insistence of the Air Force general in charge of B-29 operations, who specified F3Ds for the job. The single-seat Sabres were much more effective in daylight; for night intercepts, it appeared that two heads were better than one. And although the Lockheed jet, like the Skyknight, had a second seater, what it didn’t have was the F3D’s radar system—or its firepower. The Starfire had four machine guns; the Skyknight had four cannon.
Orbiting over the B-29 formations as they lumbered to their targets and back, Skyknights deterred MiG attacks and prevented heavy losses. They were almost always flown by Marines from land bases in South Korea. Although qualified for carrier duty in 1951, the airplane had characteristics that discouraged its deployment on flattops in squadron strength. The big twin-jet weighed more than a DC-3; it strained the carrier’s catapult gear. Moreover, carrier ops were a problem for a radar system made up of nearly 300 fragile vacuum tubes.
The airplanes’ low-slung engines were another drawback for operations off the era’s wooden flight deck. They were mounted canted slightly downward in order not to scorch the tail, and when the airplane sat too long waiting to launch, the engines’ exhaust could set fire to the decks. Not an endearing feature with carrier skippers. Although Skyknights weren’t banned from flattops, the Marines, always scheduled to operate the airplane, got a lot more of them—sooner.
The Skyknights became so good at their job that they themselves became hunted. In June 1953, four Navy Skyknights from VC-4 Composite Squadron temporarily detached from the carrier Lake Champlain to join the Marines for nightly patrol and escort duties. One of the Navy pilots, Lieutenant G.G. O’Rourke, recalls in his book Night Fighters over Korea a scheme developed by MiG pilots to trap the F3Ds.
Working in four-aircraft teams guided by ground controllers watching the skies with radar, the enemy would guide one MiG ahead of a Skyknight, where it would be painted by the F3D’s radar. Trailing below and behind the lead MiG-15 would be three more. Once the F3D crew was engrossed in pursuing the first MiG, the trailing MiGs zoom-climbed onto the Skyknight’s tail. MiGs had a phenomenal climb rate, and if the Skyknight crew wasn’t paying attention to the tail radar, the next sound they’d hear would be the shells from a MiG’s cannon hitting their aircraft.
Wrote O’Rourke about MiG tactics: “They had no airborne radars and had to rely completely upon their ground controllers to get them to within visual range behind us, which they did extremely well.” On a coal-black night in July 1953, flying a bomber escort mission over North Korea, O’Rourke was nearly bagged, but for the warning radar in his airplane’s tail. “We went around and around like blindfolded wrestlers,” he wrote, “catching a hint of a target here, then there, then having one spot us for an instant, turning sharply to throw him off.” The MiGs were tenacious; only after they began to run low on fuel did they break off.
O’Rourke is certain that the July 2, 1953 loss of a Skyknight piloted by Lieutenant Bob Bick was due to the same trap. Bick reported firing on a target ahead, then sent a terse final radio message: “Taken a couple of 37s.” (MiGs fired 37-mm cannon rounds.)
Jet v. Biplane
Eugene “Mule” Holmberg was a young Marine staff sergeant in 1953 when he was posted to VMF(N)-513 as a Skyknight radar operator. Holmberg immediately liked the big jet. Its roomy cockpit accommodated his sizable frame, and its Westinghouse AN/APQ-35 radar was the most formidable airborne radar system of the day. “I loved it, just a super plane for a night fighter,” he says. “Our planes had a track-while-scan capability that no one else had at the time.” The Skyknight’s radar system could lock on to a target and continue to search ahead for other threats.