The Deadliest Night Fighter in Korea

Why Douglas Skyknight crews weren’t afraid of the dark.

With sophisticated radar, the Douglas Skyknight flew night escort missions, giving Navy and Marine aviators the ability to follow the cardinal rule of fighter pilots: See the enemy before he sees you. (San Diego Air & Space Museum)
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One difficult threat to deal with was the nocturnal raids by Polikarpov PO-2s. The tiny wood-and-fabric biplanes were surprisingly destructive. Flying low and slow and at night, the Bedcheck Charlies, as they were called, were difficult to find, let alone shoot down.

The Polikarpovs were extraordinarily unsophisticated warplanes. Holmberg recalls that the backseater carried a submachine gun and that both pilot and backseater tossed mortar shells freehand over the side. “One dropped on a U.S. ammo dump, causing explosions and fires for three days,” says Holmberg. And Holmberg vividly remembers trying to down one of the elusive raiders. With the Skyknight’s radar, he had no trouble tracking the tiny biplane flying behind U.N. lines.

There were other complications. With the fighter’s radar locking on, Holmberg’s Marine pilot would make several runs at the PO-2, but despite clearance to do so, he refused to fire, fearing that the airplane’s 20-mm cannon would hit friendlies below. No one else observed such restraint, says Holmberg. The “friendly” troops below, spooked by multiple passes of a low-flying jet, began shooting into the night sky, and Holmberg saw muzzle flashes from the enemies’ return fire as they swept by on their ninth and final run, nearly colliding with the biplane.

“The pilot just wouldn’t pull the trigger,” says Holmberg, still annoyed after all these years. “Back at the base, I got out and threw my helmet to the ground in frustration.”

As frustrating as Holmberg’s experience was, it could have been worse. An Air Force F-94B Starfire crew trying to intercept a slow-flying PO-2 fatally collided with it on the third pass one February night in 1952.

Although not much was expected from the clumsy Skyknights, they achieved an air combat first on December 10, 1952, when Lieutenant Joseph Corvi and radar operator Master Sergeant Dan George knocked down a low-flying PO-2 sight unseen: Only the Skyknight’s radar aimed their guns. At war’s end, Skyknights had six confirmed and two probable kills—more than any other jet night fighter.

The Whale
Ed Heinemann’s team knew how to build fast airplanes; in 1947 their slender, jet-powered Skystreak X-plane set a world speed record: 650 mph, with Marine ace Major Marion Carl at the controls. But even Heinemann was intimidated by the Navy’s specifications for the F3D: “High speed requirements seemed completely incompatible with those calling for a two-place cockpit and a large space forward for the radar package,” he wrote in his autobiography, Combat Aircraft Designer.

Since the outsize radar dish determined the fuselage size, the designers were able to create a spacious cockpit—with the requested side-by-side seating—without adding drag penalties. It wasn’t pretty, but that commodious nose was one of the reasons the Skyknight lasted as long as it did: At irregular intervals, the Navy exchanged electronics and missions. The longer the F3D flew, however, the more its sluggishness contrasted with the capabilities of contemporary combat aircraft and the more apt its nickname seemed: “Willy the Whale” or, to those who flew them, simply “Whale.”

Although the development of the straight-wing fighter had been relatively problem free—an XF3D-1 prototype first flew in March 1948—the first 28 F3D-1s were powered by puny Westinghouse J34 turbojets; each produced 3,250 pounds of thrust. Heinemann believed the more powerful J46 engines slated for the F3D-2 version would greatly improve performance, but the engine didn’t make it into F3Ds. Instead the dash 2s were fit with uprated J34s that provided a measly 3,400 pounds of thrust. “My vacuum cleaner had more power,” says Jerry Mitchell. A retired Marine colonel, Mitchell flew Skyknights on reconnaissance missions in the mid-1960s. “It was a fun, comfortable old airplane,” he says. “But I’d hate to fly combat with it.”

The frugal Marines had transformed 35 of the obsolescent Korean War fighters into the first Marine tactical jets specialized for electronic warfare. Able to pack lots of black boxes into the Skyknights’ snouts, the Marines used them during the tense days of the Cuban missile crisis to monitor Soviet air defense radars deployed on the island. On the heels of that success, the aircraft continued as electronic warfare platforms during the cold war; in 1962, they received the designation EF-10B.

The Whale was given high-octane avgas instead of jet fuel to get the maximum power out of its feeble engines. Wayne “Flash” Whitten, who flew 175 Skyknight missions as an electronic countermeasures officer, or ECMO, during the Vietnam War, first met the airplane as a lowly Marine second lieutenant. Whitten was just starting out flying right seat on the Whale, and one of his jobs on Stateside cross-country flights was to make sure the airplane was fueled properly. “The Air Force just wasn’t accustomed to pouring avgas into a jet,” he recalls. “I loved the old plane because it had personality. It had a roomy cockpit, ashtrays…even a cigarette lighter.”

Early in the Vietnam War, Marine EF-10Bs were among the few assets able to locate and jam the radars of enemy surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft guns. That capability got them a lot of work supporting Air Force and Navy strikes into North Vietnam. “They wouldn’t launch [strike teams] if we didn’t have support up there,” says Marine General Jack Dailey, a former EF-10B pilot who is today the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

While supporting a strike package of Air Force F-105s into North Vietnam on March 18, 1966, Whitten saw the fireball of an exploding enemy missile engulf his wingman. Aboard the stricken EF-10B Skyknight were VMCJ-1 squadron mates. “In a flash of eye—gone,” he remembers. No chutes were seen.

Shortly after that loss, radar-controlled anti-aircraft guns began tracking Whitten’s Whale.

Mule Holmberg was flying as backseater in an escorting Marine F-4 Phantom II that day. He radioed Whitten a warning: “Flak bursts coming up your six!” The Whale’s pilot broke hard as Whitten quickly got a “jammer” on the gun’s radar. “Mule saved our butts,” Whitten says.

About Robert Bernier

Robert Bernier is a former naval aviator and commercial pilot now working as an aircraft restoration volunteer at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

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