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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“That was the only airplane I’ve ever flown where I added full power, took my feet off the brakes, and it just sat there, trying to decide whether it would fly that day,” says Dailey. “The temperatures on the runway at Da Nang used to get up to 125 degrees, and I’ve rolled 9,500 feet on a 10,000-foot runway and still only be doing 90 knots. It would fly at 90.”

Doug Bodkin also flew EF-10Bs for the Marines out of Da Nang, and although he took a perverse pleasure in piloting something nearly as old as he was, he was mindful of its sluggish takeoff. The takeoff rolls were long enough to give “one ample opportunity to ponder the lack of ejection seats during that event,” he says.

To reduce complexity and to limit the weight of an already underpowered airplane, Heinemann’s team left out ejection seats and substituted an unusual escape slide system. It was a simple chute that began behind the seats and slanted down to a belly exit between the engines, allowing, at least in theory, for a high-speed bailout.

“In the hangar at Da Nang, we’d put an airplane up on jacks and put mattresses underneath to train to use that chute,” says Dailey. “When you get ready to go, there’s a handle that you pull, and a trap door flies open, and a panel on the bottom of the airplane falls off, and the pilot’s seat literally falls apart.” The ECMO was to exit first, grabbing a bar above the escape chute and swinging his legs out. The pilot then uses the same bar to vault down.

“We used to try to jump on the ECMO,” Dailey says. “If he loitered on that mattress, he was going to get stomped on by the pilot.”

Jerry Dixon recalls an exercise he flew during which raiders—recon Marines—found an unexpected use for the Skyknight’s escape chute. He was deployed to the Philippines for the exercise in February 1958. Assigned the role of aggressor squadron for the maneuvers, Marine planners used Whales for a clandestine insertion of Marine commandos behind “enemy” lines. Dixon was part of a flight of four Skyknights that flew night formation with a recon Marine occupying the right seat of each airplane.

Approaching the drop zone, the raiders got out of their seats and slid into each airplane’s escape chute, keeping their heads still in the cockpit. “When we got to the drop zone, the formation leader made the prearranged signal to drop, I tapped my raider on the head, and he was gone like a shot,” says Dixon, still in awe after all these years. “You talk about a set of balls to do what those guys did.” Dixon later heard that two of the commandos broke bones landing in the jungle.

The year before, Dixon and his radar operator, Richard Long, had flown another unusual mission in a Whale. Because of its size and stability, the F3D was instrumental in developing the Sparrow family of air-to-air guided missiles; Dixon and Long scored their first “kill” by bagging an F6F target drone with a Sparrow 1 fired from an F3D-2M missile ship. Thereafter, as members of VMF(AW)-513 (“AW” for “all weather”), based at Atsugi, Japan, they stood nightly alert, launching in response to Soviet aircraft probing area defenses.

When the Skyknights were displaced by a new generation of all-weather fighters in the 1950s, many were reconfigured as trainers. Mike Glenn was an aviation machinist mate assigned to fighter training squadron VF-121 at Naval Air Station Miramar, working with F3D-2T2s. Painted in the standard Navy training command colors, white and bright orange, the aircraft had the F3H Demon’s radar in the nose and were used to train Demon pilots on radar intercept procedures.

Today Glenn is leading a restoration at the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The museum collects aircraft that made their first flights at Edwards. “So now, after 50 years working around planes, I have gone back full circle to the F3D airplane of 1960,” says Glenn. “Wonder if I can recover the rest of my youth?”

Tired old Whales were gradually replaced by vastly more capable EA-6A Intruders, and in October 1969 flew their last combat missions. The Marines, known for an appreciation of history and ceremony, selected Oliver Davis, then a colonel, to fly the last official Skyknight mission in May 1970. It had been Davis who, back in 1952, was the first Skyknight pilot to shoot down a MiG-15.

Only 268 Skyknights of all types were built—the last was delivered in 1952—but the Whale just wouldn’t fade away. It became the Forrest Gump for naval air, out of the limelight but present at the creation of many technologies over two decades. And the old warrior’s tour of duty isn’t quite over. In Lakewood, California’s Del Valle Park, a Skyknight that once entertained a generation of kids as a playground attraction now serves as a dedicated war memorial.

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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