by Tommy H. Thomason

Saturday, December 12, 2009

F3D Skyknight

23 June 2017: I've added a discussion about the variations in the overhead hatch configuration here:

Paul Bless knows a lot more about the Douglas F3D Skyknight than I do and is generously sharing it. (Also see Steve Ginter's excellent F3D monograph here.)

First, there were three basic configurations: three XF3Ds (BuNos 121457-9), only 28 F3D-1s (BuNos 123741-123768), and the F3D-2s. There were also post-production mission modifications to the -2. A swept-wing -3 was initiated but cancelled by the Navy before it left the drawing boards. The F3D was redesignated F-10 in the 1962 designation system change mandated by DoD.

The XF3Ds had the very small engine nacelles, big speed brakes on the side of the aft fuselage, and a teeny tail bumper. They were powered by two Westinghouse J34 engines with a total thrust of 6,000 lbs.

For the production airplanes including the -1, the engine nacelles were significantly enlarged. According to one of the Service Test reports, "Weight and space provisions are made for the J34-WE-32, J34-WE-38, or J46-WE-2 engines, with and without afterburning." (It's not clear what dash number engines were installed in the production -1s or their rating. Depending on the source, they were -34s with a total thrust of 6,500 lbs or 6,800 lbs or -38s with a total thrust of 7,000 lbs, among others.) As Paul has pointed out, Douglas was also trying to interest the Air Force in the F3D as a substitute for its troubled F-89 at the time; this would have required installation of either the afterburning J-34-WE-15 or J-34-WE-17. Another change that affected the engine installation was an increase in the internal fuel capacity from 1290 gallons to 1350, which displaced the engines down and outboard slightly.

On the production -1, the size of the two existing speed brakes was significantly reduced and a large brake was added to the bottom of the fuselage, similar to the AD Skyraider installation. The latter proved to be unsatisfactory and was either not installed on or removed from the last 18 production -1s. The skid-type tail bumper on the XF3D was changed to a wheel-type tail bumper on the -1.

The roll control change between the XF3D-1 and the production -1s, which was an increase in the boost ratio from 15:1 to 20:1 proved to be inadequate. The -2s got wing spoilers for roll control in addition to the ailerons and for boost-off flight, an automatic mechanical advantage shifter providing a 2:1 ratio in lieu of the control stick extension feature which was also used on the F4D and the A4D.

Unfortunately, the F3D never got an engine with enough thrust so that its aerodynamic performance matched the capability of its night fighter avionics suite. There were very few deployments aboard aircraft carriers. Most of the F3Ds were operated by the Marine Corps from land bases.

The Korean War did provide a situation perfectly matched to its strengths, which was escort at night of Air Force B-29 bombers. In effect, the F3D crews were trolling for MiGs with the B-29s as bait. Even though the MiG pilots had no on-board radar, it wasn't as one-sided as you might expect because they were being vectored by ground controllers using radar and the F3D engine exhaust was very bright and readily visible at night. The F3D crew relied on their tail-warning radar to break away when a MiG came in behind them. The resulting kill ratio was seven MiGs and one probable against one F3D loss.

VC-33, the all-weather night attack squadron that provided detachments to air groups deploying on aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean and North Sea, evaluated the F3D as a replacement for the AD-5N, but determined that the Skyraider was more effective due to its much greater endurance and bomb/rocket carrying capacity.

The F3D was also valued for its size during the development of the air-to-air guided missile. The first one pressed into this service was the second XF3D.

This was followed by modifications of both -1s and -2s for testing by VX-4 and subsequently operational use by the Marine Corps. The -1M and -2M changes included removal of the 20mm cannons as well as a new, longer nose incorporating the Sparrow I missile control system. Although carrier qualified, none deployed with an air group aboard a carrier.

Paul also provided the following on the F3D-2B: "(It) was actually a series of modifications incorporated in approximately 114 (if I remember correctly) of the standard F3D-2’s to allow them to carry either the MK-7 or MK-12 special weapons... It was basically a two gun aircraft; removing two 20 MM weapons and armament components to allow for installation of the various ballistic and radar altimeter components required. The cockpit installations were all on the RO’s side of the aircraft. It also removed the tail warning radar and modified the right stores pylon to carry the weapons. The “pilot” aircraft for the modification was BuNo 127044, but I believe the intended plan was for the remainder of the aircraft to carry simply the F3D-2 designation (aka, nuclear capable F2H-3/4)."
Photo from Gary Verver

The Marines subsequently modified several F3D-2s, designated EF-10B, for electronic reconnaissance and countermeasures missions in the Vietnam War as a placeholder until the EA-6A was available.

Like the A3D, the size and relative simplicity of the F3D made it a very useful testbed. Three were taken up by the Army and used for test programs into the early 1980s.


  1. F3D-2B is not a version of Skyknight with nuclear weapon capability but a temporary designation for F3D-2M Sparrow I air-to-air missile armament version.

    Thorough investigation of Aircraft History Cards of all F3D-2 series available from U. S. NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER, six F3D-2B (Bu. Nos. 125822, 125837, 125847, 125857, 125867 and 125877) were found. They were delivered to the Navy sometime between January 30 and 18 May 1953. Then all assigned to VX-4 sometime between April and July 1953. Not an F3D-2B of the six was assigned to VX-5, then responsible to nuclear weapon delivery.
    All six F3D-2B were re-designated as F3D-2M mostly the day after delivered to VX-4.

    Six F3D-2 (Bu.Nos.124654, 1254658, 125853, 125856, 127029 and 127044) were assigned to VX-5 sometime between November 1953 and February 1957, but no designation of F3D-2B appeared in their Aircraft Historical Cards, although at least some of them were capable to carry Mk.7 or Mk.12 nuclear store under the right pylon. One F3D-2 (Bu.No.127044) was assigned to AIR SPECIAL WEAPONS/NASWF (NAVAL AIR SPECIAL WEAPONS FACILITY) at Kirtland AFB between July 24, 19533 and April 7, 1955 when it was retired with a total flight time of 555 hours (stricken on April 28, 1955), but retaining designation of F3D-2.

    Other than six F3D-2M re-designated from F3D-2B, nine aircraft (Bu. Nos. 125872, 125882, 127023, 127028, 127033, 127043, 127048, 127053 and 127058) were delivered as F3D-2M.

    Because of rack of some Aircraft Historical Cards of F3D-2 those survived after November 1962 as F3D-2Q/EF-10B, I cannot assert the number of F3D-2B and F3D-2M but, I can say “at least” such numbers as shown above existed.

    HIDEKI YAMAUCHI, AGC (Atsugi Gombey Club)

  2. Yes and no, according to Paul Bless, my F3D subject matter expert. The B suffix did exist prior to being used to designate aircraft modified to deliver nuclear weapons. One use was to identify a change to the armament, e.g. F9F-2B, which denoted the addition of rocket/bomb pylons to the basic -2 configuration. This is consistent with the first use of the “F3D-1B” and “F3D-2B” being to identify the change to Sparrow missile armament from the four 20 mm cannon. Thanks very much for sharing that observation based on excellent research with us.

    However, it is well documented that BuNo 127044 was modified to the F3D-2B nuclear weapon delivery configuration and operated by VX-5 at Moffett Field before the squadron moved to China Lake. (My guess is that the change in designation of the -1 and 2Bs to -1 and 2Ms freed up the B suffix for this purpose.) Photos of this aircraft clearly show the designation F3D-2B above the BuNo under the tail. Paul also has a Douglas F3D-2B document that identifies its added mission as special weapons delivery. It states that 127044 was the first F3D to receive this modification. It was anticipated that a number of additional F3Ds were to be converted to the F3D-2B configuration.

    It may be that like the F3D-2B designation for a special weapons capability was dropped for some reason (like the F9F-2Bs—all reverted to being F9F-2s when all available aircraft were converted—or like the nuclear capable F2H-3/4, none of which received a B sufflix like the F2H-2B did because all were so equipped rather than just a subset) or there were no more conversions and there was only the one F3D-2B, which reportedly crashed while based at Kirkland.

  3. Does anyone have a photo of 125857? Reply via please. Bill Stein