‘Star light, SkyKnight, first star I see tonight..’ – Douglas F3D SkyKnight

By: shortfinals

Apr 01 2011

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Category: aircraft, Aviation, military, Museums, New England, United States, warbird


Focal Length:28mm
Shutter:1/0 sec
Camera:NIKON D40

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!





9 comments on “‘Star light, SkyKnight, first star I see tonight..’ – Douglas F3D SkyKnight”

  1. An excellent treateise on this aircraft — including mention of the designer. I shall have to look him up. I saw the Skynight which is displayed on the USS Intrepid musuem on New York City. I like the looks of the aircraft and was curious as to the engine placement. I hadn’t realized the size of aircraft borne radar volume constraints and I was entirely unaware of the rearward looking defense radar, as well. Thanks 🙂


  2. Thanks for the kind comment. I didn’t have space to go into the attempts to develop a new engine for the F3D, or the proposal for a swept-wing version, but I do hope that you all got a flavour of this bulky but efficient warplane. Strange to think that the colour schemes on this type have included all black, all deep blue, and all white, a veritable smorgasbord for aircraft modellers.

    Oh, and thank you, Joe, for the link to the ‘America’ flying boat replica notes. David and I were very lucky during our trip, in that we met and spoke with one of the two pilots of the replica at the Glen H Curtis Museum. I’ll have a cockpit shot up on the blog, soon!


  3. […] April 11, 2011 by bikeal Leave a Comment 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 … Read More […]


  4. And an interesting crew escape procedure since the SkyKnight had no ejection system. Flight crew sat side by side airliner style and there was an escape hatch behind and below the crew, between the engines. A really tight squeeze to get out of the seats and release the hatch and slide out and I imagine it took a bit of time. Some of my test jumper predecessors participated in live tests with this baby.


    • Strangely enough, it was anticipated in the Bristol Beaufighter! In the event of a ‘bale out’, the gunner/radar op. exited through his own, rear escape hatch. The pilot however, pulled a lever which collapsed the back of his seat, reached backwards and upwards to grab two short parallel bars set in the fuselage roof, and then swung himself back onto the forward escape hatch. This neatly pivotted and deposited him outside the aircraft, shielded from the slipstream by the now locked escape hatch!

      The Mosquito was equally difficult. The Observer had to jettison the hatch first (it is SMALL – I have just managed to lever my large body into one!), then bale out, followed by the pilot who had to get backwards and across the Observer’s seat (and usually exit head-first).


  5. I am trying to locate any information on My grandfather who went missing during a search and rescue mission on the East Coast. My grandfather was Master Sargent Gerald Alan Moreau. He was a member of the Marine Attack Squadron 542 based out of Cherry Point, North Carolina. He served during WWII and Korea. He was a Radar Navigator on the Douglas F3D Skyknight. On November 14, 1954 his plane abandoned a typical training mission to help locate a downed Navy aircraft that was in the same area. A naval harpoon or “flying boat” crashed with 5 men aboard near Pamlico Sound, VA. My grandfather’s aircraft went in search of the downed plane only to then be lost themselves. Their last contact with the control tower was at 9pm. The coast guard and other navy aircraft searched for months for any sign of the F3D, with no luck. There was a memorial service held in January 1955 for my grandfather and his other two crew members after they were presumed dead, yet no body has ever been recovered. He is listed as MIA and all cemetery records searches have come up empty . He served from 1945-1954. Before being stationed at Cherry Point he was previously at El Toro Marine Base in Southern California. I am hoping that someone out there knew him and shed light on what happened/what kind of person he was. I also would like to find someone that has knowledge of what happened, more than the archives can provide, as I am waiting for a copy of his DD214. If you can help me or someone can, please contact me at annettemoreau25@yahoo.com 20 Mar 12


    • I was extremely sorry to hear of the loss of your grandfather, and also the fact that his body was never recovered. I am sure that any of the Blog’s readers who have any knowledge of the loss of this particular F3D will come forward.


  6. Great picture of our F3D-2, housed at the Quonset Air Museum, in RI. Restoration of exterior started three years ago, 2012. We have front of fuselage 90% completed. This summer I expect to complete painting and stenciling. If there is a link I can send updated pics.


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