With a gross weight of 82,000 pounds, the A3D (redesignated A-3) Skywarrior was the largest aircraft to ever operate from a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, a fact that inspired the nickname the “Whale.” First delivered to the fleet in 1956, the A3D represented carrier aviation’s atomic punch, equipping heavy attack squadrons (VAH) designed to deliver nuclear weapons.
When submarine-launched ballistic missiles became the Navy’s primary leg of the nuclear triad, the A3D's versatility made it adaptable to an array of missions, including electronic intelligence, photoreconnaissance, and aerial refueling. In the latter role the aircraft were vital in enabling carrier air wings, particularly those flying from Essex-class carriers designed to operate World War II airplanes, to conduct around-the-clock bombing operations during the Vietnam War. Skywarriors last operated on board ship in 1987, but the last “Whale” owned by the Navy and flown under contract by the Raytheon Company in test work did not make its last landing until 2011.
Interesting Fact- The A3D was not equipped with ejection seats, the crew instead bailing out by sliding down a chute that led out the bottom of the airplane. This fact inspired crews to use the Skywarrior’s A3D acronym to create a morbid nickname—“All Three Dead.”