Douglas RA-3B / EA-3B / RB-66C

RA-3B with cameras

The Douglas A3D-1 Skywarrior was designed to replace the North American Savage as a large carrier based nuclear bomber. On 31st March 1956 the A3D-1 entered service with the US Navy and before long equipped 12 squadrons, going to sea in nine to twelve aircraft squadrons on the Forrestal and Midway classes of aircraft carriers and in three plane detachments on the Hancock class of carrier. Eventually 49 A3D-1 (later designated the A-3A) and 164 A3D-2 (later designated the A-3B) aircraft would be delivered to the US Navy.


The US Navy soon realised that the aircraft could also be useful for tactical reconnaissance and instructed Douglas to investigate the feasibility of installing cameras in the bomb bay. The foward section of the bomb bay caontained up to seven cameras, including forward oblique (K-18 or A-10), trimetrogon (K-17, T-11 or CA-8) and vertical or split cameras (K-37, K-38, K-17C or T-11). The aft section was divided horizontally into two, the upper part housing a 440-gallon fuel tank and the lower part containing either photoflash bombs or photoflash cartridges for use during night photographic missions. The foward part of the bay also contained a seat for a camera opertor, camera controls and a viewfinder, however, the cameras were usually controlled from the main cockpit. This version of the Skywarrior entered service as the A3D-1P. A later improved version was designated the A3D-2P (later changed to RA-3B) was a highly versatile aircraft with 12 camera mounts, 16 camera ports, 33 camera positions and a bomb bay that could carry flash bombs, flash cartridges and photographic recording equipment.

EA-3B airborne front left

Another version of the Skywarrior was the A3D-1Q, an ectronic countermeasures version of the aircraft, known as "Queer Whales". Retaining the fuselage of the original bomber, the A3D-1Q had a crew of seven, with four operators accommodated in the unpressurised bomb bay. ECM antennas were housed in oblong fuselage blisters, one either side, and in a short ventral canoe. An improved version, the A3D-2Q, had a pressurised compartment for the four ECM operators. Eventually a total of 24 A3D-2Q were delivered and the aircraft was later re-designated the EA-3B.


The USAF RB-66B was USAF version of the US Navy A3D-2P Skywarrior tactical reconnaissance aircraft. The RB-66B first flew in 1954 and a total of 154 were eventually built. In the tactical reconnaissance role RB-66B aircraft were fitted with a variety of cameras and other sensors in the fuselage. Another version, the WB-66B, was equipped for electronic weather reconnaissance. A number of RB-66 aircraft were converted to act as ECM aircraft, jamming enemy radar and communications equipment and were known as the EB-66. The RB-66 saw extensive service in South East Asia where a number of aircraft were lost.

RB-66B pilot Capt David I Holland

On 10th March 1964 at 1300hrs a USAF RB-66B 54-9541 of the 10th TRW took off from Toul-Rosieres in France on a routine navigational training sortie. The aircraft was flown by an experienced pilot named Capt David I Holland and acting as his navigator was Capt Melvin J Kessler, one of the senior navigators of the wing, who was carrying out a combat qualification check on the third member of the crew, Second Lt Harold W Welch. The plan was to fly a high-low-high mission to conduct a low-level photo run on several bridges and rivers in north-west Germany, near the town of Osnabruck. At approximately 100-150 miles from Toul, as the VOR/DME navigation aid on the RB-66B became ineffective, the aircraft slowly climbed to 33,000ft and the autopilot was engaged. At this stage of the sortie they were flying over an undercast and were relying on Lt Welsh to determine the aircraft's position by interpreting the returns he could see on the aircrafts radar, however, in such a heavily populated area, this was a very difficult task. Capt Kessler was cross referring the estimated radar position by using the latitude and longitude positions displayed on the aircrafts Doppler navigation system. In reality, rather than flying over the north German plain in West German airspace, the aircraft was flying into the central air corridor heading towards Berlin, entering East German airspace.

RB-66B crew being released - Capt David I Holland and Capt Melvin Kessler

No sooner had the aircraft begun to descend to commence the low-level portion of the mission, than the crew felt the impact of a C-5 air-to-air rocket, fired by Capt F Zinoviev of the 35th Fighter Air Regiment, flying one of four MiG-19 that had been scrambled to intercept the RB-66B. Capt Holland and the other two crew members ejected from the stricken aircraft and the three men landed in a pine wood near the town of Gardelegen in East Germany, over 135 miles from where they thought they were and over 70km inside East Germany. Washington issued strenuous denials that the aircraft was engaged on a spying mission and 17 days later after some strong complaints from Moscow, the three men were eventually released.


Thanks to Maj Verne Gardina, one of the most repected and experienced navigators in the RB-66 community, the cause of the navigation error was eventually narrowed down to the RB-66's compass system. Maj Verne Gardina had experienced a similar error before, but luckily it happened over the USA and not East Germany. He proved that, if the RB-66 delta-wound N-1 Compass system mounted in the left wingtip malfunctioned, once the auto-pilot was engaged the aircraft would drift further and further to the right - exactly what had happened to Capt Holland's aircraft. Maj Verne Gardina's detailed investigation into this incident proved that the aircraft equipment, rather than the crew, was at fault and Capt Holland and his crew were cleared of all responsibility for the loss of the RB-66B. Capt Holland returned to flying duties and in the Vietnam War is credited with 146 missions in the EW version of the RB-66, the EB-66.