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A ‘whale’ of a landing at NAS Whidbey

An A-3 Skywarrior lands at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station Friday. The aircraft was the airbase’s first permanently assigned jet and returned to become a static display at the corner of Ault Field Road and Langley Boulevard. - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
An A-3 Skywarrior lands at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station Friday. The aircraft was the airbase’s first permanently assigned jet and returned to become a static display at the corner of Ault Field Road and Langley Boulevard.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and a large contingent of aircraft enthusiasts welcomed home an A-3 Skywarrior Friday.

The Cold War-era jet, commonly referred to as “The Whale” by Navy aviators, was flown up from Raytheon Technical Services Company in Van Nuys, Calif., to become part of a static display on the corner of Ault Field Road and Langley Boulevard.

The A-3 landed at about 1:30 p.m. to a warm greeting by Navy personnel and members of the A-3 Skywarrior Memorial Foundation. The nonprofit group has been working since 2009 to bring one of the aircraft back to NAS Whidbey Island.

Seeing the aircraft finally arrive at the airbase was a momentous occasion for foundation members. One even ran up to the plane and gave it a hug. Others were just as happy to see long lost friends that turned out for the event.

“It brings back a lot of memories,” said 76-year-old Coupeville resident Lynn Taylor, a Navy mechanic that once worked on A-3s on the base.

The Skywarrior came to the airbase in 1956 and served as its first permanently assigned jet aircraft. It fulfilled a variety of missions, from strategic long-range bomber to inflight refueling tanker, before it was officially retired from Navy service in 1991.

Measuring 73 feet long from nose to tail, and weighing in at 82,000 pounds when fully loaded, the aircraft was the largest Navy jet ever to operate off an aircraft carrier. Its immense size also earned the plane its mammalian nickname.

Although not as nimble as some jets, it nonetheless earned the respect of aviators and maintenance personnel.

“It is important to celebrate the aircraft that has given us so much over the years,” Ron Woltman, a Raytheon pilot who flew the jet up from Van Nuys, said in a news release. “It is an honor to be part of this historical event and fly this A-3 Whale to NAS Whidbey Island where the A-3’s operational service first began back in 1956.”

Woltman is a former Navy A-3 pilot and currently works as Raytheon’s A-3 program manager. For more than 40 years, the company has managed the modifications, operations, maintenance and flight testing of a fleet of up to 14 of the aircraft.

This particular Skywarrior was used as a radar research and test aircraft but was recently removed from the Navy’s active fleet inventory. It is now “on loan” from the Naval Aviation Museum in Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla.

For some foundation members, seeing a Skywarrior back on Whidbey Island again was deeply meaningful. Oak Harbor resident Dick Hayden, 88, said he was the airbase’s first master chief and worked on the aircraft for many years. Watching it pull up on the tarmac, he was overcome with emotion.

“I’m all choked up,” Hayden said. “It’s a good airplane.”

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