Restoring ‘Whale’ is labor of love

The A-3 Skywarrior rests on the tarmac at NAS Whidbey , destined for future placement as a static display on the corner of Ault Field Road and Langley Blvd. Melanie Hammons/Whidbey Crosswind

A group of real-life warriors is working to ensure the legacy of the A-3 Skywarrior aircraft lives on at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

The aircraft already has a namesake in NAS Whidbey’s Skywarrior Theater, but some local veterans want to ensure that not only the plane itself, but the dedicated squadrons from NAS Whidbey who flew and maintained it, are honored by the proposed A-3 Skywarrior static display and memorial monument.

Retired ATCS Bill Burklow, publicity director for the A-3 Skywarrior Whidbey Memorial Foundation, enjoys some time in the aircraft. Melanie Hammons/Whidbey Crosswind

Retired Aviation Electronics Technician Senior Chief Bill Burklow, director of publicity for the A-3 Skywarrior Whidbey Memorial Foundation, calls the ongoing restoration of the NRA-3B 144825 Skywarrior a labor of love.

“This was the first plane I ever worked on in the Navy,” said Burklow, who first arrived at NAS Whidbey in 1965.

Chairman Ralph Estes, a retired Personnelman Senior Chief and retired Navy Capt. Barney O’Connell, the group’s president, also have fond memories of  the plane.

“It’s fascinating how people can become so emotionally attached to inanimate objects,” said Estes. “When we finally succeeded in having this plane  flown from Van Nuys, Calif. to Whidbey, on April 29, 2011, many who witnessed the fly-in wept.”

The group’s mission statement sets forth their desire to recognize those who flew the A-3, or worked on it.

“That’s why the site plans we’ve drawn up (for the display) include the restored A-3, certainly, but just as importantly, a memorial wall with the squadron names inscribed on it,” said O’Connell. He called Estes, Burklow, and a third director, retired Navy Capt. Bill Young, the real leaders of the effort to bring an A-3 back to Whidbey.

Ralph Estes, chairman of the A-3 Skywarrior Whidbey Memorial Foundation, reminisces about his time spent in the plane. Melanie Hammons/Whidbey Crosswind

The foundation would also like to honor service members connected with the A-3 who died in the line of duty. One page of a promotional brochure for the A-3 terms that effort, “In memory of the 251 heroes lost.”

Originally designed to be long-range bombers, A-3’s served in a variety of capacities, from in-flight refueling to photo reconnaissance to heavy attack bomber, until being replaced by the A-6 Intruder aircraft.

Both Estes and O’Connell said the Navy really got its money’s worth from the A-3, thanks to the plane’s versatility.

“The best part of my 20 years was the time I spent in the ‘heavy fours,’” remembered Estes, referring to the heavy attack squadrons the A-3’s were generally assigned to. He said he even grew to have a special affection for the unique whine of the airplane’s Pratt & Whitney engines.

O’Connell flew A-3’s during the Vietnam War, in the plane’s refueling and jamming capacities.

“Although our group is a fairly small organization, we all sort of jump in and do things when they come up,” said O’Connell. He and Estes said they credit Burklow with spearheading a successful fundraising drive that raised over $100,000 so far in corporate and individual donations, some from as far away as Switzerland and New Zealand.

“Most of the donations have come from those directly connected with the A-3,” said O’Connell, “everyone from mechanics to aircrew.”

Raytheon Corporation donated the plane, but the group covered the expenses incurred to fly it to Whidbey last year.

O’Connell estimated the cost of readying the A-3 for flight, and flying it to Whidbey, was around $75,000. He said the group would like to raise at least that much to cover the rest of the project.

“We know that some aspects, such as the walkway and memorial wall, will need to wait until the plane is situated at the site location on the corner of Ault Field road and Langley Boulevard,” he said. “Our plans are to hold the dedication ceremony in October.”

Remaining funds are dedicated to completely restoring the aircraft.

nterior view of the cockpit of the A-3 Skywarrior, as seen last week at NAS Whidbey Island. Melanie Hammons/Whidbey Crosswind

“We’d  like to reconfigure the plane as it looked on Whidbey in its heyday — and we’re pretty close,” said O’Connell. So far, that has included tasks such as removing a non-standard nose section, replacing an 8-foot section of the tail, and in the future, a new paint job. Personnel at  NAS Whidbey have lent their assistance where they could, something for which O’Connell said their group is very grateful.

As the restoration effort continues toward its completion, so, too, does the fundraising. One way anyone can have a stake in the A-3 Skywarrior Whidbey Memorial is by purchasing  a 4-by-9-inch memorial paving stone. The pavers feature customized inscriptions for individuals and businesses to recognize a loved one’s service. Tentative plans call for their placement along the walkway surrounding the static display.

“We opened up the purchase of pavers to everyone, not just A-3 people,” said O’Connell. “Anyone can have a part in this, because without the support of the public, and the city, the base would not be what it is today.”

How to help:

Information and donation forms are available online at: