‘The whale’ will be on display at Langley gate

Jeff Hansen doesn’t know why, but the A-3 Skywarrior has a hold on him.

It’s ensnared him so thoroughly he’s put in hundreds of hours of his own time bringing an A-3 to Whidbey Island and restoring it. And he’s not the only one.

“You talk to anybody on A-3 and ask them what’s the best plane they’ve worked on,” Hansen said. “They’ll say an A-3.”

The Navy used the A-3 Skywarrior, nicknamed “the whale,” to drop bombs, fuel other planes in flight, take recon photos and jam enemy radar. Most of them operated out of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station Whidbey Island from 1957 to 1968. The whale was the largest jet to fly off an aircraft carrier.

Members of a nonprofit called the Whidbey A-3 Skywarrior Memorial Foundation are near the end of a long, difficult journey to bring one of the jets to Whidbey. That A-3 is parked outside the Langley Gate at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and will be mounted on a static display soon.

Photo by Debra Vaughn
Jeff Hansen in front of the A-3 members of the nonprofit Whidbey A-3 Skywarrior Memorial Foundation brought to Whidbey. Hansen, along with Jim Croft, have their name stenciled on the sides of the plane. Both put in hundreds of volunteer hours restoring the jet.

Hansen is one of two men with his name stenciled on the side of the plane. The other is Jim Croft, who is retired from the Navy but once worked on the plane as a mechanic.

Initially, other people wanted their names on the plane, said Bill Burklow, one of the director’s of the nonprofit. People started offering cash for the honor. Ultimately, Croft and Hansen were chosen because of the sheer number of hours both put into the project.

Hansen, a quiet man, doesn’t want the attention and was reluctant to participate in this story.

As a young man, he joined the Navy in 1967 at the height of Vietnam. The battery of tests the Navy put him through showed he excelled in aviation. For an enlisted man, that meant maintenance. He dreamed of flying and took advantage of an opportunity to get trained to fly.

He learned on the A-3 and became an enlisted navigator who eventually taught officers how it’s done. His naval career took him across the globe, including to Vietnam where he helped fuel aircraft from the seat of an A-3. He flew 222 combat missions.

He recalls the thrill of screaming off the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, accelerating to 130 mph in 2.5 seconds, and the heart-in-the-throat moment of landing on a roiling carrier at night.

“I just love flying,” he said. “It’s always a thrill to be flying.”

photo provided by Jeff Hansen
Jeff Hansen learned to fly on the A-3 and became an enlisted navigator who taught officers.

He participated in photo recon missions, trained pilots, ferried airplanes from one place to another and even escorted a vice-admiral around Australia.

Some of his missions were nail-biters in which the margin between how much fuel they could deliver and how much they needed to get back was slim. Some of his work he still can’t talk about.

He became qualified to fly just about all the aircraft the Navy has to offer. In 1978 he survived complete engine failure in an A-6, ejecting with the pilot into the bay near San Francisco as the jet took a nosedive into the drink.

All his time in so many aircraft and it’s the Skywarrior he can’t forget.

“I have no idea why,” he said. “It sticks with you.”

There’s something about devoting most of your life to a jet that gets a hold of you, said Dan Hagedorn, a senior curator for Seattle’s Museum of Flight who also worked at the Smithsonian. But he thinks there’s something more with the A-3.

“It’s remarkably reliable and easy to take care of — an astonishing airplane,” he said. “It’s an honest aircraft crews could count on to get them back home.”

The A-3 was originally designed beginning in 1947 as a twinjet nuclear bomber. The Skywarrior never was used for that function but quickly became a conventional bomber and was one of the first aircraft to drop bombs on north Vietnam, he said. Officials learned the jet excelled at other functions, including electronic warfare, fueling and intelligence gathering.

“A lot of returning airmen loved the sight of it,” Hagedorn said. “It meant they could get back to carrier and get some more gas.”

The Navy retired the plane in 1991. The functions of the airplane were taken over by the A-6 and the EA-6B Prowler.

And there were other issues. The A-3’s other nickname was “all three dead” because the aircraft didn’t contain an ejection system.

The A-3 does offer another distinction. It lasted far longer than its successor, a sex-looking, high-performing bomber called the A-5 Vigilante.