On March 23, 1948 the Douglas F3D (later called the F-10) Skyknight made its maiden flight. The straight-winged aircraft originated in 1945 with the issue of a US Navy requirement for a jet-powered, radar-equipped, carrier-based night fighter. The Douglas team responded, and the resulting aircraft possessed a wide, deep, and roomy fuselage and lacked the swept-wing design that was proving to be so popular amongst fighters at the time. It did, however, have folding wings for naval operation purposes. As a night fighter that was not expected to be as fast as smaller daylight fighters, the expectation of the aircraft was focussed to have a stable platform for its radar system and the four 20 mm cannon mounted in the lower fuselage. The F-10 would prove, however, to be able to outturn a MiG-15 – a fair feat at the time and not something that any of the designers had planned for. Simply put, the Skyknight’s original purpose was to complete one mission: to search and destroy enemy aircraft. It would get its chance with the inception of the Korean war.
The main conflict in which the Skyknight would be involved was the Korean war. In its operational period, the Skyknight downed more enemy aircraft in Korea than any other single type of naval aircraft. Primarily operated by the United States Marine Corps, by 1953, just five years after the first flight of the aircraft, the number of Skyknights operating in Korea hit 24. As a result, the fighters were able to begin escorting mighty B-29 Superfortresses on their night bombing missions which lead to many more victories. Although the Skyknight was never as famous as other aircraft such as the North American F-86 Sabre, its capabilities were difficult to contest which made it a successful and well-loved aircraft among those who operated it. There were some, however, who (as with all aircraft) were not keen on the Skyknight. It is widely believed that the reason for this is simply the unflattering looks of the aircraft rather than the performance itself.
Although being much more heavily involved in the Korean war than any other conflict, the Skyknight was in fact the only Korean War jet fighter that also flew in Vietnam, serving as a part of the ‘electronic warfare’ role of aircraft up until 1969. In this role, the wide and roomy fuselage would prove to be extra effective as it provided ample room for all the electronic equipment it needed to carry. At one time, no more than ten F-10Bs were allowed into Vietnam airspace or Vietnam itself.
Following the Vietnam war, the Skyknight was retired from the United States Marine Corps – however, it continued to be used by the United States Navy for avionic systems testing. Although its official retirement date from operations was May 1970, modifications continued to be made to the aircraft as part of the testing phase. Two years before its official retirement within the marines, in 1968 three Skyknights were transferred to the U.S. Army. These aircraft were operated by the Raytheon Corporation where they were used testing at the White Sands Missile Range into the 1980s; they would be the last flyable Skyknights.
In total, 265 F-10 Skyknights were produced over time. It was not the most heavily produced, nor the most revolutionary design. It did prove to be effective in its night fighter role though, which is why we can understand how popular it was in the time it was operational.
Listen to the FlyPast podcast on the Korean war here.