As early Cold War tensions heightened, a single San Diego-based Navy fighter squadron, flying a now-forgotten supersonic aircraft, became the Air Force’s go-to unit to defend American airspace at both of its southern corners.
A driving fear for the U.S. continental air defense was the threat of formations of large Soviet bombers carrying nuclear payloads flying at high altitude. The Air Force made strenuous efforts to build up a quick-response interceptor force backed up by a reliable, and continuous, radar detection system.
To thwart airborne attacks coming from over the North Pole, directly from Soviet bomber bases in Siberia, an extensive radar network was established from Alaska across Canada to Greenland. However, there were concerning vulnerabilities over the southern oceans, so naval assistance with its dedicated radar picket ships, extended the warning time on inbound communist bombers that might take a more southerly route.
The requirement for the Navy’s help did not end with it ships. Since the Air Force lacked any forward bases near the southwestern coastline, they requested that a dedicated naval aviation squadron fulfill the air defense interceptor role in that region.
Enter the Douglas F4D Skyray. The Skyray was a high-speed interceptor with a wide sweptback delta-shaped wing. It got its name for its likeness to a manta ray. Joining the naval service in 1956, this compact new jet fighter became the first carrier-based aircraft to set a world speed record of just under 800 miles per hour, and the first naval aircraft to go supersonic in level flight. It also established its exceptional interceptor credentials through its ability to zoom climb at a 70-degree angle from sea level to more than 49,000 feet in only 2 minutes and 36 seconds.
In the fleet, the Skyray served to protect the aircraft carrier from the threat of high-altitude bombers carrying missiles, but the fighter ultimately lacked the growth potential for the multi-mission role required by the Navy. It was, however, the perfect fit for continental defense against the Soviet’s nuclear bomber force.
In May 1958, Navy All Weather Fighter Squadron 3 (VF(AW)-3), nicknamed the Blue Nemesis, joined the Air Force’s North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) from its home base of Naval Air Station North Island. Having just transitioned into the Skyray, the squadron now provided a proven interceptor needed on the water’s edge.
Although the squadron operationally was all Navy, VF(AW)-3 reported to the 27th Air Division headquartered at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino. Sporting the NORAD logo, as well as naval markings, the squadron built up to a maximum strength of 25 aircraft at North Island. Pilots stood a 24-hour alert in readiness to get aloft within five minutes. While climbing, the intercepting pilots were guided by a NORAD radar station on nearby Mount Laguna.
Remarkably, scrambles and interceptions were a daily occurrence with the Skyray’s powerful engines rattling windows of nearby Coronado homes. The interceptions, however, often proved to be no more than errant airliners. Nevertheless, the squadron maintained an exceptional state of safety and readiness, capable of theoretically deploying the entire complement of Skyrays within two hours. In the air, Blue Nemesis pilots excelled as well, twice winning the NORAD trophy for interception proficiency.
In 1961, when the Cuban Revolution declared for communism, the Air Force directed VF(AW)-3 to dispatch aircraft to Naval Air Station Key West, just 90 miles from Cuba. Six-plane detachments rotated from North Island to Florida’s southern tip every two months.
When the geopolitical situation in the Caribbean took a grim turn during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, four of the Blue Nemesis aircraft were kept in a continuous “Ready Five” status for a 24-hour alert. In addition to regular alerts, the pilots also flew standing patrols along the 24th parallel, which appeared to be the northern limit for Cuban MiG-21 fighters. Although the MiGs were occasionally detected on the Skyray’s radar, or even visually in the distance, there were no altercations.
Steady advancement of aviation technology in the early 1960s, as well as improved radar systems, brought about a significantly expanded and more comprehensive air defense network. After the Cuban crisis receded in late 1962, the Skyrays returned to North Island with their mission purpose gravely diminished. In April 1963, VF(AW)-3 was quietly disestablished, and the nation’s continental defense became the sole responsibility of the Air Force.
Much like the old Taoism adage – “the candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long” – the Skyray may have had a short-lived operational military career, but it served an important role in the early years of the Cold War.