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Nuclear bomber cockpit comes to Woodland

Dan Bischoff, Of the Record Staff
An A-3 Sky Warrior cockpit rolls into Ennis Gibbs barn May 22. The huge bomber was termed The Whale.
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Nostalgia enveloped Ennis Gibbs on Thursday as he sat in his newly acquired 3,000-pound Navy nuclear bomber cockpit.

"It’s only the cockpit portion," Gibbs said, "but when I sit in it, nearly 40 years of my life fade into the shadows, and it feels as though I could flip every switch and fly in it today, if it had wings and engines that is."

The cockpit sat in Gibbs’ barn, in Woodland, like a wounded dragon, as if some knight had be-headed the beast. The paint was cracked and faded. Inside, the controls and instruments dangled off the front panels. It wasn’t pretty but the echoes of the past seemed to scream from the dusty, dirty metallic odor that permeated the enclosed space.

"It’s almost archaic, yet it gives just a powerful sense of history. There were real people in this thing doing real things," Gibbs said.

The A-3 Sky Warrior, built in the early 1950s, was once a magnificent marvel of the Navy. One of the first machines produced to transfer the ultimate weapon after World War II. It was the largest machine to fly off of an aircraft carrier, and was given the nickname "The Whale."

It was a twin-engine bomber with a payload of a single nuclear weapon, which it delivered using a "lofting" technique to literally lob the bomb to its target, instead of merely dropping it. This gave the aircraft a few extra moments to get as much distance as possible between it and the devastating concussion of the shockwave.

"Pinpoint accuracy wasn’t deemed that important when dropping nuclear weapons," Gibbs said.

It never delivered a nuclear bomb in warfare, but it was given other important roles.

At the beginning of the Vietnam War, The Whale was being used as a conventional bomber, but slowly its role evolved more into combat support missions, particularly electronic counter-warfare and in-flight refueling.

It was at this time Gibbs, a new college graduate joined the U.S. Naval Reserve, he was commissioned to an ensign and began flight training in Pensacola, Florida. By 1970 he had become fully qualified to serve on the three man crew of the Sky Warrior as its navigator and electronics warfare officer. He was then assigned to squadron VAQ 133 deployed aboard Kitty Hawk (CVA-65) serving in the Gulf of Tonkin, flying combat missions during the Vietnam conflict.

During the next nine months he flew over 110 times and 60 combat missions in The Whale.

"It was a very important part of my life. I bet that not more than a month goes by without having a dream about it," Gibbs said.

Several years ago, The Whale was retired from active service and an association was formed of retired Naval aviators who flew the Sky Warrior. Last November, Gibbs attended a reunion where he learned a museum in Southern Utah had obtained the cockpit of a mothballed KA-3b aircraft.

Shortly thereafter he drove to the museum in St. George. There he learned the museum was downsizing and some of its artifacts were being sold.

Gibbs is a collector, and his brother often tells him that he has a love for all shiny objects. For Gibbs, this was the ultimate shiny object. A sense of history and memories overcame his more common sense, Gibbs said, and he purchased the cockpit for a price he did not want to reveal.

"To me it was cheap for what it is; I guess all of us have a little crazy in us."

It is more than just a shiny object sitting in a garage for Gibbs. The years he spent in Vietnam, flying in The Whale altered his life.

"It definitely changed my view of the world, me and the country I lived in," Gibbs said.


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