GEAR & TECH

The Air Force's 'Destroyer' was based on a Navy classic

The word 'destroyer' is usually heard in a naval context. We think about the ships built by the hundreds during World War II to defeat Nazi Germany and Japan. However, the Air Force operated a destroyer for a while, too. Unlike others, this destroyer flew, but like others, it did have a Navy connection.


Douglas B-66B Destroyer takes off (S/N 53-505). Note the landing gear is about halfway through the retract cycle and the altitude is roughly 5 feet. (U.S. Air Force photo)

That plane was the Douglas B-66 Destroyer. When it was first proposed, the plane was meant to be a minimally-altered variant of what was then known as the A3D Skywarrior (and later the A-3). But while the Navy didn't want ejection seats for the Skywarrior (leading to the A3D earning the nickname, "All Three Dead"), the Air Force did.

The installation of ejection seats was the first of many changes that would eventually transform the B-66 from a simple adaptation job to an almost completely new plane by the time it entered service in 1956.

Most of the B-66 variants were RB-66 Destroyers that specialized in reconnaissance roles. (USAF photo)

Most of the planes built, though, were not the originally-envisioned tactical bombers — the Air Force did acquire 72 B-66Bs, but they also took on five RB-66A testbeds, 145 RB-66Bs, 36 RB-66Cs, and 36 WB-66Ds. Though all were designed slightly differently, many of these variants served in reconnaissance roles. Some of the B-66s and RB-66s were converted into jammers and became EB-66s, key components to electronic warfare in the skies over Vietnam.

One EB-66 with the callsign BAT 21 would later be shot down, leading to one of the most costly rescue missions ever, for which a Navy SEAL was awarded the Medal of Honor and a member of the South Vietnamese military earned a Navy Cross.

Douglas WB-66D Destroyer in flight (S/N 55-391). Photo taken in January 1959. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The last B-66 models were retired in 1975. The Air Force's destroyer didn't quite mark two decades in service, but it held the line in various electronic warfare roles until planes like the EF-111 Raven and the F-4G Wild Weasel reached the flight lines.

Learn more about this plane in the video below.