The Douglas A-4 Skyhawk is a carrier-capable ground-attack aircraft designed for the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps. The delta winged, single turbojet-engined Skyhawk was designed and produced by Douglas Aircraft Company, and later McDonnell Douglas. It was originally designated the A4D under the U.S. Navy's pre-1962 designation system.
Thermal cockpit shield for nuclear weapons' delivery.
Skyhawks played key roles in the Vietnam War, the Yom Kippur War, and the Falklands War. Fifty years after the aircraft's first flight, some of the nearly 3,000 produced remain in service with several air arms around the world, including with the Brazilian Navy's aircraft carrier, São Paulo.
A4-G of VF-805 takes a wire aboard HMAS Melbourne in 1980.
The Skyhawk was designed by Douglas Aircraft's Ed Heinemann in response to a U.S. Navy call for a jet-powered attack aircraft to replace the older AD Skyraider. Heinemann opted for a design that would minimize its size, weight, and complexity. The result was an aircraft that weighed only half of the Navy's weight specification. It had a wing so compact that it did not need to be folded for carrier stowage. The diminutive Skyhawk soon received the nicknames "Scooter", "Kiddiecar", "Bantam Bomber", "Tinker Toy Bomber", and, on account of its nimble performance, "Heinemann's Hot-Rod".
A4D-2 refueling a F8U-1P.
The aircraft is of conventional post-World War II design, with a low-mounted delta wing, tricycle undercarriage, and a single turbojet engine in the rear fuselage, with two air intakes on the fuselage sides. The tail is of cruciform design, with the horizontal stabilizer mounted above the fuselage. Armament consisted of two 20 mm (.79 in caliber) Colt Mk 12 cannons, one in each wing root, with 200 rpg, plus a large variety of bombs, rockets, and missiles carried on a hardpoint under the fuselage centerline and hardpoints under each wing (originally one per wing, later two).
VA-146 A-4Cs over the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964. USS Kearsarge (CV-33) steams below.
The choice of a delta wing, for example, combined speed and maneuverability with a large fuel capacity and small overall size, thus not requiring folding wings, albeit at the expense of cruising efficiency. The leading edge slats were designed to drop automatically at the appropriate speed by gravity and air pressure, saving weight and space by omitting actuation motors and switches. Similarly the main undercarriage did not penetrate the main wing spar, designed so that when retracted only the wheel itself was inside the wing and the undercarriage struts were housed in a fairing below the wing. The wing structure itself could be lighter with the same overall strength and the absence of a wing folding mechanism further reduced weight. This is the opposite of what can often happen in aircraft design where a small weight increase in one area leads to a compounding increase in weight in other areas to compensate, leading to the need for more powerful, heavier engines and so on in a vicious circle.
The second production A4D-1.
The A-4 pioneered the concept of "buddy" air-to-air refueling. This allows the aircraft to supply others of the same type, eliminating the need of dedicated tanker aircraft—a particular advantage for small air arms or when operating in remote locations. This allows for greatly improved operational flexibility and reassurance against the loss or malfunction of tanker aircraft, though this procedure reduces the effective combat force on board the carrier. A designated supply A-4 would mount a center-mounted "buddy store", a large external fuel tank with a hose reel in the aft section and an extensible drogue refueling bucket. This aircraft was fueled up without armament and launched first. Attack aircraft would be armed to the maximum and given as much fuel as was allowable by maximum takeoff weight limits, far less than a full tank. Once airborne, they would then proceed to top off their fuel tanks from the tanker using the A-4's fixed refueling probe on the starboard side of the aircraft nose. They could then sortie with both full armament and fuel loads. While rarely used in U.S. service since the KA-3 Skywarrior tanker became available, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet includes this capability.
VA-81 A4D-2 on the USS Forrestal in 1962.
The A-4 was also designed to be able to make an emergency landing, in the event of a hydraulic failure, on the two drop tanks nearly always carried by these aircraft. Such landings resulted in only minor damage to the nose of the aircraft which could be repaired in less than an hour. Ed Heinemann is credited with having a large "K.I.S.S." sign put up on the wall of the drawing office when the aircraft was being designed. Whether or not this is true, the A-4 certainly is a shining example of the application of that principle to aircraft design.
A-4C landing on the USS Kitty Hawk in 1966.
The Navy issued a contract for the type on 12 June 1952, and the first prototype first flew from Edwards Air Force Base, California on 22 June 1954. Deliveries to Navy and Marine Corps squadrons (to VA-72 and VMA-224 respectively) commenced in late 1956.
An Argentine A-4C being refueled shortly before its loss on 9 May 1982.
The Skyhawk remained in production until 1979, with 2,960 aircraft built, including 555 two-seat trainers. The last production A-4, an A-4M issued to a Marine squadron (VMA-223) had the flags of all nations who had operated the A-4 series aircraft painted on the fuselage sides.
Armed A-4Fs on the USS Hancock in 1972.
The Skyhawk proved to be a relatively common United States Navy aircraft export of the postwar era. Due to its small size, it could be operated from the older, smaller World War II-era aircraft carriers still used by many smaller navies during the 1960s. These older ships were often unable to accommodate newer Navy fighters such as the F-4 Phantom II and F-8 Crusader, which were faster and more capable than the A-4, but significantly larger and heavier than older naval fighters.
VFC-13 adversary A-4Fs at NAS Fallon in 1993.
The Navy operated the A-4 in both Regular Navy and Naval Reserve light attack squadrons (VA). Although the A-4's use as a training and adversary aircraft would continue well into the 1990s, the Navy began removing the aircraft from its front line attack squadrons in 1967, with the last ones (Super Foxes of VA-55/212/164) being retired in 1976.
Brazilian Navy AF-1 (A-4KU).
The Marine Corps would not take the U.S. Navy's replacement warplane, the A-7 Corsair II, instead keeping Skyhawks in service with both Regular Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserve attack squadrons (VMA), and ordering the new A-4M model. The last USMC Skyhawk was delivered in 1979, and they were used until the mid-1980s before they were replaced by the equally small, but more versatile STOVL AV-8 Harrier II.
Kuwaiti A-4KUs on the flight line in 1991.
VMA-131, Marine Aircraft Group 49 (the Diamondbacks) retired its last four OA-4Ms on 22 June 1994. Lieutenant Colonel George "Eagle" Lake III (CO), Major John "Baja" Rufo (XO), Captain Dave "Yoda" Hurston, and Major Mike "Struts" Volland flew a final official USMC A-4 sortie during the A-4 Standdown Ceremony. Trainer versions of the Skyhawk remained in Navy service, however, finding a new lease on life with the advent of "adversary training", where the nimble A-4 was used as a stand-in for the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 in dissimilar air combat training (DACT). It served in that role at "Top Gun" until 1999.
The A-4's nimble performance also made it suitable to replace the F-4 Phantom II when the Navy downsized its aircraft for the Blue Angels demonstration team, until F/A-18 Hornets were available in the 1980s. The last U.S. Navy Skyhawks, TA-4J models belonging to the composite squadron VC-8, remained in military use for target-towing, and as adversary aircraft, for combat training at Naval Station Roosevelt Roads. These aircraft were officially retired on 3 May 2003.
Naval Reserve A-4L of VA-203.
Skyhawks were well-loved by their crews for being tough and agile. These attributes, along with their low purchase and operating cost as well as easy maintenance, have contributed to the popularity of the A-4 with American and international armed forces. Besides the United States, at least three other nations have used A-4 Skyhawks in combat (Argentina, Israel, and Kuwait).
A-4M of VMA-322.
Skyhawks were the Navy's primary light bomber used over North Vietnam during the early years of the Vietnam War while the USAF was flying the supersonic F-105 Thunderchief; they were later supplanted by the A-7 Corsair II in the Navy light bomber role. Skyhawks carried out some of the first air strikes by the US during the conflict, and a Marine Skyhawk is believed to have dropped the last American bombs on the country. Notable naval aviators who flew the Skyhawk included Lieutenant Commanders Everett Alvarez Jr. and John McCain, and Commander James Stockdale. On 1 May 1967, an A-4C Skyhawk piloted by Lieutenant Commander Theodore R. Swartz of VA-76 aboard the carrier USS Bon Homme Richard, shot down a North Vietnamese Air Force MiG-17 with an unguided Zuni rocket as the Skyhawk's only air-to-air victory of the Vietnam war.
From 1956 on, Navy Skyhawks were the first aircraft to be deployed outside of the U.S. armed with the AIM-9 Sidewinder. On strike missions, which was the Skyhawk's normal role, the air-to-air armament was for self defensive purposes.
Republic of Singapore Air Force A-4SU Super Skyhawk.
In the early-to-mid 1960s, standard US Navy A-4B Skyhawk squadrons were assigned to provide daytime fighter protection for ASW aircraft operating from some Essex class US anti-submarine warfare carriers, these aircraft retained their ground- and sea-attack capabilities. The A-4B model did not have an air-to-air radar, and it required visual identification of targets and guidance from either ships in the fleet or an airborne E-1 Tracer AEW aircraft. Lightweight and safer to land on smaller decks, Skyhawks would later also play a similar role flying from Australian, Argentinean, and Brazilian upgraded World War II surplus light ASW carriers, which were also unable to operate most large modern fighters. Primary air-to-air armament consisted of the internal 20 mm (.79 in) Colt cannons and ability to carry an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile on both underwing hardpoints, later additions of two more underwing hardpoints on some aircraft made for a total capacity of four AAMs.
Brazilian Navy A-4BR.
The first combat loss of an A-4 occurred on 5 August 1964, when Lieutenant junior grade Alvarez, of VA-144 aboard the USS Constellation, was shot down while attacking enemy torpedo boats in North Vietnam. Alvarez safely ejected after being hit by anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire, and became the first US Naval POW of the war; he was released as a POW on 12 February 1973. The last A-4 loss in the Vietnam War occurred on 26 September 1972, when USMC pilot Captain James P. Walsh, USMC of VMA-211, flying from his land base at Bien Hoa Air Base, South Vietnam, was hit by ground fire near An Loc. An Loc was one of the few remaining hotly contested areas during this time period, and Captain Walsh was providing close air support (CAS) for ground troops in contact (land battle/fire fight) when his A-4 was hit, catching fire, forcing him to eject. Rescue units were sent, but the SAR helicopter was damaged by enemy ground fire, and forced to withdraw. Captain Walsh, after safely ejecting, had landed within NVA (North Vietnamese Army) positions, and had become a POW as soon as his feet had touched the ground. Captain Walsh was the last US Marine to be taken prisoner during the war, and was released as a POW on 12 February 1973.
A-4B in the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum.
Although the first A-4Es were flown in Vietnam in early 1965, the A-4Cs continued to be used until late 1970. The Seabees of MCB-10 went ashore on 7 May 1965. On 1 June 1965, the Chu Lai Short Airfield for Tactical Support (SATS) was officially opened with the arrival of eight A-4 Skyhawks from Cubi Point, Philippine Islands. The group landed with the aid of arresting cables, refueled and took off with the aid of JATO, with fuel and bombs to support Marine combat units. The Skyhawks were from Marine Attack Squadron VMA-223 and VMA-311.
An Israeli A-4N.
On 29 July 1967, the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal was conducting combat operations in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War. A Zuni rocket misfired, knocking off an external tank on an A-4. Fuel from the leaking tank caught fire, creating a massive conflagration that burned for hours, killing 134 sailors, and injuring 161. (See 1967 USS Forrestal fire.)
During the war, 362 A-4/TA-4F Skyhawks were lost to all causes. The US Navy lost 271 A-4s, the US Marine Corps lost 81 A-4s and 10 TA-4Fs. A total of 32 A-4s were lost to surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and one A-4 was lost in aerial combat to a MiG-17 on 25 April 1967.
Gate guardian A-4Q at Mar del Plata.
The A-4 Skyhawk was introduced to a training role in the two-seat TA-4J configuration replacing the TF-9J Cougar as the advanced jet trainer The TA-4J served as the advanced jet trainer in white and orange markings for decades until being replaced by the T-45 Goshawk. Additional TA-4J Skyhawks were assigned to Instrument Training RAGs at all the Navy master jet bases under RCVW-12 and RCVW-4. The Instrument RAGs initially provided jet transition training for Naval Aviators during the time period when Naval Aviation still had a great number of propeller-driven aircraft and also provided annual instrument training and check rides for Naval Aviators. The assigned TA-4J models were installed with collapsible hoods so the aviator under training had to demonstrate instrument flying skills without any outside reference. These units were VF-126 at NAS Miramar, VA-127 (later VFA-127) at NAS Lemoore, VF-43 at NAS Oceana and VA-45 (later VF-45) at NAS Cecil Field until its later move to NAS Key West.
OA-4M of MAG-32 in 1990.
Additional single-seat A-4 Skyhawks were also assigned to composite squadrons (VC) worldwide to provide training and other services to deployed units. These included VC-1 at NAS Barber's Point, VC-7 at NAS Miramar, VC-5 at NAS Cubi Point, the Philippines, VC-8 at NS Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, VC-10 at NAVBASE Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and Naval Reserve squadrons VC-12 (later VFC-12) at NAS Oceana and VC-13 (later VFC-13) at NAS Miramar.
With renewed emphasis on Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM) training brought on with the establishment of the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) in 1969, the availability of A-4 Skyhawks in both the Instrument RAGs and Composite Squadrons at the master jet bases presented a ready resource of the nimble Skyhawks that had become the TOPGUN preferred surrogate for the MiG-17. At the time, the F-4 Phantom was just beginning to be exploited to its full potential as a fighter and had not performed as well as expected against the smaller North Vietnamese MiG-17 and MiG-21 opponents. TOPGUN introduced the notion of dissimilar air combat training (DACT) using the A-4E in the stripped Mongoose configuration with fixed slats.
TA-4F Skyhawk of VA-164 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hancock in the early 1970s.
The small size of the Skyhawk and superb low speed handling in the hands of a well trained aviator made it ideal to teach fleet aviators the finer points of DACT. The squadrons eventually began to display vivid threat type paint schemes signifying their transition into the primary role of Adversary training. To better perform the Adversary role, single-seat A-4E and F models were introduced into the role, but the ultimate adversary Skyhawk was the Super Fox, which was equipped with the uprated J52-P-408 engine. This variant had entered service in 1974 with VA-55/VA-164/VA-212 on the final USS Hancock cruise and had been the variant that the Blue Angels had selected in 1973.
A US Navy TA-4J Skyhawk of TW-3 on the deck of USS Lexington, 1989.
The surplus of former USMC Skyhawks resulted in A-4M versions being used by both VF-126 and TOPGUN. Even though the A-4 was augmented by the F-5E, F-21 (Kfir), F-16, and F/A-18 in the Adversary role, the A-4 remained a viable threat surrogate until it was retired by VF-43 in 1993 and shortly thereafter by VFC-12. The last A-4 fleet operators were VC-8, which retired its Skyhawks in 2003.
The XA4D-1 prototype in 1954.
The A-4M was also operated by the Operations Maintenance Detachment(OMD) in an Adversary role based at Naval Air Station Dallas for the Naval Air Reserve. Many of the aviators that flew the 4 jets were attached to NAS Dallas, including the Commanding Officer. The aircraft were instrumental in training and development of Air Combat Maneuvers(ACM) for VF-201 and VF-202. The unit also completed several missions involving target towing to NAS Key West, NAS Kingsville, TX, and deployments to NAS Miramar, CA and NAS Fallon, NV for adversary support. The detachment was under the operational command of the Commander Fleet Logistics Support Wing(CFLSW) based at NAS Dallas.
A U.S. Navy A-4E of VA-164 from USS Oriskany (CVA-34) over North Vietnam in November 1967.
- Crew: 1 (2 in OA-4F, TA-4F, TA-4J)
- Length: 40 ft 3 in (12.22 m)
- Wingspan: 26 ft 6 in (8.38 m)
- Height: 15 ft (4.57 m)
- Wing area: 259 ft² (24.15 m²)
- Airfoil: NACA 0008-1.1-25 root, NACA 0005-0.825-50 tip
- Empty weight: 10,450 lb (4,750 kg)
- Loaded weight: 18,300 lb (8,318 kg)
- Max takeoff weight: 24,500 lb (11,136 kg)
- Powerplant: 1 × Pratt & Whitney J52-P8A turbojet, 9,300 lbf (10,000+ USMC A-4M and OA-4M) (41 kN)
- Maximum speed: 585 kn (673 mph, 1,077 km/h)
- Range: 1,700 nmi (2,000 mi, 3,220 km)
- Combat radius: 625 nmi, 1,158 km/h ()
- Service ceiling: 42,250 ft (12,880 m)
- Rate of climb: 8,440 ft/min (43 m/s)
- Wing loading: 70.7 lb/ft² (344.4 kg/m²)
- Thrust/weight: 0.51
- g-limit: -3/+8 g
- Guns: 2× 20 mm (0.79 in) Colt Mk 12 cannon, 100 rounds/gun
- Hardpoints: 4× under-wing & 1× under-fuselage pylon stations holding up to 9,900 lb (4,490 kg) of payload
- 4× LAU-10 rocket pods (each with 4× 127 mm Mk 32 Zuni rockets)
- Air-to-air missiles:
- 4× AIM-9 Sidewinder
- Air-to-surface missiles:
- 2× AGM-12 Bullpup
- 2× AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missile
- 2× AGM-62 Walleye TV-guided glide bomb
- 2× AGM-65 Maverick
- Air-to-air missiles:
- 6× Rockeye-II Mark 20 Cluster Bomb Unit (CBU)
- 6× Rockeye Mark 7/APAM-59 CBU
- Mark 80 series of unguided bombs (including 3 kg and 14 kg practice bombs)
- B57 nuclear bomb
- B61 nuclear bomb
- up to 3× 370 US gallons (1,400 L) Sargent Fletcher drop tanks (pylon stations 2, 3, 4 are wet plumbed) for ferry flight/extended range/loitering time
- Bendix AN/APN-141 Low altitude radar altimeter (refitted to C and E, standard in the F)
- Stewart-Warner AN/APQ-145 Mapping & Ranging radar (mounted on A-4F, also found on A-4E/N/S/SU)