Heinemann’s Hot Rod Was Diminutive in Stature But Still Hugely Capable
Author’s note: This is the first of a multiple part series on the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk. This piece focuses on the American utilization of the Scooter. A second piece will highlight the many foreign users. Skyhawks forever!
Small For a Good Reason
When renowned aerospace designer Ed Heinemann of Douglas drew the Skyhawk, he would be replacing one of the largest single-engine propeller driven fighter-bombers ever built with what turned out to be one of the smallest, lightest attack jets ever. Designed for reduced weight and complexity, his Hot Rod ended up with a delta wingspan so small (just a shade over 26 feet) that the A-4 never needed folding wings.
First to Fly
The first A-4s to enter service with the United States Navy were designated A4D-1 (later A-4A) and went to Attack Squadron SEVEN TWO (VA-72) Blue Hawks at Naval Air Station (NAS) Quonset Point in Rhode Island on September 26th 1956. Soon thereafter All Weather Fighter Squadron THREE (VF[AW]-3) Blue Nemesis at NAS Moffett Field took delivery of the first west coast A-4As. The first Marine Corps outfit to fly A-4As was Marine Attack Squadron TWO TWO FOUR (VMA-224) Bengals at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro in California.
Sometimes a B is Better Than an A
The A4D-2 (later A-4B) went to the fleet staring in 1957. It featured a stronger, externally braced rudder design which alleviated some flutter issues with the A4D-1’s rudder. Other improvements to the second generation Tinker Toy jet were strengthened landing gear, a probe for air-to-air refueling and ability to carry external fuel tanks and a buddy refueling pod, additional navigation equipment, and a radar altimeter. The ordnance delivery systems were improved as well.
Building a Better Scooter
Entering service with VMA-225 Vagabonds during February of 1960, the A4D-2N (later A-4C) was supposed to get a more powerful and economical engine but the budget didn’t support it. Instead the third generation Skyhawk received an auto-pilot and all-attitude gyro system, an angle of attack (AOA) indexer, terrain clearance radar and a revised nose in which to mount it, and a low-altitude bombing system. Many A-4Cs were upgraded later to A-4L specifications and flown primarily by Naval Reserve units.
The Scooter That Never Was
In 1958 Douglas proposed the A4D-4. Essentially the design was a significantly enlarged A-4C with revised (conventional) swept wings and empennage and a bubble canopy. This Skyhawk variant was envisioned as a dedicated long range all weather jet capable of the delivery of “special weapons” from seven underwing hardpoints at low altitude and high speed. The A4D-4 would have required folding wings and the design incorporated drag-reducing anti-shock pods. The design never got off the drawing board.
An Even Better Scooter
When the A-4E (briefly designated A4D-5) variants began reaching fleet units in January of 1963, Douglas had added two additional underwing hardpoints for carrying ordnance for a total of five, a Doppler navigation radar, a targeting computer, and finally that more powerful Pratt & Whitney J52-P6A turbojet engine. A-4E intakes were enlarged and modified for better airflow to the engine. The newest Skyhawk variant was also equipped to deliver the latest guided weapons then entering service, such as the Martin Marietta AGM-12 Bullpup air to ground missile and the Naval Weapons Center AGM-45 Shrike antiradar missile for suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD).
The Scooter That Never Was Redux
The A4D-6 was a 1963 Douglas proposal for an enlarged/upscaled and considerably more powerful Skyhawk built around the Pratt & Whitney TF30 turbofan engine. Yes…the same engine as would initially power the F-14 Tomcat. Overall airframe improvements were meant to allow the jet to carry a heavier payload over a longer range. This was another design that never made off the drawing board, although Douglas did revise the proposal to compete for the new light attack or VAL competition (won eventually by Vought’s A-7 Corsair II).
The First Humpbacked Scooter
The new A-4F began serving with fleet units in 1967. The A-4E and A-4F were externally and internally similar, with a couple of early deltas. The avionics humpback was initially unique to the Foxtrot but was often retrofitted to the Echo and A-4Ls as well. The A-4F did get nosewheel steering, lift-improving wing spoilers, and an upgraded Escapac 1-C3 ejection seat. An incremental power increase was provided by a J52-P8A/P8B engine. The refueling probes on the A-4Fs were revised to place the plug further outboard away from nose-mounted radar. A-4Es were retrofitted with the curved probe too. The Blue Angels flew slightly modified A-4Fs from 1974 to 1986.
The Scooter as a Fighter?
In the skies over Vietnam, A-4s often sighted North Vietnamese MiG-17s. On paper the MiG-17 and the A-4 were in general similar in many respects. Even so, rules of engagement and primary focus on attack work as opposed to fighter work meant few A-4 pilots ever saw MiGs in their sights. Several A-4s fell to the marauding MiGs, but on May 1st 1967, VA-76 Spirits pilot Lieutenant Commander Theodore Swartz was attacking Kep airfield and managed to shoot down a MiG-17…with a 5 inch Zuni unguided rocket!