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Douglas A-4 Skyhawk: That Little Attack Jet That Could…and Did

Heinemann’s Hot Rod Was Diminutive in Stature But Still Hugely Capable

VC-1 TA-4J. Official US Navy photograph

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.

Early production A4D-1. Official US Navy photograph

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.

A4D-2 Skyhawks at MCAS Yuma. Official US Navy photograph

When a B Was 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.

VA-72 A4D-2 launching from USS Franklin D Roosevelt. Official US navy photograph

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.

A VA-112 A-4C trapping aboard USS Kitty Hawk. Official US Navy photograph

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.

A-4C of VA-113 trapping aboard USS Kitty Hawk. Official US Navy photograph

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).

VA-55 A-4E. Official US Navy photograph

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).

A4D-5 (A-4E) on the left and A4D-6 on the right size comparison. Official US Navy photograph

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.

VA-45 A-4F. Official US Navy photograph

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!

VA-212 A-4F. Official US Navy photograph

The Marines and the Mike

Designed specifically for the Marine Corps, the A-4M Skyhawk II variant was the ultimate American Scooter. Powered by the Pratt & Whitney J52-P408 turbojet engine, the Mike featured a larger canopy with improved visibility, a ribbon-type drag chute, and a squared off vertical stabilizer with identification friend or foe (IFF) antennae mounted on top. The Skyhawk II entered service with VMA-324 Devildogs at MCAS Yuma in Arizona during April of 1971. Most of the A-4Ms later received improved generators to run all of the improved electronics including head up displays (HUDs), improved ECM “black boxes”, and a nose mounted laser spot tracking system.

VMA-324 A-4M. Official US Navy photograph

The Super Fox

While A-4Fs continued to serve with Naval and Marine Corps Reserve squadrons, they were gradually being replaced and demand for their services at the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School (TOP GUN) and elsewhere as adversary aircraft was on the rise. Adversary pilots had been imitating MiGs while flying Scooters for many years. The Super Fox was a triumph of fiscal responsibility. These A-4Fs were equipped with the beefier J52-P408 engines, stripped of all extra weight, and turned into Hot Rod Tinker Toys. The jets were far less expensive to operate and maintain than the Phantoms and Tomcats whose tails they were regularly waxing during dissimilar air combat training (DACT). VF-43 Challengers, VF-45 Blackbirds, VF-101 Grim Reapers, VF-126 Bandits, VFC-12 Fighting Omars, VFC-13 Saints, and many more Composite squadrons used A-4Fs and some A-4Ms as stand-ins for MiGs.

Fight’s on! Official US Navy photograph

The Scooter as a Fighter Redux?

The Israelis flew several different models of the Skyhawk series during several conflicts in the Middle East. They often found themselves taking on MiG-17s. They often found themselves losing to MiG-17s too, but more often to heavy and accurate anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and surface to air missiles (SAMs). A-4 pilot Colonel Ezra Dotan used pod-fired air-to-ground rockets to down one MiG-17 and while yanking and banking down low with another MiG, he sawed a wing off another one with his 30 millimeter cannons causing the MiG to meet its demise.

H&MS-13 TA-4F. Official US Navy photograph

Double the Fun

In order to create a two place Skyhawk, Douglas built a 28 inch plug into the A-4E between the normal cockpit and the fuselage fuel tank, which was reduced in size somewhat to accommodate the change.  Pratt & Whitney’s J52-P8A/P8B turbojet engine powered the TA-4F. The jet was also equipped with nosewheel steering, lift-improving wing spoilers, and a pair of Escapac 1C-3 ejection seats. TA-4Fs began service with VA-125 Rough Raiders at NAS Lemoore in California in 1966. Some of them were modified with additional mission equipment and pressed into service as Marine Corps fast forward air controllers (FastFACs) in Vietnam. Four TA-4Fs were modified to carry electronic warfare equipment and served with Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron THREE THREE (VAQ-33) Firebirds of the Fleet Electronic Warfare Support Group (FEWSG) as electronic aggressors under the designation EA-4F.

EA-4F of VAQ-33 flies with KA-3B of VAQ-34. Official US Navy photograph

Earning Navy Wings of Gold

Thousands of student naval aviators finished their training flying TA-4J Skyhawk advanced jet trainers. The TA-4J was essentially a TA-4F without the weapons systems or the ability to carry a buddy pod for fuel transfer capability. The J model was powered by a less beefy but still spry J52-P6 engine. The first TA-4Js entered service with Training Squadron TWO ONE (VT-21) Fighting Redhawks at NAS Kingsville in Texas during 1969. Subsequently about 100 of the original TA-4Fs were modified to TA-4J specifications, although many of these aircraft retained their J52-P8A/P8B engines. In addition to training student naval aviators, both TA-4Js and TA-4Fs flew with many of the same aggressor units as the single seat Skyhawks did.

TA-4J aboard USS Lexington. Official US Navy photograph

Marine Corps Two Seaters

23 TA-4Fs were reworked at Naval Air Rework Facility (NARF) Pensacola for the Marine Corps. The Leathernecks needed an updated FastFAC aircraft, and this new configuration was designated OA-4M. TA-4Fs were modified with the avionics and most of the mission equipment found in the A-4M. Originally the OA-4M was to be powered by the P&W J52-P408 but ended up being pushed around by the J52-P8A/P8B from the TA-4F instead. The two place OA-4Ms were humpbacked and sported the curved refueling probe first seen on the A-4F. OA-4Ms were operated primarily by Marine Corps Headquarters and Maintenance (H&MS) squadrons. Many were sold off to other governments when Marine Corps requirements changed and they were no longer needed by the Marines.

H&MS-32 OA-4M. Official US Navy photograph

Every Good Thing Eventually Comes to and End

On February 27th 1979, 25 years of Skyhawk production came to an end when the US Navy accepted A-4M Bureau Number (BuNo) 160264 from McDonnell-Douglas. 2,960 Skyhawks had rolled off the line during that time. The first squadron to fly the final Scooter off the line was VMA-331 Bumblebees. 160264 also spent time assigned to the Naval Air Test Center (NATC) at NAS Patuxent River in Maryland and with VX-5 Vampires at NAWC China Lake in California before retiring with VMA-124 Whistling Death at NAS Memphis. The jet now resides at MCAS Miramar wearing her final VMA-124 colors. VC-8 Redtails retired the last operational American Skyhawks during 2003. But look on the bright side…there are more privately-owned civilian Scooters now than ever before!

The last Skyhawk in flight. Official US Navy photograph

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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