Designed in the early 1950s, the Douglas Skyhawk was widely operated, in production for an incredible twenty-five years, could carry the same load as a WW2 Boeing B-17 and is still in service today with various operators around the world.
Douglas A-4 Skyhawk
The Skyhawk is relatively light, with a maximum takeoff weight of only eleven metric tonnes. It is a subsonic, single seat, carrier capable attack aircraft. It was used in the Vietnam War, Yom Kippur War and the Falklands War in the early 1980s.
Export customers for the A-4 included Israel, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Kuwait, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, Canada and Germany. In US service the A-4 was employed by the US Navy and the US Marine Corps.
Design and Development
The Douglas Aircraft Company produced many iconic commercial and military aircraft, among the latter the A-1 Skyraider, a piston powered ground attack aircraft par excellence.
However the US Navy wanted a jet-powered replacement – something with a similar war-load, but much faster. They issued a contract to Douglas in June 1952 and the first prototype flew two years later, in June 1954.
Douglas designer Ed Heinemann decided to keep things simple and go with a design that was small and light. He knew that greater weight invariably led to design complexity, higher cost and longer delays.
His proposal weighed half of the maximum design weight specified by the Navy, but could nevertheless meet all of their requirements. His design centred around a small delta wing which needed no folding mechanism, thus saving weight and cost.
And because the aeroplane was small, it was also cheap, with the first 500 examples costing only $860,000 – well under the maximum acceptable cost of $1 million. The small Skyhawk was nimble and speedy thus earning nicknames such as ‘Scooter’ and the ‘Bantam Bomber’.
The aircraft had a single small turbojet engine, a cruciform (cross-shaped) tail, small delta wing and tricycle undercarriage. Two 20mm cannons were installed, one in each wing root. The ingenious leading edge slats drooped under gravity as dynamic air pressure reduced, thus obviating the need for actuators and saving even more weight.
Heinemann saved further weight in the design of the landing gear, main wing, rudder and engine housing, while at the same time actually increasing the strength of those components. The A-4 was exemplar of the benefits of keeping it simple and avoiding complexity with its attendant – and compounding – weight and cost increases.
Initial deliveries of the Skyhawk commenced in late 1956 to both the US Navy and the Marines light attack squadrons. It was also used by the Naval Reserve.
The A-4 Skyhawk was the Navy’s primary light attack fighter from the early days of the Vietnam war. It could deliver a wide range of ordnance including iron bombs, nuclear bombs, missiles, mines, rockets, and of course, shells from it’s 20mm cannons.
Later in the War it was joined by the very capable LTV A-7 Corsair II, which was used by both the Navy and the Air Force. The Marines briefly considered, but discounted, using the Corsair II and instead ordered a special version of the Skyhawk – the A-4M – for their own use.
In air to air combat during the conflict, the A-4 shot down one MiG-17 and in turn a MiG-17 shot down one Skyhawk. Although the A-4 could carry the AIM-9 Sidewinder, it was used only to defend itself while on attack missions.
A grand total of 362 A-4s were lost to all causes in Vietnam with the breakdown being 32 lost to SAMs and one in aerial combat. The Navy lost 271 A-4s (195 in combat) while the Marines lost 91.
The last of these A-4s were delivered to the Marines in 1979 and they were used until the mid 1980s, by which time they were using the AV-8 Harrier II. The final Marine Air Reserve Skyhawks were finally retired in 1994.
Prior to transitioning to Hornets in the mid 1980, the US Navy display team had operated A-4 Skyhawks from 1974, choosing it for it’s nimble performance and precise handling.
The Navy gradually began removing Skyhawks from their front-line squadrons in 1967 and this process took until 1976 to complete. TA-4J two seaters continued to be used as a jet transition trainer, advanced jet trainer, instrument trainer and adversary trainer. Single seat A-4s were also used in non-combat roles in squadrons around the world to provide training and other services.
It was only in 1999 that the final Navy Skyhawks retired. These were modified F-4E/Fs that were lighter, had guns removed and the dorsal hump removed. They had been used at the Navy Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun) for Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT). Fans of the movie ‘Top Gun’ will recall duels between Skyhawks and Tomcats over the desert.
Skyhawks were exported in large numbers, in part due to the low cost, good performance, reliability and the flexibility of the platform. Unlike larger planes such as the Phantom, the A-4 could land on smaller aircraft carriers, thus finding favour with a number of foreign navies.
2,960 A-4 Skyhawks were produced between 1954 and 1979. The last US Skyhawks in military service were operated by the ‘Redtails’ of Composite Squadron Eight (VC-8), flying the TA-4J out of Ofstie Field, Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico.
They performed utility missions in support of fleet operations, close air support training and adversary training. They were retired in May 2003, although a number of A-4s are operated by several US companies performing similar roles for the military. The A-4 continues in operational use with Argentina, Brazil and Singapore.
- Argentine Air Force
- Brazilian Navy
- Republic of Singapore Air Force
- United States (various private companies)
- Argentine Navy
- Royal Australian Navy
- Indonesian Air Force
- Israeli Air Force
- Kuwait Air Force
- Royal Malaysian Air Force
- Royal New Zealand Air Force
- United States Navy
- United States Marine Corps
There are far too many variants to list here, although some of the major versions are show below. (See Wikipedia for a comprehensive list.)
Initial production version. 166 built.
Strengthened, added air to air refuelling capability, improved navigation and flight control systems. 542 built.
Designed for night/adverse weather operations. 638 built.
A major upgrade with new engine, stronger airframe, vastly better avionics. 499 built.
Refinement of A-4E. Extra avionics in dorsal hump/spine. More powerful engine. 147 built.
8 aircraft for the Australian Navy.
90 aircraft for the Israeli Air Force.
10 aircraft for the New Zealand Air Force.
Version built just for the Marine Corps. Bigger cockpit. More powerful engine. Various minor improvements. 158 built.
117 more aircraft for the Israeli Air Force, modified from surplus A-4Ms.
|Make||Douglas Aircraft Company|
|Aircraft Type||Carrier-based aircraft|
|Crew complement||Pilot, two seat versions were also produced|
|First flight||22 June 1954|
|Retired||USMC 1998, US Navy 2003|
|Unit cost||USD $2.8 to $3.8 million|
|Maximum weight||11,136 kg|
|Powerplant(s)||One Pratt & Whitney J52 non-afterburning turbojet engine|
|Armament||Four 20mm cannon, AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, rockets, missiles, iron bombs, nuclear bombs|
|Payload||9,900 lb or ordnance|
|Range||1,700 nautical miles|
|Combat radius||625 nautical miles|
|Cruise speed||Not applicable|
|Maximum speed||585 knots|
|Claim to fame||Was so good, it was in production for 25 years|
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