Douglas A-4 Skyhawk

Operational History:

United States

The Skyhawk proved to be one of the most popular US naval aircraft exports 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 USN 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.

The US Navy began removing the aircraft from its front line squadrons in 1967, with the last retiring in 1975.

The Marines would pass on the Navy's replacement, the A-7 Corsair II, instead keeping Skyhawks in service, and ordering the new A-4M. The last USMC Skyhawk was delivered in 1979, and were used until the mid-1980s before they were replaced by the equally small, but more versatile STOVL AV-8 Harrier II.

The Diamondbacks of VMA-131,Marine Aircraft Group 49 retired their last four OA-4Ms on 22 June 1994. LtCol. 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 until 1999.

The A-4's nimble performance also made it suitable to replace the F-4 Phantom II when the Navy downsized their aircraft for the Blue Angels demonstration team until the availability of the F/A-18 Hornet in the 1980s. The last US Navy Skyhawks, TA-4J models belonging to composite squadron VC-8, remained in military use for target-towing and as adversary aircraft for combat training at Naval Air Station Roosevelt Roads. They were officially retired on 3 May 2003.

Skyhawks were well loved by their crews for being tough and agile. These attributes, along with its 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 US, at least three other nations used A-4 Skyhawks in combat.

Vietnam War

Skyhawks were the Navy's primary light bomber over both North Vietnam during the early years of the Vietnam War while the USAF was flying the supersonic F-105 Thunderchief. They would be 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 US bombs on the country. Notable pilots like Lt. (Jg) Everett Alvarez, (Cdr) Hugh Magee, John McCain, and Vice Admiral James Stockdale flew the Skyhawk. On 1 May 1967, an A-4C Skyhawk piloted by LCDR Theodore R. Swartz from VA-76, based on the carrier USS Bon Homme Richard, shot down a Soviet-built Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 with an unguided Zuni rocket in the Skyhawk's only air-to-air victory of the war.

The first loss of an A-4 occurred on 5 August 1964, when LTJG (USN) Everett Alvarez, VA-144, flying from the USS Constellation, was shot down while attacking enemy torpedo boats in North Vietnam. LTJG Alvarez safely ejected after being hit by 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 to be lost in the Vietnam War occurred on 26 September 1972, when USMC pilot Capt. James P. Walsh, VMA-211, flying from his land base at Bien Hoa, 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 Capt. 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. Capt. 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. Capt. Walsh was the last US Marine to be taken prisoner during the war, and was released as a POW on 12 February 1973.

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 ten 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.

LCDR John McCain flew A-4s, once having to clamber out over the refueling probe of a Skyhawk stationed on the carrier USS Forrestal in order to escape a devastating flight deck fire on 29 July 1967. The fire was caused by a "rogue" Zuni rocket, and would take the lives of 134 sailors. John McCain, then age 30, escaped from his jet by climbing out of the cockpit, walking down to the nose of the aircraft, and jumping off the refueling probe. Video tape shot aboard the Forrestal shows McCain narrowly escaping the explosion. Three months later he was shot down over Hanoi, while flying another Skyhawk off the Oriskany, and was a prisoner of war for over five years, primarily at the "Hanoi Hilton".

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Wikipedia: A-4 Skyhawk