Military jet bomber designs during the 1950’s ran the gamut from large and complex multi-engine supersonic weapons systems to small, simple, and subsonic craft. When Douglas Aircraft Company designer Ed Heinemann and his team set out to produce a U.S. Navy carrier borne strike aircraft, they agreed upon the smaller and simpler design spectrum for their A-4 Skyhawk. The single seat, single-engine jet’s diminutive size concealed a high subsonic speed, decent range and a large weapons load, leading to nicknames such as “Heinemann’s Hot Rod” ,the “Bantam Bomber”, and the “Scooter”. Later known as McDonnell Douglas, the company’s initial YA4D-1 prototype first flew on June 22, 1954. After 25 years of production, 2960 airframes were ultimately produced. Although thousands of A-4s have been lost or scrapped over the six decades since the prototype flew, some of the aircraft are still relevant in combat strike or trainer roles with several of the world’s armed forces. Some of the latest and most formidable airframes built are being resurrected as adversary trainers by a civilian company in 2013, emphasizing the usefulness of the design multiple generations after it was first blueprinted.
Various versions of the Skyhawk served with U.S military branches between 1954 and 2003. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, and their respective Reserve squadrons, utilized the original A-4A/B/C versions of the attack jet equipped with Wright J-65 engines and added improvements to these early models, such as ejection seats with wider envelopes of operation, terrain following radar, and plumbing for in-flight air refueling. Next, the A-4E/F family incorporated Pratt and Whitney J-52 engines, providing an increase in thrust. The noticeable hump along the spine of the fuselage was introduced in the -F series, which housed additional avionics. The Marine Corps fielded additional versions of the Skyhawk, including the single seat A-4M Skyhawk II and twin seat A-4F and OA-4M observation/Forward Air Control variants. Finally, hundreds of TA-4F and TA-4J twin seat trainers were built to fulfill high performance jet training duties for the Navy and Marines. Over the years, some earlier model Skyhawks have been rebuilt and heavily modified with newer equipment for added capabilities and renamed, such as those A-4Cs upgraded into the A-4L series. Many older airframes were parked in the “boneyard” at AMARC in Tucson AZ and gave up parts so others could continue to fly too.
Utilized heavily throughout most of the Vietnam War, Navy and Marine A-4 front line attack aircraft were replaced by the late 1970s with the new LTV A-7 Corsair II or AV-8 Harrier jets. Some single seat airframes were later used as adversary trainers (Naval Fighter Weapons School – TOP GUN) and chase aircraft for test purposes through 1993. The Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron utilized A-4Fs from 1974 through 1986. In Marine use, the upgraded A-4M Skyhawk II (and twin seat OA-4M FAC jet) were assigned to Marine and Marine Reserve squadrons; VMA-131 retired the last attack Skyhawks in 1994. Twin seat TA-4s outlasted the single-seaters in Navy use, as the TA-4J was an important trainer until the T-45 Goshawk replaced it. The final utility TA-4J airframes were retired from the Navy’s Fleet Composite Squadron VC-8 in 2003.
Foreign customers for the Skyhawk who have since retired the type in service include Kuwait, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia. When Australia ended aircraft carrier operations of their A-4G aircraft, they were sold to the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF); many were upgraded to the A-4K/TA-4K version. The RNZAF ultimately retired them in 2001. When Kuwaiti Skyhawks were retired, many became Brazilian AF-1/AF-1A jets. Some Israeli A-4s became Indonesian Air Force property until they were retired in 2002. Countries still operating versions of the A-4 today include Argentina, whose Skyhawks are known as A-4AR Fightinghawks. Brazilian versions, known as AF-1 and AF-1As are operated from their aircraft carrier Sao Paulo. Israel and Singapore operate some A-4s in training or support roles, but are withdrawing the type rapidly.
To match the proven Skyhawk airframe with some of the newest avionics, three countries chose to launch upgrade programs to keep their Skyhawks relevant into the new millennium. Singapore modified many of their aircraft into A-4SU and TA-4SU Super Skyhawks, with de-rated GE F404 engines and new countermeasures equipment. Argentine Air Force A-4AR and OA-4AR Fightinghawks have Westinghouse/Northrop Grumman APG-66 radar, a MIL-STD 1553B databus, and an on-board oxygen generating system. In 1986, New Zealand began to upgrade a group of their aircraft with state of the art Westinghouse APG-66 radar (mainly for surface tracking) plus a MIL-STD 1553B databus to allow for modern/”smart” weapons. The databus allows for carriage of certain jamming pods and other countermeasures equipment too.
In early 2013, there are three civilian companies that operate the A-4 Skyhawk for various training and test roles. BAE Systems operates a quartet of former Israeli A-4N Skyhawks as target tugs for the German Air Force; these jets are based in Germany. Advanced Training Systems International (ATSI) has operated a number of A-4N and TA-4J Skyhawks form an Arizona base for more than a decade, providing dissimilar air combat training and flight training on a contract basis. The newest, and most ambitious company is Draken International, based at Lakeland Florida. Draken had been operating a trio of leased A-4L Skyhawks from Nellis AFB during late 2012, but has taken a giant step forward by finalizing a large acquisition of more Skyhawks recently.
Draken International has bought eight single seat A-4K and three twin-seat TA-4K jets, plus a large amount of spares, from the New Zealand government. After retirement from service in 2001, the fleet of jets were put into long-term storage in favorable conditions until a buyer was found. Some airframes went to museums, but the lot of 11 aircraft, after a lengthy process, was attained by Draken in 2012. The first Draken TA-4K was publically unveiled and flew during the Royal New Zealand Air Force Heritage Day on April 10, 2013 at Lakeland. Others sit inside a hangar in pieces; the plan is to inspected and restore them to flying condition.
The A-4Ks offer some unique capabilities that will undoubtedly enhance their use as adversary trainers and test aircraft. With their fully operational buddy store refueling pods, the A-4s will be able to fly missions well in excess of three hours, or roughly twice as long as the norm today. No other contractor has that tactical capability. The aircraft will be able to utilize most military-grade equipment used in front line service. The APG-66 radar has approximately the same capabilities as that of an early to mid-life version of an F-16 Fighting Falcon. And many Draken pilots have extensive military service records with test pilot training and/or other specialized roles that will meet the needs of customers… both government and civilian. The aircraft will be quite cost effective too, when comparing the cost of, say an hour of F-16 flying time versus an hour of A-4K time. And, there are performance capabilities that the A-4s have that are still very relevant in the air-to-air combat arena, such as slow speed flight and turning radius.
There were some very specific conditions placed upon Draken when the New Zealand and U.S. Governments agreed to the purchase of these former warplanes. These won’t be seen at air shows, nor will they be allowed to perform aerobatics for spectators to see. But the Skyhawks will be providing certain valuable capabilities to government and civilian customers almost 60 years after the first prototype flew. Douglas’ A-4 Skyhawk continues to be a valuable aircraft decades since its inception.