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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.

The Douglas XA4D-1 prototype, USN Bureau number 137812, first of 2.960 Skyhawk fighter-bombers. It first flew on 22 June 1954. Via Wikimedia Commons.
The Douglas XA4D-1 prototype, USN Bureau number 137812, first of 2.960 Skyhawk fighter-bombers. It first flew on 22 June 1954. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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’.

A Douglas TA-4J Skyhawk aircraft of training wing TW-3 waits behind the blast deflector for its turn at the catapult as another Skyhawk clears the flight deck of the auxiliary aircraft landing training ship USS Lexington (AVT-16) during pilot carrier training. The Lexington was first commissioned on 17 February 1943. In 1963 she became a training carrier until being decommissioned on 8 November 1991. On 15 June 1992, the ship was donated as a museum and since then operates as the USS Lexington Museum at Corpus Christi (Texas, USA). Date 1 April 1989. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A Douglas TA-4J Skyhawk aircraft of training wing TW-3 waits behind the blast deflector for its turn at the catapult as another Skyhawk clears the flight deck of the auxiliary aircraft landing training ship USS Lexington (AVT-16) during pilot carrier training. The Lexington was first commissioned on 17 February 1943. In 1963 she became a training carrier until being decommissioned on 8 November 1991. On 15 June 1992, the ship was donated as a museum and since then operates as the USS Lexington Museum at Corpus Christi (Texas, USA). Date 1 April 1989. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Operational History

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.

A Douglas A-4E Skyhawk of USN attack squadron VA-44 Hornets showing the thermal shield in different positions. The device was to be used after the delivery of a nuclear weapon, so that the pilot would be protected against the flash of the detonation. It is known that during the Lebanon crisis in 1958 Skyhawks of VA-83 Rampagers aboard the USS Essex (CVA-9), and of VA-34 Blue Blasters aboard the USS Saratoga (CVA-60) were armed with nuclear weapons and standing by for any upcoming 'emergency'. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A Douglas A-4E Skyhawk of USN attack squadron VA-44 Hornets showing the thermal shield in different positions. The device was to be used after the delivery of a nuclear weapon, so that the pilot would be protected against the flash of the detonation. It is known that during the Lebanon crisis in 1958 Skyhawks of VA-83 Rampagers aboard the USS Essex (CVA-9), and of VA-34 Blue Blasters aboard the USS Saratoga (CVA-60) were armed with nuclear weapons and standing by for any upcoming ’emergency’. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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 pair of U.S. Navy McDonnell Douglas A-4F Skyhawk aircraft of composite fighter squadron VFC-13 Saints, Reserve Carrier Air Wing 30 (CVWR-30), taxi to the runway prior to an air combat maneuvers training mission against aircraft of Carrier Air Wing 17 (CVW-17) on 14 June 1993 at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada (USA). The A-4F nearer to the camera is BuNo 155034 which was retired to AMARC as 3A0755 on 29 March 1994. Date 14 June 1993. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A pair of U.S. Navy McDonnell Douglas A-4F Skyhawk aircraft of composite fighter squadron VFC-13 Saints, Reserve Carrier Air Wing 30 (CVWR-30), taxi to the runway prior to an air combat maneuvers training mission against aircraft of Carrier Air Wing 17 (CVW-17) on 14 June 1993 at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada (USA). The A-4F nearer to the camera is BuNo 155034 which was retired to AMARC as 3A0755 on 29 March 1994. Date 14 June 1993. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Douglas A-4F Skyhawk 154983 of the Blue Angels USN aerobatic team at NAS Pensacola in 1975. Date 4 August 1975. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Douglas A-4F Skyhawk 154983 of the Blue Angels USN aerobatic team at NAS Pensacola in 1975. Date 4 August 1975. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

A Douglas A4D-2 Skyhawk (BuNo 144919) of attack squadron VA-81 Crusaders, Carrier Air Group Eight (CVG-8) about to launch from the port forward catapult of the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CVA-59) in 1962. In the same year the A4D-2 was redesignated A-4B, VA-81 was renamed Sunliners on 3 April 1963, and CVG-8 was redesignated Attack Carrier Air Wing Eight (CVW-8) on 20 December 1963. The aircraft is carrying a AGM-12 Bullpup missile on the centerline station. Date August or September 1962. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A Douglas A4D-2 Skyhawk (BuNo 144919) of attack squadron VA-81 Crusaders, Carrier Air Group Eight (CVG-8) about to launch from the port forward catapult of the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CVA-59) in 1962. In the same year the A4D-2 was redesignated A-4B, VA-81 was renamed Sunliners on 3 April 1963, and CVG-8 was redesignated Attack Carrier Air Wing Eight (CVW-8) on 20 December 1963. The aircraft is carrying a AGM-12 Bullpup missile on the centerline station. Date August or September 1962. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Current Operators

  • Argentine Air Force
A-4AR Fightinghawk (Skyhawk) of the Argentine Air Force. Date 2006. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A-4AR Fightinghawk (Skyhawk) of the Argentine Air Force. Date 2006. Via Wikimedia Commons.
  • Brazilian Navy
A Douglas A-4KU Skyhawk embarked on the Brazilian aircraft carrier Sao Paulo (A12) performs a touch and go landing aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) on 8 June 2004 during the "Summer Pulse 2004" exercise in South American waters. In 1997 Brazil negotiated a $70 million contract for purchase of twenty A-4KU and three TA-4KU Skyhawks from Kuwait. These were refurbished and redesignated AF-1 and AF-1A in Brazilian Service. They are operated by the Brazilian Navy fighter squadron VF-1 Falcões (Hawks). Date 8 June 2004. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A Douglas A-4KU Skyhawk embarked on the Brazilian aircraft carrier Sao Paulo (A12) performs a touch and go landing aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) on 8 June 2004 during the “Summer Pulse 2004” exercise in South American waters. In 1997 Brazil negotiated a $70 million contract for purchase of twenty A-4KU and three TA-4KU Skyhawks from Kuwait. These were refurbished and redesignated AF-1 and AF-1A in Brazilian Service. They are operated by the Brazilian Navy fighter squadron VF-1 Falcões (Hawks). Date 8 June 2004. Via Wikimedia Commons.
  • Republic of Singapore Air Force
A Republic of Singapore Air Force Douglas A-4SU Skyhawk aircraft takes off at Korat AB, Thailand for a mission in support of Exercise COPE TIGER '02 on 16 Jan 2002. Cope Tiger is an annual, multinational exercise in the Asia-Pacific region which promotes closer relations and enables air force units in the region to sharpen air combat skills and practice interoperability with US Forces. Note the empty multiple ejector rack (MER) mounted on the centerline hardpoint. Date 16 January 2002. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A Republic of Singapore Air Force Douglas A-4SU Skyhawk aircraft takes off at Korat AB, Thailand for a mission in support of Exercise COPE TIGER ’02 on 16 Jan 2002. Cope Tiger is an annual, multinational exercise in the Asia-Pacific region which promotes closer relations and enables air force units in the region to sharpen air combat skills and practice interoperability with US Forces. Note the empty multiple ejector rack (MER) mounted on the centerline hardpoint. Date 16 January 2002. Via Wikimedia Commons.
  • United States (various private companies)

Former Operators

  • Argentine Navy
Argentine Navy A-4Q Skyhawk 0655/3-A-202 in 2007. Via Wikimedia Commons
Argentine Navy A-4Q Skyhawk 0655/3-A-202 in 2007. Via Wikimedia Commons
  • Royal Australian Navy
A Royal Australian Navy Douglas A-4G Skyhawk lands on the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne (R21) in 1980. This Skyhawk was originally delivered to the U.S. Navy as A-4F BuNo 155063. It served in Vietnam on the USS Ranger (CVA-61) with attack squadron VA-155 Silver Foxes from 26 October 1968 to 17 May 1969 (Attack Carrier Air Wing Two (CVW-2)/NE-416), and on the USS Hancock (CVA-19) with VA-212 Rampant Raiders from 02 August 1969 to 15 April 1970. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A Royal Australian Navy Douglas A-4G Skyhawk lands on the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne (R21) in 1980. This Skyhawk was originally delivered to the U.S. Navy as A-4F BuNo 155063. It served in Vietnam on the USS Ranger (CVA-61) with attack squadron VA-155 Silver Foxes from 26 October 1968 to 17 May 1969 (Attack Carrier Air Wing Two (CVW-2)/NE-416), and on the USS Hancock (CVA-19) with VA-212 Rampant Raiders from 02 August 1969 to 15 April 1970. Via Wikimedia Commons.
  • Indonesian Air Force
  • Israeli Air Force
A-4N 340 of the Israeli Air Force, dusk June 26, 2008, Hatzerim AFB<br /> Date 26 June 2008. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A-4N 340 of the Israeli Air Force, dusk June 26, 2008, Hatzerim AFB

Date 26 June 2008. Via Wikimedia Commons.

  • Kuwait Air Force
Some 16 McDonnell Douglas A-4KU Skyhawk aircraft of the Kuwaiti Air Force are serviced on a flight line in preparation for a mission during Operation Desert Storm on 13 Feb 1991. Date 13 February 1991. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Some 16 McDonnell Douglas A-4KU Skyhawk aircraft of the Kuwaiti Air Force are serviced on a flight line in preparation for a mission during Operation Desert Storm on 13 Feb 1991. Date 13 February 1991. Via Wikimedia Commons.
  • Royal Malaysian Air Force
  • Royal New Zealand Air Force
  • United States Navy
  • United States Marine Corps

Variants

There are far too many variants to list here, although some of the major versions are show below. (See Wikipedia for a comprehensive list.)

A-4A

Initial production version. 166 built.

A-4B

Strengthened, added air to air refuelling capability, improved navigation and flight control systems. 542 built.

A-4C

Designed for night/adverse weather operations. 638 built.

Two Douglas A-4C Skyhawk (BuNos. 149551 and 149570) of Attack Squadron 146 (VA-146) "Blue Diamonds" fly past the anti-submarine aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge (CVS-33). VA-146 was deployed as part of Carrier Air Wing 14 (CVW-14) on board the USS Constellation (CVA-64) to the Western Pacific and Vietnam from 5 May 1964 to 1 February 1965. Planes of CVW-14 took part in the August 1964 strikes against North Vietnamese PT-boat bases as a result of the Tonkin Gulf Incident. Aircraft BuNo. 149551 was later converted to the A-4L standard and in 1982 sold to Malaysia as a A-4PTM. Date 12 August 1964. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Two Douglas A-4C Skyhawk (BuNos. 149551 and 149570) of Attack Squadron 146 (VA-146) “Blue Diamonds” fly past the anti-submarine aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge (CVS-33). VA-146 was deployed as part of Carrier Air Wing 14 (CVW-14) on board the USS Constellation (CVA-64) to the Western Pacific and Vietnam from 5 May 1964 to 1 February 1965. Planes of CVW-14 took part in the August 1964 strikes against North Vietnamese PT-boat bases as a result of the Tonkin Gulf Incident. Aircraft BuNo. 149551 was later converted to the A-4L standard and in 1982 sold to Malaysia as a A-4PTM. Date 12 August 1964. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A-4E

A major upgrade with new engine, stronger airframe, vastly better avionics. 499 built.

A U.S. Navy Douglas A-4E Skyhawk aircraft (BuNo 151194) from Attack Squadron VA-164 Ghost Riders en route to a target in North Vietnam. VA-164 was deployed on board the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CVA-34) as part of Carrier Air Wing Sixteen (CVW-16) to Vietnam from 16 June 1967 to 31 January 1968. The aircraft was piloted by Cmdr. William F. Span, executive officer of VA-164 and was armed with six Mk 82 500 lb (227 kg) bombs and two AGM-12 Bullpup missiles. 151194 is today on display at Pacific Coast Air Museum, California (USA), painted in the colours of Marine Attack Squadron VMA-131 Diamondbacks. Date 21 November 1967. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A U.S. Navy Douglas A-4E Skyhawk aircraft (BuNo 151194) from Attack Squadron VA-164 Ghost Riders en route to a target in North Vietnam. VA-164 was deployed on board the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CVA-34) as part of Carrier Air Wing Sixteen (CVW-16) to Vietnam from 16 June 1967 to 31 January 1968. The aircraft was piloted by Cmdr. William F. Span, executive officer of VA-164 and was armed with six Mk 82 500 lb (227 kg) bombs and two AGM-12 Bullpup missiles. 151194 is today on display at Pacific Coast Air Museum, California (USA), painted in the colours of Marine Attack Squadron VMA-131 Diamondbacks. Date 21 November 1967. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A-4F

Refinement of A-4E. Extra avionics in dorsal hump/spine. More powerful engine. 147 built.

Douglas A-4F Skyhawk aircraft of Attack Carrier Air Wing 21 (CVW-21) (tailcode "NP") are parked on the flight deck of the attack aircraft carrier USS Hancock (CVA-19), armed for a mission over Vietnam on 25 May 1972. Skyhawks NP-501, -505, and -510 belong to attack squadron VA-55 Warhorses, NP-316 to VA-212 Rampant Raiders, NP-412 and NP-416 to VA-164 Ghost Riders. The aircraft are armed with Mk 82 (500 lb/227 kg) and Mk 83 (1000 lb/454 kg) bombs. Date 25 May 1972. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Douglas A-4F Skyhawk aircraft of Attack Carrier Air Wing 21 (CVW-21) (tailcode “NP”) are parked on the flight deck of the attack aircraft carrier USS Hancock (CVA-19), armed for a mission over Vietnam on 25 May 1972. Skyhawks NP-501, -505, and -510 belong to attack squadron VA-55 Warhorses, NP-316 to VA-212 Rampant Raiders, NP-412 and NP-416 to VA-164 Ghost Riders. The aircraft are armed with Mk 82 (500 lb/227 kg) and Mk 83 (1000 lb/454 kg) bombs. Date 25 May 1972. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A-4G

8 aircraft for the Australian Navy.

A-4H

90 aircraft for the Israeli Air Force.

A-4K

10 aircraft for the New Zealand Air Force.

A Royal New Zealand Air Force Douglas A-4K Sykhawk (s/n NZ6201) from No. 75 Squadron on the flight line at Clark Air Base, Philippines, during the air combat training exercise "Cope Thunder '83-1" on 1 November 1982. The A-4K NZ6201 was produced with the U.S. Navy BuNo 157904. Completed on 10 November 1969, it arrived in Auckland (New Zealand) on 17 May 1970 aboard the USS Okinawa (LPH-3). It was finally retired at Woodbourne (NZ) for storage on 17 December 2001. Date 1 November 1982. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A Royal New Zealand Air Force Douglas A-4K Sykhawk (s/n NZ6201) from No. 75 Squadron on the flight line at Clark Air Base, Philippines, during the air combat training exercise “Cope Thunder ’83-1” on 1 November 1982. The A-4K NZ6201 was produced with the U.S. Navy BuNo 157904. Completed on 10 November 1969, it arrived in Auckland (New Zealand) on 17 May 1970 aboard the USS Okinawa (LPH-3). It was finally retired at Woodbourne (NZ) for storage on 17 December 2001. Date 1 November 1982. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A-4M

Version built just for the Marine Corps. Bigger cockpit. More powerful engine. Various minor improvements. 158 built.

A McDonnell Douglas A-4M Skyhawk (BuNo 159483) of Marine attack squadron VMA-332 "Fighting Gamecocks" parked on the flight line at Naval Air Station Dallas (Texas, USA) on 1 Feb 1988. Date 1 February 1988. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A McDonnell Douglas A-4M Skyhawk (BuNo 159483) of Marine attack squadron VMA-332 “Fighting Gamecocks” parked on the flight line at Naval Air Station Dallas (Texas, USA) on 1 Feb 1988. Date 1 February 1988. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A-4N

117 more aircraft for the Israeli Air Force, modified from surplus A-4Ms.

Videos

Specifications

Make Douglas Aircraft Company
Model A-4F Skyhawk
Aircraft Type Carrier-based aircraft
Role Light Attack
Crew complement Pilot, two seat versions were also produced
First flight 22 June 1954
Retired USMC 1998, US Navy 2003
Number produced 2,960
Unit cost USD $2.8 to $3.8 million
Maximum weight 11,136 kg
Powerplant(s) One Pratt & Whitney J52 non-afterburning turbojet engine
Wingspan 26′ 6″
Length 40′ 3″
Height 15′ 0″
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
Service ceiling 42,250′
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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