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A4D (A-4) Skyhawk Variants

By the early 1950s, jet power had matured to the point where the Navy became interested in using it for an attack aircraft. At that time, the AD Skyraider was the Navy's premier VA plane. The A4D Skyhawk (re-designated A-4) was the successor of the AD-1 Skyraider. Interdiction and close air support was what the aircraft was designed to do by the Douglas Company's aeronautical engineer, Mr. Ed Heinemann.

The Skyhawk was designed at a time when the complexity, weight, and cost of combat aircraft were escalating at an alarming rate. Under the supervision of designer Edward H. Heinemann, an intensive effort was made during the design and development of the aircraft to keep it light and uncomplicated. The effort paid off so well that the first version of the Skyhawk had a gross weight of only about 15,000 pounds. Growth in capability resulted in the increase in gross weight to 18,311 pounds for the A-4E. The light weight of the aircraft caused it to have at least two appellations: "The Bantam Bomber" and "Heinemann's Hotrod." The long production life of the Skyhawk, together with its widespread use in a variety of roles, attests to the basic soundness of the original design and its potential for growth and adaption to differing requirements.

Designed as a light naval attack aircraft capable of delivering a nuclear weapon, the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk (A4D in the old Navy nomenclature) made its initial flight on 22 June 1954. When the last aircraft of this type rolled off the production line in February 1979, a total of 2096 units had been produced in a remarkably long 25-year production history. These ubiquitous aircraft have been in the military inventories of nine different countries, one being the United States, and have seen action in numerous world trouble spots including Vietnam, the Middle East, and the Falkland Islands where they served with the Argentine forces. Although retired from United States Navy fleet use in 1976, the aircraft was still used extensively by various elements of the Navy and Marine Corps for training and utility purposes. The A-4 was also flown by the famous Navy Blue Angels exhibition team.

Some 2,096 A-4s were built of which 555 were 2-seat variants. Approximately 15 variants of the A-4 were produced during its long production life. Although primarily a single-place aircraft, the Skyhawk has also been produced in a two-place trainer version known as the TA-4.

The A4D-1 was a single seat aircraft designed as a light weight, carrier-based, turbo-jet plane whose primary mission was the destruction of enemy ground and surface targets. The Skyhawk was initially designed as a lightweight, daylight-only nuclear capable strike aircraft for use in large numbers from aircraft carriers. Skyhawks provided the U.S. Navy and Marines and friendly nations with a maneuverable yet powerful attack bomber which had great altitude and range capabilities, plus an unusual flexibility in armament capacity.

The A-4C (initially designated the A4D-2N) differed from earlier versions by incorporating night operations (thus the 'N' suffix). First flying in 1959, this version's terrain clearance radar was housed in an enlarged nose [later E models had an even longer nose]. It also had an auto pilot, angle of attack indicator system, Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS), and an improved ejection seat. The A-4C was later fitted with a more powerful engine, and was subsequently refurbished as the A-4L with upgraded avionics and an upper fuselage dorsal hump. Initially the A-4C bore the brunt of light attack duties in Vietnam until supplanted by the later A-4E/F versions.

The A-4E and F saw considerable action in the early years of the Vietnam war. The Scooter saw extensive service with various US Marine units doing short range bombing in support of troops in country, while the Navy versions took the war to the North. The Skyhawk served well in the front lines in Vietnam until replaced in the late 1960s by the A-7 Corsair II. Even after being replaced, the A-4E/F went on for dozens of years as aggressor aircraft, as the mount of the Blue Angels, and with the reserves.

The Blue Angels, the Navy's aerobatic team, was formed at the end of World War II, when Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, ordered the formation of a flight demonstration team to showcase naval aviation. The ensuing 20 years saw the Blue Angels transition through various aircraft. In 1957 the team began flying the Grumman F11F-1 Tiger. By 1969 the team was performing in its first dual-engine jet, the McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom II. The Blue Angel Squadron donned a new aircraft in 1974, the McDonnell Douglas A-4F Skyhawk II. The new aircraft transformed the display team. The nimble Skyhawk was the opposite of the powerful Phantom. The Skyhawk was more aerobatic, and allowed tighter display in front of the audience. On 08 November 1986, the Blue Angels completed their 40th anniversary. During the ceremony the squadron unveiled its present aircraft, the McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F/A-18 Hornet.

Newer versions were developed for the Marine Corps who used them until retired in the mid 1990s. The A-4M was the last of a line of Douglas Skyhawks. Specifically built for the Marine Corps, it offered an improved engine and avionics to help increase survivability in battlefield conditions. The A-4M Skyhawk has a payload of 8,000 pounds of ordnance, including, a 20mm cannon and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The A-4M uses a heads-up display and computer aided delivery of its bomb load with the angle rate bombing system. Recognizable by its larger canopy and various ECM antennas, approximately 120 A-4Ms were built. The OA-4M, a two-seat Skyhawk, provided tactical air control services as well as many other utility missions. The A-4M [and the TA-4F] were last used by Marine Corps Reserve squadrons. The Marine Reserve had two squadrons of A-4s with 12 aircraft each. Additionally, each squadron had two TA-4 aircraft.

The first flight of the TA-4E, the twin-cockpit version of the Skyhawk, took place on 30 June 1965 at Douglas Aircraft Company's Palmdale, CA, facility. In May 1966 the first trainers, designated TA-4Fs, were delivered to Attack Squadron 125, NAS Lemoore, CA. The use of the TA-4F helped accelerate the training of fleet pilots for Vietnam operations and released single-seat A-4 attack bombers for combat.

The TA-4J, the advanced jet trainer based on the A-4 Skyhawk, was introduced in 1970 to replace the aging TF-9J for advanced flight training. The TA-4J two-seat trainer version of the Skyhawk served on in training squadrons and one fleet composite squadron. As of mid-1998, 51 TA-4Js remained in service. The Skyhawk was replaced in the pilot training role by the T-45A/C Goshawk. The formal ceremony for the TA-4J Skyhawk's retirement from the training command was held in June 1998 at NAS Pensacola, Fla.; however, the TA-4J officially retired in September 1998, handing over Navy advanced jet training to T-45 Goshawks. The VT-7 Eagles, NAS Meridian, MS, had the honor of conducting carrier qualifications for the last time in the two-seat "Scooter." From the landing signal officer's platform aboard George Washington (CVN 73), instructors monitored and guided students in takeoffs and landings. The Skyhawks performed flawlessly, and with little fanfare the TA-4J entered Naval Aviation history as the Navy's last training aircraft to use a bridle to catapult from a carrier.

Fleet Composite Squadron EIGHT (VC-8) was the last active Navy unit flying the aircraft. The A-4's mission at VC-8 included tracking exercises for the fine tuning of ship's radar's, simulation of adversary aircraft in Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM) for Allied aircraft, and launching AQM and BQM aerial target drones. VC-8 had seven Skyhawks that detached to various Naval Air Stations throughout the year to conduct dissimilar adversary training with US Fleet Fighter Squadrons. After more than 40 years in service to the Navy and Marine Corps, the last active TA-4 Skyhawks left Fleet Composite Squadron (VC) 8 on 30 April 2003. The two operational TA-4s VC-8 used were sent to Palm Springs, Calif., and Baltimore to become museum displays.



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