The A-4 That Other Top Gun Airplane
Ed Heinemann claimed he could build an attack aircraft that would weigh less than half the U.S. Navy’s 30,000 pound specification. Heinemann built the A-4A that weighted 7,000 pounds. The XA4D-1 first flew on June 22, 1954. This aircraft set a record by flying a 500 kilometer circuit at over 695 mph. The A-4A first flew on August 14, 1954. The U.S. Navy first took delivery of A-4 Skyhawks in October 1956.[i]
A-4 Skyhawks on the USS Essex were available to help the anti-Castro forces. President Kennedy decided against providing the anti-Castro forces the air support President Eisenhower promised them. The T-33 and two Hawker Sea Furies of the Cuban Air Force would have been no match for the Skyhawks. Some A-4s did fly a mission to provide air cover for B-26 bombers on April 19, 1961, the day the anti-Castro forces surrendered. They didn’t encounter any Cuban aircraft and the anti-Castro forces.
[i] Modern Fighters and Attack Aircraft by Bill Gunston, © 1980 by Salamander Books, Ltd. Pages 76-77.
The U.S. Navy used Skyhawks extensively in Vietnam. On August 5, 1964 anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) shot down an A-4 flown by Lieutenant Junior Grade Everett Alvarez. It was the first Skyhawk loss of the Vietnam Conflict. The North Vietnamese captured Lt (JG) Alvarez and he became America’s longest held POW. On July 29, 1967 an F-4 on the flight deck of the USS Forrestal accidentally fired a Zuni rocket into some A-4s. This set off a series of explosions that killed 134 sailors and injured 64.[i] The injured included Lieutenant Commander John S. McCain III. The incident took USS Forrestal out of the conflict but Lt. Cmdr. McCain was among the pilot who voluntarily transferred to the USS Oriskany to fly missions against North Vietnam. On October 26, 1967 a SAM-2 shot down his A-4 and the North Vietnamese took Lt. Cmdr. McCain prisoner.[ii] North Vietnamese AAA shot down the last A-4 lost during the Vietnam Conflict on September 6, 1972. The pilot, Lt. W. F. Pear was rescued. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps lost 362 A-4s during the Vietnam Conflict, about 1/3 of the fixed wing aircraft these services lost during the conflict. Enemy air defenses shot down 195 Skyhawks.[iii] On May 1, 1967 Lt. Cmdr. Ted Swartz spotted a MiG-17 in a traffic patter and shot it down with a Zuni rocket. He was the only U.S. A-4 pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft in air-air combat.[iv]
During the Vietnam Conflict, before the bombing halt in 1968, the U.S. fighters had a 3:1 kill to loss ratio over North Vietnamese pilots. During the Korean Conflict U.S. pilots enjoyed an 8+ to 1 kill ratio.[v] The U.S. Navy decided to change the situation and formed the Navy Fighter Weapons School, nicknamed Top Gun.[vi] The theory was to teach their fighter pilots how to counter more maneuverable aircraft. The U.S. Navy chose the A-4 to act as enemy aircraft, “aggressors”. When the bombing of North Vietnam resumed in 1972 the U.S. Navy had a much better kill to loss ratio than they had previously. The U.S. Navy pointed to the Navy Fighter Weapons School at the reason for their success.
[ii] John S. McCain III became a senator and ran unsuccessfully for president twice.
[iii] A-4 Skyhawk Association (http://a4skyhawk.org/2e/vietnam/vietnam.htm)
[iv] …And Kill MiGs by Lou Drendel © Squadron/Signal Publications, Inc.
[v] The kill to loss ratio varies depending on source and how the numbers were tabulated. Regardless of calculations the U.S. fighter pilots over Vietnam didn’t have the success the U.S. fighter pilots had in Korea.
[vi] A-4 Skyhawk Association (http://a4skyhawk.org/3e/nfws/nfws.htm)
Israel placed its first order for 50 Skyhawks in 1966. Israeli received its first Skyhawks in 1968. The first Israeli Air Force combat mission with A-4s took place in 1968. The Skyhawks struck the El Fatah terrorist base in Jordan.[i] On May 12, 1970 Lieutenant Colonel Ezra Dotan led 10 Skyhawks against terrorist camps near Mount Hermon. Eight Syrian Air Force MiG-17s attacked Lt. Col. Dotan and his wing pilot. The MiG-17s had the advantage of numbers and, unlike the A-4s, were equipped for air-air combat. Lt. Col. Dotan and his wing pilot engaged the MiG-17s. Lt. Col. Dotan shot down one MiG-17 with a Zuni missile. In a twisting and turning dogfight Lt. Col. Dotan shot down a MiG-17 with cannon fire.[ii] These were the only Israeli Air Force Skyhawk kills. A Soviet flown MiG-21 damaged an A-4 with an Atoll air-air missile on July 25, 1970. When the Israeli Air Force determined a Soviet flown aircraft damaged one of their Skyhawks they planned an aerial ambush. On July 30 the Soviet squadron was scrambled against 2 Israeli Mirages. Initially there were 10 MiG-21s against the 2 Mirages. More Mirages and F-4 Phantom IIs joined the fight. The Israelis shot down 5 of the Soviet MiG-21s without loss.[iii] This combat convinced the Soviets to pull their pilots out of the fight.
During the Yom Kippur War the Israeli Air Force lost 53 A-4s. This represents almost half the Israeli aircraft losses, including helicopters, lost during the war.[iv] The last A-4s also flew in Operation Peace for Galilee. It was in this campaign the Israeli Air Force lost its last Skyhawk to enemy fire. Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) SAM-7s struck a Skyhawk several times. Aharon Ahiaz bailed out of his stricken A-4 and the PLO took him prisoner. They released him 75 days later.[v]
[i] Israeli Air Force by Bill Gunston, © 1982 by Salamander Books, Ltd. Page 103.
[ii] Fighters Over Israel, by Lon Nordeen © 1990. Pages 106 & 107.
[iii] Fighters Over Israel by Lon Nordeen © 1990. Page 112.
[iv] Fighters Over Israel by Lon Nordeen © 1990, Page 147.
[v] Fighters Over Israel by Lon Nordeen © 1990, Page 169.
In April 1982 Argentina took over The Falkland Islands. Carrier based A-4 Skyhawks supported the invasion. The A-4s were among the Argentine aircraft that opposed the British task force sent to retake the Islands. The Skyhawks sank the destroyer HMS Coventry, and the frigates HMS Ardent and HMS Antelope. A Skyhawk attack caused the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Sir Galahad to be scuttled. Skyhawks also damaged the destroyer HMS Glasgow, the frigates HMS Argonaut and HMS Broadsword, and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Sir Tristam. The Argentines lost 22 A-4s. Skyhawk losses included two aircraft to accidents and two to Argentine ground fire. The British Harriers shot down 8 A-4s.[i]
[i] Air War South Atlantic by Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price© 1983 by Sidgwick and Jackson, Ltd.
On August 2, 1990 Iraq forces invaded Kuwait. Kuwaiti Air Force A-4 Skyhawks flew sorties against the invading Iraqis until August 4. They claimed 3 air-air victories against Iraqi helicopters. Some Kuwaiti aircraft were lost but 24 flew to Saudi Arabia where they became the Free Kuwait Air Force. The Free Kuwaiti Air Force A-4s flew 1,341 sorties. Its only loss was on January 17, 1991 when a surface to air missile shot struck an A-4 flown by Lt. Col. Mohammed Al Mubarak.[i] The Iraqis took him prisoner.
[i] A-4Skyhawk Association (http://a4skyhawk.org/2e/kuwait/kuwait-desertstorm.htm)
A-4 Skyhawk vs MiG-17