Heritage: The McDonnell-Douglas A4 Skyhawk

The McDonnell Douglas Skyhawk was only in the Fleet Air Arm’s inventory for 17 years, but it represented a quantum leap forward from the Sea Venoms that preceded it, and proved to be one of best-loved and most successful aircraft of our time.  

Kim Dunstan looks at the story of this part of our heritage. [Image Jack Mayfield]

In 1960, with an unstable security situation in South-East Asia and concerns about the spread of communist insurgencies in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the Australian Government agreed that the RAN Fleet Air Arm needed new fixed-wing aircraft to replace the ageing De Havilland Sea Venom FAW53s and AS-1 Fairey Gannets. But the problem was that a larger aircraft carrier would be needed for the new generation naval aircraft – at a huge cost.

This prompted a search for aircraft capable of operating from the light-fleet carrier HMAS Melbourne. Of the aircraft available two US Navy types were shortlisted – the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bomber and the S-2E Grumman Tracker. Following proving trials on Melbourne both were selected, both for their qualities and ready availability.

In 1965 an order was placed with McDonnell-Douglas for 10 new A4G Skyhawk attack fighter-bombers at a cost of $18.4m. At the time the Skyhawks had the best all-round attack and fighter capabilities and were capable of operating from Melbourne. Earlier an order had been placed with Grumman for 14 new S-2E Trackers to replace the Navy’s Fairy Gannet AS-1 aircraft.

The Sturdy Skyhawk

The RAN A4G Skyhawk was a variant of the highly successful A-4 Skyhawk jet designed by Douglas’ chief engineer, Ed Heinemann, as a carrier-borne fighter-bomber for the US Navy . The USN endorsed the plan and a prototype XA4D-1 first flew on 22 June 1954 – it was designed as a tough high-performance ground-attack aircraft, or as a fighter able to operate from ASW carriers. The Skyhawks continued to operate with the US Navy from 1956 until 1975 (and TA-4s until 2003). Production finally ceased in 1979 by which time 2,960 Skyhawks had been built, including 555 trainers.

When McDonnell and Douglas amalgamated they continued to build A-4 variants, including the A4G type ordered by the RAN, which were based on the A-4F fighter-bomber and TA-4F dual trainer. The RAN Skyhawks primary role was air defence, designated A4G and TA4G (the hyphen was not used in RAN nomenclature). The A4Gs featured a J52-P8A turbojet, nose wheel steering, upper wing spoilers, the Douglas designed zero-zero Escapac 1-C3 ejection seat and a navigation radar.  Unlike earlier A-4s they carried up to four AIM-9B Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.

VADM Allen M. Shinn hands over the aircraft log packs to RADM G.J. Crabb CBE DFC RAN whilst Mr Donald W. Douglas looks on.

The RAN Skyhawks    

The first RAN A4G was flown on 19 July 1967 by Douglas test pilot, Jim Stegman, with the TA4G trainer tested two days later. Delivery of the first ten Skyhawks – eight A4Gs and two TA4Gs – began on 26 July 1967, embarking on Melbourne at San Diego over the period 27-30 October 1967. They were disembarked in Jervis Bay on 22 November for transportation by road to NAS Nowra. A second consignment of A4Gs and TA4Gs was embarked on HMAS Sydney at San Diego on 08 July 1971. In total 16 A4Gs and four TA4Gs were delivered to the RAN.

The RAN Skyhawk A4G was single seat delta-wing aircraft with a single Pratt and Whitney J52-P8A engine, capable of 586 Knots (Mach 0.88) at sea level. It had combat radius of 625 nm  or 1,317 nm with external tanks, and a service ceiling of 40,000 ft. The A4G had considerable strike power for attack and defence, with five hard points, two under each wing and one centred, capable of carrying a wide variety of munitions including 127mm Zuni rockets, or FFAR rocket pods. The two 20mm Colt Mk12 cannons, one in each wing stub, provided extra sting.

The two-seat TA4G trainers never operated from Melbourne as they had a different centre of gravity which affected flight characteristics. Because of this they were deemed unsafe in the event of a ‘bolter’ off the carrier’s relatively short angle deck.

Tough & Versatile

The major role for the RAN A4Gs was fleet defence, so they were wired to carry up to four AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles (one on each of the four underwing pylons). This was  an advance on the two Sidewinders carried on the A-4s at the time – but some variants were retro-fitted later.

The A4G Skyhawks were versatile aircraft capable of performing in-flight refuelling when fitted with the large centre-mounted D-704 refuelling pod. The receiving aircraft would connect to the tanker’s drogue via a front-mounted refuelling probe, positioned on the starboard side of the Skyhawks nose. This system offered numerous operational advantages as it dramatically extended the A4G’s range.

The Skyhawks low delta-wings, powerful engine and robust airframe enabled it to cruise at high sub-sonic speeds with large external loads, yet remain highly manoeuvrable. The tricycle undercarriage and drop-down leading-edge slats were a great benefit with deck landings. The A4Gs had the AN/APG-53A radar and a suite of avionics which added to the package. All in all, the Skyhawks were compact, tough, nimble, and popular with pilots and ground crews.

The first of the RAN’s new Skyhawks being towed through the front gate, under the watch of two of its ancestors – a Hawker Sea Fury and Fairey Firefly. (RAN image)

Skyhawk Training Begins

The decision to re-equip the RAN FAA with the Skyhawks reversed the Government’s 1959 policy to disband the FAA.  This meant a significant ramp-up in training effort to achieve the number of pilots and maintainers required. 

In 1967 two RAN FAA officers, LCDR Da Costa and LEUT King (both experienced Sea Venom pilots) were posted to NAS Lemoore in California, the US Navy’s west coast master jet base. There they began a five-month course of Skyhawk A-4 training with USN Attack Squadron VA125. On completion they returned to Australia to establish 805 Squadron for the Skyhawks (later VF805 Squadron), and the Skyhawk Operational Flying School (OFS). You can read John Da Costa’s account of the training here.

NAS Lemoore, where Da Costa and King did their training, had opened in 1961 to support the US Pacific Fleet. The size and scope of the facilities were impressive, with 13,500 ft concrete runways and masses of aircraft and USN student pilots training – many preparing for Vietnam. Their training provided an excellent program covering most of the needs of the RAN FAA – including on the ground-attack role, which the Skyhawk was designed for. As pilots had lengthy experience in air defence with the Sea Venoms they quickly converted to the new aircraft. 

The five-month course included special air-to-air gunnery and Sidewinder ‘fighter’ exercises at Yuma, Arizona, and day and night carrier qualifications on USS Kearsarge, off San Diego. This provided an excellent foundation for the establishment of an Operational Flying School (OFS) at NAS Nowra.  The first OFS class started at Nowra on 13 December 1967 with Lt. Mike Gump USN assisting with the early Skyhawk conversions.  No other pilots (aside from USN exchange ones) were ever trained in the United States. 

Maintainer Training

Air Engineering Officer LEUT Jim Lamb and a team of maintainers were also attached to VA125 for technical training and hands-on experience with the Skyhawks. Other maintainers were posted to the US Navy Air Station at Pensacola for training. As the Skyhawk servicing differed from the British pattern of aircraft maintenance used in the RAN FAA there was a lot to learn. In addition to new technical equipment the stores ordering system was different, requiring careful attention. The RAN personnel considered the training to be thorough and the friendliness and assistance provided by the USN and contractors was appreciated. Much of the goodwill appeared to be connected to the knowledge that Australia was a longstanding ally paying its way.

The RAN Skyhawk Squadron

From the beginning the A4G Skyhawks were a success. The RAN FAA’s main base was at HMAS Albatross, at Nowra, south of Sydney, where two squadrons operated Skyhawks. 805 Squadron was the front-line unit, re-commissioned at Nowra on 10 January 1968. The squadron rotated between NAS Nowra and embarked on the Melbourne when the ship was operating at sea. Skyhawks were also assigned to 724 Squadron, the fixed-wing jet training squadron.

What Model?

As one of the most successful small jet fighters of the century, the A4 progressed and developed throughout its life.   The first model was the A4D-1 (redesignated the A-4A in 1962), of which 146 were built. The A-4B version followed, featuring improved electronics and provision for in-flight refueling, with 542 being produced.  The A-4C, which flew in August 1959, introduced a new ejection seat, terrain clearance radar in the nose and an improved autopilot and gyro system.  Production of 638 of these variants made it the most numerous of Skyhawk variants.

The A-4E was introduced in 1961, featuring the more powerful J52P-6A turbojet with 8200 lbs of thrust. It had provision for five external pylons capable of carrying up to 8200 lb of stores.

The Australians ordered 10 A-4E Skyhawks in October of 1965. The procurement was, however, overtaken in August 1966 by the first flight of the next Skyhawk model, the A-4F. This variant introduced 9300 lb of thrust from its J52-P-8A turbojet. In addition it added a steerable nosewheel, wing spoilers and a zero-zero ejection seat. It was the first variant to be fitted with the distinctive dorsal avionics pack that became a feature of the later Skyhawks. Some A-4Fs were subsequently modified with the 11,000 lb J52-P-401 engines with enlarged air intakes.

The A4-F was the aircraft purchased by the RAN, but they were not fitted with the dorsal hump.  Instead, they had specified avionics which led to the designation A4G (the hyphen was dropped for simplicity).  The first two aircraft, a single seat and the dual TA4G trainer, were accepted at the Douglas Long Beach plant in California on 26 July 1967.  All 10 were loaded aboard HMAS Melbourne in October of that year, arriving in Jervis Bay on 22 Nov 1967.

Two RAN A4G Skyhawks make a low-level run past HMAS Melbourne. RAN photo

Immediately after the delivery of the Skyhawks and Trackers, Melbourne underwent a major refit. This gave 805 (changed to VF805 in 1969) time to work-up to full operational standard, including the opportunity to operate on the RN carrier HMS Hermes during its operational visit to Australia to refresh flight-deck skills.

Some logistical problems surfaced at this time due to a shortage of ground equipment and spare parts owing to a misunderstanding by the RAN of the USN stock ordering system. This was further complicated by the demands of USN squadrons operating in Vietnam, that had priority. Once the problem was identified the US authorities moved quickly to resolve the matter, allowing VF805 to resume flying.

After her modifications Melbourne put to sea early in 1969. VF805 pilots immediately began requalifying doing ‘touch and goes,’ arrested landings and catapulted take-offs. The Squadron then embarked on Melbourne together with the VS816 Squadron Trackers and HS817 Wessex ASW helicopters. Melbourne then resumed her operational training duties in home waters, and engaged in exercises with allied navies in South East Asia and the Pacific.

Skyhawk Training & OFS

In 1968 the Skyhawks joined 724 Squadron, the fixed wing training squadron based at RANAS Nowra, which until then operated DH Sea Venom and Vampire jet trainers. Adopting the USN squadron prefixes, 724 Squadron was designated VC724 the following year. Besides providing training for pilots converting to the Skyhawks, VC724 Squadron also took over the running of the Skyhawk Operational Flying School (OFS); but the Squadron did not embark on Melbourne.

A Skyhawk jet conversion course took six-months to complete. Pilots began by flying in a Skyhawk TA4G two-seat trainer with an instructor. After five hours tuition, pilots would generally fly solo thereafter. However, a further 25 hours of flying the A4G solo was required before the conversion to type was accomplished.

The next step was to complete the Operational Flying School course. This involved a further 85 hours of intensive training, including navigation and attack exercises, bombing, interceptions, air-to-air refuelling. Preparation for carrier deck landings began at Nowra with Mirror-Assisted Dummy Deck Landings (MADDLs). At least 100 MADDLs were practised before attempting a landing on Melbourne, starting with ‘touch-and-goes’ (deck hook up) then daylight arrested landings (hook down) followed by catapult launches from the flight-deck. After that night-time operations began.

The OFS training focussed on advanced flying techniques, developing the pilot’s skills to fly  and fight the Skyhawk during daylight or at night in all weather conditions. 

VC724 Squadron also operated the Fleet Requirements Unit (FRU). This involved training with other RAN units, assisting with radar and radio calibrations, target towing during gunnery exercises as well as assisting the Australian Army or Air Force during exercises. VF805 also operated a Skyhawk aerobatic team for a while in the 70s, called the ‘Checkmates’.

Above. Two stunning A4G photographs by John Bartels.  The first shows a Skyhawk doing a ‘Touch and Go’ aboard HMAS Melbourne, and the second a flight of three aircraft just off the coast of New South Wales. Aside from its potent capability, the Skyhawk was a beautiful aircraft to look at. 

Multi-National Exercises

In 1969 VF805 Squadron joined Melbourne (with VS816 Trackers and HS817 Westland Wessex ASW helicopters) to participate in international exercises. Since the mid-1950s HMAS Melbourne had participated in the Far East Strategic Reserve (FESR) together with the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) the aim being to stem communist expansion. In 1969 a period of détente began to emerge in the ‘Cold War,’ but there was no relaxation in vigilance as the war in Vietnam had escalated and communist guerrilla activity in the region continued. On 8 July 1971 HMAS Sydney embarked ten additional (ex USN) Skyhawks at San Diego, upgraded to A4G standard. They were off-loaded in Jervis Bay on 12 August for transport by road to NAS Nowra.  (See our History in Photos pages for an explanation why ten additional aircraft were bought). 

Although the RAN Skyhawks were never involved in action they played a vital role in protecting sea lanes and defending the fleet against the likelihood of hostile acts. The FESR retained an ongoing presence in South East Asia until 1971 when it was replaced by the Five Power Defence Arrangement. The annual SEATO joint exercises with allied naval forces ensured that collective security remained strong. During this period HMAS Melbourne provided a robust ASW focus with Trackers and helicopters, with the Skyhawks adding a valuable strike capability.

A Time of Change

Following the phasing-out of SEATO in 1973, the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises continued to build cooperation among Pacific rim countries, promoting regional stability and safe, secure sea lanes. The first RIMPAC exercise was conducted in 1971, with Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK, and the USA taking part, since then other countries have joined. Meanwhile, the Skyhawks continued to be used in exercises in foreign and regional waters throughout the 1970s. The Skyhawks final RIMPAC exercise was in 1980.

In September 1980 the government announced it would replace Melbourne with a carrier suitable for ASW helicopters and Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft. But the intended purchase of the RN carrier HMS Invincible was abandoned when the Falklands War intervened. Difficulties with Melbourne’s catapult meant VF805 Squadron did not embark on Melbourne in 1981, but the Skyhawks continued to operate from NAS Nowra and do ‘touch and goes’ whenever the ship was within reach.

But the winds of political change were blowing. Security in South East Asia had stabilised and the need for fixed-wing aircraft was questioned. The alternative use of helicopters in the fleet, and the proposed purchase of LHD-style ships with helicopters and amphibious capabilities became the favoured option.  

Skyhawk Attrition

By the end of their service in the RAN, exactly half of the 20 Skyhawks delivered had been lost in accidents. The Skyhawks were worked hard during their service life and the accident rate for operating high performance aircraft from a small carrier was always greater than land-based operations. Two pilots were killed in accidents.

Four Skyhawks were lost through engine failure, two through catapult failure, one when an arrestor wire broke, one lost overboard during heavy seas, one during a mock attack on Melbourne when LEUT Ralph McMillan lost his life, and another following a mid-air collision in which SBLT Malcolm McCoy died. Histories of every Skyhawk airframe can be found here.  

Farewell the Skyhawks 

In 1981 Melbourne’s planned refit was cancelled and she was decommissioned on 30 June the following year.  Whilst options for her replacement were considered, the RAN’s two front-line fixed wing squadrons, VF805 (Skyhawks) and VS816 (Trackers) were disbanded, with each aircraft type going to their respective training Squadrons. The Skyhawk was still a very potent weapon system though, and they continued to operate from Nowra on FRU duties and other exercises.

In March 1983 the axe fell.  The incoming Labor government announced that Melbourne would not be replaced and the fixed-wing element of the FAA would be disbanded.  VC724 Squadron was decommissioned at Nowra on 30 June 1984, and the Skyhawks were sold to New Zealand and flown to RNZAF Ohakea in July of that year.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force upgraded the Skyhawks to A4K standard (see video here), flying them until they were retired in 2001. Several ex-RNZAF Skyhawks were purchased by Draken International for use in US military training.

Saluting the Skyhawks

The A4G Skyhawk fighter-bombers proved to be a versatile and capable aircraft that adapted well to operating from the light-fleet carrier HMAS Melbourne. Although not used in combat they were ready for action and could have delivered a hefty blow to shipping, air, and land targets.

When the Skyhawks were purchased there were concerns about communist insurgencies and other threats to regional stability. Carrier-borne aircraft like the A4G could patrol wide areas, protecting shipping-lanes against hostile air, surface, and submarine attack. Furthermore, for Army support they were the only specialist ground attack aircraft in the Australian Defence Force at the time.

An aircraft-carrier, with the level of strike power a Skyhawk could deliver, greatly increased the RAN’s offensive and defensive capability. The A4G Skyhawks played a vital role and were well respected by other navies and services.

References:

805 & 724 Squadron histories. HMAS Melbourne Reports of Proceedings. Sea Power Navy News archive. Flying Stations – Allen & Unwin 1998. Naval Historical Society of Australia. A4 Skyhawk Association. Naval Aviation News. Wikipedia. ADF Serials. ANL Trove.

NATOPS FLIGHT MANUAL
We have the full NATOPS Flight Manual for the A4G but it is a large file [145MB, 692pages] so is not directly downloadable from this site. If you wish to obtain a copy please use the ‘Contact Us’ form below and we will send you a Dropbox link.  

Skyhawk Pages Map
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If you enjoyed this Skyhawk feature, why not look at our pages on the Grumman Tracker?   Their story includes a full “History in Photographs” feature as well as an account of the disastrous fire that destroyed so many of them, and the subsequent operation to rebuild the capability out of the ashes. Click image.

Note
This website feature could not have been produced without the kind assistance of individuals and organisations who were prepared to help.  Our particular thanks to Kim Dunstan, John Da Costa, Barry Evans and Phil Thompson and, of course, the team at ADF Serials.  We have attempted to acknowledge photographs and other articles where we can, but some are ‘hand-me-downs’ with no source information. If you believe we have used one of yours without permission/acknowledgement please contact us.
Marcus Peake  July 2019.