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Above.  In the sixteen years (ish) of its service, the A4G naturally underwent some paint and decal changes, as shown by the graphic above.  Of particular note the light grey paint scheme of the first and second deliveries gave way to a mottled camouflage design in the mid ’70s but there were many relatively minor changes en route. (Image via Phil Thompson).
Left.  Another excellent shot by John Bartels of an unidentifiable A4G.  Note the ‘bent’ refuelling probe, which was changed from the straight one in 1974 to minimise the risk of fuel entering the engine’s starboard intake in the event of a coupling leak.  (John Bartels).
Below Left. A Skyhawk launches and the ‘bridle’ that tows the aircraft down the catapult, is lost. Right. The fitting of the Bridle Recovery horn on HMAS Melbourne at the end of ’69 saved an expensive bridle on every launch.  The wire strop on this photo, attached to the main bridle and trailing aft at 45°, were part of that recovery system.  The strop could not be fitted when there was any soft-skinned store or ordnance on the centre rack, to prevent fouling on launch.

You can see a slow motion film of catapult launches, boaters and arrested landings here, filmed on a special high-speed cine camera to enable analysis of each evolution. (Courtesy of Australian War Memorial).

Below: The Bridle Horn being fitted to Melbourne during the latter part of 1969.


Below
. A Skyhawk keeps a watching eye on a Jindivik target, under the lens of SBLT Phil Thompson. The Jindiviks were to outlast the A4s as they were not phased out until 1998 – but ironically, not so in the case of these two aircraft.  The Jindivik (N11-648) was to crash in March of 1983, and the Skyhawk was the last to remain flying in the RAN – before grounding in June of 1984 before being sold to the Royal New Zealand Air Force.  You can read the full story of the RAN’s Jindiviks here.

Below Oops! Around 1981 this 724 Squadron Skyhawk had a problem with the nose gear micro switch which required adjustment. Under normal circumstances the aircraft would be jacked up and the gear recycled to allow the switch to be adjusted. On this occasion one member of the maintenance team climbed into the cockpit and selected “Gear Up” – but unfortunately  the nose gear jack had been removed and the aircraft settled onto its nose.  An investigation revealed that some miscreant had borrowed the highly visible yellow undercarriage jack for a job on another aircraft, and the maintenance crew hadn’t noticed its absence.  (Advice from David Prest. RAN image). 

 

Below. The RAN’s Skyhawks featured front and centre in 1976 when ‘The Don Lane Show’ was filmed aboard HMAS Melbourne. Don Lane, who was a prominent TV compère in the 70s, can be seen on the left above the Applause sign, and comedian Ugly Dave Gray is singing on the right – although the low quality image isn’t clear enough to see what rank he is trying to impersonate. The show ran for 90 minutes in prime time and featured many interviews with ship’s personnel. It was widely regarded as a PR scoop for the ship and, more particularly, to advertise the Fleet Air Arm. (Navy News 10Sep76).

Left. A close up of the suppressor on the 20mm cannon of this American A4, which was also fitted to RAN Skyhawks.  It was designed primarily to reduce the sooty deposit on the aircraft and was apparently quite effective, although not completely so.
Below.  Melbourne during RIMPAC ’73 with her full ‘normal’ complement of eight A4G Skyhawks. The additional airframes bought in 1971 were to allow a surge to 14 embarked A4s, although we don’t believe this was ever fully exercised.  To carry and operate this number some S2 Trackers and/or Wessex helicopters would have been removed. 


Below
.  An unusual visitor for HMAS Melbourne in the form of a Hawker Siddeley Sea Harrier.  The lack of a ‘normal’ serial number or any other identification (other than a laconic “VTOL”) suggests it was a pre-production or experimental airframe.  This may be so, as the first production Sea Harriers were not operational until 1979.  We know the image was taken prior to January 1979 as Skyhawk 870, featured in it, was lost in that month. We also know it was sometime after the mid 70’s as the Skyhawks have modified refuelling probes. Our  guess was that the image was snapped during Melbourne’s visit to the UK in 1977, which turned out to be correct: it was actually taken on 30 June of that year in the Portland Exercise Areas.  (Images via FAAM)

Left.  The minimalist approach of the Skyhawk design and fit inevitably required compromises.  One was the requirement for external power and air, shown here, for starting – the power (115v) for ignition and the air for turning the engine.  Later, a very few Skyhawks were modified (in civilian life) to enable internal self-start, as the requirement for ground plant was a disadvantage for their operation.   Below: Finding good quality images of Skyhawks under maintenance or even just stowed in the hangar deck of Melbourne has been surprisingly difficult.  The Skyhawk was small – but so was the carrier, and space was at a premium. Even towing the aircraft required care, as crews were to find out to their cost when an aircraft was lost over the side in September 1979 during when it was being moved in heavy weather. 

Right: We would love to hear from any maintenance personnel what was going on with this suspended Skyhawk: Weight and balance? Undercarriage maintenance? 879 was apparently always slower than the other A4s, and one reader has suggested that water was found in the fin. Use the ‘Contact Us’ box at the foot of the page to offer comment or other suggestions. 

Left. In between the serious stuff there was time for fun!   Pilots like nothing better than low flying, especially if there’s an unwitting victim to pick on.  Phil Thompson (with the beard) and his companion  were the subject of this 1973(?) photo of an A4 sneaking up behind them.  It wasn’t a new trick, as the photos (below) from other Services and other times show – but it was always a good one! (By way of digression, check out this different video of a Vulcan setting off car alarms in the UK…surely one of the most graceful aircraft of the 70s – but LOUD!!

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Below.  And whilst on the subject of low flying, here’s a shot of two Skyhawks passing down the side of Melbourne at deck height.  The exact date is unknown, but it must have been before May ’79 as one of the featured aircraft went to Davy Jones’ locker then. (Navy Image via FAAM). 

By the middle of ’79 six Skyhawks had been lost to accidents, including 888 featured in the photo above. You can see a synopsis of these events here. The loss of 888 was a particularly expensive day for Navy with both the A4 and a Seaking being lost, as depicted by 817 Squadron’s Line Book entry below.  Another four Skyhawks were to succumb to accidents in the next 17 months, to bring the total attrition to ten…exactly half of the inventory. 


Below.  Alone over a sunlit sea, this A4 is taking part in Exercise Sandgroper 1982. By then, HMAS Melbourne had been placed in contingency reserve, ending the speculation about her future, so the aircraft must have been shore based.  It is one of the last photographs we have of a Skyhawk engaged in a major exercise. (Image via FAAM).


The End of the Line

By the end of 1981 Melbourne was due for an extended refit. By then she was 26 years old and her machinery was temperamental: Commander (E) recalls it was 103 vertical steps from the Control Platform in the FMS to the Bridge, which he traversed many times to report Main Engines to the CO. In the time it took to make that journey he always wondered if the machinery state was still the same when he arrived on the bridge as it was when he  departed the FMS!  After languishing in harbour for three months the refit was cancelled, however, and the ship was decommissioned at the end of June 1982.  She was eventually sold to the Chinese and towed away (right) to be turned into razor blades, and the hunt was on to find a replacement carrier for the RAN. In July 1981 the British offered HMS Invincible (above) to the RAN for the ‘bargain’ price of A$285 million. The class had been previously considered and rejected, but its  price and ready availability prompted the Australian government to announce its intention to purchase Invincible on 25 February 1982 and to close the carrier acquisition program. It was to be renamed HMAS Australia and operated as a helicopter carrier, pending a future decision on replacement fixed wing aircraft. Click here for an article on some of the questions the pending acquisition raised. 

In the meantime Navy had wasted no time in decommissioning 805 Squadron, which, with no carrier to fly to, was arguably unable to perform its front-line responsibilities.  By the end of July 1982 its aircraft had been transferred to 724 Squadron in a training capacity, whilst the carrier replacement decision played out.  Many saw it as another nail in the FAA fixed wing coffin, but the decision to purchase Invincible had given some hope of a resurrection. But it was not to be, as the Falklands War caused Britain to reconsider its force structure needs. In July of 1982 both parties withdrew from the proposed deal, and the question of a replacement carrier was back on the table. 

On 11 March 1983 Bob Hawke was sworn in as the new Prime Minister in a landslide victory for his Labour Government. One of the first decisions of the new administration was to kill any hope of a replacement carrier.  The final nail was hammered home, and the fate of the RAN’s fixed wing force was sealed. 

By 30 June 1983 six of the ten remaining Skyhawks were decommissioned.  The remaining four were permitted to fly for another year, performing Fleet Support duties, before the final axe on 30 June 84. Navy News of that month reported on that final flight (below), when  John Da Costa, who had been at the helm of the Skyhawk story from the very beginning, was invited back to participate.  Other snippets appeared too, such as (below right) the final flight of CMDR Pete Clarke (and a gratuitous hosing down) a little while earlier. 

Left: A Navy News clipping from 08April83 reports on a visit by Gordon Scholes, Minister for Defence, to HMAS Albatross.  It gives an indication of just how much the Government’s decision rocked the Fleet Air Arm – including questions about the ongoing viability of HMAS Albatross and the FAA’s helicopter force.  Whilst leaving some questions on the table, Scholes did give assurances about employability of RAN personnel, including a guarantee that anyone transferring to the Army or Air Force would retain their rank and seniority – a promise that must have caused the Personnel areas of those services some headaches!  By then, the exodus had begun: many paid off, whilst others did indeed transfer – mainly to the RAAF as the newspaper clipping below shows. (Navy  News  July 1984).  Also, see here for the “60 Minutes” segment of the time.

By mid 1984 the Skyhawks were in storage with “For Sale” signs on the door, and it looked like the end of the line. Nobody could have guessed at the quirk of fate – and some would say the political incompetence – that would see them returned to Australian skies within a few years, however.

SKYHAWK – The Next Chapter
Click here to read about what happened to the RAN’s Skyhawks, and how they would be flying at Nowra within just a few years.