Why the Skyhawk?

Faced with an enormous bill to replace obsolete Navy FAA infrastructure, the Australian Government decided in 1959 to disband the Fleet Air Arm’s fixed-wing capability in 1963, and to pay off HMAS Melbourne. But Indonesia’s ties with Moscow and her vast purchase of Soviet military hardware, together with the 1960-62 tensions over Dutch West Papua (Irian Jaya) and 1963-66 Malayan Confrontation were the cause of serious disquiet. Likewise the reach of Indonesian and Chinese strike bombers (see left), and the spread of communist insurgencies dictated a re-think. By 1964 the life of the ageing Gannets and Sea Venoms had been extended for another four years, and the search for replacement aircraft had begun. A fascinating insight into the background thinking can be found here.

But money was tight and the enormous cost of replacing Melbourne was ruled out: so she had to be capable of operating the new generation of aircraft. 

Above and Right. The media of the time was full of articles reflecting the Government’s concern about the spread of Communism in the region, either directly though insurgency, or by support to regimes such as Sukano’s Indonesia. The list of aircraft that Australia might buy was quickly narrowed to just two types: the Douglas A4 Skyhawk to provide fighter/bomber capability, and the Grumman Tracker for surveillance and Anti Submarine Warfare. Both were suitable, readily available and relatively cheap – but would they be able to operate from such a small flight deck? 

The Government was not prepared to order any aircraft until proving trials had been done.  Accordingly, in May of 1958 an S2 Tracker from the USS Philippine Sea operated aboard Melbourne. Further trials were undertaken by two Trackers from Subic Bay in July 1964, and an order was subsequently placed with Grumman for 14 aircraft (plus two instructional airframes).  The Skyhawk trial aboard Melbourne occurred on 20 May 1965, when LCDR Charles Ward Jr USN did several touch and goes before arresting aboard (below). His aircraft was from the USS Bennington and confirmed the Skyhawk was able to operate successfully from the small carrier.  You can see the YouTube video of the visit here. (Photo Noel Dennett).

Below Left: Petty Officer Ronald M Forbes paints a kangaroo motif onto the fuselage of the USN fighter during its visit to Melbourne, while Naval Airman Joe Galea assists. ‘Branding’ of visiting aircraft was a regular practice. The Skyhawk, from VA113 Squadron, was conducting cross-deck operations trials from USS Bennington during SEATO exercise Sea Horse. Years later this A4 was seen in the Arizona ‘boneyard’ and the kangaroo was still there. (Image AWM). 

Above. LCDR “Chas” Ward immediately after making his arrested landing on HMAS Melbourne. Bennington, his mother ship, was itself regarded as a small carrier by USN standards but was still significantly bigger than the Melbourne. It would have been an interesting conversation to listen to, when he returned home. 

Above. VADM Allen M. Shinn USN presenting aircraft log packs to RADM G.J. Crabb CBE DFC RAN whilst Mr Donald W. Douglas looks on, as the first two RAN Skyhawks were handed over on 26July67 at the Douglas plant at Long Beach, California. Crabb was Head of the Australian Joint Staff in Washington from Jan ’66 to Mar ’68, so was ideally placed to accept the documentation. You can see a short video here, unfortunately without sound.

Delivery and Training

The RAN ordered ten brand new A4s, originally to be built as “E” model variants, early in 1964 (see letter below).  The finished “G” model lacked the avionics of the USN A4-F, but was fitted to carry up to four Sidewinder missiles.  Eight of the ten were single seat fighter-bombers and the remaining two the TA4G training variant, with two seats.  The total project cost was reported as $18.4m – relatively cheap for an aircraft of that capability.

The winding back of the FAA in the early 60’s had depleted the number of pilots required for the new aircraft and innovative steps were taken to ramp the numbers up again. This included using a civilian flying club in Victoria for initial assessment and elementary training, and a program at Pensacola (USA) where both fixed and rotary wing pilots were trained. In the meantime, two experienced pilots were sent to Lemoore in California for specific A4 training (see cutting, left). On return to Australia they became the new CO and Senior Pilot of 805 Squadron (newly commissioned for the Skyhawk’s arrival), and set up the Australian A4 training program to qualify additional aircrew.  You can read about both the aircrew and maintainer training here.
Below (Left)  One of the new Skyhawks being craned aboard Melbourne in San Diego in October of 1967.  (see video here). In addition to the A4s she was to carry 14 Grumman Trackers, two Weapon System Trainers and some 800 tons of stores:  enough to fill up both the hangar and flight decks.  She cast off on Tuesday 31 October and after brief visits to Pearl Harbor and Suva before shaping course for Jervis Bay. (Right, and Main Photo below)  The A4s were lifted aboard barges in JB and thence taken by low-loaders to HMAS Albatross.  Click on the images to enlarge.   You can see a video of the unloading here.


Above.  A bird’s eye view of the unloading of the Skyhawks in Jervis Bay on 21 November 1967. It was a routine that had been forged with previous aircraft types in the FAA, from the Sea Furies and Fireflies in 1947 though to the Sea Venoms and Gannets some nine years later.   The barge pictured in the photographs  (AWL 304) was designed specifically to take the aircraft ashore and built at Cockatoo Dock in Sydney under contract 230.  The Skyhawks were craned onto the Creswell jetty and manhandled to a nearby mustering point before being loaded onto flatbeds for transit to Albatross.  A map (below left) shows the route. 

Right: Although she had delivered them, Melbourne was unable to operate her new aircraft: for that, she needed extensive work.  On 27Nov67, after unloading the S2s & stores in Sydney,  she de-ammunitioned and prepared for a major refit.  She was not to go to sea again for another 15 months. 

While the aircraft were in transit from the States, the VF805 Squadron Advance Party had been formed under the command of LCDR (P) John Da Costa. The Squadron Diary for that period reported HMAS Melbourne’s arrival in Jervis Bay on 22nd November 1967 and engine and ground runs commencing on 5th December of that year after de-preservation of the aircraft. On 13th December the CO and SP (LCDR King) test flew N13-154911 TA4G. A Sonic Boom, clearly audible at HMAS Albatross, ‘…marked the beginning of a new era for the Fleet Air Arm’.  The telegram (left) was received by the new Skyhawk CO about then, from Al Whitton – the Commanding Officer of 725 Squadron with his blue and white Westland Wessex “VTOLs”. 




Above.  In the meantime, Skyhawk pilot training continued apace, although the first OFT was bedevilled by poor serviceability caused by a lack of spares.  By December 1968 the first course had qualified, however, and were able to carry out some deck landings by the fortunate arrival of HMS Hermes in Australian waters.  

Right:  LCDR John Da Costa, the Commanding Officer of VF805 Squadron, takes the first catapult launch from HMAS Hermes in November 1968.  The event was also captured in Navy News (below – collage courtesy of Phil Thompson).   You can see a video of S2s and A4s doing ‘bolters’ on Hermes here

HMAS Melbourne Refit

Left.  In the meantime, HMAS Melbourne continued in refit. It was extensive: the catapult was rebuilt and upgraded, the mainmast rebuilt to cope with new radars and EW equipment; living spaces were improved (including fitting air-conditioning), machinery overhauled  and additional water distilling capacity fitted.  Interestingly, stowage for AVGAS was also installed as the ship would be operating piston-engined aircraft for the first time in her career.   She slipped from Woolloomooloo on 06 February 1969 and, under the command of CAPT J.P. Stevenson, proceeded to Jervis Bay for work up and calibration of her new radar and electronics.   The ship’s ROP reports that the sea trial that gave the most satisfaction was the successful landing and launching of each aircraft type on 11 February 1969.  Melbourne was back in the aviation business, although lingering problems with the catapult, aircraft bridles and other critical infrastructure impeded a smooth work up.
Below.  Melbourne’s return to service was marked by a flypast on 14 February ’69, during which SMH photographer George Lipman took this striking photograph from the back of a TA4G as the formation positioned itself over Sydney city.   You can see a more extensive Navy News feature in a pop-up here.

Melbourne Operational

By the end of April ’69 many of the post-refit teething problems had been ironed out and over 1000 fixed wing deck landings completed since refit – an extraordinary figure in such as short space of time (Below right).  Early in May she slipped moorings in Sydney for a Far East deployment.  It was, regrettably, to be tragically cut short.

Below, Left.  One of the few photographs we have seen taken during the ill-fated first tour. Two Skyhawks conduct close formation with a RAF Hawker Hunter out of Tengah (Singapore) in June of 1969. The two A4s had been disembarked from Melbourne by barge to enable essential flying training/continuation to occur whilst the ship undertook emergency repairs following the Frank E. Evans collision of 03Jun69.  They were subsequently recovered aboard on 27 June as Melbourne made its way back to Australia for more permanent repairs to the bow.  She didn’t leave the dockyard until mid October 1969.  Interestingly, the Hunter is now preserved in Brisbane having served in the SAF for a while. After her emergency repairs in Singapore,  Melbourne abandoned her Far East deployment to return to Sydney for more permanent repairs.  Her Air Group disembarked back to NAS Nowra.

Left.  Melbourne’s damaged bow under repair in Sydney.  At the same time a new catapult bridle arrester ‘horn’ was fitted, which enabled expensive launching bridles to be captured and used again.  She slipped from the dockyard in October and once again entered a workup regime before securing alongside for Christmas.    She finally embarked on her Far East tour in March of 1970. 

Below. Perhaps testing a plan to be able to embark additional Skyhawks at short notice and in any locality, 805 Squadron dispatched two of them from Nowra to Melbourne on 10 November 1970, whilst the ship was steaming off Fremantle. The flight, which lasted over five hours, broke several records for single-engine jet transits in Australia.

More Skyhawks for the RAN

Right: In July of 1971 HMAS Sydney collected a further ten Skyhawks for transportation to NAS Nowra. Like their predecessors they were craned aboard in San Diego, and offloaded by barge in Jervis Bay for trucking to the air station.

Why Ten More?

The purchase of the initial ten A4s was driven by Government concern over the world geopolitical situation and in particular, by instability in SE Asia and a heightened ‘conflict risk factor’ emerging in the latter half of the ’60s.

By 1969 Melbourne was operational with its Skyhawk, Tracker and ASW helicopters, but the instability in our regional area remained. It was decided that, in the event of conflict and the need to engage, Melbourne could swiftly become an attack carrier simply by reducing its ASW aircraft component and boosting the number of Skyhawks. The bargain-basement price for ten second-hand USN airframes helped the decision, many of which had served in Vietnam.  The procurement cost was funded by reducing the RAN’s order for British Oberon-class submarines from eight to six.

In the event, the contingency was never used – but it was exercised on at least one occasion when additional A4s from 724 Squadron were embarked for an exercise in the Hervey Bay area off Queensland.

When the second ten airframes arrived (in ’71) none of the original batch had been lost – so the RAN had 20 Skyhawks on strength for a while. But from 1973 numbers were gradually whittled away by accidents and by the time the capability was axed, only ten airframes remained.

Above: One of the second batch of Skyhawks is lifted from the barge alongside HMAS Creswell (Jervis Bay) to a waiting truck.  The purchase mirrored the previous buy – eight single seat and two dual-seat trainers, but they were second-hand airframes refurbished to A4G standard. Many were from the Vietnam era and had suffered various scars.  Interestingly, all four A4G losses attributable to engine failure came from this batch, but the sample is too small to draw firm conclusions.
Left.  The date of this photograph by Jack Mayfield isn’t known, but it would have been after 1971 as two of the aircraft shown (874 and 877) were of the second batch of A4 deliveries. Remarkably, all four survived both their RAN and (subsequent) RNZAF service and would go on to lead another life with Draken, many years later.  It would be one of the few formation photographs we have seen where that could be said. 

First Skyhawk Lost

In June of 1973 the RAN lost its first Skyhawk, when SBLT Tony Der Kinderen experienced ‘loud engine noises’ and flames emitting from his jet pipe. It was the first A4 ejection of the RAN. The aircraft crashed into the sea  and was not recovered, but the BOI surmised that 873 had most probably suffered from a shroud failure. (A shroud is essentially the casing around the turbine blades that constrains the hot gases).  Der Kinderin was picked up by a Newcastle based RAAF Helicopter and returned to the ship the following day.  You can read a little more about 873’s demise here.  Right:  Tony Der Kinderin talking to CAPT Clark and his Squadron CO, LCDR Callan (Navy image). 

The A4G came ready fitted for Air to Air Refuelling (ARF). The first refuelling probes were straight and extended well beyond the nose of the aircraft, but they were later changed to ‘bent’ probes to minimise the risk of fuel ingestion into the starboard engine intake. Below: ‘Hot’ refuels were a common practice,  although not so much on the deck of Melbourne.  The only way to hot refuel was to plug the fuel hose into the ARF probe, as pictured. In this image the ladder next to the aircraft suggests a pilot change was conducted at the same time. Right: A pilot’s eye view of ARF. With the straight probes it was easy – all pilots had to do was drive the probe into the basket, which was flying in clean air. The bent probes made it more difficult as the pressure wave generated by the aircraft nose tended to push the basket out of the way, which could result in ‘basket chasing’. Instructor doctrine was to line up on a suitable part of the tanker aircraft and only use peripheral vision to watch the basket. (Navy Image).  Click on images to enlarge.

The ‘bent’ probes were introduced in the mid ’70s and LEUT Evans was tasked to test fly each aircraft after modification to ensure each aircraft remained transonic.  In the event they were faster with the new probes and the aircraft easily reached M1.2 (the aircraft’s limit).   


Below: Two armourers load, colour coded, live 20mm ammunition into one of the A4G’s ammunition tanks.  Right: Armourers checking the six 13kg practice bombs on a PMBR (Practice Multiple Bomb Rack). The bombs were solid steel with fins and a smoke/flash cartridge in the nose, their trajectory was similar to larger bombs.