Our Heritage: The McDonnell Douglas A4G

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The McDonnell Douglas A4G Skyhawk was only in the Fleet Air Arm’s inventory for 17 years, but it will go down as one of best loved and most successful aircraft of our time.  Kim Dunstan provides us with the story of this part of our Heritage. 

In 1960, with an unstable security situation in South-East Asia and growing concern with the spread of Communism – and the troubles in Vietnam and Cambodia – the Australian Government took the view that the RAN fleet-air-arm needed to acquire new fixed-wing aircraft – to replace the ageing De Havilland Sea Venom FAW53s. In early 1964 an order was placed with McDonnell Douglas for 10 newly-built A4G Skyhawk attack fighter-bombers at a cost of $18.4m. At the same time 14 Grumman Trackers were acquired to replace the Fairey Gannet aircraft.

The RAN A4G Skyhawk was a variant of the highly successful A4 Skyhawk series, designed by Ed Heinemann at the Douglas Aircraft Company, which served with the US Navy from 1956 until 2003. When McDonnell and Douglas amalgamated they continued to build A4 variants including the A4G type ordered by the RAN. Patterned after the A-4F and TA4-F, the RAN Skyhawks were designated A-4G and TA-4G (the hyphen was subsequently dropped in RAN nomenclature), and were optimised for an air defence role. Other features included the J52-P8A engine, nose wheel steering and the Escapac 1-C3 ejection seat.

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First 10 Skyhawks arrive at Nowra November 1967 – RAN photo

 


More information on our A4 Heritage:

(Links that are greyed out are under construction and not accessible yet)

A4 Photographic Gallery.  A visual pictorial of our A4Gs

A4 Video Links A collection of videos on A4G operations, both within the RAN and more generally.

A4G Squadrons & People 

Embarked Operations. A collection of material relating to embarked operations. 

Where Are They Now? Airframe histories and a more detailed look at the life and times of each aircraft.   

Skyhawk Snippets. News of all things Skyhawk around the world.

 


Note.  This page, and the associated links above, is still under construction. More material will be added as time permits.   If you have any photographs or any other material you can help in this endeavour by contacting the webmaster


Other A4 Sites of Interest:

A4 Skyhawk Association

The first A4G flight was made on 19 July 1967 by Douglas test pilot Jim Stegman, who made the first TA4G test flight two days later. Delivery of the first ten aircraft to the RAN (eight A4Gs and two TA4Gs) began on 26 July 1967. A further ten in the same configuration were delivered  in 1970.

The A4G Skyhawk was an ideal replacement for the obsolete Sea Venoms. As a light attack fighter-bomber the A4 was well-suited to operate from the light-fleet carrier HMAS Melbourne, providing front line air-defence and training for the fleet and assisting the other Services as required.

The RAN A4G Skyhawk was a single seat delta-wing aircraft with a Pratt & Whitney J52-P8A engine, capable of 1,086 kph [Mach .088] at sea level; it had a combat radius of 644 km or 2440 km with external fuel tanks, and a service ceiling of 40,000 ft. The A4G had considerable strike power and with five hard-points could carry various bomb loads,  127mm Zuni rockets or FFAR rocket pods.

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

Significantly the A4G could also deploy up to four AIM-9 sidewinder air-to-air missiles (one on each underwing pylon), unlike other variants that were wired for only two. (This was to maximise the Fleet Defence Role that was a primary role on the ASW specialised carrier.) Two wing mounted 20mm Colt cannons also provided extra sting. In-flight refuelling could be done from an A4G fitted with a centre mounted D-704 re-fuelling pod and drogue, connecting through a front mounted probe on the receiving aircraft. The tricycle undercarriage and drop-down leading-edge slats were of great benefit with deck landings. The A4G had the AN/APG-53A radar fitted, and a suite of avionics which added to the package.

Below:  The final stages of the long journey to the new home:  Aboard a barge in Jervis Bay and entering the gates of Albatross, with a Seafury and Firefly as guard of honour.  See video of Skyhawks being unloaded from HMAS Melbourne in Jervis Bay here

SkyhawkBarge

SkyhawkArrivalALB

The TA4Gs were a two-seater version for training purposes. Although they were technically carrier capable, the TA4G never landed aboard HMAS Melbourne. It was calculated that the different ‘touch and go’ characteristics of the Trainer on the carrier’s short deck would not allow safe operations. This conclusion was calculated with data gained from runway based tests at Nowra and not from an actual test flight to the deck.

 

From the beginning the Skyhawks were a success. The main training base was at the RAN Air Station, HMAS Albatross, at Nowra. VC724 Squadron used the TA4G Skyhawks for pilot training, assisted by several US Navy instructors. VF805 Squadron was formed for front-line carrier-based operations on HMAS Melbourne; when not at sea the A4Gs would return to Nowra. Skyhawks that were engaged in fleet training were sent to RAAF Laverton in Victoria and RAAF base at Pearce Western Australia, and exercises were also conducted with the Australian Army.

In 1968, VF805 Squadron joined HMAS Melbourne to participate in SEATO exercises and continued to operate as part of the Melbourne carrier group conducting exercises during the early 1970s. However, following the disbandment of the Far East Strategic Reserve (FESR) in 1971 and the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation in 1977 [The RAN conducted regular naval exercises with member nations from 1950s to 1970s]. This change triggered a review in Australia’s defence priorities which questioned the need for fixed-wing aircraft in the RAN. Meanwhile, the A4G Skyhawks continued to win praise in exercises throughout Australia, the South Pacific and South East Asia.      

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A4G Skyhawks, Grumman Trackers and Wessex & Seaking Helicopters crowd the flight deck of HMAS Melbourne. RAN photo

By the start of the 1980s the security situation in South East Asia had stabilised and ‘Cold War’ tensions with the Soviet Union were easing. This together with Australia’s changing defence priorities; the huge changes in technology; the vast improvement in military helicopters; together with the difficulties of finding a replacement for the aging aircraft-carrier HMAS Melbourne. The Australian Government made a decision to disband the fixed-wing element of the FAA, and to retire the A4G Skyhawks and Trackers; heralding the change towards helicopters with LHD-style ships with amphibious capabilities.  

By the end of the Skyhawk’s service with the RAN, exactly half of the 20 aircraft which had been delivered had been lost in accidents. Although a high proportion, the accident rate of aircraft operating from a carrier is always going to be greater than land based equivalents due to the very nature of the operations.

Interestingly, it was a spate of accidents in 1979-80 which contributed to the lion’s share of the Skyhawk losses. During that period, six aircraft were lost (three in each year) including two in the same month, October 1980.

When HMAS Melbourne was decommissioned in 1982, the VF805 Squadron A4Gs were returned to RANAS Nowra where they joined VC724 Squadron. Several were then used for target towing. In 1984 a deal was struck with the New Zealand government to purchase the Australian aircraft at a cost of NZ$150 million over five years. The aircraft were delivered to Ohakea from Nowra during July of that year and upgraded to A4K standard, then subsequently retired in 2001. Several of these Skyhawks were ultimately sold to Draken International to be used in a US military training role.  

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Skyhawk NZ6213 (previously 884)  operating in RNZAF Livery.  The NZ Government scrapped the capability in 2001.

In short, the A4G Skyhawk proved to be a reliable and capable aircraft that adapted well to operating from the light-fleet carrier HMAS Melbourne, Although they were not used in combat they were ready for action and could deliver a hefty blow to shipping, air and land targets. At the time there were regional hot-spots and perceived threats to regional stability. Carrier-borne aircraft like the A4G could patrol wide areas, protecting shipping-lanes against hostile air, surface and submarine attack. An aircraft carrier with this level of strike capability greatly increased our offensive and defensive capability. The A4G Skyhawks played a vital role in the RAN and were well respected by other navies and services.

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