The Hotrod Squad
There's hardly a combat mission that the A-4 Skyhawk hasn't flown.
- By Graham Chandler
- Air & Space magazine, July 2004
(Page 2 of 5)
At first glance, A-4s might seem too old to fight younger aircraft. Says Clark, then the company’s director of marketing: “The biggest challenge in going up against newer planes like the Hornet is to get close enough for us to see them, because they usually have the superior radars and missiles” and can see the A-4s and fire on them first.
But if a crafty pilot can use the Skyhawk’s famed maneuverability to gain that proximity, “the A-4 is a great opposition platform because it is totally dissimilar to the Tomcat or Hornet; it fights totally different,” says Roger “Rock” Pyle, recently retired from the position of adversary instructor at the VFC-13 squadron at the Fallon base in Nevada. He adds: “If an A-4 gets [them] off their game plan and fights in a way the A-4 prefers—slower, in the phone booth—then the F-14 and F-18 pilots don’t often come away happy.”
Curious as to how a Hornet driver might react to those comments, I later talk to Captain Brehn Eichel, who directed a recent Exercise Maple Flag, an annual mock war in which pilots from half a dozen countries fly F/A-18s and other combat aircraft against red-air adversaries; Eichel had faced ATSI’s A-4s in the early summer of 2002 at Cold Lake, Canada. “No self-respecting fighter pilot will say, ‘Yeah, they kicked my ass!’ ” he laughs. “But we expected to be able to out-power, out-climb, and out-turn them, and they kinda humbled a few guys. The A-4 will get in your shorts if you let it.”
Eichel recounts the humbling specifics of the engagement: “With the F-18 you can pull a whole lot of G right away, but the wing gets dirtied up”—at high Gs, the F/A-18’s computer deploys the flaps on the wing’s leading and trailing edges to avoid stalling; that increases drag, causing the aircraft to lose energy. “It’s harder to regain that energy,” continues Eichel, “so that’s where the A-4 was quite impressive—its energy-sustaining capabilities.” He says that a brief moment can make a major difference. “All you need to do is take them for granted or not pick them up on your radar or not see them, because all it takes is one heat-seeking missile, regardless of how low-tech it is, to wreck your day.”
Red air is the latest of many roles the A-4 has played since it first flew 50 years ago, on June 22, 1954. Designed by the brilliant Douglas Aircraft engineer Ed Heinemann, the aircraft was originally conceived to respond to the Navy’s request for a super-cheap, super-lightweight jet interceptor that could be fielded against the Soviets’ MiG-15s. In January 1952 Heinemann arrived in Washington to sell his design to Navy brass, only to be told that the service had dropped its interceptor requirement. But in the audience for Heinemann’s presentation was legendary naval aviator Admiral Apollo Soucek, and he loved the design’s light weight and great maneuverability.
Since the Navy needed a more efficient jet replacement for its piston-engine Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, Soucek asked Heinemann if he could transform his design into an attack airplane—keeping it under 30,000 pounds and giving it a top speed of at least 500 mph and a combat radius of 345 miles. Scant weeks later Heinemann was back with a new design. It came in at less than half the specified weight, and it exceeded the stipulated combat radius by 115 miles, and the top speed by 100 mph. In six months Douglas had a contract for two prototypes.
The Skyhawk design team achieved the bantam weight by shaving pounds, even ounces, wherever they looked—ejection seat, avionics, hydraulics. Their methods were similar to those used in designing race cars, and the aircraft picked up the nickname Heinemann’s Hot Rod. (Later, its crisp maneuverability had air crew calling it the Scooter.) A key attraction was the the delta-shaped wing : The tiny span of 27 feet made the aircraft a smaller target. The compactness also did away with the need to make the wings foldable for carrier operations.
Heinemann’s design proved hugely popular: Eventually 2,960 A-4s in 21 models were delivered. The last left the factory in 1979, and by then, the Skyhawk had had the longest production run of any U.S. combat aircraft.