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 3 of 5)
One of its early missions was the delivery of nuclear bombs. Retired Marine Major Art Padios, who flew simulated deliveries out of Japan in the early 1960s, recalls: “Once you got into the [enemy’s] radar coverage, you’d go down on the deck. We were so small, and down at 50 feet traveling at 500 knots [575 mph], there wasn’t anybody that was going to find us.” There was one potential problem: “I had several targets [to hit] with 1.1 megatons and wasn’t sure I could outfly the fireball—it’s four miles in diameter!”
Had Nikita Krushchev called JFK’s bluff during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Padios might have found out. In that show of might, Skyhawks were catapulted off the USS Enterprise, Independence, Essex, and Randolph to show the flag at various locations near the island. Deployed to Cuba to support a potential invasion, Padios flew A-4s from the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay. “They were practice close air support missions, staying on our side of the fence,” he says.
Out of the Cuban experience came a startling wakeup call: The A-4 drivers realized that in the course of taking out the sites of the nuclear missiles that had precipitated the crisis, they would be vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles. “They took us to [the California base] China Lake to develop maneuvers specifically for flak suppression and how to take out SAM sites,” recalls Padios. “It evolved into the Iron Hand role in Vietnam.”
Iron Hand was one of the A-4’s riskiest missions. “We tried to be just high enough to get the SAM search radar to spot us but not so high that we couldn’t evade quickly by diving for the deck,” recalls Al Carpenter, veteran of two combat cruises with Navy Attack Squadron 72. The pilots dove to quickly get out of the SAM site’s radar “cone” and get a missile off (usually a Shrike). But the Shrike needed to be in that cone to home in on the SAM site, so the A-4 pilots developed a novel delivery technique: “We would aim directly at the site, then pull the nose up about 15 degrees before firing our missiles,” Carpenter says. “Sort of like shooting baskets.” Once inside the cone, the Shrike picked up on the SAM site’s radar to home in for the kill.
For the Marines in Vietnam, Skyhawks were the backbone of close air support. Operating from Chu Lai, just south of the Demilitarized Zone, the Marines at first used SATS, the Short Airfield Takeoff System, in which JATO (jet-assisted takeoff) bottles launched A-4s loaded with rockets and bombs off temporary aluminum runways. “We had a variety of targets,” says Padios, though at first the pilots flew “mostly to support troop helicopters. We’d circle them as they went, and suppress [ground] fire with napalm, cannons, and bombs. A FAC [forward air controller] would run with us.”
FACs loved the A-4, says Padios. During strike missions, “they wouldn’t let anyone drop unless they could get them exactly on the run-in line. I’ve been in a stack with [F-8] Crusaders and [F-4] Phantoms, and one after the other the FAC would make them do a practice run, and if they couldn’t get on the line exactly he would tell them to go away and wait for the A-4s. We were so maneuverable that when we got abeam the target we could roll into 100 or 120 degrees of bank and zap, we’re on the run-in line. The roll rate on that airplane was 720 degrees a second.”
The FAC often flew an A-4 too: the two-seater variant. Former Marine FAC Bob Miecznikowski says a typical mission would start in Da Nang; the FACs would be assigned a particular area, such as the border between North Vietnam and Laos. “We flew initially with naval gunspotters in the rear seat,” he says, but later the FAC aircraft would fly with two pilots. “The front-seat pilot would fly the aircraft while the rear-seater looked for targets and [guided] any aircraft during strike missions,” he says. The FACs often had to knock out anti-aircraft sites that were defending against the main force.
As would be expected of an aircraft that has served in so many wars, tales of the A-4’s survivability abound. Padios recalls escaping from North Vietnamese anti-aircraft fire that was “all black and white and orange balls bursting over my head.” Not wanting to go through it, he “pulled off 8.5 Gs in a roll—and the rolling limit was only 3.5.” The stress of the maneuver popped 60 of the aircraft’s rivets.