"EVERY SINGLE PERSON I'VE EVER FOUGHT IN ONE of these airplanes had died the first time I fought him. Every… single…one.” Randy Clark brandishes a model of the A-4 Skyhawk and tells me how the half-century-old design can whup far newer aircraft: F/A-18 Hornets, F-14 Tomcats—maybe someday even F/A-22 Raptors and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
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I need no convincing. In the 1970s, I’d flown in an A-4 variant, the two-seat TA-4J, at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Maryland’s Patuxent River base. As an engineering student learning how to size up a fighter’s combat performance, I’d experienced first-hand how this machine could out-hassle pretty well anything in the sky.
Clark and I are talking in the ready room. The chalkboard is scribbled with arrows and altitudes and trajectories. Pilots wander in and out, wearing khaki flying suits with wings and nicknames like “Booger” and “Decoy.” Some gather in groups, spreading fingers and tilting hands in mock air combat.
Outside, where the temperature has just exceeded 100 for the umpteenth time this year, seven 30-year-old Skyhawks in green and brown camouflage stand on the flightline. But this is not a military base. The Phoenix facility is the headquarters of Advanced Training Systems International, a private company that sends A-4s and A-4 pilots to military bases to provide “red air”—service as sparring partners for Navy and Air Force pilots.
To train as a lethal force, a military pilot needs to practice coming up against an “enemy” that is as realistic as possible. So a red-air aggressor will, for example, emulate a North Korean MiG-29 pilot who hides in a valley out of radar detectability, then pops up unexpectedly to attack. This “dissimilar aircraft combat training” is part of the five to eight weeks of air warfare training that all U.S. Navy air crews, no matter which aircraft they’re assigned to, must get before each combat deployment.
Traditionally, the Navy has provided its own adversary aircraft: F-5s at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada, F/A-18s at Key West, Florida, A-4s on Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico. But last year the U.S. government closed the Vieques facility. Consequently, the adversary squadron there, VC-8, was decommissioned, and the A-4s were retired.
Though the Navy continued to provide most of its own adversary aircraft, the A-4 retirement left the service short. Spotting the void, Larry “Hoss” Pearson, a combat veteran and one-time commander of the Navy’s Blue Angels, and Jon “Orbit” McBride, a former space shuttle pilot, decided to form a company to supply red-air aircraft and pilots to military bases that needed them.
The entrepreneurs went shopping for some good used combat aircraft. Sukhoi 27s would have been “bloody perfect for the adversary role,” says Clark, but, given the difficulty of getting spare parts, a potential maintenance nightmare. Then, says McBride, he and his partner heard about “some nice, low-time” A-4s for sale in Israel. Two years later—including six months to get the Department of State’s blessing—ATSI had 13 A-4s on its apron.
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.”