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The Hotrod Squad

There's hardly a combat mission that the A-4 Skyhawk hasn't flown.

"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.

From This Story

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.”

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.

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.

(I’ve also experienced a high-G roll in an A-4, though unintentionally. At the Patuxent River school one afternoon, during a maneuvering stability lesson in a two-place TA-4J trainer, I was doing a hard pullup when one of the leading edge slats deployed—yes, just one—snapping the craft from 5.5 Gs into a totally unexpected 360-degree roll, which banged our heads hard on the canopy. Once the Gs were unloaded, the aircraft recovered nicely.)

After Vietnam, the A-4s flew in the Yom Kippur War, the Falklands War, and the first Gulf war. By the time it retired, the A-4 had equipped 51 frontline Navy and Marine squadrons and eight overseas military services. Its career included more major wars than any other U.S.-made combat aircraft.

Besides red-air service, ATSI provides combat training to foreign military pilots who have just earned their wings. Unlike red air, combat training is conducted at ATSI’s own headquarters: the decommissioned Williams Road air base, outside Phoenix.

At the time of my visit, the students training at the school are from the United Arab Emirates. They are using the school’s A-4s and A-4 simulators to transition to Block 60 F-16s, 80 of which will be delivered to their country by 2008.

As Randy Clark and I stroll out of the ready room, we pass UAE students sitting on the edge of their soft leather chairs, listening to the morning flight briefings.

In the simulator room, I slide into the A-4’s snug cockpit. “Fits like a sports car,” Clark says, then goes on to explain the Skyhawk’s unique combat advantages: “She’s a high-subsonic airplane, and almost all engagements take place below 0.9 Mach.”

I ask what advantage this gives.

Clark begins to explain, using his hands to help. In the next simulator, a student glances over. “If you go by my A-4 at 1.2 and I’m doing 0.9, I can turn around faster than you can,” Clark says. “At 1.2 your turning radius is gonna be the state of Wyoming. My turning radius is very small. And if you held 1.2 you’d really get killed in a hurry. Because the missile that I launch at you by the time I get turned around is a Mach 3 missile, so you’re not gonna outrun it.”

Clark’s eyes narrow. “It’s going to get you.

“You have to slow down to my speed to get to a really good turning performance,” he goes on. “Then you’re coming to my fight. At 15,000 feet with a clean airplane, I can pull 6 Gs all day long until I run out of gas.

“And my speed also allows me some vertical penetration that would really get anybody’s attention. We can go right up to 50,000 feet with impunity. Up there you’re above the cons [contrails] and difficult to see. Your energy is high, so you can do virtually anything you want coming downhill.”

And ATSI has heightened its Scooters’ maneuverability. Gone are the guns and armor; the school flies the aircraft “clean”—no external bombs, rockets, or fuel tanks to create drag. The changes have moved the aircraft’s center of gravity aft, boosting the pitch rate—important in air combat.

The director of combat flight training is longtime A-4 vet John “Decoy” Marksbury. I ask him: Is there any airplane he’d choose over the A-4? “A newer version of it,” he says.

Hard use of these 30-year-old aircraft can keep technicians on their toes. Out on ATSI’s hangar floor, amid the woodsy smell of hydraulic fluid, workers in overalls climb around three A-4s, minus engines and tail sections. “Our maintenance program mirrors the U.S. Navy’s,” says Al Edmonson, a Navy veteran and ATSI’s director of maintenance. “We do most everything in-house.”

I ask him about finding spares. He points. “See that room over there? I’ve got five guys whose sole purpose is to find parts.”

Help may arrive soon: ATSI is negotiating to buy 17 more A-4s and a massive parts package from New Zealand. The deal includes a bonus: APG-66 radars and head-up cockpit displays—both of which may make the 50-year-old design an even more formidable adversary for honing the skills of pilots preparing for combat.

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