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The Hotrod Squad

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

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.

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