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.”